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Bruins should look to add defense

BOSTON -- If general manager Peter Chiarelli’s top priority leading up to Wednesday’s trade deadline really is a top-nine forward, as he told the media at practice Sunday, then he obviously hasn’t learned his lesson from last spring.

After the Bruins were bounced by Carolina in a seven-game, second-round playoff series, Chiarelli pointed to the absence of defensemen Matt Hunwick (splenectomy) and Andrew Ference (groin) as reasons for the loss. Without enough puck-movers, the Bruins were no match for the Hurricanes’ forecheck and could not keep the heat on in the Carolina zone. And that was with a roster sporting veterans Shane Hnidy and Steve Montador for depth.

There’s no question Boston’s offense is its biggest weakness. But that doesn’t mean adding a top-nine forward is going to make the difference up front. The Bruins have enough top-nine guys. Someone like Ray Whitney, Paul Kariya, Raffi Torres or Alexei Ponikarovsky could come to Boston and produce or slump in the same fashion Marco Sturm, Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler have all season.

There’s just as good a chance that the current Bruins forwards begin finishing more regularly over the season’s final 22 games as there is someone new comes in and gives the Bruins a spark. On the other hand, there’s an even greater chance the Bruins will find themselves short-handed on the back end.

Assuming Johnny Boychuk (broken orbital bone) and Mark Stuart (broken finger) are ready to go Tuesday night, the Bruins will have their full complement of blueliners for the first time in quite a while. That would leave one guy, probably Hunwick or Boychuk, in the press box for now. The will be a lot of pressure on Ference and Dennis Wideman to play up to their potential and on Stuart to pick up where he left off when he got hurt. That’s a lot of ifs.

With 16 games in 29 days after the Olympic break, the Bruins, currently in seventh in the East, are going to be in an out-and-out grind to make the playoffs. The odds that all six defenseman make it through that stretch unscathed are pretty slim. Even with all their defensemen healthy, it’s debatable if the Bruins’ defensive group is talented enough to make a deep postseason postseason run. If they lose one or two defenseman to injury, you’re looking at disaster. History tells us that -- especially when your group includes Ference -- keeping the back-end troops healthy down the stretch can be virtually impossible.

The playoffs are tighter than the regular season and the Bruins could easily grind out some 1-0 and 2-1 wins in front of their top-notch goaltending tandem if they have the proper defensive support. A solid, veteran puck-mover on defense could boost the offense by getting the puck down the ice to the forwards in better positions to score.

With prices as high as Chiarelli says they are, it doesn’t make sense to spend his vault of draft picks to acquire a forward that might not even get the puck enough to make a difference. His shopping list should start with, but not be limited to, defenseman such as James Wisniewski (Anaheim), Joe Corvo (Carolina), Sheldon Souray (Edmonton), Marek Zidlicky (Minnesota), Dan Hamhuis (Nashville) and Steve Staios (Edmonton). It’s more complicated to make trades now in a salary-cap league, but Chiarelli’s surplus of draft picks (five picks in first three rounds of the 2010 draft) should be tempting to a team that’s out of the race and has the cap room to take back some salary.

It might seem obvious that the offensively challenged Bruins need help at forward. However, if Chiarelli lets Wednesday pass without upgrading the defense, he’ll show that he didn’t learn his lesson from last season’s playoff exit.