We hope you’re enjoying the offseason series on the Boston Bruins. There’s more in the works, but this post will quickly break down several of the forward prospects who could be ready for a bigger impact/contribution with the B’s in 2017-18. Now granted- we still need to see who comes and goes when the roster shaping period begins in earnest on and after 1 July, but for now- here are just a few players we think are going to push the coaching staff to either get them into the lineup sooner rather than later, or will make the decision to send them down a tough one.
1. Jake DeBrusk, LW, Providence (AHL)- If you do a search of the team’s second choice in the 2015 draft (14th overall) on this blog, you’ll find a lot of support. DeBrusk was the victim of the team’s decision to draft him ahead of other more highly-touted name players in a deep draft class, but in all honesty- his development has been just fine. Last season, his numbers suffered after he went through a horrific groin injury (we’ll spare the gory details here but it’s out there on the net, folks), but the broader point that many of the critics missed was that when the Memorial Cup came around, he was the best forward on the host team Red Deer Rebels. (video highlights courtesy of Twitter pal Maria Molnar/Weekend At Bergy’s)
After spending the entire 2016-17 season in the AHL with the Baby B’s, he played well initially, but wasn’t rewarded for his strong 200-foot play with numbers, even though the scoring chances were there. With DeBrusk, it was about volume and quality, and at some point, you figured he was going to break through and break through he did, finishing with 19 goals and a respectable 49 points in his first rookie season. During the AHL playoffs, he’s kicked it up a notch, scoring four goals in seven games, including a filthy shorthanded goal against Hershey in Game 1 of their second-round series (Current Providence and former Swift Current teammate Colby Cave also scored on the same penalty kill to make it a franchise first). You can see both goals at about the 1-minute mark of this Hershey Bears highlight video:
DeBrusk is a skilled and creative winger who can pretty much do it all. He’s not a blazing skater who dazzles you with his speed, but he has a tremendous short-area game in that he can turn on the jets in small spaces to win footraces to loose pucks. He’s got terrific hands, especially in close- you don’t score 42 goals in your draft season by accident. His dad was an NHL enforcer when he played, and like Tie Domi, his son is not that kind of player. The younger DeBrusk will drop the gloves when challenged or sticking up for himself or teammates. We think that perhaps subconscious bias against the kind of player Louie DeBrusk was in the NHL might have played a role in the reaction of some fans to the Jake DeBrusk pick at 14. We’ll probably never know, but when you factor in that the B’s were looking to upgrade their goals production in 2015, adding one of the draft’s most productive scorers made complete sense even if DeBrusk was ranked in the 20’s on many public lists. We’ve beaten this drum for a long time, but public lists/rankings are in no way representative of how many NHL teams view players- the B’s obviously felt strongly enough about DeBrusk to take them where they did, and coming up on two years later, he’s doing just fine.
It’s time to realize that while he’s probably not going to be an NHL superstar, DeBrusk is right on track to be a solid contributor to the Big B’s fortunes and it’s not unrealistic to think that he could be a prototypical 3rd-line guy who works his way onto the power play and does some real damage there. He’s an eventual candidate to play on the top two lines, but first things first. He’ll have to make the big club, and we think he’s on the cusp of doing exactly that.
ETA: He’s on the top because of the offensive potential, but if he doesn’t come out of camp on the opening night roster, DeBrusk will be at or near the top of the recall list when the inevitable injuries happen and Boston’s forward depth is tested.
2. Sean Kuraly, LW Providence (AHL)- The former Miami Redhawks captain became a hero in Game 5 in Ottawa when he scored the tying and winning goals in an emotional rollercoaster of an overtime victory. Although it all came to an end in the next contest, Kuraly has set himself up nicely to get the nod for a spot on Boston’s fourth line next year. With his size and feet plus physical style of play, he’s the right fit for bottom unit duty. The hands and pure offensive creativity aren’t likely going to translate into much offense at the highest level, but the Ohio native and former fifth-round pick by San Jose in 2011 showed that he’s got the grit, moxie and presence to come through in key moments.
