We’re back with four more B’s prospects- a defense-focused edition that looks at a pair of NCAA players, a major junior D and one unheralded Providence performer who is all but the forgotten man in Boston’s system.
Speaking of unheralded- the next post will take a look at BC junior Ryan Fitzgerald’s progress, plus Ryan Donato, Anders Bjork and Seth Griffith. This blog will continue to be forward thinking…(get it?)
Matt Grzelcyk, D
The Boston University senior has overcome injuries this season to post another fine offensive season from the blue line. He’s already matched his single season-best 10 goals from a year ago, but in 17 fewer games.
Grzelcyk had off-season knee surgery in May, which caused him to miss the beginning of the 2015-16 NCAA season with the Terriers. Unfortunately, after just a few contests back and an immediate contribution on the offensive ledger, he injured his other knee and was lost for several more weeks. However, he came back with a flourish early in the new calendar year and promptly scored his first career NCAA hat trick in the process.
Although he stands about 5-foot-10, Grzelcyk has huge heart and a high-end hockey IQ. He’s an outstanding 4-way compass skater with instant burst, rapid acceleration/top straight-line speed and the ability to move laterally and change direction quickly with smooth pivots and transitions. The 22-year-old Townie pushes the pace by using that pure speed and quickness to lead the rush and has improved his shot significantly from where he was when the B’s drafted him in the third round four years ago.
The two-year captain is more of a skater/puck-mover/distributor in the offensive end than he is a pure trigger man and finisher, but he has the vision and creativity to set the table and finish off plays as one who isn’t afraid to go into the high danger areas and expose himself to a big hit to get pucks to the net. After scoring six total goals in his first two years (57 games- lower minutes/60 than he played as a junior and senior) in the NCAA, Grzelcyk has potted a nifty 20 and counting in the last two seasons (65 games) with a little more to go before he closes out his college career.
Like Torey Krug, Grzelcyk will be forced to prove that he can develop into an NHL defenseman but he’s so dynamic in terms of his skating and ability to get back on pucks quickly in retrieval and then advance the play back up the ice. I avoid player comparisons in general, so I don’t want people to get the idea that Grzelcyk = Krug…they’re two pretty different players once you get past the physical similarities. Grzelcyk will probably beat the Boston veteran (sounds weird typing that, but Krug’s three full NHL seasons and 225 career games affords him that distinction) in a foot race, but Krug’s got a bigger shot and (this year aside) is more of a scoring threat when he uncorks his drives from the blue line and out near the circles. He’s snakebit, but Krug didn’t score 26 goals in his first two NHL campaigns by accident. Both D are good at carrying the puck out of their own end and getting it up the ice with the quick first pass to beat the forechecking pressure or rushing it themselves through the neutral zone and negate any attempt to trap them into surrendering possession. Those are key attributes for the modern NHL rearguard.
Unfortunately, because of Grzelcyk’s size, coaches have to use him in favorable matchups and as Claude Julien has often mentioned when discussing Krug over the past several seasons, the smaller defender has to outwit and play a savvy positional game. Mitigating physical 1-on-1 matchups is the key to not getting overpowered when covering down in your own end, so the more Grzelcyk can help the B’s move the puck out of their own end and maintain possession in the offensive zone, the lest actual defending he’ll have to do.
Factor in the natural leadership and character and he’s the right kind of person and player to bring along and one day put into the NHL lineup. But first things first- he’s trying to get his Terriers back to the national championship after falling short in 2015.
Current assessment: The Bruins are no doubt looking forward to getting this player into their pro system when his college season ends in the next month or so. They took him much earlier than he was projected to go in 2012 and he’s steadily progressed in his development in the Hockey East. He has had two major surgeries, however- his 2013-14 campaign ended early due to shoulder surgery and then he had the aforementioned knee procedure about a year ago. That’s something for the B’s to keep an eye on, but it should not stand in the way of them signing Grzelcyk. Given his dream of playing for Boston and his connection to the team with his father’s position on the TD Garden bull gang, it is difficult to envision a scenario where he would attempt to not sign and become a free agent on August 1. He’ll likely need time in the AHL first but could gradually work into a role in Boston within the next season or two.
Rob O’Gara, D
Brandon Carlo has gotten a lot of attention as a top prospect in the Bruins organization for his size, skating and shutdown potential, but O’Gara is a few years older and plays a more refined game with a similar style and physical package.
O’Gara, who like Grzelcyk, is finishing up his NCAA hockey career after four strong years. The Yale Bulldog was named the ECAC’s best defensive defenseman last season after also putting up career offensive numbers as a junior. The production is down this year, but the Long Island native who turns 23 in July is not the kind of player who should be judged by statistics and offensive output. His three goals and 11 points in 27 games this season are well off his six goal & 21-point effort from a year ago (33 games), but more par for the course in terms of how he’s performed at Yale since arriving for the 2012-13 campaign.
Size and skating are the two main pillars for O’Gara: at 6-foot-4 and about 220 pounds, he’s big and strong, yet mobile enough to thrive in the modern professional hockey circuit. Ever since the B’s drafted him out of Milton Academy at the end of the 2011 draft’s fifth round, O’Gara has impressed with his fluid footwork and smooth, powerful skating stride. Even at his first Bruins development camp (he turned 18 the day he reported to Wilmington), he stood out with his poise and ability to move well and defend his own net. He was an extremely raw young player when drafted, but in the nearly five years since, has developed into one of the more poised and dependable shutdown defenders in the entire NCAA.
O’Gara leads his peers with a quiet tenacity manifested in the near-universal respect he garners from teammates, coaches and scouts. He’s not a rah-rah, in-your-face, fiery leader, but sets the right example and inspires others to follow him through consistency and his natural humility. In his first year of prep school with the Milton Mustangs, he often times had to cover for his higher-risk D partner Pat McNally, but did so with the skill and poise of a polished and seasoned player at that level. Since leading the Mustangs to a prep championship in 2011 (Milton lost the 2016 NEPSIHA/Elite 8 title yesterday to the Gunnery), O’Gara was a member of Yale’s first (and only) NCAA title-winning squad in 2013, his freshman season. He has a proven track record of being part of a winning formula, which is one of the things that attracted the Bruins to him in the first place.
Even as a shutdown prospect, O’Gara is an underrated passer and puck mover. He moves confidently up the ice with his head up, looking to hit forwards in stride to force defenses back on their heels. When the play is coming at him, he keeps the puck in front of him and uses his smarts to angle the carrier away from his net and out to more oblique angles to cut down on quality scoring chances. He’s not an overly physical defender but will make contact and use his natural strength to win board battles. He uses his long reach to make effective poke checks in the open ice. Like any young ‘D’ he has to guard sometimes against running around and trying to do too much, but when O’Gara keeps things safe and simple, he’s difficult to beat 1-on-1.
Current assessment: Like Grzelcyk, O’Gara has been carefully cultivated and developed in the Bruins organization, so the expectation here is that he will sign once he plays his last game for Yale. Whether that means he makes the jump to pro hockey right away or finishes out his semester in New Haven as Cornell’s Brian Ferlin did in the spring of 2014 after signing his entry-level contract with the B’s remains to be seen, however. He’s been patient in terms of his development and a long but steadily upwards developmental curve, and the team has exhibited the same kind of patience as well. It’s probably too much to expect him to jump right to Boston straight out of college, but stranger things have happened. If he goes to Providence to finish out the regular season, he’ll likely benefit from the chance to get his feet wet and experience the faster pace and higher skill level of the AHL before he begins his first full pro season in 2016-17. Regardless, O’Gara appears on track for bigger and better things, and consistently is underrated and overlooked when in fact the organization is solidly and firmly in his corner as a solution player going forward.
Jeremy Lauzon, D
The third of three defensemen drafted out of ten selections in 2015 might provide the best payoff of the trio in pro hockey when all is said and done.
