We’re getting down near the end of the CHL regular season schedule, and the NCAA playoffs are firing up around the nation. This is as good a time as any to do a deeper dive into the progress of some of Boston’s key prospects and where they stand in their development thus far.
Zach Senyshyn, RW
Thursday night served as a reminder of how productive Zach Senyshyn has been in his second full season of OHL play.
He tallied two goals to push his season total to 38 (in 59 games) and added a helper. He’s equaled his assist total from last year (19) in seven fewer games, but he’s also playing more minutes/60 so that statistic needs more context. Bottom line with Senyshyn- he’s scoring more- as to be expected from moving from bottom-line duty and no special teams to first line and first unit power play.
Senyshyn is a powerful skater who has a nifty burst for someone who is 6-foot-2- he gets out of the blocks quickly and can separate in the open ice when he gets to top speed. He’s also pretty agile in that he’ll cut across the grain to shake defenders. His signature move remains the power rush down the right side- he just turns on the jets and will often beat the defender to the corner and then cut straight to the net. I don’t know that he’ll be able to get away with that in the AHL and NHL as consistently as he does in junior, but then again- I thought teams would be able to defend him better this year because they saw him burning them as a rookie, but it hasn’t happened.
He’s taken a big step forward in scoring this year, BUT (there’s always a but isn’t there?)- that does *not* mean Senyshyn is ready to come in and play for the Bruins next season. As most inherently understand- there’s a difference between how well a player scores and whether he is playing the game effectively. I credit hockey analyst and NESN analyst Billy Jaffe on that one, because he recently asked me the same question- he acknowledged Senyshyn was scoring, but wanted to know how well he was playing.
This is not a simple answer. Senyshyn’s offense is dynamic and impressive, but he’s got substantial work to do on the other side of the puck. The good news is- he understands that and his coaches in the Soo (former NHL defender Drew Bannister is in his first year there as the head coach) are working on his shift-to-shift consistency and making sure he moves his feet and commits to his responsibilities in all zones. I’ve been told he has a penchant to disappear over stretches of play by multiple sources and Hamilton Bulldogs play-by-play man/hockey analyst Reed Duthie also said as much in his “Duthie Dish” column posted here back in January. Senyshyn has to do less hanging back and waiting for the next offensive chance and do more in puck support and bringing the same effort levels to each situation that he does when he’s exploding down the ice or forcing turnovers and burying shots into the net as he did last night.
Current assessment: Senyshyn is clearly playing like the top-15 pick he (surprisingly) was last June, but that doesn’t mean fans should expect him to be taking a regular shift in Boston next season. Another year in the OHL will help him to be the better player he’s developing into. Because he was born in 1997 and drafted out of major junior, Senyshyn is not eligible for the AHL next season, so if he doesn’t make the Bruins roster out of camp, he must go back to the OHL. Those are the rules, and unfortunately, a player like Senyshyn might be in that middle ground between being a dominant OHL forward at age 19-20 next season but not being ready for regular duty with Boston, yet unable to be optioned to Providence. This means the B’s coaches and management will have to see how Senyshyn looks at camp next fall and make the decision then. He might get the nine-game look, or he might not, but that’s not something we can predict in March, 2016.
Danton Heinen, RW/LW/C
Playing the right side of Denver University’s top scoring unit- the Pacific Rim line- comprised of three forwards from Washington, California and Heinen’s native British Columbia, he’s exploded for 21 points in his last 10 contests after the Pioneers offense struggled as a whole for much of the season.
This versatile forward can play every position. He was a center in the BCHL but then shifted to the left wing as a freshman under Jim Montgomery. In his second NCAA season, he’s been the right wing with center Dylan Gambrell and Trevor Moore. Every team loves a forward who is adaptive and can play in multiple situations, but it sure looks like the B’s are projecting him to be a wing at the pro level, and one who can slide in to take faceoffs and will understand his responsibilities at the position if needed.
On the plus side, Heinen’s vision and offensive creativity is elite- he currently has 15 goals and 35 points in 32 games, which is significant because at one point he was hovering around a .5 points/game pace. He’s really turned it on, and the lack of production was not for effort- he has been creating scoring chances throughout the season, but pucks weren’t going in for him and his line.
Heinen isn’t a blazing-fast skater, but he’s fast enough and has good quickness and directional change. He gets his share of breakaways not because he outskates a lot of the opposition but because he reads the developing play so well and anticipates, getting an extra step and then being quick enough to maintain that separation. He did that beautifully in what was the best NCAA game I saw all season last month against the University of North Dakota.
Soft hands and an underrated shot round out Heinen’s skills package and make him a forward that could project in a top-6 NHL role one day. If nothing else, he looks like a higher-end third-liner, which is not a bad thing. He’s put on weight and looks bigger out on the ice- he’s only about 6-foot in height, but the extra weight has helped him win puck battles along the boards and establish a net-front presence.
Additionally, he’s a more polished and refined three-zone player than Senyshyn is at this stage (and at two years older, he probably should be). He’s not a shutdown type of defensive forward, but he back checks diligently and uses his hockey sense and instincts to break up plays and transition back to offense.
Current assessment: I ranked Heinen Boston’s No. 2 amateur prospect in the January issue of New England Hockey Journal and he looks even better now than he did because the numbers have come up. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bruins look to sign him and put him into the system, but that will largely depend on what the organization’s priorities are and whether they see him pushing for an NHL job in the next three years. At this point, you can go either way and returning to Denver for a third year wouldn’t be a bad thing for his development, though based on what I see, he’s ready to turn pro.