Kuraly is also versatile; he played a lot of center in college, but converted to the wing when he joined the pro ranks. The ability to take faceoffs in the event that the primary center gets the boot is a welcome benefit for any coach. His heavy game translates well, and you have to figure that after coming through like he did, the B’s will be glad to give him a shot to earn more going forward.
ETA: Barring injury or some other offseason transaction, he’ll be skating on Boston’s fourth line on opening night.
3. Peter Cehlarik, LW, Providence (AHL)- We’ll admit, there probably should have been more of a longer look for the Slovak at the end of the regular season when Boston was struggling to find the back of the net. He showed some impressive potential in an 11-game audition that saw just two assists but his 1st NHL goal was wiped out on one more of those absurd coach’s challenge/replay situations that the league simply must address this offseason. Having said that, there has always seemed to be this hesitation to commit to Cehlarik after he got off to a hot start in Providence this season, but didn’t get a chance to play in Boston until well into the campaign.
He’s tall and long- able to make plays in space- but does his best work down and around the net. Cehlarik showed off excellent vision and a deft passing touch, and while he generated some quality scoring chances, wasn’t able to finish anything off for the official record. Internet friend Dafoomie is a fan and here’s his 1st NHL point- a pass to Adam McQuaid backdoor and boom (against Montreal no less)!
Bottom line- he’s not much in the way of a rugged player, but has the size and enough talent to get more of an opportunity to earn a spot with the NHL Bruins. If not, he’s another intriguing young talent that Don Sweeney might be able to turn into an asset for more immediate roster help or to assist for the future to clear out a growing logjam on the farm. (Here’s the disallowed goal once again courtesy of Dafoomie):
ETA: Will begin the new season in Boston with a chance to provide scoring punch somewhere on the top-3 lines.
4. Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, C, Boston (NHL)- The B’s enticed their future third-line center to give up another year at Boston University to come out and join the big club for the final games. He made his NHL debut against the Washington Capitals to close out the regular season and it was clear that while he’s an exciting top prospect, there’s still work for him to do.
Some are chapped that the team “burned” a year of his three-year ELC to get him into the one game (where he played sparingly), but welcome to the new normal in the NHL, where you can’t have it both ways. If fans want these higher-end college players signed and in the fold, then they have to be prepared for the players’ advisors to leverage the CBA to get them NHL experience right away. It doesn’t affect how many years the team retains their guy, but it does mean they’ll have to get paid on a second contract sooner. But, you decide which you’d rather have- the player staying in the NCAA and creating a bidding war on the open market, or signing but getting him for two years in lieu of three on that economic entry-level salary. In most cases based on the age of the NCAA players who aren’t signed as true freshmen, you’re not going to be able to have both.
But back to JFK- he’s still as intelligent and skilled as he was before, but the benefit of him playing one NHL game gives him a better perspective of how hard he’ll need to prepare in the offseason and what awaits him in the fall when he goes to his first Bruins veteran training camp since being the 45th overall pick in 2015. He did not attend development camp a year ago due to personal commitments, so this July will be an important few days for him to build on what he learned in April and be ready to go both physically and mentally. He’s one of the most complete players anywhere, and he’s such a smart, disciplined kid- the best is yet to come, and the Bruins will put him in position to win a spot with the big club. However, if he’s not ready, he’ll have to be willing to go down and work on it. That’s between management, coaches and the player- some don’t need the time in the AHL, so to simply assert that JFK does without seeing how he looks at camp in September first is putting the cart between the horse.
It’s a NESN interview, but you can start to see why he’s drawing comparisons to Patrice Bergeron for his maturity (and playing style):
ETA: Our prediction is that he’ll make the cut and begin the season with the Bruins as the third-line center, but like Heinen, he’ll have to be effective to stay there.
