Editor’s Note- No, not Dominic Tiano this time. I’ll do a quick-hitter between packing up the moving truck (that’s dedication for you) and driving away to provide a snapshot of the younger defensemen coming up through the ranks in the Boston system. Because Charlie McAvoy proved himself ready for primetime against Ottawa in six games, he’s not a part of this post- you all saw him and what he’s capable of.- KL
The B’s young defense is shaping up, but even with the immediate splash provided by McAvoy in the 2017 NHL playoffs, there is no surefire way to predict that the team will continue to enjoy the fruits of their system to the degree we saw with their 2016 top pick. However, there are several (left-shot heavy) young blue liners who are signed (we’re not including the college kids like Ryan Lindgren, Wiley Sherman and Cameron Clarke in this particular post but will address them later) and if not playing in Boston regularly next season, will probably make cameos at some point.
1. Rob O’Gara, LD, Providence (AHL)- Injuries gave the 2011 draft’s final selection of the fifth round a chance to make his NHL debut. With size and mobility, he was able to perform- he’s not a top-level two-way defenseman, but the Long Island native can move pucks effectively enough to be an effective middle-of-the roster kind of player for the Bruins. He’s had to fight through injuries this season and is currently out of action in Providence’s conference final series against Syracuse, but he’s hard-working and a good teammate. He brings the kind of similar potential and impact as Brandon Carlo– he just needs a chance to smooth out the rough edges and stake a claim on a more regular spot on the NHL club. We’ve had time for O’Gara for longer than anyone (and his dad will tell you that is no exaggeration), so we’re willing to wait a little more. Good guys who can defend and compete as hard as he does don’t grow on trees- he’s put in the work and paid his dues. We sincerely believe the payoff is coming and he’ll have earned it the old fashioned way. Wishing him good health in hopes his team can keep playing long enough for ROG to return.
2. Jeremy Lauzon, LD, Rouyn-Noranda (QMJHL)- Like O’Gara, injuries impacted Lauzon’s season and he didn’t put up the kind of regular season numbers in his fourth major junior campaign as he did a year ago. However, when it comes to Lauzon, it’s not so much about the stats as it is the consistency and balance. Besides, he had an outstanding playoffs (albeit an earlier-than-expected exit at the hands of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens in the second round of the Quebec League run), posting 5 goals and 14 points in 13 games with the Huskies. With Lauzon, less is more- he made Team Canada’s World Jr. Championship squad but wasn’t given as much ice time as some of the other defenders. Still- he scored a big goal in the gold medal game against USA, and seemed to make the most of the opportunities he had. He’s got enough skill to score, but he’s also a tenacious, even nasty competitor on the back end who makes forwards pay for the real estate they try to occupy. He’s not huge, but big enough- he’s got a great stick and impressive vision. We said it back after the 2015 draft, but as a shutdown guy, he’s not as effective as Carlo and as an offensive presence, he’s not quite as talented as Jakub Zboril, but if your idea of success is a player who can thrive over all 200 feet of the ice surface, then Lauzon is your man. He’s been with Providence since his playoffs ended, learning and benefiting from being around the team, but he wasn’t ready to go health-wise after playing hurt against Chicoutimi and the way things have gone for the Baby B’s has meant that he’s on the outside looking in for now. His time will come, though.
3. Jakub Zboril, LD, Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)- He’s somewhat of a polarizing figure because of his Jekyll & Hyde nature, but let us state for the record, that even though this blog has published accounts of his less-than-sterling work habits and at times passive attitude, that was not to say that he doesn’t have a shot at earning a job with the NHL Bruins one day. The talent has not ever been in question with him, and if you believe he just needs to do some maturing, then there’s nothing to worry about- he should get there. However, if you’re willing to be honest and open-minded, there are reasons for some of the concerns, and unless you happen to be a completely disingenuous Zboril fanboy (they’re out there we’re sure), if you’ve watched any bit of the Memorial Cup, you know there are some areas in his game he’ll have to address as a pro if he ever wants to live up to his potential. Has he come out on the wrong side of some penalty calls that probably were better off not called? Sure, but this is the MC- you have to do your best to avoid putting yourself in bad positions. Several NHL scouts have pointed out over the past several years that Zboril doesn’t always make the team play- he makes the play that perhaps helps him out or makes him feel better. That kind of selfishness is not a virtue and it’s something this blog knows the Bruins have talked to him about. So, yes- Zboril is certainly talented enough to establish himself on Boston’s blue line one day. And, if we can all agree that extreme positions on both sides are bad, then there’s room to acknowledge that he’s not ready for prime time, and will need to demonstrate the willingness to address his shortcomings in the pro ranks. He had a much better season this year from last for sure, but talk is cheap- he’s going to have to go out and iron out some of the details in his game. If Zboril does that, then he’s got a shot to live up to the billing as a 13th overall draft selection.
4. Matt Grzelcyk, LD, Providence (AHL)- A solid rookie pro season which included two games in Boston at TD Garden near his home of Charlestown has already had the makings of a dream year for Boston’s third-round pick in 2012 out of the U.S. National Team. After four (at times injury-ravaged) seasons at BU, including spending the final two wearing the captain’s ‘C’, Grzelcyk signed with the B’s and finished third in scoring among blue liners to AHL veterans Alex Grant and Tommy Cross. He’s small, but fast and smart. He’s not had the hoped-for production in the AHL playoffs (3 assists in 14 games) but if there’s one player who could heat up at the right time to be a difference-maker against Syracuse it’s “Grizzy.” He’ll have a tough climb to establish himself in Boston with the current veteran roster and the depth in the organization, but to him, that’s simply something he’s dealt with his entire hockey life, so those who dismiss him purely out of size bias aren’t going to keep him up at night. We’ve been believers since his Belmont Hill days, and if it doesn’t happen for him in Boston, he’ll catch on somewhere else.
5. Emil Johansson, LD, Djurgarden (SHL)/Providence (AHL)- We’ll admit- this blog hasn’t always been bullish on the 2014 seventh-rounder, but he put up a solid statistical season in the SHL before coming over to North America and not looking out of place in the AHL to close out the regular campaign. He’s not tall, but is thickly built and moves well- he skates with his head up and can make the crisp outlet or hit forwards in stride with a long lead pass to force defenses back on their heels. He’s more of an offensive, push-the-pace kind of player, but in the film study we’ve done, he doesn’t have a particularly great stick on defense or jump out as having higher-end instincts for the game. He’s a skilled player who has certainly progressed and developed since being one of the final prospects taken nearly three years ago, but a full season in the AHL will go a long way towards letting us all know what he could potentially bring to the table if he can make the big club in the next 1-2 years.
Post script- Linus Arnesson, LD, Providence (AHL)- What a disappointment. Boston’s top pick (2nd round, 60th overall) in 2013 had all the tools to be a safe, steady defender with not much of an offensive ceiling. However, his last two years in Providence have been injury-riddled with not much of an impact. Reports out of Sweden have him heading home to play next season (though he is still under contract to the Bruins), and he has at least gotten a chance to play in the 2017 AHL playoffs after coming back from a nasty Achilles tendon injury. The fact that he’s back and playing through it without being 100 percent alone is praiseworthy, but we’ve just not seen much out of Arnesson to justify where the B’s took him and the plans they had after making him their No. 1 player drafted (after dealing their 1st-rounder to Dallas for Jaromir Jagr). Regardless of what happens, we wish Arnesson well and if he can rehab his stock in the organization and give it another go, then we’ll simply say- the more the merrier. They all can’t make the team, though- even those who are drafted earlier than others.