After a few days of hiatus (and a solid B’s home win Saturday afternoon against the New York Islanders) TSP is back with another update on the Boston prospects. This post’s focus area is on the upstart Providence Bruins, who are a solid third place in the AHL’s Atlantic Division with a 30-19-9-3 record. What could have been a devastating loss when Malcolm Subban was hit with a puck during warmups nearly two months ago was mitigated by depth- Jeremy Smith and Zane McIntyre have ably filled in since then. The Springfield Rifle- Frank Vatrano– (profiled earlier in the series) has done much of the heavy lifting offensively, with a remarkable 31 goals in 31 AHL games this season, his first as a professional after signing with Boston out of UMass a year ago.
Here’s the deep dive on some of the key P-Bruins players making things happen this season:
Seth Griffith, RW
The AHL’s No. 2 scorer behind former Bruin Chris Bourque (but Griffith’s 63 points in 48 games have happened in 11 fewer contests than Bourque’s 66 points) has continued to roll in the Providence offense as he has done since starting the 2015-16 hockey season a little late due to a lower-body injury suffered in a preseason game with Boston. The former London Knights star and fifth-round pick in 2012 (acquired from Tampa Bay for Benoit Pouliot) has proven himself to be a dangerous scoring option at the AHL level but is still looking to carve a niche for himself in Boston.
Griffith has outstanding hockey sense and silky-smooth hands, which has allowed him to produce at every level to date, and he even invigorated the offense-starved B’s a season ago when he was called up and like Frank Vatrano flashed promising scoring chops before cooling off and being returned to the AHL (he scored 12 goals and 31 points in 39 AHL games in ’14-15).
Although Griffith lacks the pure speed and extra gear to separate in the open ice, he compensates with the natural instincts and feel for the flow of the game. He’s able to quickly dart into spaces in the offensive zone and use his excellent puck skills and lightning release to get pucks to the net and find teammates in scoring position.
At just 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, Griffith doesn’t have the size and ideal explosive element to his offensive repertoire but is smart and finds ways to make plays when the puck is on his stick. He must continue to develop and refine his game away from the puck, however. He’s smart enough to understand positioning and his responsibilities within Boston’s possession system, but without the size and strength to fight through defenders, he often times must outwit bigger, stronger opponents in puck battles along the walls. He does use his lacrosse background to good effect in terms of how he slips through seams in traffic and bounces off of would-be checkers to establish position in front of the net.
Current assessment: The dreaded “‘tweener” tag is still hanging around Griffith, but if the Bruins could figure out a way to get him into the mix for more of an extended look, it might prevent a mistake of letting him go only to see him blossom into a top-six NHL forward in another team’s colors.
Even without dynamic stopwatch speed, Griffith has shown in the past that he can still go end-to-end and score the highlight reel goal. To whit (and granted, the Devils D didn’t do their job and put Cory Schneider in a tough spot here but full marks to Griffith for making this play happen start to finish):
It’s high time to determine the way ahead for Griffith and the clock could be running out given out the situation at forward and the other options that GM Don Sweeney must choose from. Having said that- he’s a top scorer in the AHL and we’ve seen him demonstrate a real killer instinct around the net. If there isn’t a future in Boston, here’s hoping the Boston brain trust can figure out how to properly leverage Griffith for the kind of return the team can build around.
Alex Khokhlachev, C
This polarizing figure among the Boston fanbase is the organization’s biggest enigma. In Providence, he’s producing at a 1.13 points-per-game clip (18-33-51 in 45 gp), playing in all situations and proving himself as an exuberant player who finds ways to make a difference.
Contrast that version of “Koko” with the guy who comes up to Boston and has a hard time contributing and making an impact at the NHL level. To simply point at linemates and ice time, thereby blaming the Boston coaches as the root cause of his lack of success is a lazy argument that does not take into account that with his natural talent and ability, even the limited action does not square with the wholly lackluster impressions he’s made in the NHL. Greater opportunities are earned, not given- just ask Noel Acciari.
Koko is a player who on talent and skill alone should have enjoyed more big league success by now, but that production and impact has eluded him. It’s possible that he has put much pressure on himself during his various stints in Boston and that self-imposed stress accounts for his inability to demonstrate any kind of real effect. It is also possible, that he has been unable to take the coaching he’s been given and translate into his on-ice play in the NHL to date. Whatever it is- there is such a dichotomy between the Koko we see scoring big goals and making brilliant passes in the AHL- it’s hard to project what he is right now.
In similar fashion to Griffith, Khokhlachev doesn’t have the size and speed that NHL teams embrace, but he’s got enough ability with the puck that he has developed into one of the more consistent scoring threats at the AHL level. He’s creative and can push the offensive pace when on top of his game. He will go stretches where he is ineffective, but he can just as easily blow a game open with a shifty move at the blue line or a nifty slip of a check inside the zone to fool the goalie with his blurry-quick shot or find a linemate for a layup.