5. Danton Heinen, RW, Providence (AHL)- Heinen is your classic case of the shiny new toy who was quickly “broken and discarded” after making the Bruins right away, but was not ready for the demands of the modern NHL. Some of the same fans who breathlessly predicted great things from him on Twitter right after he signed and turned pro in the spring of 2016 quickly turned on him when he didn’t light it up in Boston right away, but them’s the breaks- we saw enough flashes of what could be to think the 2014 fourth-round pick can still be an impact player with this club if he’s not leveraged to bring in help elsewhere on the roster.
Heinen’s strengths are his hockey IQ and hands, but the details in his game that were lacking got exposed in the NHL right off the bat and his confidence suffered as a result. He wasn’t heavy enough on pucks and didn’t seem to grasp the entire gamut of responsibilities required of him in the Claude Julien system. Heinen plays a more refined game offensively, but he didn’t play with enough pace and aggressiveness to make much of anything sustained happen in the offensive zone.
After going to Providence, it took him a while to catch on, and he certainly had some ups and downs with several slumps, but like DeBrusk, he’s been a productive player in the postseason, helping to knock off the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in a hard-fought five-game series. Heinen is more of a playmaking winger to DeBrusk’s finisher, but he’s still got NHL potential if he comes into camp in the fall having addressed those details lacking in his first taste of big league action. Few are talking about him, which is sad considering the kind of success he had at Denver University, but if he improved as a player from last year to next, then the “misfit toy” could become the toast of the town in short order.
ETA: Unless he’s used as trade bait, Heinen may have to start in Providence and earn his way back into the NHL lineup, but he should not be written off- the guy can play.
Don’t forget about… Austin Czarnik- The undrafted free agent played in Boston before injuries and a drop off in production resulted in his going back down to the AHL. Although speedy, creative and highly skilled, the issue with Czarnik right now is a question of where he fits in and how he can gain traction given his lack of size.
Anton Blidh- The Swedish 6th-rounder in 2013 got some NHL games in (19 gp 1-1-2) and looked good for the part as a bottom-line energy guy/shift disturber. He’s not going to develop into much more than he’s already shown, but a team can do much worse than Blidh on the lower lines.
Dominic Tiano will be posting his thoughts on Zach Senyshyn, so he’s not a part of this particular offering. Here are a few more players who will be in the mix, but not expected to be ready for primetime…at least given the way we see it today on May 10, 2017.
Jesse Gabrielle, LW, Prince George (WHL)- He’s a fan favorite and absolutely deservedly so. He’s a rugged power forward who scored 75 goals in the rough-and-tumble WHL over the past two seasons, and brings a physical, nasty edge to every game. However, he got into just one AHL game with Providence and hasn’t suited up (yet) for any of the playoff games, which leads us to believe that he’s being brought along slowly, and that the plan will be for him to play a bigger role when he plays in the AHL full-time next season. This is not to say he has no chance at making the Boston roster, but given that he’d likely begin in a bottom-line role and work up, the B’s have no shortage of veterans either signed or likely to be re-upped who already can do that for Bruce Cassidy and Co. Gabrielle would probably benefit from getting the playing time higher up on the Providence roster than he would have in Boston. If the B’s felt he was ready for bigger things, don’t you think he’d be getting the chance to contribute right now in Providence?
Colby Cave, C, Providence (AHL)- Often a forgotten man when we discuss the Boston prospects, Jake DeBrusk’s captain with the Swift Current Broncos in 2014-15 signed with the B’s as an undrafted free agent and is entering his third pro season. He skates well, is smart, gritty and more of a Swiss Army Knife kind of player who can do everything but isn’t exceptional at any one thing. Still, he’s got heart and leadership qualities- it won’t be easy for him to break into the NHL and keep a spot, but if there is one guy who we think could be rewarded for his hard work and impact down on the farm with a chance in Boston at some point next season- it’s Cave.
We’ll have more on who could be on the horizon down in the amateur ranks- Trent Frederic, Anders Bjork, Ryan Lindgren, Cameron Hughes and so on…coming soon!