Boston Bruins exhibition season update

The Boston Bruins made their first series of cuts on Sunday and there weren’t many, if even any, surprises.

All of the team’s major junior-required players were sent back to their respective leagues: Jakub Zboril (QMJHL), Zach Senyshyn (OHL), Jeremy Lauzon (QMJHL) and Jesse Gabrielle (WHL) all made strides from their first NHL camp a year ago, but because of the CHL (Canadian Hockey League- the umbrella organization of all three major junior leagues) agreement with the NHL to return all players who don’t turn 20 by December 31 of the season back to their junior teams if they don’t make the big roster, it was wishful thinking in the extreme for anyone to believe that any one of those players had a real shot at breaking camp in Boston.

They’re good prospects, all four- but they aren’t ready to seriously compete for NHL jobs. You have to balance the optimism and desire to roll out the shiny new toys with the reality of the current roster makeup and understand that for every major junior kid you try to shoehorn into the lineup, someone else will likely have to be exposed to waivers to keep them on the NHL roster. When you consider the fact that not one of them showed a readiness to be top-end contributors out of the hopper, what is the point of even entertaining keeping them around? Better to return them to junior and let them dominate if that’s their mission. Whether we agree that the inability to put them in the AHL is an issue or not, it’s a moot point, because that’s the system we have, not the one we wish we had.

All of Zboril, Senyshyn, Lauzon and Gabrielle show impressive promise and at some point, their time will come to take their place on the Boston roster…or not. But that time is not now, and the B’s needed to put the emphasis where it belongs: on those who are realistic options to make the team and contribute to the 2016-17 pro hockey campaign.

A raft of players were sent down to Providence, whose AHL training camp opens this week. Peter Mueller, who was in Boston on a professional tryout (PTO) before being released on Sunday will give it a go with Providence in hopes of landing an AHL contract and possibly more. The eighth overall pick in 2006 is 28 and could help the B’s farm team, but any hopes of his being able to make an impact at the NHL level after concussions essentially halted his progression. He’s spent the last three seasons in Europe trying to work his back to the top rung of the hockey ladder, but the Cinderella comeback just wasn’t happening based on early returns with the B’s.

Forwards Anton Blidh, Colby Cave, Peter Cehlarik, Colton Hargrove and Justin Hickman were returned to Providence, along with defenders Linus Arnesson and Matt Grzelcyk plus goaltenders Zane McIntyre and Dan Vladar. Veteran minor league defensemen Chris Casto, Tommy Cross and Alex Grant (all under contract to the Bruins) were placed on waivers and cleared for assignment to Providence. Players on AHL deals: Mark Naclerio, AJ White (forwards); Josh Atkinson, Chris Breen, Alex Roach (defensemen) and goaltender Matt Ginn will attend the P-Bruins camp this week.

Truth in lending here: we keep seeing raves about Blidh’s play and the Scouting Post (TSP) simply can’t get excited about this guy. He’s an agitating, energetic player but we just don’t see the skill/smarts needed to offset his average size at the highest level. Blidh’s moxie is appealing, but he looks like another solid AHL guy but not someone who is going to do much more than contribute in limited fashion if he ever makes the NHL. Unlike Vladimir Sobotka, who actually has some hands and creativity to go with his physical, agitating style, Blidh is an undersized mucker who isn’t going to do much offensively. Those types are a dime-a-dozen, so again- why get excited about a player like this? If he makes it, great- but we wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

TSP is higher on Cehlarik- he does have the size and offensive game to eventually work his way into the NHL mix. His skating has gotten better than when he was first drafted and there’s some upside here, he just needs more time to adjust to the North American pro game and it made little sense to do discovery learning in Boston when he can see a bigger role in Providence.

Grzelcyk showed some impressive flashes that we’ve long known him capable of bringing as an offense-minded defender and power play guy, but like Torey Krug four years ago- he needs to be in Providence where he can play a lot and develop properly under Kevin Dean, the Providence 1st-year head coach after being Butch Cassidy’s assistant for several seasons.

Hargrove and Hickman are both big, rugged power forward bookends who don’t bring much sizzle or flash, but play that heavy, grinding style with the ability to put pucks in the net. Neither is ready for primetime, but watch for both to have expanded roles in Providence this season and work their way towards seeing time in Boston, much like Tyler Randell had to do.

We’ve said it before, but Arnesson is not the droid we’re looking for. He’s a good guy with a solid skating and defensive mindset, but he’s not progressed much from when the B’s took him at the end of round 2 in 2013, and he’s just another guy at this point in a system that has more than enough of those. Talent-wise, he could play on the B’s right now, but he’s not going to make much of an impact. The clock is ticking, but other than being a pedestrian, bottom-pair kind of defensive D-man, it’s hard to project Arnesson as much of an impact player in Boston.

McIntyre showed promising signs of rebounding from a tough finish to the 2016 season. He’s got work to do in refining his technique, but we’re confident he’ll take strides forward this season in the AHL.

The AHL cuts mean that both of Brandon Carlo and Jake DeBrusk are still on the Boston roster, along with fellow rookie pros Danton Heinen, Rob O’Gara and Sean Kuraly. Put these players in the dark horse category for earning NHL spots out of the gate, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that one or two could make the cut. Heinen seems to be the most mature/refined of the bunch and the B’s took a hit at wing when Frank Vatrano was lost for three months after foot surgery last week.

