(Ryan Donato, Boston’s 2nd-round selection in 2014 NHL Entry Draft )
We’re going to close out the forwards portion of our “What’s Next” for the Boston Bruins series with this entry on the prospects we didn’t cover in the two previous posts on the subject. These are players who are either unsigned (NCAA) or out of Europe. Some are closer to making a possible impact (Anders Bjork) than others (Ryan Donato), but this more proof that the B’s have a lot of options within their organization, and that doesn’t include the next talent boost, with the 2017 NHL Entry Draft about five weeks away.
So, in the spirit of the previous post- here’s a list of the players we think are going to not only challenge for NHL jobs sooner than later, but will also make an impact:
1. Anders Bjork, RW Notre Dame (HEA)- Everything was lining up for the 2014 fifth-round pick to sign with Boston after his junior season in South Bend ended, and then it didn’t happen. Bruins fans probably won’t learn just how close everything was to happening until well after the fact, and in the end- it’s like horse shoes and hand grenades- close doesn’t cut it if you don’t get your guy. The talented winger has speed to burn, slick hands and elevated his game to another level in the NCAA regional tourney, willing his team to a come-from-behind win against higher-seeded University of Minnesota (thanks for nothing, Gophers) and then assisting on the overtime game-winner against UMass-Lowell to propel the Fighting Irish into the Frozen Four. At that point, we understand, everything changed and at this time- Bjork is over in Europe as a spare part on Team USA at the Men’s World Championship, on the roster with Charlie McAvoy. Perhaps things might be different for Bjork if he had signed the deal Boston apparently offered him and got some NHL games in, but he didn’t, so as the Americans take on Russia, he’s not even in the lineup.
Here are some 2016-17 season highlights posted by RapidSports (gotta admit- not a fan of the soundtrack but enjoy the clip):
The big question now, is- will the Bruins still be able to sign Bjork? The honest answer to that is- we don’t know. Until he either announces that he’s returning to Notre Dame for his senior season, or we get word that he’s going to go ahead and leave his final NCAA eligibility on the table, it will remain an open-ended question.
Even if Bjork opts to go back to school, it’s not baked in the cake that he will pursue unrestricted free agency as others have in the past, most recently, Jimmy Vesey. However, his decision to play college hockey would certainly force the Bruins to start considering their options to try and leverage their asset as opposed to getting stuck holding the bag. It’s a fair concern and one that is sure to generate endless discussion on social media, but the big point to be made in all of this is simple: if Bjork doesn’t sign, it’s his decision, and Boston acted in good faith. By several inside accounts, Boston’s alleged offer involved max money, a year off the ELC in accordance with playing 1 NHL game, and a plum spot on the big club to begin his pro career. There is always a segment of fans who view the world as black and white and will simply point the finger at team management for not successfully signing the player, but for the rest of the fair-minded world, short of holding the player hostage until he signed the contract, there wasn’t anything else for the B’s to do. Again- this information is second hand through sources close to the situation- we won’t know for sure where the signing process went off track, but Don Sweeney and Co. will keep trying. If you believe that Bjork is happy with the ways things have gone as part of the Boston organization on a limited basis via development camps and approved contact with team officials, then there’s no reason to panic at this stage of it all. (Editor’s note- One additional possibility as pointed out to me by Dominic Tiano, is that if Bjork wants to play for Team USA at the Olympic games but declines to sign with Boston, he could possibly turn pro and play somewhere else until the end of January instead. Although unlikely given his attachment to the Fighting Irish, in that scenario he would become a free agent on June 1 if he were to leave school prior to Jan. 1, 2018. If he doesn’t sign with Boston or anywhere else but stays at Notre Dame past January, then the normal August 15, 2018 signing deadline still applies.)
And for the love of Pete- if Bjork declines to sign, he’s not exploiting some “loophole” and (now this is important, folks) it isn’t the end of the world. Becoming a free agent if you don’t come to an agreement four years after you were drafted by an NHL team is a bargained right as part of the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement, and Bjork would not the first to do it and won’t be the last. It’s something the owners/teams may look at changing when the next CBA is negotiated, but this isn’t some nefarious backdoor policy- teams own a player’s rights for four years from the time they draft someone who isn’t in the NCAA at the time, but has declared for college. At that point, the drafting team has until August 15 of the year that the player has either exhausted his eligibility (which extends the team’s rights holding beyond 4 years *as long as* the player remains in school for his full NCAA eligibility see: Rob O’Gara) to sign the player, or he hits the open market on August 16 and can sign with whomever he chooses. In some cases (Blake Wheeler and most recently, Edmonton Oilers D Matt Benning), a player gets drafted, plays a year of junior hockey and then goes to the NCAA. If he decides not to play his senior season, he becomes a free agent because that marks the fourth anniversary of his draft.
