As tweeted out over the weekend, several reliable sources told me that Denver University sophomore forward Danton Heinen will turn pro after he plays his last game for the Pioneers. What remains to be seen is how soon the Boston Bruins will sign their fourth-round selection from the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
With the team at 47 contracts and allowed a max of 50, the B’s have some decisions to make on timing of signings, as in addition to Heinen, there are three other NCAA seniors that will need NHL deals before August 1: Matt Grzelcyk, Rob O’Gara and Sean Kuraly, who was acquired from San Jose last June along with the Sharks’ first-round selection for goaltender Martin Jones. With respect to Heinen, he has NCAA eligibility remaining, and the other guys don’t, so that’s a total of four contracts assuming the B’s sign all of them.
Last weekend, the RedHawks and captain Kuraly saw their NCAA tournament hopes dashed by the University of Minnesota-Duluth, who knocked them out of the NCHC playoffs. That makes Kuraly eligible to sign now and go to Providence on an ATO to finish out the season in the AHL if the Bruins so choose. Whether they will do so is going to come down to an internal organizational decision, as the 23-year-old center is less of a scoring/top-six type of forward and more of a bottom-six/grind-it-out checking player who plays a heavy game but doesn’t bring much in the way of a high offensive ceiling for the NHL.
Kuraly is coming off of a disappointing statistical season- one that saw him crash from a career-best 19 goals as a junior to just six tallies in 36 games with head coach Enrico Blasi’s Redhawks. He’s a good skater for his 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame and has a hard, heavy shot. The Ohio native is not all that creative nor does he bring much of a high-end skillset with the puck. He’s a good faceoff man and penalty killer, so there’s promise here- not everyone can progress on to the NHL and once there, then slot into a prime scoring role. In Kuraly’s case, he’s always been one of those players whose game and versatility translated more as a checking forward at the highest level and there’s nothing wrong with that. One member of the Bruins organization told me hours after the trade bringing Kuraly to Boston went public that they were hoping he would one day be a third-liner for them, so even at the most optimistic period- coming off a career year in Oxford- the B’s didn’t have many illusions about what type of player he was going to project as for them.
That brings us back to Heinen. To say his upside is considerably bigger than that of Kuraly is an understatement. After a tough team start offensively (DU was just 7-7-4 and 3-4-1 in the NCHC back in late December- the Pios finished with a 17-5-2 conference record, going 14-1-1 after the halfway point) Heinen and the Pacific Rim line went into overdrive when the calendar turned over to 2016 and he’s been absolute dynamite since February. The versatile winger who played LW for Jim Montgomery as a freshman after being a center in junior hockey, has been over on the right side this season with Trevor Moore on the left and Dylan Gambrell in the middle. Denver just knocked University of Nebraska-Omaha out of the postseason, with Heinen playing a prominent role and his 18 goals in 36 games leads the club (he’s third overall in scoring behind his linemates with 40 points). Even if the Pioneers don’t win the NCHC (they face stiff competition in the Frozen Faceoff to include No. 1-ranked North Dakota), they’re a lock for the NCAA tournament, which means he could be playing into April and won’t be available until late March or into the middle of April.
We’ll leave it to the Bruins to figure it out- timing is an issue for Heinen signing, but it’s a done deal that he will not stay another year in the NCAA, as he has reportedly told the Pioneers of his desire to move on. So, when the Bruins officially announce the signing (whenever that happens), you’ll know the decision was in the works for some time.
Meanwhile, the B’s will have to see what happens out East as well, with a pair of senior defensemen in Grzelcyk and O’Gara who are wrapping up their collegiate careers. Grzelcyk’s BU Terriers were unceremoniously bounced by the upstart UMass-Lowell Riverhawks, who got some outstanding goaltending from Kevin Boyle (a UMass castoff, btw- I bet the Minutemen could have used him, eh?) but are expected to make the NCAA tournament card, so we’ll have to see how that plays out first.
Also knocked out of the Hockey East tourney in surprising fashion- the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (and B’s prospect Anders Bjork) by Northeastern University, featuring B’s 2012 draft choice Matt Benning on defense. The 21-year-old junior and nephew of Vancouver Canucks GM (and former Boston AGM) Jim Benning is a defense-first guy who plays bigger and with an impressive physical edge for possessing pretty average size at 6-foot, 200+ pounds. He’s posted a career-best five goals this season after not finding the back of the net at all last year (his 24 assists/points still rate as his highest NCAA single season total to date). Benning isn’t going to wow you- he’s a consistent presence if nothing else. He’s not flashy or dynamic but is smart and rugged. He fills lanes quickly, gaps up well, and will pop you good if there are any thoughts of trying to cut to the middle- keep the head on a swivel when Benning is out there for the Huskies. His father, Brian, played more than 500 NHL games as a defenseman and tallied nearly 300 career points, so while his career wasn’t all that long (he retired at age 29), he was an impact two-way threat/effective puck-mover who was at his best in the late 1980s with the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings. Matt Benning is a chip off the old block- he’s got nice vision, the ability to make an effective first pass and a willingness to join the rush, not to mention the little bit of nasty he brings to bear during the trench battles along the walls and in front of the net.
Come to think of it, young Benning might be one of the most underrated prospects in Boston’s system. He’s rarely discussed or talked about and because he’s a sixth-round pick, he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to NHL draft pedigree. He’s been nothing but solid since the B’s drafted him- helping the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints win the 2013 Clark Cup championship and being one of head coach Jim Madigan’s go-to guys (he was an alternate captain this season). With his active stick and watching him effortlessly slide across the ice to put a shoulder into an encroaching opponent and often times get the better of physical matchups against bigger players, there is a lot to like about Benning and his pro future, even if he isn’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Here’s an excellent Hockey East All Access feature on him (including the tidbits about his grandfather Elmer, longtime NHL scout and his efforts to have his son and grandson get involved with figure skating as youngsters to improve their balance, edging and overall mobility):
Everyone is excited to see how NU will do against Boston College (and Ryan Fitzgerald) this coming weekend’s semifinal match in their bid for Hockey East supremacy.
As for O’Gara, he and his Yale second-seed mates were bounced out of the ECAC tourney over the weekend in two close, hard-fought games by the seventh-seed Dartmouth Big Green. Dartmouth’s goaltender stopped nearly 96% of the shots he faced in overtime and regulation wins Friday and Saturday. Yale played well enough to win those games, but the offense failed them at a critical juncture. O’Gara and Yale will find out their NCAA tournament fate (along with BU) on March 20 when the entire field of 16 teams (which includes the automatic-bid six conference champions) is announced.
If neither BU nor Yale get a chance to see their seasons extended, then Boston’s hand could be forced sooner rather than later.
Things are heating up…not just a sign of the coming spring but on the ice for the NCAA playoffs as well.