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Positional outlook: Defense

The third in a four-part series on the state of the Bruins' roster.

With every member of the Bruins’ defense corps, except for Zdeno Chara and Matt Hunwick, missing time with injury at one point or another this season, it’s amazing that Boston was able to provide enough defensive support to finish second only to New Jersey in team goals-against average.

While four guys from this season’s defense corps are under contract for next season, two are blueliners that failed to play up to expectations (Hunwick and Dennis Wideman) and a third (Andrew Ference) is so injury-prone he’s headed for his second hernia surgery in as many years.

Head coach Claude Julien’s system stresses defensive responsibility and teamwork and it requires all six defensemen to be able to move and make reads. Boston has some tough decisions in terms of rounding out the blueline corps for next season. Here’s a look at where the Bruins defense stands heading into the 2010 offseason:

Under contract: Chara, Ference, Hunwick, Wideman

Key free agents: Johnny Boychuk (UFA), Dennis Seidenberg (UFA), Mark Stuart (RFA)

Outlook: With players in and out of the lineup due to injury, and Wideman and Hunwick playing most of the regular season in a funk, the Bruins struggled at times to play strong defense against top offenses. Luckily, a dominant back-end force like Chara was around to help pick up the pieces. A pair of solid goaltenders in Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas also did well to cover up the blueliner’s mistakes.

It took more than half the season for the Bruins’ defensemen to get enough confidence to pinch and join the rush the way they were asked, and that paid off in the playoffs. Should Wideman and Hunwick be back next season, hopefully they can carry over their season-ending performances.

The mystery still remains why general manager Peter Chiarelli went out of his way to re-sign Ference at $2.25 million per season for three seasons when Ference is so injury-prone. Chiarelli knew that Ferrence was headed to surgery and probably wouldn’t have been in demand this summer while he’s rehabbing. Most people in the know believe the Bruins could’ve picked up a similar-skilled player for cheaper on the open market over the summer or in the fall.

Chiarelli likely didn’t foresee Boychuk’s major improvement when he did Ference’s deal because now he has set the bar high for getting the rookie blueliner re-signed. Boychuk proved he could be a top-four guy after moving onto a pair with Chara when Seidenberg got hurt. His combination of strong positional play, toughness and a rocket for a shot will make him a coveted player if he hits the open market.

Seidenberg might be a tough signing, but the Bruins have to get it done. Stuart’s continuing progress in development has made him a must-keep as well.

Ideally, the Bruins retain their three free agents and move Wideman and the $8.5 million he’s due over the next two years. Then they can pick up a journeyman for injury insurance and also see how Adam McQuaid, Andrew Bodnarchuk (two RFAs that will probably re-sign) and Jeff Penner continue to develop.

Out-of-town free-agent top-four defenseman will be too rich for the Bruins’ cap space, but a solid veteran like Jay McKee or old friend Shane Hnidy might be worth a look as a sixth/seventh guy. … Barring the arrival of Russian Yuri Alexandrov, the Bruins don’t have much in the way of up-and-coming defensemen in the pipeline. They might look to address that at the draft with one of the three picks they have in the top 45 after using the No. 2 pick one of the stud forwards (Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin).