The defenseman who became a stellar member of the community on and off the ice will take his talents to Edmonton where he will be the mainstay of a young Oilers team in need of veteran leadership.
Ference’s departure has opened a spot on the blueline and it appears the fight for the position will come down to 2011 first round (9th overall) draft choice Dougie Hamilton and Matt Bartkowski, who became a Bruin via the 2010 trade with Florida that also saw Dennis Seidenberg become a Bruin.
Bartkowski was considered a “throw in” by many observers and over the next two seasons, he did little to prove otherwise. Between the 2010-2011 and 2012-2013 seasons, the native of Pittsburgh saw action in just 20 NHL games. He contributed a grand total of zero goals and two assists in those contests and for the most part, saw very limited ice time in a Bruins uniform.
When he was not in the Boston lineup, he applied his skills along the blueline with the team’s AHL affiliate, Providence Bruins, where he appeared in 119 games and registered eight goals and 37 assists totaling 45 points. Very respectable numbers for a young “stay-at-home” defenseman.
While in Providence, Bruins management thought they had traded him to Calgary at the NHL Trade Deadline, only to learn at the last minute they had not.
Bartkowski seemed to be unfazed by the nixed deal and continued remained focused on his goal of returning to “The Show.” Management in Beantown liked what they saw from the 6-foot-1 blueliner and decided to give Bartkowski another opportunity as a call up for the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The 25-year-old did not disappoint when he was called upon to suit up against Toronto and the New York Rangers after Ference went down with a lower body injury, later known as a fractured foot.
Offensively, Bartkowski scored his first NHL goal in the first period of the unforgettable Game 7 versus Toronto in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. He would add an assist on Boston’s fourth goal in a 5-2 Game 2 victory over the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Semifinal but what people noticed the most about Bartkowski was his confidence level.
Prior to those playoff games, Bartkowski looked content to keep the game simple, which is never a bad thing for youngsters when they are up with the big club. But before seeing his first playoff action, Bruins head coach Claude Julien told the Ohio State University alum to “go out and play your game. Don’t worry about making mistakes.”
The young man took those words to heart. He, along with rookie Torey Krug, added a new dimension to the back line by skating out of the defensive zone with the puck instead of just moving it to the forwards. This gave Boston the advantage strategically. Opponents did not expect to see this from the Boston defense.
Bartkowski’s new found confidence and improved game was not good news for Hamilton, who saw his ice time reduced from 21:08 in Game 7 against Toronto down to 14:23 in Game 4 versus New York. Bartkowski, who played 26:42 in that final tilt against the Leafs, averaged just over 20:00 time on ice during the series against the Rangers.
This now begs the question: With Ference departed for Western Canada, which player will come out of training camp with a spot on the Boston roster and which one will find himself in the press box as a healthy scratch? Or, since he is eligible to be sent to the minors, will Hamilton find himself in Providence?
Hamilton has more NHL experience under his belt after having played a total of 49 regular season and playoff games last season. He is the more heralded of the two, with an amateur resume that is matched by few others in the League. However, he is only 19. He looked to run out of steam at the end of the season and was physically overmatched by opponents in the playoffs which resulted in his being sent to the press box after the New York series.
This is not to say that Hamilton is not an NHL caliber defenseman. He proved on many a night in 2012-13 that he has the physical skills and hockey sense to be a star someday but he does need to get stronger.
The good news for the Toronto native is the organization is not in need to rush him into the everyday lineup. It is no secret the most difficult position to learn to play in the NHL is that of defenseman. A kid can play it his entire life, but it is a whole different world at that level due to the size, speed and strength of the players he plays with and against.
There is no doubt Hamilton will be the next great Boston rearguard. He might just need more time to develop -- is there a better setting to do that in than Providence where Bartkowski and Krug learned their craft?
Bartkowski should be the Bruins newest defensive regular in 2013-14. He is older than Hamilton, has more overall professional experience, and at this point in his career, is ready to make the jump from the AHL to the NHL. And with a new one-way contract in his pocket, it looks like that will be the case.
Shawn Hutcheon is the Boston Correspondent for The Fourth Period.