Kids go down, some vets come up as 2015-16 B’s roster comes into focus

The Boston Bruins announced that forwards Austin Czarnik and Frank Vatrano, along with defensemen Linus Arnesson and Chris Casto, were sent to Providence on Tuesday.

Interestingly, the B’s brought some previously relegated players in fowards Brandon DeFazio and Ben Sexton, along with minor league defenseman Chris Breen.

This puts the current count of forwards on the roster at 20, defensemen at 11 and the B’s are carrying three goaltenders. Dennis Seidenberg is injured and won’t be available for about the first eight weeks of the season, so the D count is really at 10 right now, with Breen and Tommy Cross expected to go back down to Providence if the team opts to go with eight defensemen out of the chute (including the banged up Zdeno Chara).

The moves are not all that surprising- Czarnik, Vatrano and Arnesson all show intriguing promise, but they are all entering their first full pro season after all seeing limited action in the AHL last spring. I know that fans love their shiny new toys, but these guys need to be playing, and they weren’t going to be getting a lot of playing time in the NHL, even if they made the roster. And by the way- to keep a young forward on the big club means that the B’s would in most cases have to place another veteran on waivers. No big loss in Max Talbot you say? Well, he most likely would not be claimed, but the B’s value his experience and leadership more than a lot of the folks watching the games, so let’s just say that paying him nearly a million dollars to play in the AHL is not the best use of team resources, regardless of how he has looked in some limited preseason action.

As for the recalls, they’ll get a chance to play in the final couple of preseason contests and likely go back down.

The guys pushing for spots at forward need a strong push here at the end to make their case: Alex ‘Koko’ Khokhlachev has shown that he’s got some legitimate skills, but we’re still waiting on the production to take shape. Even when Ryan Spooner was trying to make the B’s in his previous two exhibition seasons, he was scoring goals and points in the preseason. Koko has done some good things, but the pucks haven’t been going in for him. At this rate, he’ll be one of the final cuts, but will go down to begin the year in Providence.

Tyler Randell is an interesting case. He’s a late-round pick from 2009 who never really stuck around in preseason much for fans to get a handle on, but has done the grunt work down in Providence as an enforcer. He’s a player with a good set of hands- he once scored 4 goals for the Kitchener Rangers during a 2012 OHL playoff game against the Plymouth Whalers (who featured Washington power forward Tom Wilson). Randell’s not much of a skater, but the guy can fight and he could find a spot for himself with his toughness. He wouldn’t be an every game player, but could slot in when the B’s needed to add some bite to their roster. I keep seeing Randell linked to Shawn Thornton as a comparable player and I won’t go there other than to say that they are two different players and fans have to understand that Thornton came to the B’s as an established NHL veteran who was added as much for his character as he was for the toughness he displayed. Randell’s not there yet, so temper the expectations- he’s still growing and learning as a player.

I’ve been impressed with Anton Blidh– he’s fast, gritty and energetic. He’s always moving his feet and qualifies as a grinding agitator type. It might be a situation where the B’s feel like he’s better served getting more minutes in Providence initially and then bringing him up when the inevitable injury happens up front, or he could very well make the Boston roster to start the season. These last couple of games will be critical for him, but because he can go down and not be subject to the waivers process, the team at least has options with Blidh. He’s on the bubble and close, but I predict he’ll start the year in Providence. Ditto Brian Ferlin, who has played well in preseason, but will find himself the odd man out on the right side with a chance to go back to the AHL and play top-two line minutes and in all situations.

Finally, I’m sold on Joonas Kemppainen to start the year as Boston’s fourth-line center. He’s mature, smart and does the little things for the position. I like his faceoff work and he does a nice job of making the right reads coming out of the zone and moving the puck to the open spaces on the ice. He’s not going to wow you in any one area, but I can see why the Bruins signed him out of Finland at age 27.

The final roster picture is coming into focus, but after the sluggish night against Detroit in the 3-1 loss Monday, that’s a harbinger of more nights to come. Loui Eriksson’s goal was too little, too late and the offense will have to overachieve to score regularly this season by the looks of it.

Would like to be proven wrong, but even in Boston’s victories, the cup of offense has not runneth over.

More cuts on Sunday as 4-0 preseason Bruins roster takes shape

Patrice Bergeron is Boston's "Mr Everything" and the team will need him to be that and more at age 30. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Patrice Bergeron is Boston’s “Mr Everything” and the team will need him to be that and more at age 30. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

The Boston Bruins and GM Don Sweeney announced today that eight players under NHL contract have been sent down to Providence of the AHL. Defenseman Chris Breen and forward Brandon DeFazio were put on waivers yesterday and designated for assignment- they both cleared today and will participate in the Baby B’s camp. Defenseman Ben Youds, on an AHL deal, was released from Boston camp (PTO) and sent to Providence. You can read the transaction announcement here.

Additionally, the B’s returned their remaining junior players to their respective teams, with Jakub Zboril (Saint John- QMJHL), Jake DeBrusk (Swift Current- WHL) and Brandon Carlo (Tri-City- WHL) all going back to the CHL. The B’s released Zach Senyshyn (Sault Ste. Marie- OHL) and Jeremy Lauzon (Rouyn-Noranda- QMJHL) prior to the weekend’s slate of games.

In the spirit of and with a nod to the always outstanding Mike Reiss and his Patriots blog at ESPN Boston throughout the NFL training camp leading up to the final cuts day before the start of the 2015 NFL season, here’s the remaining players- locks and bubble guys along with a little analysis on what it all means going forward.

Centers

Locks: Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Ryan Spooner, Chris Kelly, Max Talbot (5)

On the bubble: Joonas Kemppainen

AHL-bound: Alex Khokhlachev, Austin Czarnik, Zack Phillips

Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci…Krejci and Bergeron…Boston’s 1-1A center punch is well entrenched, and I won’t fool around with the argument I see some people engage in over who is the B’s 1 and 2…it’s a pretty meaningless debate, because without one or the other, the team’s in deep trouble. Ryan Spooner hasn’t had a great deal of time to establish himself with new linemates, but he’s been an opportunistic scorer with the man advantage and is clearly the No. 3 man in the center pecking order. Even if the B’s might opt not to use Chris Kelly and/or Max Talbot at center, expect the team to retain both as veteran options for the bottom line with the ability to play the wings- they’ve done it before. Joonas Kemppainen has been a solid if unspectacular presence in the exhibition games he’s suited up for, and he’s effective on the draws, plays a mature two-way game, and has the size and strength to start the year as the team’s fourth-line center if that’s the plan. Austin Czarnik has been a revelation in his first pro camp after signing with the B’s last spring, using his speed, smarts and quick hands to make an impact in all three zones, but he’s better off playing on Providence’s first or second line and on both PK and PP units. If injuries take a toll on the B’s depth, don’t be surprised to see him get a chance at some point this season. If not, he’ll make it tough to cut him next year with a full season under his belt. Alex Khokhlachev, for all his talent, just hasn’t been able to find the production in his game. He’s without a doubt more talented than Kelly, Talbot or Kemppainen, but building an NHL roster isn’t just about plugging in the most skilled guys on the bottom line and expecting them to thrive. He’s improved his overall game, but if Koko had found a way to actually…you know…score some goals, then you might have more of an argument than the simple “SKILL!” that I have people hit me with onTwitter quite a bit. The B’s need to figure out how to best use him or trade him, but just because he said he doesn’t want to play in Providence forever does not mean he’s ready for primetime now. He’ll have  a few more chances before the final cuts come in, so if ever there was a time for him to impress the brass with a breakout individual performance, it’s now. Zack Phillips was waived yesterday (and cleared) but is still with the team, where he is rehabbing an injury.  Even if he had played in any of the preseason games, it’s hard to see Phillips being in the mix for a center job given how deep the team is at that position right now.