Though not a truly exceptional player in any key area or specific hockey skill, Lauzon nevertheless is above average and more than capable at just about everything. He’s got good (Lauzon is about 6-1, 195 pounds) if not great (6-4, 220+ pounds or more is what is considered ideal in the modern NHL for D) size, and skates well though doesn’t provide dynamic speed and quickness. He’s a deft passer and effective goal scorer from the blue line, and has the ruggedness and smarts to neutralize opposition rushes and prevent players from getting to the front of his net.
Lauzon is putting up the best offensive numbers of his major junior career with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in his third season with them. He’s off his goals pace from a year ago (eight vs the 15 he netted in 2015) but with 44 points in 41 contests, Lauzon has already exceeded his 36 points set last season. He’s had to deal with some nagging lower body injuries that have limited his effectiveness in the new year after injuring himself after returning from Team Canada’s World Jr. Championship training camp in December. As one of the final cuts, Lauzon opened a lot of eyes around the CHL this year after being the 52nd overall selection by Boston last June.
Lauzon is a smart player who often does the little things in terms of maintaining his gaps, keeping the proper stick positioning and forcing opponents into committing early. He likes to go for hits in the open ice and will take every opportunity to finish his checks along the boards and remind guys in the other sweaters that he’s there. Though not a feared fighter, he’s willing to drop the gloves to defend teammates and plays a naturally rugged and aggressive defensive style that will translate well in Boston.
Current assessment: Lauzon has work to do in terms of refinements and tweaks to his overall body of work, and unfortunately, as a 1997-born player, won’t be able to jump to the AHL next season. The good news for Lauzon is that after his camp showing in December, he’s just about a sure bet to skate for Team Canada at the 2017 WJC (along with fellow B’s prospects Zach Senyshyn and Jesse Gabrielle I would add) assuming he stays healthy and continues to progress. He’s currently tracking as a potential top-3 NHL defender one day, but will need time to develop in junior. Depending on how Boston’s blue line situation looks in 2017, we’ll have a good read on how much AHL time he might require before he’s ready to stake a serious claim to regular NHL work.
Linus Arnesson, D
Like O’Gara anyone looking at the 2013 second-round selection’s offensive numbers is likely going to think that the smart and poised Swedish defensive defenseman is headed for Bustville.
That’s not the case, though some of us were admittedly thinking that he might develop into more of a two-way threat when Boston drafted him.
The 60th overall pick that year is a lean 6-foot-1 who moves around the ice efficiently with a long, mechanically-sound stride and is known for his consistent and effective two-zone ability. The product of the Djurgardens club isn’t going to wow you on any particular night, as he tends to play a pretty vanilla style. He keeps his stick in passing lanes, makes quick decisions and essentially keeps it simple without taking needless risks. No one is going to mistake him as the next Erik Karlsson, but he’s a more impactful than his four assists in 43 games might attest.
Because Arnesson is a smart and engaged player, he’s picked up fairly quickly on Providence (and Boston’s) zone-oriented scheme after playing more of a man-to-man defense in Europe. It hasn’t been a perfectly smooth transition to date, but when you go back and watch the film, there aren’t many glaring mistakes or issues jumping out at you either. Think about it- how many times do you hear or read about Arnesson and his play in Providence this season? I would submit to you- not very often. And if ever the old adage that says you don’t notice a good defenseman if he’s doing his job properly holds true with anyone, it’s the case with Arnesson.
Current assessment: Because he’s not exciting, dynamic or carries a first-round draft pedigree, it’s easy to overlook or forget about Arnesson. Whether he can carve out a niche for himself in Boston as a solid, steady middle-pairing D who may get you about 10-15 points per season tops but who can likely be paired with a smaller, but more offensively-inclined (read: risk-taking) partner or just never does enough to stick in the Boston organization is something we’ll all have to find out. When Dennis Seidenberg was helping the Bruins win a Stanley Cup and get to the final series of second championship, a lot of people could see his utility. Arnesson is obviously not the same player that Seidenberg is, but he brings the kind of safe, but limited ceiling that every good club needs.