As the first round of the NHL playoffs shifts to Washington for Game 5, thought we would take a moment to look at the younger (ages 23 and under) Bruins prospects who had a chance to play in Boston this season, either in a more established role or limited action via call-up. Before we begin, here is the obligatory disclaimer- We’re just calling it as we see it. Understand- this is designed to provide observations and feedback- it is not intended to be the final word on anyone, good or not-as-good. Here’s the review, ranked in order of performance and impact.
Urho Vaakanainen, Oskar Steen and Jack Ahcan are not included in order to focus on the “big 5” instead.
1. Jeremy Swayman, G- No player did more to boost his stock within the organization and across the league the way the rookie goaltender did, appearing in 10 games near the end of the season and going 7-3 with an eye-popping 1.50 GAA and .945 save percentage with a pair of shutouts…in the NHL! Prior to that, he was off to a dominant start to his pro career with the Providence Bruins in the AHL going 8-1 in 9 games with a 1.89 GAA and .933 save percentage. He turned his Boston audition into a spot as Tuukka Rask’s backup in the playoffs, supplanting veteran Jaroslav Halak and essentially staking a claim to a spot on the 2021-22 Boston Bruins.
Swayman is an athlete and has good size, but he’s not one of those enormous goalies who can struggle, especially with shots along the ice and stopping scoring chances in close. In fact, at 6-2, we opine that he has the perfect NHL size for a goalie- he’s still going to provide good net coverage on high shots in the butterfly, but he’s much more agile to get low and seal, with fluid movements and power in his lateral pushes. His hands are superb- he’s not just using them to block, but he deftly steers pucks away from his net or catches cleanly to slow down play, and uses his stick effectively to deflect shots away from the high danger areas in front. He tracks pucks like an elite player at the position already- when you watch him, look for the telltale movement of his head and body to locate the puck and maintain visual contact. With his sharp focus and ability to read and anticipate the play and where the more dangerous shots are going to come from, he’s usually in position to make the first save and then has the quickness and strength to recover for secondary and tertiary scoring chances. Finally, he brings a sheer exuberance and joy in playing the position. He smiles and has tremendous body language and energy for one so young (he won’t turn 23 until Thanksgiving).
Outlook: Swayman is Boston’s top prospect, full stop.
The team has not had much success over the years drafting and developing goalies. The most successful (in terms of career wins) Bruins draft picks not only never played a single game in Boston due to expansion and poor trade, but were also drafted five decades or more ago…we’re talking about Dan Bouchard and Ken Dryden. Through the decades, the B’s repeatedly missed in the draft at identifying goaltenders aside from Bill Ranford, who was a 1985 third-round selection and won 52 career games for the B’s (and he was the 52nd selection that year- go figure), but most of those were when the team reacquired him in 1996 from the Edmonton Oilers. Prior to that, Ranford had spent nearly a decade there thanks to the Andy Moog trade in 1988, and won a couple of Stanley Cups- one as Grant Fuhr’s backup and the other, a Conn Smythe playoff MVP performance against Moog and the President’s Trophy Bruins in 1990. From Gerry Cheevers and Gilles Gilbert to Rogie Vachon to Pete Peeters and Pat Riggin and then Rejean Lemelin, Moog, Jon Casey, Blaine Lacher, Rob Tallas, Byron Dafoe, Steve Shields and Tim Thomas, the B’s have depended on trades or free agency to account for nearly six decades of play in between the nets for the most part. Only Marco Baron, Mike Moffat, John Grahame and Andrew Raycroft are Bruins draft picks who had any real modicum of success, and Raycroft is the most important of the three given that after his Calder Trophy run in 2004, he was dealt to Toronto for Rask even Steven. So, in reading this paragraph, other than wanting to maybe smack your head against the nearest wall or table, you can see that the B’s GMs over the years have had to work overtime in finding trade options to make sure the most important position on a hockey team is taken care of instead of using the main mechanism of the entry draft process to do it. If you’re Alanis Morrisette, that just might be a tad…ironic.