Right Wings

Locks: David Pastrnak, Loui Eriksson, Brett Connolly

On the bubble: Anton Blidh, Tyler Randell

AHL-bound: Brian Ferlin, Seth Griffith

David Pastrnak is not only a sure thing, he’s the most exciting combination of pure speed/scoring talent *and* character since…well…quite a long time. He’s similar to Bergeron in terms of the kind of impact he could have on this franchise, but he’s a higher-end scoring winger and will eventually put together some impressive numbers. I don’t know if he’s quite ready to bust out with the All-Star production this year, but he’ll give it his all. Loui Eriksson plays the off-wing and will go about his business being the smart, stealthy scoring presence he was a year ago when he finished second on the team in goals. However, if the B’s are going south in the standings, don’t be surprised to see Sweeney try and move Eriksson to a contender- his current contract is up next summer and it’s doubtful he’ll be back. Brett Connolly has not had a great preseason thus far, but the team gave up a pair of second-round picks for him and has high hopes. Unlike impatient fans who expect instant near-perfection, the B’s will give Connolly a chance to see if the 2010 draft hype was real or not. Listed as a left wing but shifting over on the right  side thus far, Swedish pest Anton Blidh has impressed with his speed, energy and grit. He’s the kind of guy who could start the season right away on the bottom line, but as a young player on the first year of his ELC, he can be sent down to Providence without being placed on waivers, whereas other players can’t, so he might need to bide his time in the AHL as a third-liner who can grind it out. Tyler Randell has yet to even come close to making the NHL roster since the B’s drafted him late in 2009, but he’s in the mix because of his sheer toughness and ability to make the odd offensive play. Randell’s feet are an issue and he’ll have to be waived to get sent down, so the B’s might carry him as an extra forward to spot play when facing the more rugged teams (which admittedly are decreasing rapidly in number). Brian Ferlin scored a nice backhand goal off a turnover against Detroit and impressed in a small sample size call up a year ago, but like Blidh, he can go down without waivers, so the B’s would rather have him playing a lot than the limited time he’ll get on the bottom line. He’ll be among the first to be recalled if injuries hit. Seth Griffith’s sprained MCL suffered in a preseason game essentially means he’ll rehab the injury but likely go down to start the year and work his way into shape and consideration to be brought up when that time comes.

Left Wings

Locks: Brad Marchand, Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes, Zac Rinaldo

AHL-bound: Frank Vatrano

Brad Marchand led the team in scoring a year ago and he’s going nowhere- will keep riding shotgun with Bergeron to consistent effect over the past several seasons. Boston’s big-ticket free agent Matt Beleskey hasn’t set the world on fire in his first couple of preseason outings, but he’s done and said the right things. Working with Krejci and Pastrnak means that he’ll have plenty of chances to find the back of the net, but expectations need to be tempered- the B’s need him to stay healthy more than anything else right now. Local boy makes good in the case of Jimmy Hayes, who has used his enormous 6-foot-6 frame to good effect and done pretty well skating with Spooner. He’s going to grunt it out in the trenches, but he looks like an ideal fit in Boston’s top-9, playing over on the left side after being a right wing in Florida. Zac Rinaldo was acquired with a third-round pick, so even the most ardent critics will have to grudgingly admit that he’s here to stay for now at least, and we’ll see how much of a role he’ll have on the team going forward. If the B’s opt to use Kelly on the left wing of the fourth line, then Rinaldo will have to move around. Thus far, he’s drawn more penalties than he’s taken and played his patented physical style.  Frank Vatrano, along with liney Czarnik, has been a revelation, but he’s not ready to take on a full-time NHL role. He’s better off playing a lot of minutes in all situations and building his confidence by unleashing that killer shot down in the AHL for now, but watch for him to get some looks if he’s productive and keeps playing hard in all zones.

Defense

Locks: Zdeno Chara (inj.), Torey Krug, Adam McQuaid, Zach Trotman, Colin Miller, Joe Morrow, Matt Irwin, Kevan Miller *Dennis Seidenberg (inj.)– 8-week timetable for return (mid-to-late November)

On the bubble: Linus Arnesson

AHL-bound: Tommy Cross, Chris Casto

The Bruins are hoping Zdeno Chara is ready to begin the season after taking a hit the other night in action against the NY Rangers and leaving the game in the first period. Torey Krug has stepped up in his absence, scoring the OT-winning goal against Detroit and playing with the confidence and heart of a much bigger man. Adam McQuaid is safely entrenched on the Boston roster, and Zach Trotman is also a solid bet for now as a known entity, even if he does not possess the uptempo game and sexy upside that Colin Miller and Joe Morrow bring. Both offense-minded blueliners have impressed in the preseason and the injury situation means they will both likely make the cut. Matt Irwin and Kevan Miller bring veteran ability and know-how to the mix, and if Claude Julien was serious about carrying eight defenders to begin the year (he said that even before Chara got banged up) then these are your guys. Linus Arnesson has played very well- his ice time against Detroit was notable early for how much of the first 20 minutes was played on special teams and he did well in all situations. However, with more experienced options in play, the expected move is for him to go down to the AHL where he can develop and thrive in a top role. Experienced farmhands Tommy Cross and Chris Casto will help Arnesson form a nucleus of a relatively young but game defense corps in Providence.

Goaltender

Lock: Tuukka Rask

On the bubble: Jeremy Smith, Jonas Gustavsson

And then there were three…with both of Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre being optioned to Providence today, this leaves it between Jonas Gustavsson and Jeremy Smith to be Tuukka Rask’s backup. Gustavsson just returned to the team after dealing with a personal matter, so he hasn’t had much playing time outside of an 18-shot, 18-save half of work in Boston’s first preseason contest against the New Jersey Devils. Smith has been a little up and down, struggling to find his game against the Rangers, but digging in and making some key stops at crunch time to preserve a 4-3 shootout win after letting in some softies to fall behind 3-1. In Gustavsson (who is on a PTO and would still need to be signed if the B’s like what they see), the team gets an NHL-experienced backup who has proven he has the tools to be a capable starter should something happen to Rask (knock on wood, please). On the downside, ‘the Monster’ has had injury issues, so even if the B’s go with him this year, there is a chance he’ll end up on IR at some point, meaning the team has to go deeper into the bullpen. As for Smith, he’s a one-time second-round pick from 2007, so at one point, he was seen as an impressive pro prospect, but he has zero NHL experience, so the B’s are going right back where they were a year ago when they went with the unproven Niklas Svedberg, who could not win Julien’s confidence to spell Rask more than once in a blue moon. It would be one thing if Smith had completely shut everyone down thus far in exhibition play, but he hasn’t done that. He also hasn’t been as bad as some folks have shared with me online, either. At the same time, Gustavsson’s effort was in a very small sample size…but then again- you know he can stop pucks at the NHL level, at least. My guess: Gustavsson stays, Smith goes down to the AHL, and at that point, the B’s will probably need to either option McIntyre to the ECHL or figure out another AHL team for Smith- three goalies in Providence is not the kind of situation Boston wants.

Boston’s hockey Czar: From land of the Buckeye to the Bay State- Czarnik jolts B’s offense

Austin Czarnik's 2013-14 Miami University Redhawks captain sweater (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Austin Czarnik’s 2013-14 Miami University Redhawks captain sweater (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Truth in lending: When the rumors began circulating last spring that the Boston Bruins were close to signing Miami University captain Austin Czarnik as a free agent, I was skeptical.

It wasn’t that I felt it would be a bad signing given that he is barely 5-foot-8 on skates or that I had many doubts about Czarnik’s overall offensive game as evidenced by his run to being a Hobey Baker finalist as a junior in 2014. Even though his numbers in 2015 were a little down from the season before (he scored six of his 9 goals in the final 10 games of the season), the Michigan native raised his stock at crunch time, picking up his goal production right before and during the NCHC and NCAA tourneys.

No, I just didn’t really believe that the Bruins would aggressively pursue and secure the winning bid for Czarnik’s services, so I wasn’t paying a great deal of attention until it was a done deal. Nearly six months later, I can now unequivocally say: My. Bad.

It’s not like his success at every level is all that surprising…just take a look back in April 2011 at when I and my colleagues at Red Line Report ranked him 6th on a list of 12 USHL players for the 2011 NHL draft and just two spots ahead of him was on Johnny (B.) Gaudreau. And no, the three guys ahead of Gaudreau are nowhere near as good as he turned out to be, so it isn’t like scouting is an exact science.

Here is what our USHL guy (now employed by an NHL team, I would add) had to say about Czarnik then:

Undersized but fast and energetic two-way centre. A dynamic penalty killer. Has developed a reputation as a clutch goal scorer. Has quick hands and 1-on-1 ability. Not a dirty player but can be a pest with his speed and relentless puck pressure- a highly disruptive player.

And…you get the message.

Czarnik and liney Frank Vatrano have been dynamite for the Bruins since the rookie camp fired up a couple of weeks ago. They led the Baby (or is it future?) B’s in scoring at the rookie tournament in Buffalo with three assists (Czarnik) and three goals (Vatrano) in two games. From there, Claude Julien kept them together and they’ve continued to play well in a couple of exhibition contests with the big club.