By virtue of being late-’96 born players, both of Carlo and DeBrusk can play in Providence this season. DeBrusk is a personal favorite- he can score in a variety of ways and is a good kid. I don’t think he makes the final cut in Boston, but wouldn’t completely count him out, either. He scored the decisive goal against Philadelphia via shootout on a wicked laser beam, and he’s done what the B’s have asked of him since being the 14th overall pick in 2015. Now- admittedly, guys like Kyle Connor and Colin White are players you can make an obvious case for over DeBrusk at that spot, but that’s spilled milk at this point- the former Swift Current and Red Deer (WHL) standout has shown himself to have first-round talent and it will be interesting to see how he adjusts as a rookie pro. If he can make a rapid adjustment, 20-25 goals in the AHL is not an unreasonable projection.

Carlo is another guy who could possibly earn an NHL roster spot right away, and if he does that, more power to him. Even if he plays a reduced role from what he would in Providence, Carlo has the size, mobility and drive to make an impact this year. By virtue of being in Boston and practicing with the team he’ll develop, but it is up to the coaches and management to decide what scenario is most beneficial for him.

Everybody likes Danton…and that makes sense. Heinen is a versatile, mature and polished winger who signed with Boston after two years at Denver University (friendly reminder that you heard that here first, folks). TSP has said this repeatedly- he’s not someone who will dazzle you with his skill and ability- you have to be a student of the game to appreciate what Heinen brings in spades. The board work, the subtle passing touch and right spaces he moves the puck to under pressure, the ability to get in position for a quick shot or deflection to find the back of the net. He’s been everything as advertised, and yet we still see folks taking that “entertain me” approach with him and questioning what all the hype was about- well, if you buy into the hype, that’s your problem. Much of what I have seen from Heinen is right on par with what he did in the NCAA after the B’s took him in the fourth round two years ago. He’s making this team, folks- that’s the story and we’re sticking to it.

O’Gara and Kuraly are longer shots. Both have played well, but by virtue of being able to go down to Providence without being exposed to waivers, they’ll likely begin the season on the farm. O’Gara is the sure, steady, shutdown guy we’ve come to take for granted. If O’Gara somehow sticks in Boston, it won’t be that much of a surprise, but given the current makeup of the defense, he’d really have to knock at least one if not more veterans out of the mix- that’s a tall order for a rookie. Kuraly is impressing with his size and skating, but I still don’t see a great deal in the way of puck skills or hockey sense to be a top-six NHL forward. He probably tops out as a lower-end third line guy at the top level, but could be an effective fourth-liner.

Pro prospects Noel Acciari, Austin Czarnik and Seth Griffith are still in the mix as well, and offseason free agent Tim Schaller has battled injuries, but will be given an opportunity to make the final Boston roster. All, save for Czarnik, have NHL experience.

Looks like Acciari dodged a bullet/leg injury in the preseason and is back in action- the B’s are trying him on the wing after he played fourth-line center in the final 19 games of 2015-16. He’s a heavy-on-the-puck hitter ideally suited for a grinding role, and I have to think Claude Julien is looking for excuses to keep him on the NHL roster after what he showed last spring. Czarnik is a little engine that could-type guy- small, but tremendously fast and skilled. He’s making noise in camp after being a top performer in Providence as a rookie last season. He’s a little buzzsaw of offensive playmaking ability (with an underappreciated goal scorer’s knack) and the smarts to be a capable three-zone player in time. The B’s would have to make room for him this season, but Czarnik is earning it the old fashioned way- by working hard in offseason and practice and then going out and performing. Lack of size is the only knock on the former Miami University captain.

Griffith is still hanging around, and good on him. TSP’s position on him is that he’s headed into dreaded ‘tweener territory- an effective AHL scorer who lacks that extra something that translates to the NHL level. Without size and speed, he’s hard-pressed to excel in a bottom-six checking role in Boston.

Schaller, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent on 1 July, was a top defensive forward for Providence College before turning pro with the Buffalo Sabres. He’s split his career between the AHL and NHL, but given that he would have to be exposed to waivers to be sent down, watch for him to be given every opportunity to make the Bruins roster. This gives him an inside edge on Kuraly, who can be optioned down to Providence without being subject to waivers.

Finally- the B’s also brought in veteran defenseman Christian Ehrhoff on a PTO. He’s no longer the player he was for Vancouver in 2010-11 when he was one of the most sought-after free agents, and to be completely honest- isn’t likely to return to his zenith as a top-2 NHL defender- so even if Don Sweeney were to sign him, he represents a marginal upgrade at best. The problem isn’t Boston’s back-four- it’s the top-two/three. Ehrhoff is more fool’s gold- he’s a name guy from five years ago who simply hasn’t performed to the level of expectations after elevating himself over a two-season period with a top Canucks team. He’s probably better than Joe Morrow, who has shown he has the tools but might lack the toolbox to be an effective NHL defender (and we were big on Morrow’s potential coming out of the 2011 draft and after the B’s acquired him two years later), but saying that is more akin to putting lipstick on a pig at this point. At 34, he’s not getting any younger, but with almost 800 NHL games under his belt he’s got experience and can play both the left and right sides even though he’s a left shot.

The Bruins are already being projected to miss the playoffs for a third straight season. Barring any significant change to the top of the defense, that’s not a prediction to taking major umbrage to, but the team is showing signs of developing talent to contribute down the road. That isn’t going to help the 2016-17 B’s roster all that much, but with a savvy move or two, not to mention key NCAA prospects like Charlie McAvoy, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson and possibly even Anders Bjork on the horizon- there is reason for optimism.

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