Again- it’s not a “loophole”- it’s a bargained right. It’s not a given that everyone a team drafts is going to end up signing- sometimes teams will walk away from players they draft and not offer pro contracts, so the CBA allows for players to do the same if they wait the full four years and opt not to accept whatever contract offer they get from the drafting team. It happens, and it’s all above board as part of the process we call “life.”
Will Bjork sign or won’t he? That’s the burning question, but for now, we’re just going to have to be patient and let the next domino fall.
2. Trent Frederic, C, University of Wisconsin (B1G-10)- TSP ate some humble pie (with a side of crow wings) this season after being critical of the Frederic selection last June. As it turns out, the Bruins scouting staff did their homework and were operating with some key information other teams were missing, namely- the fact that he had a significant hand injury that hampered him for much of the 2015-16 season’s second half, and led observers to believe he had a limited offensive skill set at that stage of his development. After an eye-opening true freshman season in Madison under Tony Granato, one in which Frederic scored goals and set them up in all ways under the sun (and in all situations) to the tune of more than a point-per-game, the big-bodied center looks like he is well on his way to one day becoming an impact NHL player. If nothing else, he’s more than justified his draft position at 29th overall after the team received a heaping share of criticism for taking Frederic where they did. It was an important reminder that NHL clubs’ lists look far different from those who are in the public space, and that sometimes, going the extra mile to do gumshoe work other teams can’t or won’t will make a significant difference in the outcome.
Frederic has a big frame that will continue to fill out as he grows and matures as a member of the Badgers. Growing up in St. Louis, he idolized David Backes, and if he comes anywhere close to that kind of return, young Frederic might not only be skating alongside his childhood hero, but might even replace him. The 2016 first-rounder acquired from San Jose as part of the Martin Jones package has a powerful stride, good two-way hockey instincts and a willingness to drive the net. He’s a much better puckhandler and creative offensive talent than we (or most) gave him credit for. He’ll be a lock for Team USA’s 2018 WJC squad next winter and as long as he can stay healthy, watch for him to build on his impressive rookie college season.
It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the B’s might try to sign him next spring, but chances are- he’d go back to Wisconsin for the 2018-19 campaign. When it comes to Frederic, though, keep in mind the big club’s needs and that of the AHL’s Providence Bruins when attempting to project the kind of signing timeline he might be on. Next season will be a key test for him, but if he takes the next steps, you don’t want to rule anything out.
3. Ryan Donato, C/W, Harvard University (ECAC)- Drafted on the long-term plan in 2014, Donato just completed his sophomore season in Cambridge, reaching the Frozen Four before falling to University of Minnesota-Duluth in the semifinal contest. The 2014 second-rounder took another big step in his development by increasing his offensive production, and the feeling here is that he’s primed to blow up next season as the central scoring force for the Crimson. He’s got elite hands and hockey sense, and his skating- while not in the class of his father’s wheels when he played- is above average and has improved since his hometown team drafted him 56th overall.
He’s bigger than Ted Donato, so his long, powerful stride gets him from point A to B fast enough, and if you saw his highlight reel goal in the Beanpot Championship game against BU, you certainly understand he’s got the agility and athletic ability to come out of corners, walk defenders and take goalies off of their spots. He’s a player, albeit one who could need some AHL seasoning before he’s ready to compete for an NHL spot, but then again- his dad made the jump straight to Boston from the U.S. Olympic team in 1992, so you never know.
Here’s the caveat, though: As a player drafted in 2014, he could potentially declare that he’s leaving a year of NCAA eligibility on the table next summer in August of 2018. Unlike Bjork, who went straight from the U.S. National Team to Notre Dame for the 2014-15 season, Donato stayed at Dexter School for his senior year and then finished the season with the USHL’s Omaha Lancers. If he wants to come out, the B’s would have to sign him next summer, or he’ll be in the same boat as Benning was. If Donato stays in school (the expected course of action), the B’s will have until August 15, 2019 to come to terms with him.
