Matt Bartkowski began the season as a healthy scratch, and now he’s the Bruins’ best left-shot defense option not named Zdeno Chara.
Such is life for the B’s in a season that, in addition to being the first since moving on from Andrew Ference, has seen Dennis Seidenberg lost for the season with a torn ACL/MCL.
Good right-shot defensemen are hard to come by, but with the Seidenberg injury and the return of Kevan Miller, the Bruins’ defense crop is mostly right-handed: Johnny Boychuk, Dougie Hamilton, Adam McQuaid and Miller are all right-shots, while Chara, Bartkowski and Torey Krug are the three lefties on the blue line.
Left-shot defensemen provide more positional versatility than righties as well, as they usually play on teams with more lefties than righties at some point and therefore arrive at the NHL with some experience playing both sides (Krug, Seidenberg and Bartkowski are all capable of playing the right). However, that same lack of righties means that right-shot defensemen are rarely forced to play their off-side and are therefore more limited to that one position.
As we touched on last week, that makes the Bruins’ biggest trade deadline need a left-shot defenseman capable of logging big minutes if need be. In the meantime, Bartkowski is being used as a top-four guy and has been fine when paired with Boychuk.
Though the team would be taking a leap of faith if they were to go into the playoffs with Bartkowski playing 20-plus minutes a night on the second pairing, they’ve at least seen him in that role before with the stakes high, as he played as a top-four defenseman last postseason in the second round when the B’s were without Ference and Seidenberg.
“I feel pretty comfortable [with it],” Bartkowski said Monday. “I know I've got some stuff I need to work on and to be more consistent in the areas in which I need to get better.
“I like playing that role. I like being able to shut down some of the top lines I guess, and then I can add a little offense. I like playing that role."
Given that the position he plays is a perceived need for the B’s, such a trade would essentially be for an upgrade over him. Bartkowski’s been in more awkward situations, as he watched as the team traded him – or so they thought – to the Flames for Jarome Iginla last season only to see the deal fall through.
“We can't think about them going out to get people,” Bartkowski said. “We just have to focus on ourselves and how we can get better to help the team and to play our best. I mean, we all want to play. We want to play better, we want to win games, so we just need to focus on what we need to do.”
The Bruins knew there would be a job for him in the NHL this year, but they just didn’t know what role. Now, the 25-year-old has played in 30 games this season, only three of which came when everyone was healthy (the B’s sat Hamilton twice and McQuaid once, moving Seidenberg over to the right side to make a place for him).
“With a D going down, it presents more opportunity all over -- not just minutes, but different situations -- so you get more responsibility, which I like having,” Bartkowski said of the opportunity he’s been given. “So yeah, if you're to ask me that question right now, then yeah I like it, but if you were to ask me a couple months ago when I'm not playing, it would be the opposite. I think right now it's a good situation.”
Bartkowski has been a victim of a numbers game for the better part of the last two seasons, as the Bruins’ stable of left-shot D and the fact that Krug better fills the role of a puck-mover have often left him on the outside looking in. Now, with a shortage of well-rounded left D, he’s perhaps the beneficiary. Time will tell if the team will keep him in that role or if they find someone capable of doing the job Ference did for the last three postseasons.
“Well he's still battling to stay in that role,” Julien said of Bartkowski. “There's a lot of things that we like about Bart, but he's like the others: He's a young defenseman and you keep working with him game by game, and he's had to kill penalties.
“Let's not kid ourselves: Bartkowski is not Seidenberg. To think that he's going to go in there and replace him, I think is not right, but for him to go in there and be the best that he can be is something that we're looking for.”