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Friday, February 14, 2014
Do the B's have enough depth on D?

By Joe McDonald
ESPNBoston.com

With the NHL on hiatus as Olympic hockey takes center stage, it's a great time to reflect on the Bruins' season so far and project what's ahead during Boston's final 25 games.

The Bruins lead the Atlantic Division at 37-16-4. They are second in the Eastern Conference with 78 points, behind only the Pittsburgh Penguins (40-15-3, 83 points).

Boston entered the Olympic break on a roll, going 8-1-2 over the last 11 games. Yet questions remain as the trade deadline approaches, so let's dig into a special Valentine's Day edition of the mailbag.

Q.Good morning, I personally don't want the Bruins to go out and get a defender given how slim the market is. So say they don't trade at the deadline. Given how the D has played up to this point, who do you pair with Zdeno Chara for the playoffs? -- Michael (Boston)?

Matt Bartkowski, Shawn Horcoff
Matt Bartkowski has established himself as a part of the Bruins' young defensive core.

A. Hi, Michael. Because so many teams remain in the playoff race, and the salary cap is what it is, the market is a tough one this season. GM Peter Chiarelli has made it known that he wants to add depth on defense, and would like that player to have a veteran presence with Stanley Cup playoff experience. Since many teams are already at the cap, most are not willing to give up roster players, including the Bruins. Despite all the injuries, Boston is in pretty good shape on the blue line. The younger members -- Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski -- all have playoff experience from a season ago, so that helps. If the playoffs were to start today, the Bruins are comfortable with their defensive lineup. But that doesn't mean Chiarelli won't make a deal before the March 5 deadline.

Q. A few months ago I could have seen Bartkowski being part of a trade, but after watching him this season, I wouldn't trade him unless it was for a serious upgrade. What are your thoughts on him? -- Rick (Natick, Mass.)

A. Hey, Rick. If you had said to me at the start of this season that Bartkowski would finish as a top-four defenseman, I would have disagreed. But because of injuries, he's become just that and he's taken full advantage of this opportunity. Even though he was part of the failed Jarome Iginla deal last season, at this point I don't think the Bruins trade him. Bartkowski has improved this season and he's earned more playing time. He still makes mistakes, but he's done a solid job at both ends of the ice. He does need to improve defensively, but that will come with experience and maturity.

Q. I know the B's are looking for defensive help, but I'm not sure they're going to find anyone that's going to be good enough to be a real contributor -- do you think they'll find anyone that can be a real upgrade? -- Bill (Hartford, Conn.)

A. Hi, Bill. Well, you can bet that if Chiarelli believes there's a way to improve the current roster, he will. It's no secret the Bruins are at their best when they're playing solid defense, so depth will be a key factor as the trade deadline approaches. Chemistry is one thing Julien believes in and this current defensive unit has it. Yes, there is plenty of room for improvement, but it's been good to see a player like Johnny Boychuk assume more of a veteran role on this team. Once Adam McQuaid (leg injury) returns to the lineup, his presence will help, too, as long as he can remain healthy for the final 25 games of the regular season and into the playoffs.

Q. Hi Jo Jo, hope you are doing really well. Thanks for all of your great stories and comments. Tuukka Rask is an elite world class athlete, is it possible that he just can't handle large minutes -- worried about this kid … Is he going to get burnt out at the Olympics when he returns? Love Rask! (Can't wait for a Rask/Svedberg tandem one day -- so AWESOME!) Wondering as well, what you think Chad Johnson's long term outlook is in the NHL … perennial backup? Thank you very much, Joey! All the best. -- Lenny (Oakville, Ontario, Canada)

Finland Practice
There's no Olympic break for Tuukka Rask, who's getting action as Finland's top goalie.

A. Thanks for the kind words, Lenny. Things are going great here and I'm looking forward to escaping the snow and cold weather for warmer climates when I head to Fort Myers, Fla., to cover the Red Sox for a few days. Even though he hasn't been at his best, I believe Rask is still adjusting to his role as a true No. 1 goalie in the NHL. The lockout-shortened, 48-game season a year ago was not a true indication of how he could handle a full 82-game season. Plus, the Bruins didn't know how Chad Johnson would fare as a backup. Rask's added workload and Johnson's solid play of late have given Julien a better idea of how to handle the tandem in the final 25 games of the regular season. I'm sure Julien will try to work Johnson in more in order to keep Rask healthy and sharp for the playoffs. As far as Svedberg, I'm with you, I can't wait to see what this guy can do at the NHL level. Johnson will likely end up elsewhere next season and Svedberg will be Rask's partner.

Q. There are, of course, rumors swirling of various possible trade scenarios in order to get another veteran defenseman onto the team. To me, it doesn't make sense to trade one of our defensemen, especially a seasoned one, for a different one. What's your opinion on that? -- Paige Sojka (New Bedford, Mass.)

A. Paige, I agree. The way the Bruins' defense is currently constituted, I would be hesitant to change it, unless Chiarelli can land a big-time, experienced defensive presence. It's evident Julien and Chiarelli are comfortable with the way the blue line is set up, and they're comfortable enough with it going into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Chiarelli won't make any lateral trades. If anything, he'll add a veteran, but if he doesn't the team is well-equipped moving forward.

Q. Hey Joe, great column! Any chance the B's make a play for old friend Andrew Ference? The Oilers are not going to make the playoffs and he would fit perfect in Seidenberg's place on defense. If not Ference what about Chris Butler from Calgary? -- Phil (Braintree, Mass.)

A. Phil, you're not the only one who thought of that as a possibility after Seidenberg suffered the season-ending knee injury. From a pure hockey standpoint, it makes total sense. Ference obviously knows the system and was a main contributor in the Bruins' Stanley Cup win in 2011, and the team's return to the finals last spring. Unfortunately, due to the decreased salary cap this season, and the team's defensive depth, the Bruins weren't able to retain his services. When the Edmonton Oilers signed him to a four-year, $13 million deal and named him team captain, it took him out of the mix as far as ever returning to Boston. As far as Butler, he doesn't fit the description Chiarelli is looking for.

Q. Joe, I noticed in last year's playoffs and into this year's regular season that some of the players touch the butt end of their stick almost in superstitious fashion during the game. Bergy does it on a regular basis before faceoffs, for instance. Know anything behind this good luck charm? -- Jody Crawford (Calgary, Alberta, Canada)

A. Hi, Jody. Professional athletes are superstitious people. Their routines have always fascinated me, to a point I noticed a lot of little things. For example, the Bruins always come onto the ice in the same order. Obviously, the starting goaltender leads the team out, then Zdeno Chara is next, followed by Shawn Thornton and so on. To be honest, I haven't noticed Patrice Bergeron, who is one of my all-time favorite players both on and off the ice, touch the knob on his stick before a faceoff, but one thing David Krejci always does before a drop is spin his stick. You have piqued my interest and I'll make sure to pay attention to Bergeron next game.

Thanks for all the great questions, folks. Enjoy the rest of the Olympics and I'll see you back here again soon.