B’s prospects deep dive 4: Fitzgerald, Donato, Bjork & Hargrove

The Scouting Post is back to continue the ongoing deep-dive on Boston Bruins prospects coming up through the system as we enter the final days of the 2015-16 hockey season across the various professional and amateur leagues.

Today’s edition features a trio of collegians and one rookie pro. Enjoy. Will keep steadily cranking these out while balancing the NHL/Boston schedule and work requirements. I appreciate the support and feedback as always.

Ryan Fitzgerald, C/LW

The Boston College junior is a versatile, energetic and productive forward who has taken a step ahead in his third NCAA season after being a fourth-round selection of the B’s in 2013.

The son of New Jersey Devils assistant GM and former NHL forward and 1986 first-round pick (NY Islanders) Tom Fitzgerald (his uncle, Scott Fitzgerald, is the B’s assistant director of amateur scouting)is an extremely bright two-way player who has the hockey intellect and will to compete to make his impact felt as an effective 200-foot player. Along with younger brother (and freshman defender) Casey, Fitzgerald is leading the Eagles to greater heights this season after a step backwards in 2014-15. A Beanpot Trophy was only beginning, as BC looks to take the positive momentum forward in the quest for Hockey East supremacy and an extended run in the NCAA tournament that will culminate in Tampa at the 2016 Frozen Four next month.

Although undersized, Fitzgerald is strong  and feisty- he doesn’t shy away from traffic or taking the physical punishment often doled out along the walls. He will initiate contact and take a hit to make a play, but will also draw and take penalties with his edgy play. He doesn’t have the high-end straight line speed ideal for one of his 5-foot-10, 180+-pound frame, which is said to be one of the reasons his draft day stock dropped him down to pick 120. He is slippery and elusive, which allows him to shake defenders inside the blue line and slide through seams in the offensive zone. The good news is that even without the ideal size and speed, Fitzgerald has been able to make an impact all three seasons up on the Heights because he’s so smart and has silky hands with a lightning release and a nose for the net.

Fitzgerald plays with a lot of passion and energy; you notice him when he’s on the ice and he has a bit of an agitator streak in that he can get opponents off their game with his relentless energy and ability to forecheck and disrupt opposition attempts to generate a transition game with speed. With an active stick and ability to fill skating and passing lanes, Fitzgerald often creates his own chances through hustle and hard work.

Current assessment: In the midst of his best single season, Fitzgerald recently netted his 50th career goal at BC and is doing all the things the B’s want to see from him. As good as his numbers look right now (20 goals, 40 points in 33 games), the real questions about whether he can parlay his smarts and energy into a solid bottom-six NHL role one day won’t be answered until he turns pro. Whether the B’s look to sign him this year or let him return for his senior year is not known at present, but current projects are for him to go back for a fourth season and complete his senior season at BC. In the meantime, he’s gaining valuable experience and confidence by being able to contribute more consistently to the Eagles’ attack and he’s clearly growing under the tutelage of Coach Jerry York and the staff there.

Ryan Donato, C

Freshman pivot and 2014 second-rounder out of Dexter School in Brookline is having a rock solid first NCAA campaign at Harvard playing for his dad.

A brilliant prep player in four seasons from Scituate, Donato was often on a whole different level from his peers, lighting it up in his junior year (37 goals, 78 points in 30 games) en route to being a top-60 selection of his hometown NHL team. He produced nearly a two point-per-game pace over his entire time at Dexter, scoring 99 goals and 129 assists for 228 career points in 115 prep games playing for his uncle, Dan Donato. He finished the 2014-15 season with a flourish, skating with the USHL’s Omaha Lancers and scored five goals and 10 points in eight contests.

At 6-foot-1, Donato is taller than Ted, and he says he gets his height from the other side of his family, which produced an NFL linebacker uncle, West Point wrestling captain cousin and of course his mom, Jeannine- a standout soccer player as an undergraduate student at Villanova. The younger Donato doesn’t move on the ice with the pure speed his father had as a player, but he’s not a poor skater, either. He’s improved his first couple of steps and uses his tremendous hockey sense to read and anticipate, often getting the jump on defenders to loose pucks in the open ice. Donato has a powerful stride and can bull his way to the net when he needs to. As he gets stronger and grows into his frame, he’ll be that much tougher to contain.

When it comes to pure offensive skill, passion for hockey and natural leadership- they don’t come in much more of a complete package than Ryan Donato. He grew up around the NHL and the Bruins and what has always impressed me the most about him is how when he was at Dexter, opponents would go hard after him every night, knowing that the best path to success was through shutting that team’s star center down. The flaw in that plan was relatively simple- Donato was too good a player to be contained and often burned them anyway. He did it most nights drawing double coverage and taking a lot of slashes, hooks and obstruction fouls, but he rarely lost his temper and put his team at a disadvantage by retaliating.

He took a major step forward in silencing any doubters this past winter, when he was named to the Team USA World Jr. (Under-20) Championship squad, beating out several other higher-profile (and earlier) draft choices because of the versatility he provided. Donato did not look a bit out of place and used the honor in representing his country in Helsinki (and earning a bronze medal in the process) to validate his place as a top NHL prospect, albeit one that is still pretty early in his growth.

