The undrafted free agents: Frank Vatrano

TSP is back with the second installment in a series that looks closely at undrafted free agents that have helped to offset some of the lack of production the Boston Bruins got from drafting, especially from the window of 2007-09.

Whether talking about the team not getting great mileage out of NHL Entry Draft decisions or the loss of productivity incurred from trades of the top choices in 2010 and 2011, the success with several undrafted free agents is encouraging. In the 2015-16 drafts, the B’s have had nine first- and second-round selections, so the club is bound to see some impactful contributions from that particular group soon. In the meantime, players such as Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, Frank Vatrano and Noel Acciari all saw NHL action in 2015-16. A few more young but intriguing undrafted talents such as Austin Czarnik, Colby Cave, Justin Hickman and Chris Casto are all slated to have bigger roles in the AHL with Providence this season, with one or more even seeing NHL time at some point.

This does not explain away Boston’s checkered past at the draft table, but it does point to an effective capability to identify and develop talent through a secondary market. If the team can start hitting on its higher profile draft picks, the B’s have a chance to turn things in a more positive direction.

Last year, one player in particular was not expected to have much of an impact in Boston, and yet dazzled AHL audiences while showing NHL opponents he belonged. When all is said and done, this plucky young winger from Western Massachusetts could be on the verge of becoming a fan favorite and regular contributor in the NHL going forward.

Frank Vatrano played one game with UMass in 2013-14 before switching to No. 13 in 2014-15

Frank Vatrano played one game with UMass in 2013-14 before switching to No. 13 in 2014-15

The Springfield Rifle: Frank Vatrano

The call never came.

In all reality, Frank Vatrano probably wasn’t expecting to hear his name called in primetime. So when U.S. National Team Development Program players and teammates Jacob Trouba, Brady Skjei, and Stefan Matteau all came off the board in the first 30 selections at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft in Pittsburgh, it was another validation for the strength of the Team USA hockey program and the many sacrifices they all made for two years in Ann Arbor. What hockey player doesn’t dream of being picked in the first round of the NHL draft, though? It would be natural to allow for that sliver of disappointment to creep in.

The call didn’t come in the second or third rounds either. Sure, Vatrano had heard the whispers around the scouting grapevine about the amount of weight he was carrying around on his smallish 5-foot-10 frame, but he’d been a dynamic scorer coming up through the ranks in New England as a scoring ace in the Empire League. The NHL’s Central Scouting Service rated him as the 88th North American skater for 2012, so chances were solid that someone would take him.

Nicolas Kerdiles, Patrick Sieloff…Matt Grzelcyk. Grizzy to the Bruins in the third round- there was his fellow Mass ‘dawg- living the dream. How amazing would it be to get drafted by the B’s and yet, there’s his fellow Team USA brother wearing the spoked-B jersey and draft day ball cap…sweet.

Thomas DiPauli, Connor Carrick, Collin Olson…three more guys from Ann Arbor in the middle rounds and the plus-sized lady is warming up her pipes.

When Riley Barber was selected 167th overall by Washington in the sixth round, no one yet knew it- but that was all she wrote for the 2011-12 U.S. NTDP Under-18 squad: 211 total choices, 10 of them from the gold medal-winning USA team.

The call never came. 30 teams making 211 picks, and not one of them had time for Gregory and Clara Vatrano’s kid (one of four boys) from East Longmeadow.

And of course he was happy for his mates, how could he not be?But even with that, a spark ignited a fire that day. A small one, to be sure- a flickering, sputtering little conflagration- but a fire nonetheless.

Soon, he would be at Boston College and soon, he would have the chance to prove to those 30 NHL clubs that they made a mistake in not drafting him. Vatrano made it to Chestnut Hill later that summer, but his NCAA dream was put on hold when an issue with his SAT score ruled him academically ineligible and as a result- on the outside looking in once again. Whatever his dreams and goals at BC might have been, they were gone in as quick as the instant it took him to fire a puck into the back of the net off the rush.

Instead of skating for the Eagles in 2012-13, Vatrano was putting pucks in the net for the EJHL’s Boston Jr. Bruins while trying to resolve his NCAA status. Looking back on it, being in limbo had to be the hardest thing for the bubbly, fun kid who loved the game and grew up rooting for all Boston teams, but the Big Bruins most of all. He was 17 and somewhere in the sea of thousands when the B’s paraded through the Boston streets on Duckboats, hoisting the Stanley Cup as last NHL team standing in 2011.

He would decide to transfer to UMass in nearby Amherst at the end of the season, and the 2013 NHL draft came and went once more with the Vatrano name nowhere to be found. And just when he thought he might be playing college hockey soon, the NCAA took their time in reviewing his case before ruling him ineligible for the 2013-14 regular season. Once again- Vatrano would have to wait.

But that fire that had started on the day of the 2012 NHL draft, though deprived of oxygen and fuel to feed it, continued to smolder and burn.