Czarnik, who turns 23 in December, came out of the USHL first with the U.S. NTDP U17 and U18 teams from 2008-10 and then the Green Bay Gamblers in 2011 without being drafted and went on to a strong collegiate career under coach Enrico Blasi in Oxford, Ohio. He earned the captaincy as a junior and finished his four years in that elite NCAA program with 169 points in 159 games. After fielding multiple offers last spring, he went with Boston, who brought him out to Providence on an amateur tryout agreement (ATO) where he posted a pair of assists in three AHL contests.

With his explosive speed and slippery agility, Czarnik is tough to get a bead on when he’s got the puck and is attacking into the teeth of defenses. He’s gritty and feisty- he won’t shy away from doing the grunt work, even though he’s often overmatched physically and will often come out on the short end of those contests of strength. However, when it comes to smarts and wills, he tends to wheel out from the corners with the puck and can either take to the net himself and score the goal, or find the open man for a quality scoring chance.

Here’s some of the evidence:

And here, he victimizes future B’s teammate Zane McIntyre with a hat trick last season:

With or without the puck, he makes a positive contribution and if only he was a little bigger, Czarnik would already be a household name.

In short, we figured he’d be good, but to have the kind of impact he’s made thus far says a lot about his character and drive. A lot of times, a player with the talent and the “want to” will go on to reach the pinnacle of success in the sport. That’s where Gaudreau has come from, and it’s not a stretch to say that Czarnik might be headed down a similar path. Not comparing the two, because Gaudreau is a bigger talent, but the two have a lot in common given their playing styles and physical attributes.

As the old adage goes- when you’re a big guy in hockey you have to prove that you can’t play…a little guy has to prove he can.

Czarnik has shown himself to be a player thus far at camp. Because of the team’s current makeup at center, it probably is best for him to be sent to Providence where he can play top minutes in the AHL in every situation as opposed to playing behind Boston’s 1-2-3 situation with Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Ryan Spooner. However, should the team lose manpower at the position, don’t be surprised to see Czarnik get a look with the big club at some point.

Providence fans had best enjoy the Little Hockey Czar while they can- he might not be the biggest player to ever darken the doorstep of the TDGarden, but with his speed and skill level, it won’t be long before he arrives.

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

2015 All-American Prospects Game notebook: NHL sons Tkachuk, McInnis lead hit parade

Had a chance to watch last night’s All-American Prospects Game played at First Niagara Center in Buffalo (broadcast on NHL Network for those like me who couldn’t be there in person) and the United States has some impressive talent coming into the draft next June 24-25 (in the same building, by the way).

The game, which began as a tradition in 2012 by USA Hockey as a model on the CHL’s highly successful Top Prospects Game played every January for the past 15 years or so, featured a teams coached by former NHLers Jeremy Roenick and Derek Plante. Plante’s blue shirts came from behind to win it late thanks to a goal from Massachusetts product Luke McInnis (son of former NHL and Bruins forward Marty McInnis) in a 6-4 contest.

Based on what I have seen so far (and it’s admittedly early) if the Bruins end up with two early picks in 2016, it’s hard to envision a better scenario for them than coming away with Sarnia Sting defenseman Jakob Chychrun and London Knights winger Matthew Tkachuk. Tkachuk blew the doors off of observers early last month with his showing at Team USA World Jr. National Evaluation Camp at Lake Placid, and he continued his tremendous play in the AAPG last night. He’s not the same kind of pure power forward that his dad was, but with a 6-1 frame, he’s big enough to get in there and is reportedly weighing in at around 200 pounds these days. The eldest Tkachuk son just might have better skills and offensive hockey sense than his old man, though- and that’s saying a hell of a lot. We’ll see how it goes, but expect him to leave a trail of destruction in the OHL this year. B’s will need both picks in the top-five, possibly even top-three to make this scenario work, and there is a lot of hockey to be played between now and next June.

And now- here are the notes on some (not all) players:

Team Roenick

Matthew Tkachuk, LW- He made an immediate impression with an assist on St. Louis minor hockey teammate Luke Kunin’s goal in the opening moments. Tkachuk is a good skater who has tremendous anticipation and ability to read the unfolding play in front of him. He plays has that killer instinct that all great scorers must have- he goes down into the trenches out in front of the net and finds ways to get his stick on pucks. Tkachuk takes pucks straight to the net and uses his body and skill to protect the puck and maintain possession against an aggressive defense. He might bear quite a physical resemblance to his father at the same age, but Matt is a different player, and fans should be careful not to make direct comparisons between the two at this stage of the younger Tkachuk’s development. He’s got some high-end hands and hockey sense, so he looks like the  real McCoy. He’ll be in one of the premier hockey programs in the world this season at London, a year after posting 36 goals and 96 points at the U.S. NTDP. Tkachuk scored a goal in the second period last night from his knees after taking an initial shot from inside the left faceoff circle and losing his balance. The puck squirted back out to him on the rebound and he put it in- not a highlight reel score, but a goal scorer’s tally for sure. 10 seconds later, the same line broke back into the zone and Tkachuk fed Kunin with a quick go feed at the offensive blue line for Kunin’s second goal of the night to make it 4-3.

Luke Kunin, RW- Had a fine game, scoring right off the bat with a bar-down, under-the-crossbar beauty from the right circle over Evan Sarthou’s shoulder after breaking in. He showed some terrific chemistry with friend and minor mate Tkachuk and will be a kid to watch this season at the University of Wisconsin.

Griffin Luce, D- Big defenseman is the grandson of former Buffalo Sabres great Don Luce and his dad, Scott, heads the Florida Panthers’ player development and amateur scouting staff. A dual citizen (he was born in Ontario but claims Williamsville, N.Y. as his home), at one point Luce looked like he might be evolving into a dominant blue line presence a couple of years back at Salisbury School. After a year at the NTDP, the University of Michigan recruit looks like a solid defense-first, shutdown player but does not project as much of an offensive threat at the higher levels. He’s big and physical- needs to improve his skating transitions and direction changes.

Chad Krys, D- I just really like this kid’s refined offensive game and skating. He doesn’t possess ideal size at a shade under 6-foot and has to work on his positional play overall, but when it comes to vision and feel for the flow of a contest, Krys is a legitimate threat to make something happen on every shift.

Team Plante

Max Jones, LW- Son of former NHLer Brad Jones drove the net hard on his first goal, a wicked shot and finish on a jailbreak play. Jones and Tkachuk are mates on the Knights in the OHL this season and the two of them are going to give opponents fits. With his 6-2 size, he’s still filling out, but Jones is a gritty and skilled player who can do a little bit of everything. He tied the game at four goals apiece with about 6 minutes remaining in the third period on a bad-angle snipe through the shortside post that beat Stephen Dhillon.

Luke McInnis, D- The undersized but speedy defenseman from Hingham, Mass. left Dexter Southfield to skate in the USHL with the Youngstown Phantoms this season. Like his dad, he can really skate (and as is the case with Tkachuk- he looks just like him when the two dads were on the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team together). The Boston College recruit scored the winning goal with less than 2 minutes remaining and earned MVP honors, though I think other players made better cases to take top honors. His NHL caliber wheels allow him to motor up the ice to be an offensive threat. He’s a project player who will need a lot of time to mature physically while refining his game- he was beaten pretty cleanly by Kunin on a move in the second period because he allowed the Roenick forward to close on him too fast with the puck and opened himself up to Kunin put the puck through his skates and then zip around him. He later prevented a goal in the third frame when Roenick D Sam Rossini took a shot that leaked through behind goalie Ryan Edquist, but McInnis made the poised play to secure the puck and get the whistle. These things will have to come along gradually for McInnis, but he’s a smart, industrious player with the raw tools to develop.

Kieffer Bellows, LW- Another NHL scion, he scored an empty-net goal to seal the victory, but had some great chances generated with linemate Clayton Keller. A Minnesota native from his father’s North Stars connections, the apple did not fall far from the tree, as the younger Bellows shows the same kind of wicked shot and finishing skills. A Boston University recruit, Bellows could terrorize the Hockey East in short order next year after another season in the USHL. He was that league’s rookie of the year after setting the record for most goals by a 16-year-old in 2014-15. His empty netter happened on a nice athletic play- he leaped over a sliding Chad Krys at the blueline while Team Plante was shorthanded and on a 6-on-4 disadvantage, and then while falling to the ice, shot the puck down the ice and into the open cage. Pure athletic and competitive hustle play right there.

