WILMINGTON - Wherever Dennis Wideman has gone, as sure as every Zamboni dreams of vacationing in Antarctica, some degree of doubt has been part of his journey.
"Too small, too slow," Wideman said the other day, recalling the scouting reports of his not-too-distant past. "That was all the way up, until they changed the rules - then it became I wasn't too small, but I was still too slow. Everything else was good - good shot, good pass - but [scouts] weren't worried about that. They were worried I couldn't handle big forwards down low.
"So . . . but . . . hey, what can you do?"
As he prepares to enter his second full season with the Bruins, there remains some doubting of Dennis, even though now, at age 25, he stands ready to begin training camp this weekend as one of the game's nouveau riche. His ice time boosted almost beyond imagination early last season, in light of mounting injuries, Wideman cobbled together the most impressive season of his brief NHL career, then parlayed six good months into a four-year, $15.5 million deal as a Group 2 free agent.
Based on his cap average of $3.875 million, Wideman, the 241st pick in the 2002 draft (oh, those doubts), now ranks sixth on the Black-and-Gold payroll hierarchy. He will maintain that guaranteed pay rate through the spring of 2012. Not bad for a guy with all of 223 career NHL games. Especially when considering all the doubts about Wideman right off the hop last year, including the Bruins' season opener in Dallas when he was abruptly assigned to patrol not the back line, but the back row of the press box.
"I wasn't playing a whole lot, but I wasn't really worried about that," said Wideman, recalling that he didn't see a lot of action last preseason, but figured that was because his roster spot was secure. "Then we go into Dallas, and I got scratched, and I was totally, 'Whoa, what's going on here?' "
Questions, questionsTruth be told, there was a lot of doubting going on among Claude Julien's coaching staff, and some even in general manager Peter Chiarelli's front office. This was the same Wideman who joined the Bruins the season before, picked up in the surprise deadline deal that dished fan favorite Brad Boyes to St. Louis. In his 20 games that season with the Bruins, under then-coach Dave Lewis, Wideman did little to distinguish himself beyond being a trick-or-treat defenseman who too often opted for risky plays, especially low-percentage passes that had a habit of going from questionable to reprehensible.
Having seen too much of the same kind of high-risk/low-reward play in last September's training camp, Julien on opening night opted to make Wideman the No. 7 defenseman in a six-man group.
"Claude called me into his office [the night before the game] and told me he wasn't happy with my camp and felt I could play better," said Wideman, who didn't sit out again for the remainder of the 82-game season. "He said, 'You are here, and we feel you can be a lot better, and we expect a lot better effort out of you.' I was in shock, but I knew it was a wake-up call. I knew this coaching staff, and me as well, [wouldn't] accept just being good enough."
Nonetheless, it took a month, and what would turn out to be a creep of injuries among the defensive corps, for Wideman finally to be allotted the kind of ice time needed to get his game going - and for much of the doubting around him to begin to abate.
On Nov. 3 in Ottawa, he muddled along with a pedestrian 15:41 in ice time. The next night, with the Senators in Boston and Julien with a depleted blue-line corps, Wideman was given a hefty 25:12 of service, and from there his ice time would not dip below 20 minutes for the remainder of the season. He averaged 25:09 per game, only about three shifts fewer per night than team leader Zdeno Chara (26:50), and an improbable 13th overall in the league.
"If the blue line stayed healthy the whole season, then I could have been just sitting around, playing 11, 12, or 13 minutes a game all year," mused Wideman, acknowledging the degree of serendipity involved in his breakthrough season. "But . . . that's hockey, I guess. That's kind of the way things go. You do the best you can and work hard every day and await your opportunity. And when you get it, do the best you can."
Hitting the jackpotWideman's one good season, and specifically how it segued so quickly into a payday extraordinaire, is part and parcel of the NHL's new economic system. He finished the season before, he said, hoping he would play well enough in 2007-08 to land a two-year deal with a decent raise. A month into last season, that thought appeared crazier than some of the high-risk passes he tried to force.