Jesse Gabrielle, LW
Wow! Where did this season come from?!
Actually, for those who charted Gabrielle’s progress in previous years and right up until the second half of 2014-15, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise because when it came to his talent and hockey ability, the Saskatchewan native (who played some Minnesota HS hockey in there too) was projected as an early second-round pick in some circles (Red Line Report had him there as late as March 2015, for example), and that was in a strong draft class.
Gabrielle’s stumble down to the mid-fourth round allegedly had to do with commitment and effort questions, but it’s hard to question what he’s done for the Prince George Cougars this season, as he began the year like he was shot out of a cannon and has been a top performer in the WHL all season long.
His 39 goals and 72 points in 65 game tie Gabrielle with overager Chase Witala for the team lead, but he’s shattered his previous season best of 23 goals and 44 points set last season. He’s producing a high rate of P/60 and he’s playing his patented rugged, agitating style. Gabrielle is commonly compared to Brad Marchand, who also happens to be his favorite player, but he’s a taller, thicker player than Marchand and while not quite as dynamic or fast, brings the same kind of goal scoring upside as No. 63 has.
Not afraid to drop the gloves either, Gabrielle can pick fights and then will answer for his chippy play unlike other agitators. He’s not a feared heavyweight, but he’s can be a nasty opponent who plays on the edge but has the toughness to fight his own battles. He finishes his checks and hits to hurt, a widely disliked opponent but respected for how dangerous and productive he’s been. In other words- teams hate playing against him, but would embrace him on their club for his sheer effectiveness. Much like Marchand.
Now, the question I most often get on Gabrielle is- how did he end up being a fourth-round pick last June?
Well, without being in the various war rooms, I can only go by what I’ve been told in snippets here and there, but there was some obvious concern with Gabrielle, or else he would not have slipped down past 100 as he did. However, the Bruins can be glad that happened. The draft sometimes works out that way- we hear about players who rise and fall, but sometimes, the fallers aren’t indicative of the larger picture.
Based on the way Gabrielle is playing, he’s motivated to prove the teams who passed on him wrong, and at the end of the day- he’s a Bruins fan, so he was probably relieved and elated that the B’s of all clubs called his name, even if it came later than he thought.
Current assessment: Like Senyshyn, Gabrielle is in all likelihood not ready to make the NHL right away, even though he’s scoring plenty and playing a heavy, effective game on the whole. As a June 1997-born player he’s in the same boat in terms of the requirement for him to return to major junior next season if he doesn’t make Boston’s opening night roster. He’s a better fit for lower line duty at the NHL level, but the B’s have a lot of guys knocking on the door- fans should resist the “shiny new toy” urge to get Gabrielle plugged in right away. Either way, we won’t have a good handle on his situation at this point- we’ll have to reevaluate how he looks at the July development and then main training camp next fall.
Brandon Carlo, D
Boston’s best shutdown defense prospect is heading towards a possible AHL debut in Providence shortly, as his Tri-City Americans are in danger of missing the WHL playoffs, which would make him eligible to sign an amateur tryout option (ATO) and join the Baby B’s for the final games of the regular season.
Unlike Senyshyn and Gabrielle (and Jake DeBrusk is in the same boat as Carlo) he was a late 1996-born player which means he *can* spend the 2016-17 season in the AHL as opposed to going back to the WHL if he doesn’t make the Boston roster. The team could still send Carlo back to the Dub as an overager, but I would be surprised to see that. He looks to be on track to see his first AHL action here in the spring and then benefit from spending time in Providence next year in a full-time role (assuming he doesn’t crush it in camp to the point that the big club doesn’t put him in their top-six).
The biggest things (no pun intended) with Carlo are his size/reach and fluid skating for a guy so large. His 6-5 height is one thing, but he has long arms, which give him the reach of someone closer to 6-7. We see this effect often when players try to carry the puck by him on the rush- Carlo is deft with the poke check, and his active stick creates a significant advantage for him defensively. Because he’s so mobile, he’s able to square up with the puck and put himself in position to block the shot or disrupt the puck carrier’s speed and path to the net.
Carlo is not a vicious or intimidating open-ice hitter, but he does effectively use his size/strength to pin opponents to the boards and move forwards out from the front of the net and his goaltender’s sight lines. He’s not looking to crush people but he will initiate contact and will fight to defend teammates, even if he’s not someone to be feared. He’s a rugged defender but doesn’t play with that natural kind of mean streak that other more physical, tough players have made their bones doing over the years.
Offensively, he can chip in, but is not the kind of instinctive, push the pace kind of two-way threat who projects to thrive in a top 1 or 2 NHL defender role. He handles the puck well enough to make the first pass and gets a good amount of points by getting shots on net for tips or rebound scoring plays. Carlo is not a classic puck-mover who joins and even leads the rush and is capable of making nice offensive contributions but is not a player with the natural offensive hockey IQ or vision to be a regular point producer at the pro level.
Current analysis: The Colorado native gets a lot of buzz for his impressive physical package and smart, lockdown defensive acumen. There is certainly a place for him on Boston’s blue line and that time might not be too long in coming. However, fans should temper their expectations- and not view him as someone who will come in right away and stabilize the Boston defense corps. Once upon a time Zdeno Chara was not seen as a future Norris Trophy winner either- otherwise no team would have allowed him to get to the third round. So, it’s not a complete stretch to say that Carlo could develop into something more than I currently see, but it shouldn’t be expected.
That about does it for this post, I will make this a series and go down the line on other Boston prospects if you like what you’ve read.