Clayton Keller, C- Although he’s smallish, this pivot has outstanding skills and creativity. He played a good game, generating scoring chances from broken plays and using his speed and quick stick to create headaches for Team Roenick. Keller has first-round skill, but it remains to be seen if he can stay healthy and productive over the course of the year with the NTDP U18 team to remain there. He’s another good get for BU, so he and Bellows will be able to keep a good thing going when they get to Comm Ave.

J.D. Greenway, D- Jordan’s younger brother made a memorable play when he grabbed the puck at the blue line, beat a defender down low with some good footwork (10-to-2) to open up some space for himself and then finding a breaking Trent Frederic at the right circle for the quick-strike. He’s not quite as massive as his older sibling, but he has enough in the way of size and NHL-caliber measurables that he’ll be someone to watch as the season goes on.

Logan Brown, C- Former long-time NHL defenseman Jeff Brown’s son had a relatively quiet game save for his wicked one-timer goal in the second period off a William Knierim feed. The younger Brown was cut from Team Canada’s Under-18 team that won gold at the Ivan Hlinka tourney this past August, so he might leverage his dual citizenship to pursue an international track with USA Hockey- we’ll see what happens. At 6-6, he’s huge and a load to handle when he’s going to the net, but he also goes stretches where he’s a little passive and doesn’t use his tremendous physical gifts enough.

Charlie McAvoy, D- Was not really impressed with McAvoy’s play for much of the night, but he came up big when needed, skating through the zone and around the back of the net before finding a wide-open McInnis out high for the winning power play goal. Right before that, he fumbled the puck at the blue line and struggled to make the play against the fore checker. The BU freshman is extremely talented and smart, but this wasn’t really his night. It happens.

B’s go to 3-0 in preseason; Chara leaves with UB injury while Morrow impresses

The Boston Bruins are undefeated in exhibition play with three wins, coming back from a 3-1 deficit tonight against the NY Rangers to score two third period goals including the tying tally from Ryan Spooner with 54 seconds left and Jeremy Smith out for the extra attacker. After a scoreless overtime including 4-on-3 power plays for each team, the B’s got shootout goals from Spooner, Frank Vatrano and Brad Marchand to pull out a 4-3 victory that doesn’t count in the standings.

The biggest news on the night was the loss of captain Zdeno Chara in the first period. He made contact with Rangers forward Ryan Bourque (youngest son of B’s legend Ray). The play did not look like much, but Chara left the ice after 1:57 in three shifts and did not return. The team announced him out with an “upper body injury” and did not have an update after the game.

It goes without saying that should the B’s lose Chara for any extended period of time after already being without veteran Dennis Seidenberg for the first two months of the regular season, they are in trouble deep. We’ll find out soon enough, I guess. But for now- the positives:

Ryan Spooner- Boston’s 23-year-old pivot scored the equalizer when the Rangers allowed him to walk in from the right half-wall to the top of the circle where he sent a low shot through several guys in front. The puck was on target at Rangers goalie Jeff Malcolm’s five-hole and gave the B’s a shot at OT with less than a minute remaining. Spooner followed that up in the shootout with a nice snipe after making a quick hip fake as he came in at an oblique angle before beating Malcolm far side over the blocker. If you like pure speed and skill, Spooner has plenty of both. He’s figuring out who he is as an NHL center and as long as he’s scoring and working hard, Claude Julien will be happy with him, even if he doesn’t always make the right decisions or plays in his own end.

Joe Morrow- The Pens first-rounder in 2011 had a good game, blasting a shot from the point that Tyler Randell tipped home to give the B’s a 1-0 lead while playing a good aggressive transition game and hustling back, blocking shots and playing hard on defense. He made a particularly good play to sacrifice his body late in regulation to block a shot that could have put the game out of reach just before Spooner tied it. He nearly won it in the final second when he jumped in from the point and fired a rebound on net, but the shot hit Bourque and did not go. He was solid in OT, poised when the B’s were down a man and then later working the point well with fellow D-man Colin Miller. If this was a statement game that Morrow wants to play in the NHL full-time this season, he made it.

Austin Czarnik- I said this on Twitter: he’s a player. I’m liking the Michigan native and former Miami University captain more and more each time I see him, and I had a lot of time for him when he was in the NCAA. He was instrumental on Boston’s second goal- anticipating that a Rangers clearing attempt would not get past the blue line and turning on the jets to zoom into the zone and get to the puck first. He then walked to the middle of the slot and fired a shot that hit the post. Jimmy Hayes had fallen down in front of the net and appeared to interfere with the goalie Malcolm, but the puck squirted out and defenseman Brandon Carlo buried it. In the regular season, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault would be able to mount a coach’s challenge on that play, and he probably would win, but not tonight. Back to Czarnik- he might be small, but he’s so fast, smart and creative with the puck. He’s always making something happen. I thought Julien should have put him out for the 4-on-3 Boston had at the end of OT. As it stood, he was finally put out in the last 11 seconds and the B’s mounted a furious assault on the Rangers net with him out there buzzing around…coincidence? I think not. I’m still surprised that the Bruins were able to beat out other suitors for this guy, but you can see why other teams were on Czarnik, at least.

Frank Vatrano- Providence fans watching these games have to be getting excited for the duo of Vatrano and Czarnik…they are making for a magical little pair of skilled offensive players. Vatrano played a solid game, but he scored a jaw-dropping goal in the shootout when he rifled a top shelf shot past Malcolm high to the glove side. On the reverse angle, you could see the puck just explode off Vatrano’s stick in a blur…that’s the vaunted release I’ve been oozing over. But the tiny little spot in the upper corner he then hit…with Malcolm in position to make the glove save…this is a kid who is a pure goal scorer with a move like that. The only thing better would have been if it came against Henrik Lundqvist.

Jeremy Smith- If you looked at the box score, you might think Smitty had a tough night. Not so. Yes, he was beaten for a couple of goals that he wanted back, especially the one he got a piece of but knocked into his own net. However, with the game on the line, he dug in and got the job done. I like his talent and mental toughness…I have little doubt that Smith can be an effective backup, but as a player who’s never seen a second of regular season NHL action, there’s some risk associated with him. However- the more you watch him, the more you realize that he’s a competitor and can probably play at this level. Whether the B’s are willing to accept that risk or go with the safer bet in Jonas Gustavsson…that’s what we’ll find out in the remaining preseason contests.

Colin Miller- He had another strong preseason game, showing off the big-time shot, passing and skating skills he was noted for. I saw someone say on Twitter at some point that the Kings hitching their wagon to Slava Voynov over Miller might have been a huge mistake. I guess we shall soon see, but he has that instinctive, aggressive and attacking mindset when he gets the puck. He was dropping bombs from the point in OT and with Morrow, the two did a nice job of keeping the puck away from the Rangers PKers. If Miller can translate his solid preseason play and production in the NHL going forward, this will have been one of those trades that benefits both teams. Milan Lucic is very likely going to go off in Tinseltown in a contract year and new setting back on the West Coast where he is happiest, so Miller’s success will be a big win for Boston if it comes together for him.

Tyler Randell- One tough motha…he got things going with a deflection of Morrow’s point shot in the first period. Then followed it with a spirited fight with Brett Bellemore that was pretty one-sided with Randell scoring some big blows before the takedown. Randell did not complete the Gordie Howe hat trick, but it was a solid showing from the 2009 sixth-rounder, whose skating has held him back, but has a nice set of hands for scoring the odd goal on occasion and fighting.

Brandon Carlo- When the B’s made some cuts today, the 18-year-old Tri-City Americans defender was not one of them, a nice vote of confidence. He had a solid outing, scoring a goal by stepping up from the blue line in the third period to pull his team to within one.  He’s got a long reach and does a good job of keeping opponents to the outside. He’s still pretty raw and will get a lot better, but this has been a nice camp experience for him so far.

Brad Marchand- It was nice to see him back together with Patrice Bergeron again. Marchand used his speed and shiftiness all night, but came through at the end when he put an off-speed shot through Malcolm’s leg in the shootout to secure the win. He was wearing an ‘A’ tonight.

