Analysis: Nick Wolff Then & Now

The Boston Bruins got their guy, it appears.

University of Minnesota-Duluth senior captain and left-shot defenseman Nick Wolff signed a 1-year entry-level contract with the B’s this week after four seasons with the Bulldogs. The former Eagan High School standout who spent a couple of seasons in the USHL playing for the Des Moines Buccaneers before heading to the NCAA attended the previous two Bruins development camps and had turned down other opportunities a year ago to return to Brighton. Given his close friendship with college teammate Karson Kuhlman, it seemed fait accompli that Wolff would sign with Boston if they wanted him, and so this was expected.

Here’s the breakdown on what Wolff brings to the table and what fans might expect from him going forward.

Nick Wolff then:

July 2019 (TSP Development camp recap)- Two-time NCAA champion with the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs is big and a nasty, tough competitor who helped anchor a suffocating defense in the NCHC last season. He’s massive at 6-4, and the skating isn’t a strength (especially when Scott Perunovich is flying around the same ice), but he’s a smart defender who uses his size, strength and stick effectively. The assistant captain from 2018-19 was rumored to be considering turning pro in the spring, but opted to return for his senior season, and he should sign a pro contract in the spring of 2020. Wolff attended B’s development camp a year ago and despite numerous offers by other teams opted to return to Boston in 2019. He’s a throwback type…if you liked Adam McQuaid, Wolff is a guy you’ll have time for as a defense-first, physical, hard-to-play against glue role D.

June 2014 (Red Line Report Draft Guide)- #99 overall- “This is one nasty Mutha” Player profile: Not often does a nuclear deterrent emerge from the Minnesota high school ranks, but this jumbo-sized man-child has a mean streak as wide as the Mississippi River and enjoys crashing into things. Tall, and lacks overall strength, especially in his directional skating, makes up for a lack of strength with rampant physicality. Habitually clobbered opponents in open ice, and was an imposing presence around his own net. Has the faculties to be more than just a bruiser, though; thinks the game decently and moves the puck fairly well. It’s all a matter of what you want him to be- an enforcer (he’s a willing combatant) or seek-and-destroy 4th liner. Projection: #6-7 defenceman and team enforcer. Style compares to: Bryan Allen

RLR also ranked Wolff as the #2 toughest player in their entire draft guide, saying “He’s what we look for in an enforcer- always arrives to the dance early and in ill humour.”

Nick Wolff now:

You want size? Listed at 6-5 and 230 pounds, Wolff has it in spades. As told to the Boston Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont in a comment for his story on the signing, Wolff is “genuinely aggressive”- this is why we’ve always felt he’s more of an Adam McQuaid-type player (and you’ll see us making comparisons to No. 54 throughout the piece because we’re trying to help visualize what Wolff is and could be). McQuaid was a nice guy outside of hockey, but when his skate blades touched the ice, he wanted to kill opponents. Wolff is cut from a similar cloth- he doesn’t just want to beat you, he wants to beat you up. Now, how quickly and effectively he can adjust to the speed and pace of pro hockey is the question that he’ll have to answer, but in the right role, you win with guys like this.

Skills and style analysis

Good athlete; lettered four years at Eagan High School in hockey and was a three-year letterman in football at strong safety. Made the 2014 Minnesota HS (AA) All-Tournament team his senior year after leading the Wildcats to a third-place finish at the storied tourney in St. Paul.

The skating is OK- it’s not a strength, because if he could fly up and down the ice, he wouldn’t have gone undrafted in 2014, 15 and 16. However, his mobility has improved at Duluth over where he was as a high school and junior player- if you’re looking to criticize the boots, it won’t be hard, but he’s not a bad skater. Straight-line speed is okay for his size, and his transitions are slushy, but he’s got pretty good range- and range does not equate to mobility/isn’t just about speed and footwork. If you see the ice and think the game well (not to mention the reach and wingspan Wolff possesses), you can make up for a lack of pure quickness by reading the play and closing off lanes before they open up and that’s what we’ve seen when watching him compete in game situations.  His first couple of steps are average, and he can be susceptible to getting beaten in footraces or in open ice when shifty puck carriers can change direction quickly/stop-start to create space for themselves. When it comes to skating, we’re confident in saying that Wolff is better than McQuaid was at the same age- he’s a little more agile and didn’t have to come as far in his mobility at age 18-22 as McQuaid did.

Wolff is not a skilled player- he’s a north-south defender who can make the first pass effectively enough because he skates with his head up and does everything hard- there’s no soft-touching of pucks with this guy. He’s got a big bomb of a shot from the point, but he’s going to have to improve the speed of his release and accuracy of his shot. You’re never sure where that shot of his is going when it leaves his stick (including Wolff himself), but he can hammer it.