But in the NHL's new financial landscape, with a salary cap and liberal free agency in place since the summer of 2005, clubs often pay just as much for promise as they do for past performance.
Take, for instance, Edmonton's Tom Gilbert, another 25-year-old defenseman who had his breakthrough (82 games, 13 goals, 33 points) in 2007-08. Though he had only 94 games on his NHL résumé, and also was a Group 2 free agent, the Oilers doled out $20 million to keep the ex-Wisconsin standout on the payroll for the next five seasons. Another prime example of a little leverage turning into abundant cash: ex-Colorado defenseman Jeff Finger. A little older, 28, the all but anonymous Finger hit July 1 as an unrestricted free agent, and the defense-starved Maple Leafs forked out $14 million on a four-year deal. His sixth game with the Leafs this season will boost Finger's NHL total to 100.
"Some guys get there right out of their first contract," said Chiarelli, noting the leapfrog pay boosts to the likes of Gilbert and former Ottawa back liner Andrej Meszaros. "At least in Wideman's case, people forget, he actually had that second contract [at $600,000 last season]. He's a puck-moving defenseman, and the market has proven they are hard to find. We're committed to getting better here, and with a four-year deal, we bought two years of free agency. Sure, we could have gone to arbitration and nickel-and-dimed him, say, for $2 million. We could have done that again next year, too. But then you know what? He's mad, and guaranteed he leaves the organization after two years. What good's that?"
Much has changed on Causeway Street in the Chiarelli regime, which began in the summer of 2006. The Bruins were already spending liberally for years before he arrived, contrary to the myth many pundits continue to perpetuate. But in the Harry Sinden-Mike O'Connell regime, the dollars usually came after an arduous tussle at the negotiating table, which led to ever-present angst among the fan base, who grew accustomed to deals such as a discontent team captain, Jason Allison, getting dished to Los Angeles for refried B's Glen Murray and Jozef Stumpel.
In the Chiarelli regime, huge rewards have been paid for past performance (see: free agents Chara and Marc Savard) as well as promise (see: Patrice Bergeron and Wideman). The Bruins haven't won a playoff series since 1999, but their tightwad ways have been expunged. For now, Wideman is the poster boy for the new financial era at the Vault.
Making the jump"I think I made good strides last year," Wideman said. "I was happy with the season as a whole. I got a lot better in my own zone. Things went really well. But I am definitely not happy or content with it. I think I still have a long way to go, and I have to get a lot better. But given there are a lot of young guys getting long contracts now, with this whole new system - I think guys are getting money on potential. I have this contract now, but I still want to get better and better and better, so that I'll possibly get another one at the end of this."
Meanwhile, Wideman's on-the-job education continues. He wants to improve his skating, especially on transition plays from offense to defense. He wants to continue the winnowing down of poor outlet passes, along with missed assignments in his end. He knows how fast things can change. Wideman had steady work in St. Louis for the early going in 2006-07. But within hours after Andy Murray took over as coach for the fired Mike Kitchen, he was dealt marginal minutes, then was dished to Boston Feb. 27.
"Last year, coming into camp, I felt I had a lot to prove," he recalled. "I came in the year before, for the last 20 games, and I played terrible. I was awful. And I am sure Peter was sitting up in the press box thinking, 'Oh, what did I do?' And I know all the fans were, too, because everyone knows how much they loved Boysie when he was here. So then I came in last year thinking, 'OK, I have to prove to everyone I can play.' And we had a whole new coaching staff. You start from square one last year - and, obviously, getting scratched [opening night], I didn't do a very good job of it in training camp. But it worked out.
"Now this year I am just thinking I want to get better. I want to go farther. We made a good push in the first round, and we did better than we were supposed to do. But that is not good enough."
And of that, there can be no doubt.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.