Zac Rinaldo- Another game, another standout performance in terms of energy and getting under the opposition skin. He was running around drilling Rangers in the third period, and drew the attention of New York tough guy Tanner Glass. Rinaldo declined Glass’ offer to dance, but then nailed Tommy Hughes with a clean but big-time hit that sent the Ranger flying. Glass went right after Rinaldo and got assessed the roughing minor. Rinaldo is a punk…but he’s Boston’s punk. You shouldn’t play the game like you have eggs in your pockets, but at the same time, Rinaldo has to watch the line and not skate over it. Some people will always have problems with the way he plays, but in two preseason matches, he’s been effective at doing his thing. Time will tell if he can prevent the meltdowns that have contributed to his negative perception around the league, and he came mighty close to penalized for contact with a linesman, who was escorting him to the Boston bench.

The B’s sent Zach Senyshyn back to Sault Ste Marie of the OHL today, along with defenseman Jeremy Lauzon, who returned to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL but was not in their opening night roster against the Quebec Remparts. Goalie Daniel Vladar (Chicago-USHL) and Prince George (WHL) forward Jesse Gabrielle were also returned to their junior clubs.

Colby Cave and Colton Hargrove were sent to Providence, along with AHL contract guys Andrew Cherniwchan, Eric Neiley, Frankie Simonelli, Max Everson, Max Iafrate and Matt Ginn.

Throwback Thursday: Andy Moog

Andy Moog's signature Bruins mask, made by Middleton, Mass. mask maker Dom Malerba of Pro's Choice (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Andy Moog’s signature Bruins mask, made by Middleton, Mass. mask maker Dom Malerba of Pro’s Choice (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Here’s another old gem I wrote for the New England Hockey Journal a decade+ ago, but the information former Bruins goalie Andy Moog relayed to me is still relevant in 2015. It was interesting hearing him talk about how in his day, goalie mistakes could be overcome with a prolific offense, but not so much anymore. It’s also great to read about how Rejean “Reggie” Lemelin was a mentor to him, helping Moog take his game to another level while he was with the Bruins.

This is why talk of trading Tuukka Rask is silly…even if you don’t like his cap hit, unless you are certain that one of Malcolm Subban, Zane McIntyre, Jeremy Smith or Daniel Vladar is going to give you that top-level game that Rask does, he’s not going anywhere. And- to point out that he’s never won the “big one” is disingenuous- the NHL has plenty of elite goalies who have not won Stanley Cups (say hey there, Henrik Lundqvist and Pekka Rinne)

When I was a kid growing up in the 80’s, I liked Moog during his Edmonton days, and it was a thrill for me at age 16 when he was traded to Boston after the 1988 Olympics. He was traded to the Dallas Stars in 1993 (along with Gord Murphy) for Jon Casey– not one of Harry Sinden’s better moves. Not that Moog could have stemmed the slide of the B’s into mediocrity in the mid-90’s, but it might have been an easier pill for the team to swallow in lieu of the revolving door of goalies until Byron Dafoe (briefly) stabilized the position from 1997-02.

Getting a chance to meet and talk to Moog on a professional level was a lot of fun for this old story in particular. He has since held NHL goaltending coach jobs and is now working in the Dallas-area media with Fox Sports Southwest during Dallas Stars home broadcasts. Enjoy the article.

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For nearly six seasons between 1988-1993, if you were in attendance at the Boston Garden and number 35, Andy Moog, was between the pipes for the Boston Bruins, you might have joined in the signature “Mooooooooooog!” cheers that resounded through the confines of the blessed old barn each time the Penticton, British Columbia native made a save for the Black and Gold.

For much of Moog’s career as a Boston Bruin, he shared the netminding duties with veteran Rejean Lemelin, and for a time, the two formed arguably the best goaltending tandem in the National Hockey League, a claim they backed up by winning the 1990 Jennings Trophy, awarded to the goaltender(s) who allow the fewest goals in the regular season. Moog appeared in 261 games as a Bruin, winning 136 and ranks second only to Gerry Cheevers in franchise history for playoff games played and victories, with 70 and 36 respectively.

Since his trade to the Dallas Stars on June 20, 1993, and subsequent retirement from the NHL in 1998 after one season with the Montreal Canadiens. Moog has stayed in the professional hockey business by serving as a goaltending consultant for the Atlanta Thrashers and Vancouver Canucks, while also holding the position of Owner and President of the Fort Worth Brahmas of the Western Professional Hockey League.

Moog came to the Bruins on March 7, 1988 after leaving the Stanley Cup Champion Edmonton Oilers the previous summer for the Canadian Olympic Program and a better opportunity to start. Boston General Manager Harry Sinden traded Geoff Courtnall, who had scored 32 goals in 62 games with the Bruins that season, adding young goaltender Bill Ranford and a draft pick to seal the deal that brought the player considered to be the best outside of the NHL in Moog. Moog was 28-years old at the time of the trade and had grown tired of being the backup behind teammate Grant Fuhr in Edmonton.

“My leaving (the Oilers) was all about opportunity,” Moog told the New England Hockey Journal. “I felt that I could be a starter elsewhere, and after three championships in Edmonton, I believed that the time was right for me to become the player and leader I knew I could be. With the goaltending situation in Edmonton being what it was, I realized that it wasn’t going to happen for me there.”

The Moog acquisition caught a lot of people by surprise because it had been rumored that the Pittsburgh Penguins and GM Eddie Johnston were all but locked up in a deal to secure Moog’s rights to help get them into the postseason. In the end, the price Oiler GM Glen Sather wanted for the diminutive but skilled goaltender was too high and Johnston backed out, allowing Sinden and the Bruins to acquire the player they felt could be an outstanding presence in the Boston nets for a long time.

Although it took some time for Moog to firmly grasp the starters’ reins from Lemelin in Boston, the older and more experienced Lemelin added some longevity to Moog’s career while the two shared the goaltending duties for the Bruins. By serving as a mentor to the younger Moog, Lemelin imparted veteran wisdom and goaltending techniques that his teammate absorbed and used effectively throughout his career in Boston, Dallas and Montreal.

“When I arrived in Boston, I had yet to take my game to another level,” Moog said. “I was a goaltender who relied on my quickness and agility to get the job done, but I lacked the consistency in my game that I strived for. From watching Reggie (Lemelin) play, I learned a great deal of the strategy and technical side of goaltending. It wasn’t the kind of relationship where he was teaching me how to play the position, but I credit him with showing me how to play consistent hockey and perform at a higher level than when I first arrived in Boston.”

Moog and Lemelin were indeed a formidable duo in net that gave the Boston Bruins superb netminding at critical times from 1988-1992. While Moog spent much of Boston’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals in the spring of 1988 as a spectator watching Lemelin steal games from the Canadiens and New Jersey Devils, he rebounded in spectacular fashion two years later while spearheading the Bruins’ charge to the finals, turning in stellar outings against the Hartford Whalers, Canadiens, and Washington Capitals. Although Moog’s Bruins came up short in both finals appearances against the Edmonton Oilers, it was the superb goaltending that got the team that far in both the 1988 and 1990 postseason campaigns.

Perhaps it was Moog’s tremendous individual performances against the longtime Boston nemesis, the Montreal Canadiens that won the hearts of so many of the Bruins faithful during his tenure. Although Moog had a history of playing well against the Canadiens before even coming to Boston, it was while he was wearing the Black and Gold that his most memorable moments against the Habs occurred.

“I was well-accustomed to hockey rivalries because of the Oilers-Flames wars I saw firsthand before my trade to Boston,” Moog said. “That Alberta rivalry we had while I was in Edmonton prepared me well for the pressure that you feel when you go into those kinds of games. One of the first things I heard about when I became a Bruin was how much the Boston teams had struggled against Montreal over the years. To be able to win several playoff series in Boston against the Canadiens was a great feeling because I knew how important it was for the Bruins fans to savor those moments that had been so long in the making.”

Moog also has the interesting perspective of seeing things from the other angle after he signed with the Canadiens as a free agent in the summer of 1997 and spent one season wearing the bleu, blanc, et rouge and going up against the Bruins in 3 games going 1-2 with a GAA of 2.53.

Said Moog, “To experience the Boston-Montreal rivalry from both sides was a very enriching experience for me. Having the chance to play in two tremendous hockey cities with the kinds of passionate and knowledgeable fans there is definitely something I cherish, especially now when I reflect back upon my career and realize how fortunate I was to play for such quality teams.”

In the 1990, 1991 and 1992 postseasons, Moog shut down the high-powered Canadiens’ offense, backstopping the Bruins to victories in five, seven and four games in their best-of-seven series. According to him, the 1990 playoff drive was the most memorable of his career.