Vatrano persevered and even played his first NCAA game in March 2014 (a losing effort in a play-in after the regular schedule ended), but used the practice time and work with the Minutemen staff to prepare himself for the 2014-15 season. Even though the 2014 NHL draft was his final year of eligibility, Vatrano was already looking ahead to redemption and the chance to play a full season in college after missing out on so much.

“I just tried to keep a positive mindset. I worked on getting better and faster. I did a lot of weight training and worked on the defensive part of the game. I knew that I needed that in the Hockey East,” Vatrano told SBN college hockey correspondent Jeff Cox in early 2015.

2014-15 represented a major turning point for Vatrano. After a sluggish start, his offensive game took off, and he rose to the top of the Minutemen scoring chart, firing home 18 goals in 36 games. His 28 points were good for second on the team, which took a little bit of the edge off of another disappointing collective year. But the hockey…oh, to be playing again and to be going up and down the ice with the puck on his stick. Vatrano returned to doing what he knew best- scoring goals. And, as it turned out, his prowess did not go unnoticed.

That blaze within re-ignited a sense of purpose that had perhaps been dampened by the setbacks, but never extinguished.

When the hometown Bruins came calling in March of 2015, Vatrano gave up two remaining years of NCAA eligibility to make his childhood dream come true. They didn’t draft him, but the B’s wanted him, and that was good enough.

Vatrano played five AHL games with Providence and scored his first professional goal in the process. But, as he packed up for the summer and prepared for his first real test, his employers had one key piece of guidance for him: drop the weight.

So, several months later and 15 pounds lighter, Vatrano, who swore off his parents’ pizza and subs at the family business Antonio’s, arrived in Wilmington on a mission.

That spark on a day when the NHL had given him his first taste of the cold, results-oriented side of the professional sports business, was now a raging inferno. A quicker, faster, hungrier Vatrano jumped out immediately at rookie camp and then carried that over in Buffalo, when he and fellow undrafted forward Austin Czarnik forced everyone to sit up and take note while competing in a rookie tourney.

Vatrano wasn’t done and followed it up with 10 goals in his first 10 AHL games to start the season, including a 4-goal effort. That blazing start earned him his first NHL call-up and wouldn’t you know it- his big league debut came against none other than the hated Montreal Canadiens on the road at the Bell Center.

His dad and uncle (by marriage) had their own adventure of a road trip to get there in time, but they made it and saw him tally his first NHL goal, albeit in a losing effort. He kept right on scoring in the AHL and again in Boston later in the year, and then earned a spot on Team USA’s World Championship team, adding three more scalps and eight points in 10 games while representing his country in hockey again after winning the 2012 U18 tourney.

Frank Vatrano…the Springfield Rifle. A new nickname was born for a rising young star, never mind the fact he’s from East Longmeadow- close enough.

The kid who had so loved hockey and always reveled in finding the back of the net has done it in the NHL. Now, the trick, as most NHL veterans would tell you, is in staying there.

Vatrano’s eye-popping numbers- 36 goals and 55 points in 36 AHL games- are tempered by the slightly less dazzling eight NHL goals in 39 games with Boston. Vatrano also managed to throw an NHL hat trick into that mix. In the process, he impressed Claude Julien with his natural hustle and willingness to embrace the defensive aspects of the B’s system, even if it didn’t come as a natural fit.

And as for his Team USA buddy, Grzelcyk? He’s now in the fold with an NHL contract in hand, but ironically enough- after being drafted by Boston and playing a full four years at Boston University, he’s still looking to get into his first NHL game. If ever there was a real-life hockey metaphor about the tortoise and the hare parable, this is it.

So, what’s next for Vatrano? Can he somehow earn his way into a top-six role on the left side of Boston’s forward lineup? Can he make it inside the top-nine? Will that fire that burns inside of of him continue to drive him to newer heights?

“Scoring goals is one thing and he’s always been able to do that,” one NHL scout told the Scouting Post recently when asked about Vatrano. “But the thing that made me take notice about him last year beyond the obvious weight loss, was how much energy and desire he played with. If he can sustain that, it’s not hard to see how he might turn out to be a pretty nifty two-way threat for Boston for some time. I don’t think many of us saw that coming.”

Vatrano’s far from a finished product, but when you look at how far he’s come in such a short amount of time, you can almost see the flames through the twinkle of his eyes whenever he scores another goal or smiles as he talks about the work he put in to achieve his ultimate goal.

It only took a spark to get that bonfire going, but the personal discipline, singular focus and desire helped it along. The kid never gave up, and four years later, it doesn’t even matter that Vatrano wasn’t anyone’s draft choice. At 22, he seems to be scratching the surface of his potential, and the B’s are set to benefit.

Where once he was driven just to get to a point in time where he could be called an NHL player, the Springfield Rifle now has his sights set on becoming so much more.

2015-16 NHL goals video (Bruins Fan):

 

 

 

 

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