Position for grabs: Seventh defenseman
Favorites: Steve Kampfer, Matt Bartkowski
Dark Horses: Colby Cohen, Zach McKelvie, David Warsofsky
Roster spots are at a premium for the defending Stanley Cup champs. Five of last year’s starting six defensemen return healthy and ready for the 2011-12 season. The sixth spot –– vacated by Tomas Kaberle –– has fallen fittingly to another puck-moving, offensive defenseman in Joe Corvo.
When camp opened, the seventh defensive spot looked to be Steve Kampfer’s for the taking. The University of Michigan grad has the most experience professionally of any of the contenders, and has proven himself more than capable at the AHL level. In 28 career games with Providence, the blueliner has four goals and 15 assists (19 points) and a plus-minus rating of 10.
More importantly, he was more than passable in the lineup for Boston last year, contributing five goals and five assists with a plus-9 rating in 38 games.
“I think I’m getting better every day,” Kampfer said. “My game’s definitely started getting better. I still can play better than I have been. It’s one of those things where you get more and more confidence going out there and getting your game back.
His tightest competition appears to be coming from Matt Bartkowski, a former CCHA rival from Ohio State University. The lefty shot drew praise from coach Claude Julien for his performance in Ottawa Wednesday, and played another strong game Friday against the Islanders, including more than five quality minutes on the power play.
“I’m not where I’d like to be, but it’s still going pretty well,” he said of his place with the team. “I just need to brush up a few areas with the puck and defensively . . . Minor things, just adjusting to the system more.”
Fact is, the deck is stacked against the Mt. Lebanon, Pa. native, if only because the numbers game is so tight in the TD Garden locker room.
“I really don’t think I would be [where I want if I played perfectly], so it really doesn’t matter,” Bartkowski said. “I don’t know, just how I’ve played the last couple games, I guess I’ve played alright, there’s a few mistakes I made that I definitely could’ve prevented even if it’s early in the season.”
Julien was understandably non-committal on the spot to this point.
“Well we still have got some, more than those two guys here,” Julien said. “And that means we want to continue to have a look at those guys, but no doubt, Steven [Kampfer] was here, Matt [Bartkowski] was here last year, and they certainly have a little bit of edge in that.”
The other defensemen still in camp could all see time with the Big B’s at some point in 2011-12. Julien has repeatedly recognized positive qualities in Zach McKelvie’s game, which says a lot about the 26-year-old rookie.
McKelvie hasn’t played since 2008-09, his senior year with Army. He’s spent the past two years fulfilling his military obligations, but quickly shook the rust and opened eyes around camp. McKelvie is a silky skater who was able to contribute some offensively from the blue line for Army with 56 points in 134 games.
Right there with McKelvie is Colby Cohen, and not far behind is one of Cohen’s former teammates at Boston University, David Warsofsky.
Cohen’s skating and general athleticism are lacking for the NHL level, as Julien noted in his press conference Saturday. But his slap shot is among the best in the system, and his ability to move the puck and contribute offensively could make him an asset to a team in need of power-play contributors.
Warsofsky, meanwhile, is fresh from BU, having jumped last spring at the end of his junior year. Warsofsky played in 10 games with Providence before the end of last season, and figures to spend most of this season back in the AHL. Warsofsky can skate, move the puck, and has a solid point shot, but his size –– he’s listed at 5-foot-9, 170 lbs –– is an area of concern he’s yet to disprove at the professional level, if only for lack of opportunity.