In Swayman, the Bruins look to be on the verge of finally having hit gold with the 111th selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft’s fourth round. Two years earlier, they picked up Dan Vladar 75th in the third round. Between the two of them, the team’s scouts have identified a pair of youngsters with the talent to be NHL goalies and good ones at that. But between the two, Swayman not only took the proverbial ball and ran with it, he took off through the field’s end zone to the far exit and kept on running up the ramp and out of the stadium. Some have brought up the struggles of Carter Hart and the “too much, too soon” risk that Swayman’s rapid rise constitutes, but life is too short to worry about such things or apply a cookie cutter approach to players. Everyone is different, and given the intangibles he brings to the table (he’s been on some mediocre teams from his junior career all the way through the NCAA at Maine), insisting that he simply play at a lower level to gain experience and seasoning is probably not the best thing for him. If he can play and perform at the NHL level, let him stick with it, and with Rask noted for needing a good backup to limit his regular season workload, Boston might be the right developmental situation for Swayman.
We’re just going to come out and say it- Swayman is here to stay. The lone caveat is covered down below in the Vladar analysis, and the B’s are in a bit of a spot here in terms of what to do with the latter. If Swayman struggles next season or takes a step back, then the B’s will address it then, but based on what we’ve seen and for the reasons outlined above, even when teams get a bigger book on him, he’s Boston’s goalie of the future and has NHL star potential going forward. It’s about time.
2. Jeremy Lauzon, D- It’s been a bit of a mixed bag of a season for Lauzon, who brings an all-around defensive game and some natural toughness and an edge to the lineup whenever he’s in.
On the plus side, Lauzon moves well and closes quickly on opposing puck carriers. He plays a throwback, physical style of defense, but is also a modern defender in that he can wheel back quickly to the far end of his own end to retrieve pucks and move them out. He has a good stick and manages his gaps well for the most part, while also showing a willingness to collapse back to the hard areas in front of the net and make opponents pay a premium to establish position. He’s willing to sacrifice the body to block shots and will fight to defend teammates. Lauzon is confident with the puck on his stick and can snap quick, hard passes to his forwards in stride on the attack when he’s on the move and has room to maneuver. He’s also shown a penchant for finding soft seams in the offensive zone and can make nifty feeds for scoring chances given that he can see it and think it pretty well. Because of his style and intelligence, he saw time on Boston’s top pair this season on Charlie McAvoy’s left side, but he also moved around the lineup because he wasn’t always reliable in certain matchup plays against teams with superior speed and an aggressive 2-man forecheck.
That leads us to Lauzon’s downside- he struggles at times with pace and a robust forecheck that forces him into turning pucks over in his own end. Teams have figured out that attacking him with speed and denying him time and space will cause him to rim pucks under pressure or try low-percentage desperation passes that turn into scoring chances against. All of this leads to the Boston coaches losing confidence in him at times and has prevented him from establishing himself as a stable presence on the roster. This is not to say that Lauzon is a bad player- he’s capable and effective, but still a little green and as such, his playing time has to be managed more, especially on the road. In 76 career NHL games going back to 2018-19, he’s a +12, and while plus/minus is a stat often maligned for its foibles, it does have the ring of truth for a player like Lauzon, who doesn’t see any time on the PP, but plays a good amount at even strength and kills penalties.
Lauzon has also dealt with injuries, going all the way back to junior, where his hard-nosed playing style and willingness to sell out for his team has taken a toll on his body. He’s currently out for the B’s after blocking a hard shot off the glove and injuring his hand.
Outlook: Lauzon has long been a favorite here because of his toughness and disciplined approach, to go with an above average NHL skill set. Although he’s never going to point a lot at the highest level, he does have the size and skating to be hard to play against and a solid complementary piece on a good team. Six years after the B’s drafted him and Brandon Carlo in the second round of the 2015 draft, both are panning out, though Lauzon has taken longer to establish himself. There’s still room for growth here, and at his top-end he might be a 25-30 point guy. Realistically, he’s more of a second-pairing, keep it simple kind of defender versus a high-ceiling 2-way player. He’s never going to QB the power play and will need to develop more poise and improve his decision-making under pressure going forward. Having said all of that, he’s a respected teammate for his quiet tenacity and willingness to stick up for his mates and pay the price to win. There’s a lot to be said for that, and as long as his cap hit stays low, expect him to be a valued supporting cast member in Boston.
3. Jakub Zboril, D- Boston’s first selection in the controversial (for the Bruins) 2015 NHL draft’s opening round finally established himself this season on the big club’s roster and like Lauzon, his was a story of up and down play.
Far more toolsy and talented than Lauzon is, that much was borne out in where he was picked in the draft, but Zboril’s stock since has waxed and waned for other reasons- namely inconsistent play and effort in junior and in the AHL and sometimes selfish, undisciplined play.
