As the March 5 NHL trade deadline approached this year, Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli had one major decision in front of him: He could stand pat with the group of young, developing defensemen, sans two of its veteran leaders, or acquire blue line help, bolstering up for a Stanley Cup run.
After getting his feet wet and assessing the market, Chiarelli chose the latter. There were names thrown out as potential trade targets: Nick Schultz from Edmonton, Dan Girardi from New York (before he signed a long-term extension with the Rangers), but nothing fit, and the market for defensemen was thin.
The Bruins were already without Dennis Seidenberg, the Robin to Zdeno Chara's Batman, after Seidenberg went down with a torn ACL in late December. Adam McQuaid, a defenseman with a plethora of postseason experience, was also banged up, leaving Boston without half of a group of veteran D-men who have been with the team since 2009: Chara, Seidenberg, McQuaid and Johnny Boychuk.
That's not to say Boston was without talented replacements.
There was Dougie Hamilton, the second-year defenseman, selected ninth overall in the 2011 draft. Torey Krug, the offensively gifted, undrafted free agent who announced himself last postseason when he exploded with four goals in 15 games. And then there was Matt Bartkowski, the hard-nosed, stay-at-home blue liner of the group, who averaged nearly 20 minutes a night this season.
But what that group possessed in talent, it lacked in playoff experience. Hamilton was in-and-out of the Bruins Cup run in 2013, playing seven of 22 games, the same number in which Bartkowski appeared. Krug was the veteran of the trio with his 15 starts. Together, the three combined to play only 29 career playoff games.
And that didn't even tell the whole story. When Game 1 against the Red Wings rolled around this year, the Bruins were saddled with Corey Potter and Andrej Meszaros. Head coach Claude Julian quickly switched them out in favor of Bartkowski and Kevan Miller, yet another player who had come up through the Bruins' system, but was playing his first NHL playoff hockey against Detroit this year.
So there were the Bruins -- a franchise characterized of late by not only consistent playoff runs, but deep ones -- sending out four defensemen with a combined 29 career playoff appearances.
It didn't have to be the problem, but ultimately, it was.
Stanley Cup of Chowder
The postseason started, and the group didn't break a sweat. Hamilton proved why he was a top-10 NHL pick, weaving through the neutral zone and playing a stellar two-way game. Krug was Krug: an offensive weapon both at even strength and on the power play, and good enough in his own zone. Bartkowski and Miller played a physical, wear-it-on-your-sleeve brand of hockey and held their own.
But neither Miller nor Bartkowski, nor any of the Bruins youngsters, were going to replace Seidenberg. The recovering 32-year-old defensemen was a stalwart on all those recent Bruins blue lines that enjoyed playoff success. From 2011 through 2013, he averaged 27:38, 26:43 and 25:59 minutes of ice time in the playoffs, respectively. He was a reliable, steady defensemen, one who could eat up nearly half a game in the playoffs, and a key piece in the Bruins' pyramid.
And not only was his presence missed, but the anticipation surrounding a possible return was palpable. A Boston Globe story whet the appetite of the Bruins' faithful, reporting that Seidenberg felt he was ready to play, but was still inhibited by the recovery schedule of an ACL surgery.
When the pressure began to mount in the second round against Montreal, the mistakes made by these inexperienced defensemen became more glaring.
Errors by Miller and Bartkowski in their own zone led to first goal in Games 6 and 7, respectively, in a series in which the team that tallied first won every game.
In Montreal, with a chance to close out the Habs on the road in Game 6, Miller coughed up a puck behind the net, ending in a Lars Eller unassisted goal, and Boston never quite found its footing.
Wednesday night in the do-or-die Game 7 back in Boston, Bartkowski lost track of Dale Weise in front before the fourth-liner deflected home a feed to again put the Bruins behind early.
There's no formula as to how to approach the trade deadline. Just a year ago, the Bruins took the "win now" approach by sending a pair of prospects and a draft pick to the Stars for Jaromir Jagr. Then Jagr went the entire postseason without making an impact. Of course, the trade would look much better in retrospect had the Bruins defeated the Blackhawks and raised the Cup.
And the same can be said about the Bruins' decision this time around: A few more bounces in Boston's favor, and the decision not to acquire defensive help isn't called into question as much, at least not for now.
The Bruins had plenty of other problems, and to pin this second-round loss against Montreal solely on the likes of an inexperienced blue line doesn't tell the whole story. But the contributions of the unit won't stick out as much when juxtaposed against where they faltered.