WILMINGTON - Over the summer, when Claude Julien was acclimating himself to his new team, he learned about Dennis Wideman's reputation as a run-and-gun riverboat gambler.
During training camp, the Bruins coach saw Wideman's reckless play in person.
So when the season opener against Dallas rolled around, Julien kept Wideman in suit and tie and directed him not to the ice but to the press box of American Airlines Center.
"That healthy scratch, for me, was a message," said Julien. "He needed to understand that we weren't going to accept those high-risk, low-percentage plays. We went through it in the exhibition games. I think he needed to know that if that part of his game wasn't going to change, he was going to be where he was for that first game."
Today, the Bruins face off at TD Banknorth Garden against St. Louis, the club that swapped Wideman to Boston at last season's trade deadline for Brad Boyes. It was a head-scratching move - ditching a top-six forward who had finished behind only Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby in the rookie scoring race in 2005-06 - that looked even worse amid the underwhelming showing Wideman displayed last season (3 points, minus-3 rating in 20 games with the Bruins).
Boyes, playing top-line minutes in St. Louis this season, already has 20 goals, seven more than Chuck Kobasew, Boston's leading lamp-lighter. But the giggles that were heard when the Bruins pulled the trigger have been somewhat silenced as Wideman, with the assistance of Julien and assistant coach Craig Ramsay, has developed into a top-four defenseman and the Boston blue line's most effective puck-mover.
"When we made the trade, we knew we were giving up a good player," said assistant general manager Jim Benning. "But we thought that in getting Wideman back, we were getting a defenseman back who can handle the puck and move it up ice. Last year, with the way the system was structured, I don't think he played very well for us. But this year, with how Craig and the coaches have worked with him, he's played more like we've expected him to play."
Those same elements - good skill level and puck-moving ability combined with a high-risk approach - prompted the Sabres to take a gamble on Wideman with the 241st pick of the 2002 draft. At the time, Benning was Buffalo's director of amateur scouting.
However, the Sabres cut their ties with Wideman when the sides couldn't agree on an entry-level contract.
"They wanted no part of me," said Wideman, who was presented with an offer just hours before becoming a free agent in 2004.
Wideman, who had completed his fifth season of junior hockey as an over-age player for the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights (24 goals and 65 points in 60 games), signed with St. Louis June 30, 2004.
As a rookie in 2005-06, he put up an 8-16 -24 line in 67 games. But he also sported a minus-31 rating, third worst in the NHL.
A year later, the Blues sent him to Boston, where Wideman played like a third-pairing defenseman whose poor conditioning contributed to his subpar play.
Over the summer, Wideman committed himself to getting in better shape. Then as the season started and Wideman grasped that he needed to play a safe, no-nonsense style centering around getting pucks out of his zone, the defenseman's game began to come around.
On Nov. 15, in a 5-2 win over Toronto, Wideman recorded a season-best plus-4 rating while seeing 23:45 of ice time. Between Nov. 29 and Dec. 10, Wideman had a seven-game point streak playing the point on the No. 1 power-play unit. It was the longest scoring streak for a Boston defenseman since Ray Bourque recorded at least a point in eight straight from Oct. 12 to Nov. 2, 1995.
On Thursday, while logging 29:01 of ice time, Wideman rapped a game-tying one-timer past Pittsburgh goalie Ty Conklin, allowing the Bruins to advance to overtime and gain a point in the 5-4 shootout loss.
"He has a lot of poise with the puck," said Benning. "He can hang onto the puck and move it out of his own end. Nowadays, the transition game is so important. Having said that, we realize we gave up some goals by trading Brad Boyes. But it's what we had to do to get that puck-moving defenseman."
Wideman, who was given yesterday off from practice, comes into this afternoon's game with four goals, 14 points, and a plus-9 rating while averaging 22:43 of ice time. Currently earning $600,000, he will be a restricted free agent after this season.
Wideman, 24, is playing like a man seeking a raise and a long-term contract - as a comparison, 24-year-old Pittsburgh defenseman Ryan Whitney (7-9 -16, minus-3, 23:17 of ice time) signed a six-year extension in July that will pay him an average of $4 million per season.
"What we see right now is a guy getting better and better all the time," Julien said. "He's got the skill to make the good plays. The biggest question was his selection. It wasn't always the right one. We kept seeing those things a little too often at the beginning of the year."
For now, however, Wideman would like nothing more than to show his former bosses that the Bruins might have gotten the better of last year's deal.
"I want to win," said Wideman of today's showdown. "I'd be very happy to beat them."