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Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Ference signing doesn't solve blue line issues

By Matt Kalman

Now that Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has four of his current seven NHL defensemen under contract for 2010-11 -- after inking Andrew Ference to a three-year extension -- he was asked about the state of his defense corps going forward.

Chiarelli was obviously wearing his best black-and-gold-colored glasses while giving his response.

“We’re always evaluating,” he said. “The last two games we’ve played well defensively; in fact, the whole year we’ve played well defensively, relatively speaking. I know the rest of our play hasn’t been up to par, according to pundits, and myself included. So we’re always evaluating. We brought a new member in the mix in Dennis Seidenberg, and he’s fit in well, and I’m not going to comment what our specific plans are, but there seems to be a good mix right there now and we’ll see how it plays out the rest of the year.”

With the Bruins clinging for dear life to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and just 10 games left in the season, no one was expecting the GM to tear into his boys on the back end. But we all know that deep down, Chiarelli’s being kind by saying his defense has “played well.” A lot of inconsistencies and flaws can be covered up by strong goaltending, which the Bruins are overflowing with in the presence of Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas.

All you need to know about the Bruins’ defense corps is that they’ve won their last two games with Matt Hunwick, who has hit a bump on the road to developing into a top-four guy, in the press box, and Dennis Wideman, formerly the team’s leader in ice time and a guy who averaged 23 minutes per night, limited to less than 20 minutes (around 18) in both games.

The Bruins defense is in flux. And regardless of how this season plays out -- with a first-round ouster or an unthinkable Cup run -- Chiarelli and his staff are going to have to do their best Carnac impersonation to make sure there’s improvement on the back end because the signing of Ference leaves little wiggle room for maneuvering. With Zdeno Chara and Ference obviously guaranteed spots, then Wideman and Hunwick are on notice they have to pick up their games. Moving either player could be difficult, especially with Wideman’s salary (almost $4 million) and his inability, thus far, to deliver on the promise he built up last season.

Wideman might just be suffering a down year after his career season of a year ago. And Hunwick, 24, could be battling regular growing pains for a third-year pro defenseman. If that’s the case, the Bruins could come back next season with the same group -- re-signing unrestricted free agent Seidenberg and restricted free agents Mark Stuart and Johnny Boychuk -- (or even let one player go) and put a decent sextet on the ice every night.

Those are two big gambles Chiarelli would have to make, however, unless he can get value in a deal for either Wideman or Hunwick. There are no blue-chip defensive prospects coming up the Bruins’ pipeline, so improvement will either have to come from the players on the NHL roster or from the outside. With the signing of Ference, even more responsibility to turn their games around has been heaped on Wideman and Hunwick.