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Bruins breakdown: The big boppers

02.27.10 at 7:59 pm ET

The compliment to the puck moving defensemen are the boys who patrol the blue line and deliver more bruises than points. Size is an important quality to have in a NHL defender corps and in that department Mark Stuart and Johnny Boychuk deliver.

Stuart — The 2003 Bruins first round draft pick has been a model of consistency since breaking into the NHL full time in the 2007-08 season. He has played in all 82 games two years in a row and delivered solid, though not spectacular numbers.

Stuart falls into line with what late first round picks are usually supposed to do — become steady professionals and productive members of their teams. He spent three years at Colorado College picking up polish before making his Bruins debut in the 2005-06 season and after a two seasons spent on the highway between Providence and Boston finally cracked in as a regular.

Stuart is solid and at this point in his career could probably fit into any defensive second pair in the league. That was not the case until recently though as last year it was hard to judge whether he was a third defenseman or rather a fourth or fifth. At times he played like each. Before breaking his finger when he caught his finger in Wayne Simmonds jersey on Jan. 31, he was playing much more like a third defenseman than ever before in his career.

“I thought he was playing some of his best hockey,” coach Claude Juliens said of Stuart on Saturday. “Whether it was coincidence or whether we moved him up and given him more minutes. We really wanted to see how he would react to that and he did a great job of it and we needed that at the time. It was unfortunate, I thought he was playing some of his best hockey the last three or four games before he got injured.”

Look for Julien to give Stuart more minutes during the stretch run and for Stuart to respond well to the added workload. Despite being drafted seven years ago, he is still only 25-years-old and is finally coming into his own as a professional.

Boychuk — Whereas Stuart took the more American route to the NHL (drafted in college and stayed there for a couple of years), Boychuk’s route was more circuitous and decidedly Canadian. He was playing in the Western Hockey League with the Calgary Hitmen in his teens and stayed in the WHL for five years before another five years bouncing around in the American Hockey League before finally breaking in to the NHL at age 26 this year with the Bruins.

The 2002 second round pick (Colorado –61st overall) has comported himself well in his rookie season. A decade of professional hockey has given him enough polish that he does not seem like a regular rookie but one has to wonder why he could not break an NHL lineup on a regular basis before this year. He skates well enough, has a big slap shot, is tall and wide and is a bigger hitter when he lines someone up.

One of the reasons why he has not broken in yet has to do with with his last three seasons in the AHL. From 2005-06 to 2007-08 he put up plus/minus ratings of -18, -8 and -6. Double digit plus/minus ratings in the AHL, especially for a defenseman. Superior talents on their way to the NHL should not allow that many goals against them, regardless of the quality of their teammates.

After being traded to the Bruins on June 24, 2008, he was assigned to Providence where he promptly blossomed. Last year he played 78 games for the P-Bruins and registered 20 goals, 46 assists and a plus/minus of 19. It was good enough to win the Eddie Shore Award for the best defenseman in the AHL and force the Bruins to give him a real shot as an NHL regular this season.

He has 31 games so far this season with 23 healthy scratches. That gives Boychuk 36 NHL games to his credit (one with the Bruins last year and four with the Avalanche in 2007-08) and is plus-three this year and continues solid play when given playing time, which it looks like he should given Matt Hunwick’s troubles of late. Boychuk is still a work in progress but having someone of his size at the back end of the blue line rotation could prove beneficial, especially if the Bruins play some extended spring hockey.

Read More: Johnny Boychuk, Mark Stuart,
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