At his best, Zboril is a powerful skater who handles and moves pucks effortlessly out of his own end and joins the rush as a legitimate offensive threat from the back end. He gets up the ice quickly and skates with his head up, able to make short to intermediate to long-range passes with real zip. He has a big, powerful shot, yet is still looking for his first NHL goal. He has the talent to be a power play contributor and when he’s playing with urgency and effort, he is able to use his size and strength to take opponents wide, angle and pin them to the walls.
Defensively, he’s agile (footwork/transitions) and strong enough to contain outside speed. However, he is inconsistent in his awareness and gap management. His stick is okay- but there are times when his stick-on-puck isn’t there and he will either miss, or make the wrong decision to take the body and then is forced to backpedal and chase the play. The biggest issue we have with Zboril’s defensive play is a general lack of urgency at times, especially when he turns the puck over deep in his own end. Several of those plays he made ended up in the back of his own net, and watching him closely on subsequent shifts failed to produce a resolve and tenacity that one would expect from a player whose mistake cost his team. This is where Lauzon separates himself from Zboril in our view. One player has more talent than the other, but in Zboril’s case, he appears to lack the will and desire to maximize those natural gifts.
He got injured in Boston’s final regular season game and is currently out of the lineup in the opening round of the playoffs. This, along with Lauzon and Kevan Miller injuries, has opened the door for other players like Jarred Tinordi and Vaakanainen. A shame, because Zboril would certainly be slotting in there if available and then we would have an even better read on him than we do watching him with the added speed, pace, physicality and intensity of the NHL postseason.
Outlook: Zboril looks like a role player right now, and barring a major change in his development track, that’s where he will likely remain until he departs the organization for another opportunity. He has his share of supporters, and that’s fine- Zboril was drafted inside the top-15 six years ago because the Bruins obviously thought he had the ability to be an impact two-way player at the NHL level. The question we have for those with faith and confidence in his ability to be a regular in the Boston lineup is this: why did it take him so long to establish himself with a regular stretch of games at this level? If you have to ask something like that, then rest assured- there is certainly an answer (and answers) to be had. Full truth in lending up front- this blog has had concerns about Zboril’s long-term viability not only in Boston but in the NHL in general, for some time now. This is not the time to rehash who the B’s could have chosen instead, but, to point out that of all the players on this list of prospects, Zboril has come with the highest of expectations, and to be frank- his no goals, 9 assists and even rating in 42 games on a strong defensive and playoff team left us wanting more. A lot more.
4. Jack Studnicka, C/RW- Boston’s second-round pick in 2017 has been widely recognized as the club’s top prospects for several seasons now, emerging as a top offensive threat in the OHL with the Oshawa Generals and Niagara Ice Dogs in his post-draft career. Unfortunately, Studnicka did not meet expectations and after 20 games with the big club where he showed his ability and promise in flashes, he returned to Providence where he finished out the 2021 campaign in the AHL.
Originally seen as more of a defensive center with offensive skills to develop into a top two-way player much like Patrice Bergeron has en route to establishing a Hall of Fame resume over the past 17 years in Boston, Studnicka has the size, skating, vision/brain and hands to develop into a solid impact NHLer over time, but his time was not now with the B’s.
The natural right-shot center played wing in Boston so that he could get into games, but after slotting around up and down in the lineup, he showed his promise in flashes yet was largely unable to move the needle to the degree required to stay. As the old adage from NHL players goes- getting to the show is one thing, but staying there is the hard part. In Studnicka’s case, he wasn’t skilled/experienced enough to be able to fill the gap on Boston’s second line right wing spot, nor was he hard enough to stick on the bottom lines, where the B’s have a logjam of similar, hard-nosed grinder and role player types. In 20 games, he managed just a single goal and was a minus-3, a reflection of the lack of a defined and regular role and the unforgiving nature of the NHL.
He returned to Providence and didn’t get off to a great start, but by the end of his 11-game run on the farm, we started to see Studnicka’s promising attributes emerge on a more consistent basis and he established himself as one of the better forwards in the final contests. He’s fast, plays with pace and creates scoring chances off the forecheck and with a natural ability to read and react quickly. Though he’s never been a top finisher, Studnicka has a deft passing touch and makes his linemates better through his creativity and effort. He is willing to get into high-traffic areas and will take the hit to make the play. Like Zboril, Studnicka is a victim of expectations- he originally started out as a late second-round selection who outperformed his draft status in the OHL and made a splashy impact in limited AHL stints before turning pro full-time in 2019-20.