“We had put it all together,” Moog said of that magical night that the Bruins closed out the Habs on home ice with a late Glen Wesley goal and Cam Neely empty-netter in Game 5 of the Adams Division Final. “We had a talented offense, and tremendous defense. We won the Jennings Trophy and Ray Bourque was arguably the best player in the league. We were a great team and we should have gone all the way. You know, the one true regret I had about my career was not winning that final series in 1990. I wanted nothing more than to help bring the Stanley Cup to the people of Boston and Bruins fans everywhere.”

Moog’s 1990 playoff run earned him the starting nod in Boston for the next three seasons until his draft day trade to Dallas for Jon Casey in 1993. For Moog, the trade came as a bit of a surprise, but he understands why the Bruins made the deal. “Harry (Sinden) had a couple of reasons for being mad at me,” said Moog. “For one, I was the (NHLPA) player rep for the Bruins, but another reason for his displeasure was my performance in the 1993 playoffs.”

Moog’s struggles in the 1993 postseason were magnified because at the other end of the ice, his opponent in goal was none other than Grant Fuhr, the player whose shadow he sought to get out from in Edmonton six years before. Despite Boston’s ability to generate offense, Buffalo was able to score almost at will. Brad May’s overtime goal in Game Four, when he beat both Bourque and Moog to knock the Bruins out of the playoffs, was the low point of Moog’s career in Boston, and on June 20, Sinden sent him packing to Dallas, where he would stay until the end of the 1996-97 season before signing with Montreal for his 18th NHL campaign. When Moog finally called it quits, he was able to step back and take a good look at what separated the goaltending position in the 80’s, a time when scoring was up, as opposed to 1998, where goaltending dominance had become a major issue in the NHL.

“If there was one thing that truly affected goalies back in the 80’s when I first started playing, it was the fact that you were allowed to make a mistake because the offense was there to bail you out,” Moog said. “Today, goalies can’t make the same kind of mistakes because scoring is down all over the league. Right now, the offense is just not there, so when you can sustain a high level of performance stopping pucks, you deserve the accolades that come with it.”

Since retirement, Moog has remained close to the game by working with NHL netminders as a goaltending consultant, while also serving as the Owner and President of the WPHL’s Fort Worth Brahmas franchise. Although life is much different for him now than it was when he was a player, in the four seasons since Moog last put the pads on in Montreal, he has come to appreciate his hockey playing experiences more than he ever thought he would. For him, knowing that he was able to emerge as the starter in Boston and play the game at such a high level while wearing the spoked B is to this day, an honor.

“In hindsight, the most enjoyable part of playing for the Bruins was how the fans treated me,” said Moog. “The people of Boston and Bruins fans everywhere as well as my teammates over the years- they all combined to make my time there a special one. I only hope that the fans appreciated what I was able to do on the ice as much as I appreciated the opportunity to be a Boston Bruin. It was a great ride.”

During his relatively short time in Boston, Moog established himself as one of the top money goaltenders in the game, and despite never having backstopped his Bruins teams to the ultimate prize in two finals and two semi-finals appearances over his five full seasons and one partial campaign, Andy Moog remains to this day, one of the most beloved figures in recent Boston Bruins history.

***

Andy Moog's 1990 Stanley Cup Final series home jersey (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Andy Moog’s 1990 Stanley Cup Final series home jersey (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Seidenberg to miss 8 weeks; opportunity knocks for Miller, Morrow

The Boston Bruins announced this morning that veteran defenseman Dennis Seidenberg will undergo surgery tomorrow to repair a herniated disc in his back.

While losing one of the team’s experienced defenders is another step backwards for the B’s, who traded Dougie Hamilton in the offseason, it means for the first two months of the season and perhaps longer, the club will be able to better determine if youngsters Colin Miller or Joe Morrow are ready for primetime.

Miller impressed in his first preseason game Sunday night, notching a pair of power play assists in Boston’s 2-0 win against New Jersey in Providence. He showed off the kind of mobility that Boston desperately needs, moving the puck accurately and using his lateral movement to open up lanes through the Devils’ PK.

Morrow was not as productive last night in the B’s 2-1 OT win over Washington at home, but played a strong game from the back end as well. He’s always been a fine skater and puck mover going back to his WHL days at Portland, but in 15-game audition in Boston last season, Morrow seemed to play more inside of a defensive shell. If the B’s can unshackle him and let him accept a little more risk by doing what he does best- taking the puck and going with it- the team might be able to address the capability gaps opened up with Hamilton’s departure.

Seidenberg out of the lineup means the team does not have to make tougher choices based on who has to go on waivers (Trotman, Morrow, Kevan Miller) and who doesn’t (Colin Miller). If worried about losing a player on the waiver wire, the B’s can now hold onto the players and carry them without the hand being forced. They will have to allocate the cap hit associated with every player on the roster, however- and that’s something to keep an eye on.

We wish Seidenberg well in a speedy recovery, but as of today- Boston’s opening night defense depth chart might look a bit like this (should the Bruins opt to carry 8 defenders as Claude Julien hinted at this week):

Zdeno Chara

Torey Krug

Zach Trotman

Adam McQuaid

Matt Irwin

Colin Miller

Joe Morrow

Kevan Miller

B’s-Caps game notes: Pasta night at TD Garden

The Boston Bruins played their second preseason game of the exhibition schedule, getting both goals compliments of David Pastrnak in a 2-1 OT win against the visiting Washington Capitals.

We got our first game look at new Bruin Matt Beleskey, who skated on a line with Czech Davids- Krejci (with both helpers on the goals) and Pastrnak.

There wasn’t a great deal of flow to this one, and the game was scoreless in the first 40 minutes before getting some offense in the final frame. Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre combined to make 26 stops and secure the win, making the B’s 2-0 in exhibition play.

Here are some notes on the players who caught my attention:

Goaltenders

Malcolm Subban- Solid outing for the 21-year-old, as he stopped all 17 of the shots he faced in 29:43 of action. He seemed to be a little hopped up at first, but settled in nicely and made one memorable shorthanded stop on Jay Beagle, showcasing his natural blend of quickness and power. Subban has come a long way from when he first turned pro and was all over the place technique-wise. He still plays deep in his net, but when you’re as fluid and fast as he is, it isn’t as much of a glaring deficiency as some would have you believe. Even with the 100 percent save percentage- there are still plenty of things to work on, and there’s no better way to do that than down in the AHL as opposed to sitting at the end of the Boston bench.

Zane McIntyre- He was beaten on what appeared to be a screen by Nate Schmidt’s seeing eye shot during a Caps PP but other than that, the first year pro handled business, stopping 9 of 10 shots he faced. He’s a lot more together stylistically than he used to be, employing better economy of motion in his game and letting the puck hit him more than he did earlier in his junior and college careers. The NCAA’s top goalie has not looked out of place so far, but it’s pretty evident that he’s not ready to be an NHL backup and will benefit from the playing time and seasoning in the minors.

Defense-

Linus Arnesson- He looked very good in both rookie games and had another effective, unspectacular outing tonight. He’s a smooth skater who plays with a maturity and poise beyond his years when it comes to his own end. He understands positioning and can get the puck out quickly. I don’t see much in the way of an attacking defender who will put up a lot of points, but he can get up the ice well enough and will be able to evolve into an effective penalty killer because of his feet and defensive awareness. He is what he is, I think- just a solid defenseman who will give you a good effort and consistent, steady play. He doesn’t need to be rushed into the NHL lineup, nor should he be viewed as a real difference maker when he eventually arrives in Boston. Put simply- you win with guys like Arnesson, but fans should avoid making him into something he is not: a top-level two-way D.

Torey Krug- The Michigander was wearing an ‘A’ on his sweater and that will soon become a permanent accessory on his game attire. He’s skating with a lot of confidence and bringing that edge that is important for him even if he doesn’t possess ideal NHL size. With Krug it’s about smarts and effort- he’s getting better with his reads and making the right decisions under pressure, and nobody will outwork him for a puck, even if they might be able to win a physical battle. I could go on and on, but won’t- he’s going to keep improving and for those who haven’t figured it out yet- be a core contributor to Boston’s fortunes for a long time. He led all blue liners in ice time tonight with nearly 24 minutes and his regular season time will surely increase as he eases into that top-four role he’s earning each day with his work on and off the ice.

Kevan Miller- If people are looking for excuses to write off this free agent find and former captain at the University of Vermont, Miller isn’t giving much room there. He played his brand of physical hockey, keeping things simple and preventing the Caps from getting much going offensively with some hits and good breakups. The Californian is a no-frills, bottom-pairing kind of guy, but he’s tough and cheap. He’s back after missing the second half of the year with shoulder surgery.