Current assessment: As is the case with Griffith, the Bruins will soon find themselves making a decision on Koko. In fairness to the kid, he just wants to be able to show what he has at the NHL level, but it isn’t like Boston has buried him, either. It’s not a simple matter of just taking the most skilled players and plugging them any old place on the roster- there is still a need for grit, hustle, determination and effort.
Khokhlachev’s lack of a consistent game away from the puck is what has held him from earlier NHL opportunities when his offense was more of a need. Now, with the majority of the forwards finding ways to contribute, there isn’t much for a player of his style and position to do other than to keep producing in Providence and be ready should the team determine he’s worthy of another chance and summon him once more up I-95.
If the Bruins could somehow tap into the AHL version of Koko and see that level of energy and…here’s the key now…production- then things might be different. As it stands, he’ll likely be moving on and one can only hope that if he does the team won’t rue the day he didn’t get more of a look in Boston. There’s certainly a segment of fans out there who won’t let them forget it.
Brian Ferlin, RW
It’s been a tough year for the 2011 fourth-rounder who parlayed a solid rookie pro season in ’14-15 into a spring cup of coffee with the Bruins, where he did not look at all out of place on Boston’s fourth line. Unfortunately, a concussion suffered in the 2015 AHL playoffs bled into this season, as he played one game at the beginning of the 2015-16 AHL campaign before being lost for much of the schedule. With just eight games played total (three goals), Ferlin is still getting his timing and all-around play down, though he’s putting in the effort to be the heavy player his Providence coach Bruce Cassidy went out of his way to praise last season. He even got into a fight (though some will cringe at what that does for a guy coming back from post-concussion syndrome as Ferlin has endured) yesterday in Providence’s loss to Utica.
A big-bodied power forward at 6-2 and about 215 pounds, Ferlin is a straight-ahead player who has surprising agility and a deft touch with the puck as an underrated passer from the right side. He’s not overly creative or dynamic- more of a stick-on-the-ice and drive the net kind of winger. A superb athlete- his father played NCAA baseball- Ferlin grew up in the Sunshine State and left home to play in the USHL for the Indiana Ice (with fellow B’s prospect Sean Kuraly) before spending three seasons with the Cornell Big Red. A ’92-born player who was passed over in his first year of eligibility, Ferlin has worked hard to improve his all-around play and understanding of the game after being a player who was often counted on to just go out and score in minor hockey.
Current assessment: The concussion setback may have prevented Ferlin from seeing some NHL games this season, as the fourth line in Boston has been a bit of a revolving door all season. Right now, the priority is getting him back into game shape and making sure he’s able to continue to play effectively without suffering any after effects of his extended layoff.
That might mean he doesn’t get a chance to see NHL action this season, but in the longer run that may pay off for Boston. In any case- he’s not a high-end scoring type, but showed effectiveness as a heavy on the puck/possession style forward who is able to cycle the play down low and establish a net-front presence. If he can develop his shot and goal-scoring touch, he could eventually challenge for third-line duty somewhere.
Austin Czarnik, C
The Michigan native and former Miami University Redhawks captain might be just 5-9 and maybe 170 pounds soaking wet, but man- can he ever motor!
In retrospect, no one who saw the right-shooting center in the NCAA should be surprised at the fact that the AHL rookie has produced at nearly a point-per-game pace with 15 goals and 46 points in 53 games this season. He skates up the ice at a blistering pace, revving a never-stop motor into the red with his fast feet and eternal energy source from within. When you talk about small players needing to be dynamic, Czarnik fits that prototype. He explodes to top speed in just a couple of rapid, slashing strides and is also able to jitterbug through open space, daring bigger defenders to stay with him.
When the puck is on Czarnik’s stick, it’s almost like an extension of his own arm- he can handle it at top speed and takes it in and out of traffic with the effortless balance and grace of motion. He’s not a prolific goal scorer, but he knows how to finish plays off around the net and isn’t afraid to shoot pucks when the lanes are there. A superb passer who can make on-target feeds from both sides of his stick blade, Czarnik makes those around him better.
Alas, with his size- he’s got to be a consistently special player in order to find success at the highest level. His work ethic and hockey IQ will go a long way towards helping him get there. Czarnik does not have the strength to assert himself in the o-zone, but he is willing to go into the dirty areas and pay the physical price to make a play.
Current assessment: Boston’s cup runneth over…at least right now when it comes to the center position. Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Ryan Spooner are pretty entrenched up the middle as things stand right now, and Acciari has certainly made a convincing case to remain in Boston for now as a stabilizing force on the fourth line (just look at the ice time and special teams work Claude Julien has already given him), so it is difficult to project where and when Czarnik will fit in up in Boston.
Given that he’s made a career out of proving the doubters wrong, I wouldn’t count against him. He may be small, but he’s fast and simply dynamic…the NHL has room for players like Czarnik in the right role and given time to develop his all-around game, which was already pretty strong coming into the pro ranks.
Here’s his first career pro hat trick, which came against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in December (video courtesy of the Providence Bruins):