Donato is not yet a dominant offensive player in the NCAA with the Crimson, but he’s certainly showed he belongs and is on track to raise his production considerably with an expanded role as key upperclassmen move on. His 11 goals and 17 points in 27 games include his first collegiate hat trick and are just scratching the surface of what he’ll likely do there going forward.

Current assessment: It is almost cringe-worthy in hindsight that Boston’s selection of Donato at the end of round two in Philadelphia drew any criticism whatsoever.  He’s justifying his draft position’s value and the B’s faith in him with his performance in Cambridge, but make no mistake- Donato is on a longer developmental path, as there is no need to rush his development or force him to turn pro sooner than necessary. He has a potential ceiling as a top-six forward who will likely play center but could convert over to the wing depending on how the B’s are stacked up the middle when his time comes to compete for a big league job. With Donato’s natural creativity and slick hands, it makes the most sense to keep him at center and develop him as a potential heir apparent when Boston’s star pivots are in the final years of their successful careers. As of now, however, the focus is on his work at Harvard and becoming a top-flight player in the NCAA.

Anders Bjork, RW

The Notre Dame sophomore is having a breakout year in South Bend with the Fighting Irish after being a fifth-round pick in 2014.

One season after posting a solid seven-goal, 22-point performance as a freshman (41 games in a bottom-six role), the Wisconsin native and former U.S. National Team standout has 11 goals and 32 points in as many games as one of his team’s more consistent wingers.

Bjork has average size at 5-foot-11/pushing 6-foot and 185 pounds, but is a speedy and instinctive player who thrives on the forecheck and forces opponents into making mistakes with his wheels and effective stick. He sees the ice well and reads/reacts quickly to the developing play. He’s tenacious and very good at being the disruptor who forces errant passes and finishes his checks.

He’s a curious specimen- not projected to be a high-end scorer at the pro level, but perhaps undersold in terms of his quick hands and ability to finish off plays. He scored a pair of goals (along with Donato) in USA’s bronze medal-clinching game against Sweden at the WJC and one of them was of the highlight reel variety. You be the judge…is he underrated as a scorer or what?

(video posted by Weekend at Bergy’s)

He’s done that a few times in the NCAA as well…he can be explosive and put a defense on their heels as he takes the puck right to the net, so to get his level of talent in the fifth round looks like pretty solid value for Keith Gretzky and his team of amateur scouts.

Bjork is plays a good all-around game. He’s smart and opportunistic…he takes his defensive responsibilities seriously and is a natural leader. Watch for him to emerge as one of Jeff Jackson’s go-to guys in 2016-17. Come to think of it- he’s there already.

Current assessment: Bjork is not a natural scorer, but his NCAA production is encouraging as he further develops his effective 200-foot game as an ideal checking line winger with some upside. Realistically, he’s not going to be a prolific 30-goal or more guy in the NHL, assuming he gets there, but a consistent 15-20 level of production is not out of the question. A prototypical Boston Bruins-type player, Bjork isn’t all that big, but he plays big. And has a big heart. And is very smart. Like Donato, there is no need to rush him, but at some point, the B’s will have to figure out how to work him in the mix as a guy you win with.

Colton Hargrove, LW

The 205th overall selection (seventh round) of the 2012 NHL draft is surprisingly scoring at a .5 points-per-game pace in his very first rookie pro season with the Providence Bruins after signing with the B’s last spring at the conclusion of a third year at Western Michigan University.

The Rockwall, TX native was always a rugged, aggressive power forward with soft hands around the net. but officials in the Bruins organization told me recently that his dedication to improving his conditioning has been notable in his success in the AHL this season. Hmmm…where have we heard that one before?

Coming into camp leaner last fall meant that he picked up a step from what is a bit of a plodding skating stride, and he’ll never burn defenders in the open ice. However, on the cycle and down around the front of the net, Hargrove uses his big 6-foot-2 frame to box out would-be checkers and establish a presence outside the paint. He’s been effective at getting his stick on loose pucks in front and has a terrifyingly heavy drive when he has the time and space to uncork it at full throttle.

And while he has a long fuse, once angered, he’s a nasty fighter who can do some real damage if he gets his left hand free. Southpaw. He’s a good hitter and effective along the walls and in front of the net.

He’s answered questions about his fitness and drive, now Hargrove just needs to keep learning the finer things to build trust with his coaches and the ability to adapt to the higher demands of a Claude Julien-coached team if he can earn his way up to a shot with the big club.

Current assessment: Hargrove still has much work to do on his all-around game, even if the offense is coming around well- 13 goals and 25 points in 50 AHL contests this season. However, when you look at what Tyler Randell has done in very limited minutes for Boston, Hargrove has impressed observers in his very first professional season and brings the kind of lower-line potential with what could be a higher ceiling.

The 23-year-old isn’t likely going to evolve into a high-end power forward, but he’s got the right kind of Triple S combination of  size-scoring-snarl to get a longer look in the Bruins organization.

 

 

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