Joe Morrow- I liked his game tonight. Morrow is at his best when using his piston-like stride to vault up the ice and push the offensive pace from the back end. He’s got to do a better job of hitting the net with that big point drive of his, but you can see the way he can make tough passes with relative ease and Morrow brings the much needed mobility and puckhandling skills to the defense if he can make the big club and stick.

Forwards

David Pastrnak- Scored Boston’s regulation goal with a flourish after taking a Krejci pass and beating Philipp Grubauer with a nifty backhand. He followed that up by scoring the OT goal in 3-on-3 play just 12 seconds in, securing the win. He’s tracking to be a special player- he’s got that rare blend of natural talent plus the attitude, work ethic and charisma to be a franchise presence in Boston. We saw it in flashes last year as a rookie. This time around, as long as he can stay healthy, he’ll score with more regularity, but the big breakout is on the short horizon. It’s hard not to get caught up in the hype with this kid (and he is a kid- just turned 19 in May), but if you’ve been around him for just 30 seconds, you can see why the B’s treasure him (and why, in 2017- they’ll be opening up the checkbook- big time).

Anton Blidh- What is Claude Julien to do? This guy looks like the real deal for your bottom line right wing position, even with the veterans under contract. The Swedish sixth-rounder in 2013 brings a lot of speed, tenacity and relentless forechecking to the mix, even if he may lack the offensive toolbox to be a top-six forward at this level. He was grinding it out early, drawing penalties and attracting notice for his verve and finishing of checks when there wasn’t a lot of flow to this game. Because he can be sent down without being placed on waivers, chances are- Blidh (pronounced “bleed”) will begin the year in Providence. However, if he keeps playing like this, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make the team as a 13th forward.

Austin Czarnik- Carried over his strong showing at the rookie tournament in Buffalo in this one. Little waterbug is so fast, skilled with the puck but shows off the little things away from the puck as well that should endear him to the Boston and Providence coaches. As a player who was skipped over in the draft because of his size, he’s going to have to put in twice the effort, but if the early signs are any indication, Czarnik will be an immediate impact performer for Butch Cassidy and might even play his well into an appearance or two with Boston sooner than anyone thinks. With the team so deep with centers, his time might have to be down the road, but plenty to like here.

Zach Senyshyn- He didn’t have any points tonight, but I continue to like with the big, eager winger brings to the table. With his long, loping stride- he’s rangy and gets up and down the ice so well that he can catch defenders flat-footed if they don’t watch their gaps with him. The Soo Greyhound just needs to keep things simple- take pucks to the net and do the things he’s known for and that got him 26 goals playing on the lower lines in the OHL. The more people who see him play, the less we hear about what a “reach” he was because you can’t teach his size or willingness.

Alex Khokhlachev- It was a mixed bag for him. I thought he looked pretty poor on Boston’s first power play opportunity but he seemed to relax as the game went on and showed his talent off in flashes. Again- flashes aren’t enough, here- he’s got to find ways to produce and pointing to the linemates is just making excuses at some point. If you want to beat out the guys ahead of you on the depth chart, you have to leave the coaches with little choice but to keep you- has he really done that in the two games thus far? Not enough to the degree needed, in my view.

David Krejci- If the B’s get this healthy version of their longtime top-2 center, then they’re on the right track this year. You figured he would come back hungry and motivated after last year essentially being a wash and he was on it tonight, with two primary assists on the only goals his team produced. Now, we’ve seen just 4 goals in two exhibition wins for the B’s, but in this one, you wanted to see some offense from the club’s top unit and they delivered. It’s pretty cool to think that when a young David Pastrnak was looking up at his room’s wall in Havirov and seeing a photo of Krejci pinned up there, he probably never imagined he would one day be getting the puck direct from his hockey hero. That one is just entering his prime and the other has a world of talent to take full advantage is an exciting thought for Boston fans.

Justin Hickman- Dropped the gloves in the second period against Tyler Lewington and scored the takedown after some punches exchanged, but that’s the toughness and presence that the former Seattle Thunderbirds captain was expected to bring. His skill is a work in progress, and he’ll likely not be a major factor down in Providence this season as he’ll gravitate towards the grunt work as he gets acclimated to that level, but he skates well enough and brings the kind of physicality that the B’s value. Watch for him to develop into a Providence fan fave pretty quickly, and he’ll score some nice goals down there, even if they don’t come in bunches.

Frank Vatrano- He came close to scoring in the first when the B’s were on the PP with that shot of his…ooh la la. What can you say? The kid’s release and heavy, accurate drive is just sublime. He’s getting quicker and will round out the rest of his game as he’s allowed to develop in the minors. B’s just might have a real homegrown diamond-in-the-rough here.

Matt Beleskey- Oof. He’ll get better, but it looked like he was trying a little too hard. He did win kudos early in going to Krejci’s defense in a scrum- he’s not afraid to stick his nose in and defend teammates even if he doesn’t have Milan Lucic’s size or toughness. Needs to go have fun, loosen up on the stick and cut down on the turnovers/forcing of the play. You see the chemistry that Krejci and Pastrnak already have- he’ll benefit from it too, if he just lets the play come to him a bit and doesn’t overthink it. This is why we have a preseason schedule…

Addendum to Khokhlachev observations

I went back and looked at film of last night’s 2-0 preseason win for the Bruins before work this morning just to make sure I wasn’t being too hard on Boston center Alex Khokhlachev. I don’t think I was unfair, but I do want to drill down a bit and focus on what I saw last night so as to generate a more honest discussion.

I don’t want this to turn into a “he’s a hater” kind of situation because Koko deserves credit for some strong play in a game where a lot of players were still shaking the rust off. I also feel like sometimes there is this echo chamber where the kid can do no wrong and a certain segment of fans can’t get past this desire for him to be on the Boston roster, regardless of whether he currently has the attributes and 200-foot game to make it work, or not so much. And, let’s be honest here- there’s only a few opinions that matter enough to influence Koko’s current situation: that of the Boston Bruins brass and coaches.

So, in the spirit of debate, here is some additional analysis, and believe me- I welcome disagreement here. We’d live in a mighty boring world if everyone agreed with what everybody else had to say on a topic. And whether you think this is right, wrong or something else entirely- I appreciate you taking the time to read it.

What he should sustain: The kid can play hockey. He was visibly skating hard and hustling…that deserves specific mention, because he’s always played the game with noteworthy energy and exuberance. I saw a couple of instances, especially in the first period, where his effort resulted in underrated moves at his own blue line to spring the break out by not hurrying the play and taking what was given to him. I also felt that he put in a good effort on the defensive side of the puck- he’s getting there and he deserves the opportunity to show what he can do in a lot of different situations.

Koko is not a burner on the ice, but he’s got some nifty agility and a very good short-area burst, which makes him so slippery and tough to contain when he starts jitterbugging back and forth with the puck. My issue with him sometimes is that he overhandles it and in turn, passes up available space when a less is more approach might work out better. He’s quick and aggressive- you could see that last night as he was looking to transition to the attack every time he was around the puck. At the same time, he still needs to recognize when the windows of a scoring chance open up and capitalize on those.

He’s one of the most creative players on the Bruins and you could see that from him last night. It didn’t pay dividends, but there were a couple of plays early on where he and Seth Griffith combined in the offensive zone on some quick developing chances. Unfortunately for Koko, hockey is a results-oriented business and he didn’t cash in.

What needs improvement: As I mentioned in the recap- for all the hustle, he didn’t get a great deal accomplished last night. All of the skill and talent in the world isn’t going to get you far if you can’t find a way to break through and actually score/finish off the play. Koko obviously needs more time and opportunities to shine in Boston- but if you’re coming to the table and using his offensive abilities as the big selling point- even the most ardent supporter has to grudgingly admit that he was given the ice time last night and was unable to make that lasting impression on the score sheet.

The creativity with Koko is key, but I believe he has a tendency to overthink and try things less likely to work instead of making a simple play and allowing it develop into something more dangerous. We saw it from him a few times last night when instead of dishing at the blue line when the Devils D was backing in or at least trying to move the puck as he approached the top of the circles, he held onto the puck and was forced around the back of the net where the defense was able to re-set.

Koko is entering his fourth full season as a pro and I’m not sure that he’s figured out yet that sometimes playing that straight ahead game beats getting cute or trying a lower percentage play just because he can.