You have to think he’s in the team’s long-term plans, and assuming he wants to complete his dream of playing for the team his dad played for and he grew up around, then you figure it will all happen. However, as we learned in the Bjork situation- it’s not done until the ink is on the contract. We think Donato is a future Bruin, but we’re leaving the window open to see how the situation develops given the depth (logjam) of forwards right now.
4. Joona Koppanen, C, Ilves Tampere (Finland)- The Bruins signed the first of two fifth-round picks from the 2016 draft after the season ended. There had been talk that the gi-normous 6-foot-5 Finnish forward would come to the U.S. to play NCAA hockey, but in the end- he opted to play pro hockey for Ilves and the B’s made the commitment (it won’t count against the 50-contract limit unless he’s playing in the AHL).
He’s coming off a productive season with the Ilves junior (Under-20) squad and while he doesn’t have the high-end talent to project as much of a scorer at the AHL and NHL levels, you can’t teach his size and reach, and he’s pretty fluid for such a big man. There’s a shot for him to one day compete for a spot on Boston’s fourth line and perhaps work his way up from there.
He’s more of a defensive, clampdown kind of guy who isn’t a hitting machine, but uses his size effectively in the faceoff dot and in the corners/along the walls. The production this season was encouraging, but it did not come against top-level competition- we’ll know more about Koppanen’s offensive potential after a year in the SM-Liiga, which is a talent level much closer to the AHL than what he was going up against this year.
5. Cameron Hughes, C, University of Wisconsin (B1G-10)- Hughes is Frederic’s teammate, a player with a slight frame and build that worked against him in his first two NCAA seasons, but as he’s matured physically, the Albertan is coming off of his most productive year with the Badgers.
As a member of the AJHL’s Spruce Grove Saints in 2013-14, he impressed scouts with his high-end hockey skills and IQ as a scoring center. However, in his draft season, he was (in the eyes of several NHL scouts we spoke to) just not physically ready to go up against the men he faced in the NCAA playing on a struggling Wisconsin team, so Hughes’ stock fell off a cliff, allowing the Bruins to snap him up in the 2015 draft’s sixth round.
He’s extremely skilled and crafty- just look at this filthy through-the-legs goal he scored early last season:
Hughes has always been more of a set-up man than finisher, but with his offensive potential, it makes sense to hold onto him, put him in Providence and see what happens next. Of course- with so many prospects in the pipeline and a 50-contract limit for Sweeney and cap/roster management-centric assistant GM John Ferguson Jr. to work against, it’s also possible that Hughes might not make the final cut.
The key thing here is that Hughes has taken positive steps every season since being drafted, and as long as he continues to produce and play well as one of Wisconsin’s veteran leaders, there’s the chance that even if the B’s have to make a tough decision regarding his future in Boston, they can still leverage him for a future asset(s) they can kick down the road. Or- Hughes will play so well this season that the team keeps him and moves another player(s) out to give the team enough of a buffer to sign him and keep him in the system.
It’s one of those things you file under: “a good problem to have.”
Don’t forget about:
Ryan Fitzgerald, F, Providence (AHL)- We left him out of our previous post, and he deserves mention here as a scrappy, gritty forward who has a shot in Boston at some point. A high ankle sprain pretty much deep-sixed his senior season at BC, and he’s still not right, but got some late season and playoff games in with Providence. How he develops as a pro will be the key thing to watch going forward- Fitzgerald has NHL bloodlines, excellent hockey sense and a fiery demeanor. Working against him is a lack of size and explosive skating, but with the heart and head in place- he’s got a chance.
Oskar Steen, F, MoDo (Sweden)- He’s a P.J. Axelsson favorite from the 2016 draft and while undersized, plays with a lot of energy. We’ll admit to not being overly enthused with the pick at the time- if the B’s wanted to draft a small forward, they could have done so earlier on with more talented players on the board. Having said that, if Axelsson, now entering his fourth season as an amateur scout for the team he played his entire NHL career with, is half as good a talent evaluator as he was a Bruin, then he’s probably onto something with Steen. Long-term project but one to keep an eye on.
Jack Becker, C, Sioux Falls (USHL)- After two largely uninspiring USHL seasons with the Stampede, Becker is headed to the NCAA with Michigan Tech after losing his spot with Wisconsin. The Minnesota native has got the NHL measurable as a big-bodied center with powerful skating who often looks pretty good, but doesn’t accomplish a great deal in terms of consistency and scoring. As a seventh-rounder and the 10th and final pick of a critical draft for the Bruins in 2015, it’s looking like he won’t deliver on the raw tools/long shot potential the team picked him for, but stranger things have happened.