Outlook: The prognosis on Studnicka is good. Sure, we would all like to have seen him come in and seamlessly transition to the NHL and hold a job in Boston, but he showed enough promise to not get down on him or his future potential. Not everyone can be a Bergeron, and so a little more patience is needed until things sort themselves out in Boston and he can carve a niche out for himself.
The good news is- he has gotten nearly 30 regular and postseason games with the Bruins over the past two years and with his intelligence and work ethic, expect him to be better prepared for what it will take to stick the next time he has an opportunity in Boston. Where we’re not sure on him lies with the offensive potential, though. He might be a 15-20 goal, 45-50 point player at his very top-end. That’s solid, but observers and fans should at least adjust their expectations for Studnicka a bit as he works to establish himself as a pro. His strengths- the pace, smarts, effort and character/leadership- will all translate to the big show, but the future production is what will determine if he elevates himself into a prime play driver at the NHL level, or becomes a capable and serviceable complementary piece of the puzzle.
He’s going to be a lower-line guy in the short term, but we like his long-term potential to be more for the Bruins.
5. Dan Vladar, G- For Vladar, it was a good news/bad news scenario for him in Boston, as he made his regular season debut against Pittsburgh after a tough playoff appearance last September vs. Tampa Bay.
The 6-5 veteran minor leaguer played games overseas with Pardubice in his native Czech Republic prior to Christmas and dominated, then, along with Swayman, got Providence off to a blistering start in the AHL when the limited season got going in 2021. His superb showing earned him the first callup in net to Boston, and he shined in his first start, demonstrating some tremendous athleticism and compete in posting his first win in a 34-save effort. It is so easy to root for Vladar, because he’s a genuine human being and one of the nicest people you will meet- he was so excited to post a win for his team, and followed it up with another against the sad sack Sabres before dropping his third start to Pittsburgh. After an OT loss to Philadelphia, Vladar got hammered with an injury-ravaged Bruins team in front of him on April 11, giving up 8 goals to the Capitals on 33 shots (and killing his save percentage and GAA in the process), opening the door to Swayman to steal the show.
With his size, Vladar has outstanding net coverage, especially down low. However, he might be too big at 6-5, as his upper net coverage is not substantially better than that of Swayman, and his hands are not as polished. He competes his ass off, however and there is a lot to like about him. He was originally seen as one of the very best goaltending talents in the entire 2015 draft and the B’s got solid draft value from him in the third round, albeit from a player that was a consensus project and most post-draft analyses pointed out that Vladar would be on the long train to the NHL (if he ever got there). He’s at least done that, but what comes next is the burning question for the Boston braintrust.
Outlook: After his first couple of NHL starts, it certainly looked like the Bruins were in a tough spot with him in terms of losing him to expansion Seattle, and while that still could happen, it is looking more like he could be safe and the team will lose a skater in the draft. Of course, Vladar will no longer be waiver exempt in 2021-22, so the Bruins may be forced to make a decision on his future sooner rather than later. As TSP friend and contributor Dominic Tiano pointed out in a May 8 piece here, the Bruins know that like Malcolm Subban, there is next to no chance he could pass through waivers if optioned to the AHL. So, assuming he isn’t a member of the Kraken in late July, and as Dom already pointed out. the B’s could choose to send the waiver-exempt Swayman down and keep Vladar on to be Rask’s backup (assuming the team re-signs the unrestricted free agent after the expansion draft).
From a Bruins perspective it would be great for Vladar to work out and for both he and Swayman to be the tandem in net, but the timeline might not allow for it. They should be able to get some kind of value in a trade, but all of this is premature. In the meantime, Vladar showed enough from his limited stint in Boston this season that he has the talent and attitude to be a part of the solution going forward, but for how long and in what capacity is what remains to be seen.
With Game 5 on tonight against the Capitals, we’ll shift back to NHL playoffs coverage, but the crux of this blog has always been on the future and prospects in general, so we’ve enjoyed the diversion and hope you have as well. The intent here was to provide an honest and fair assessment of the 5 young guns…we’ll leave it to you to decide if that mission got accomplished.
For more insights on the Bruins/NHL and junior, college and prep hockey, follow me on Twitter: @kluedeke29
P.S.-Thanks to my amigos- Dom, Reed Duthie and Anthony Kwetkowski for their many insights and observations behind the scenes.
P.P.S.- A Happy Birthday to Reed, THE voice of the OHL Hamilton Bulldogs, who was born when the B’s were in the 1988 Stanley Cup Final series against the Edmonton Oilers. He’s a good man, outstanding broadcaster and be sure to wish him well on social media if you follow him!