The strength of his game is in his compete and sheer nastiness- he works hard and closes quickly, often giving opponents nowhere to go until he levels them in open ice or drills them into the wall. He uses his size and strength to win board battles and staple the opposition in place so that someone else in maroon and gold can dig the puck out. He controls his gaps pretty well and uses an active stick to keep puck carriers to the outside. But make no mistake- his bread and butter is in being very tough to play against and forcing opponents to take less-than-ideal angles to his side of the ice. He’s a shot-blocker who does the little things to help his team win and if you think you’re going to set up shop just outside of the blue paint when he’s on the ice, rethink that one.

With Wolff, it all goes back to the physicality. He loves to finish his checks and in junior was a willing fighter- even got into a couple of minor scraps in the NCAA. He’s probably not as adept at fighting at this stage of his career as McQuaid was, however. In studying some of his bouts with Des Moines, he will need to improve some of his technique, as players who gave away height/reach got the better of him at times by catching him with accurate shots as he was off-balance and trying to throw wild punches. You can’t teach someone to be 6-5 and 230 pounds- you can teach them how to balance themselves over their skates better, how to tie up an opponent’s primary throwing hand, and so on. Wolff will be fine, but he’s not just going to show up and win every scrap. He might want to spend some time with Trent Frederic exchanging notes, though…

Again, when you talk about someone who is genuinely aggressive, he fits the bill- not a gentle giant who has to consciously make the decision to play tough. Wolff comes by his surliness naturally…and so he also will have to learn to play with more controlled aggression to not get himself into penalty trouble. He’s figuring this out, as he cut his penalty minute totals nearly in half from a year before. As a senior and team captain, he was no doubt told his presence on the ice was more important than sitting in the box and it appears the message sunk in.

On the intangibles side, Wolff is well respected and wore the ‘C’ on a group of highly accomplished players. Texted with  one of his UMD teammates after the signing and the player said that he is a good guy, captain and great fit for the Bruins. The B’s like to emphasize culture, so you see them going after team captains at various levels and going back to the well with winning teams like Duluth, who under head coach Scott Sandelin, went to the Frozen Four championship game three straight years, winning the last two NCAA titles after losing in 2017 to Denver University. The B’s signed captain Kuhlman right after the championship a year later, drafted UMD freshman Quinn Olson in the third round last summer and now bring Wolff into the fold. It’s not an accident- well-coached players and teams tend to produce players worth investing in. With his leadership and temperament, Wolff is the right kind of player to put into the mix.

Projection:

From what is seen on the internet, a lot of B’s fans are excited about this signing and rightfully so- he’s a throwback type defensive D who in the right role will be tough to play against and bring some of the hard-nosed play that is still needed in the trenches of hockey. Give the Bruins scouts credit for sticking with Wolff and getting him into the fold as a development camp guy. The educated guess here is that they liked him in his draft year, but the average skating and raw nature of his overall game prevented them from making him a selection in Philadelphia. Now, six years later, he’s proven his mettle and gets a shot- that’s just one more different path for players to take to the pros.

The CBA rules about player age at time of signing (23) mean that the B’s could only get him on a one-year deal.

Wouldn’t be surprised if he sees some games in Boston at some point in his rookie season, but not an indictment of him as a player if he doesn’t. He’ll be well-served in Providence, breaking into pro hockey and learning how to fine-tune his positional play while being able to test his reputation as a violent gentleman. Okay, okay- we’re not supposed to use terms like that, but the reality is- until physicality is taken out of hockey completely, players like Wolff will have a place.

Bottom line: Wolff may never be more than a 6/7 D at the NHL if he gets there. But he’s very good at the role his team will have him play and there’s a strong chance he can carve out a solid niche for himself if he can take that next step in his development. For a rugged undrafted free agent, that’s a pretty good thing.

Select YouTube clips:

NCAA 2019 Championship Game highlights: Around 1:09 mark Wolff makes ill-advised stretch pass coming out of his own end/gets picked off, but he makes the big hit in open ice to kill the rush/developing scoring chance.

 

This is a fight from Wolff’s rookie season in Des Moines- he’s battling a bigger (6-6), older, more seasoned veteran in Connor Frantti and holds his own.

 

Wolff vs undersized but tough scrapper Cam Ashley (RIP- passed away in 2018) of the Fargo Force…technique needs some work but the size/tools are there

 

Here, you can see what constitutes a typical NCAA “scrap” but Wolff overpowers Bowen and scores the takedown…

Postgame interview with Wolff to get an idea about his personality (he’s on from 3:20-5:50)

 

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