I would like to see the B’s try Koko out with wingers who bring more speed to the mix. He and Griffith are a little similar in that they are smaller players who don’t possess the dynamic, game-breaking speed you want from guys of their style. As a result, the two sometimes have a tougher time gaining separation, and therefore have to rely on their hands and hockey IQ to make plays. A speedier linemate would allow Koko to stretch the ice more with his great passing ability and then trail the play into the offensive zone as the defense collapses back, giving him more time and space to operate where he is most dangerous.

The last word: I don’t have a problem with Koko centering Boston’s bottom line, but he needs to win that position on something more than simply the argument that he’s more talented than other bottom-liners ergo- he should have the job. I know this might come as a shock to some observers out there, but there’s a lot more to building a winning team than simply plugging in the most talented players and sending them out there. I’m not trying to be facetious here- but some players are simply better suited to the demands and responsibilities of playing on the penalty killing units and garnering the tougher, more physical assignments that fourth lines typically face when matching up against opposition lower lines.

Koko has a world of potential. By virtue of his offensive prowess and the fact that the B’s went out of character to draft a Russian player earlier than they had since the Yury Alexandrov experiment didn’t work out, people are excited about him. I’ve watched him enough to know that he’ll go long stretches in games without accomplishing a whole lot, but can then break things open with a memorable shift or three. Unfortunately, that has meant that he has not been able to crack the Boston lineup at center, where the club is deep and more is expected at that position than simply scoring and playing a flashy style.

Will the B’s give him a chance? That is not for me to say, though if he keeps working hard and finds ways to put up points with the solid play, he’ll do more to earn a spot on the team than he will standing in front of reporters and lamenting the lack of opportunities he feels he’s not been given to date. At the same time, the team should have learned a valuable lesson about handling assets from the way things went with Ryan Spooner last year. Leadership should sit Koko down and make it clear to him that they see him as part of the solution in Boston if that is truly the case. If not, then the latest might have sped up the timetable on the next shoe to drop.

Skill alone is not enough of a reason to simply grab a spot on the team, even if the video game-playing set can go out and score 50 goals with him on skating on the bottom line. It would be one thing if he was tearing it up and outplaying everyone ahead of him on the depth chart, but can anyone really argue with a straight face that he has? In fairness- it is still very early, so with six more exhibition games ahead before the start of the regular season, we shall soon see how serious Boston is about getting him into the mix and seeing if he can, in fact, win a spot on the NHL club to begin the year.

As dying Ranger Captain John Miller said to the young man he was charged to bring home in Saving Private Ryan: “Earn this.”

Of course, in Koko’s case, that might end up being a whole lot easier said than done.

B’s blank Devils in first preseason game of 2015-16

Hockey is back!

Just a couple of days after the NHL opened up main training camps around the league, the exhibition games started, with the Boston Bruins taking on the New Jersey Devils in a home game at Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence R.I. Sunday evening.

The Black and Gold got a pair of power play goals from free agent addition Matt Irwin on defense, as he and fellow blue liner Colin Miller made strong cases for themselves in the first real glimpse fans got of them. Goaltenders Jonas Gustavsson and Jeremy Smith split the game down the middle and combined to pitch the shutout, with Gustavsson making 18 saves and keeping the Devils from taking advantage of a quicker start.

It was just one preseason game, but Boston’s biggest area of concern going into the season is on defense- and the performances of Irwin and Miller might be bringing that picture into focus more.

And here are the player notes (not quite covering everyone):

Boston Bruins

Goaltenders

Jonas Gustavsson- The Monster did not let anything by him on his watch, though he did knock the puck into his own net after Adam Henrique gloved down a drive inside the crease. Referee Chris Rooney was on hand to waive the goal off, however. The veteran Swedish netminder did a good job of staying square to the shooter and tracking the puck during his 30 minutes of action last night. As is the case with him on occasion, he got overly aggressive and came out of his net, nearly getting caught for what would have been an open net goal during one sequence in the second period, but his defense bailed him out. This was the kind of performance Gustavsson was looking for as a player in camp on a PTO- he has NHL experience and the ability/mentality to be the right kind of backup for Tuukka Rask.

Jeremy Smith- Came in halfway through the second period and picked up where Gustavsson left off, doing a nice job of smothering rebounds and using his glove to good effect. People forget, but Smith was once a second-round pick of the Nashville Predators in 2007, so he entered the pro ranks with some promise that he appears to be on the verge of putting together in terms of reaching the NHL. He came into the B’s organization a year ago with hopes of providing a veteran presence in the AHL while Malcolm Subban took on a bigger role for Providence, but “Smitty” played so well that he ended up with a lot more starts than originally planned. He could win the backup job coming out of camp in a few weeks, but he would still represent risk for Boston given his lack of NHL experience.

Defense

Matt Irwin- The former UMass rearguard from British Columbia could not have asked for a better first look in a Boston uniform. Though not a speedster, he moves well laterally and has some impressive offensive instincts. The first goal he scored happened in the second period when he slipped in from the point, took a perfect pass from Ryan Spooner, and put a shot past former Union goalie Keith Kinkaid. His second goal was a point blast after his D partner Miller put a pass right into his wheelhouse, and Irwin didn’t miss. He had eight shots on goal and could have had at least a hat trick if not 4 goals- that’s how involved he was in the play. Don Sweeney talked about how Irwin impressed the team with his power play work on the San Jose Sharks, so credit the pro scouts who recommended him- he did not look out of place. Granted- it’s just one preseason game, but Irwin looks like a player.

Colin Miller- When the B’s traded Milan Lucic to the Kings, Miller was the one piece coming back (not counting Martin Jones– Marty, we hardly knew ye!) that could pay immediate dividends and based on last night, we’ll be seeing Miller in Boston. The first thing that jumps out at you is his skating- he can really scoot, and is capable of pushing the pace when he has the puck. In the offensive zone, he shows a lot of poise and handles the puck with confidence, using his vision and offensive IQ to make the right passes and find open space. He and Irwin were highly effective on the power play all night, as the B’s not only tallied twice, but did a pretty good job of maintaining possession and generating scoring chances, even the ones that didn’t go in. Miller even made a highlight hip check that would have made old school and Hall of Fame B’s defenseman Leo “Billy Boy” Boivin proud.

Miller is still learning the defensive aspect of the game, but Miller brings something the B’s are in desperate need of- speed/mobility and puck skills from the blue line to go with a big, powerful shot. He no doubt impressed Claude Julien, Doug Houda and the Boston coaches last night. He’s a right shot, which makes him even more appealing when it comes to balancing the defense pairs and available talent. Miller delivered the goods last night as advertised with assists on both Irwin goals.

Zach Trotman- It was a solid night for Trotman, who showed off his NHL experience with an effective game in his own end, not allowing much to get by him and using his size/mobility combo to keep the Devils away from the front of his net. It was more of a case of what you see is what you get from Trotman, and while he was not impactful to the degree that Irwin and Miller were, he didn’t hurt himself last night. Being a right shot helps, and he’s been projected as Zdeno Chara’s opening night defense partner. We’ll see how that goes, but for now he’s still tracking.

Jakub Zboril- You can certainly see the skill and potential on display with Boston’s top draft choice in 2015, but he’ll go back to the QMJHL this season with plenty to work on. The first thing that catches your eye is the skating- he powers into top speed with an impressive first few steps and generates enough momentum that he can beat opponents with his glide in open ice before churning up more speed to gain the opposition blue line. He wants the puck and handles it with confidence. I thought there were a few times when he got to running around as a result of missed opportunities to make the simple play, but he’ll get there.

Brandon Carlo- I saw some people singling him out for a strong performance last night, and honestly didn’t really see it. It’s not to say he played poorly- he didn’t, but again- I guess I don’t get the urge to go out of the way to heap praise on a solid player with promise, but who isn’t in any position to win an NHL job this season. This is not a knock on him at all as Carlo’s size and mobility are very good- he has NHL tools and he played a pretty mistake-free game. An old saw says that if you don’t really notice a defenseman then it means he did his job pretty well. He’s got a real active stick, controls his gaps well and is not afraid to throw his body around. He’s looking like a very good value at 37th overall, but no need to rush him- the payoff will come in due time.

Tommy Cross- It was a gritty, energetic performance from the Connecticut native and former high second-round pick of the Bruins in 2007. The Boston College captain has one of the best characters and personalities of anyone, but he hasn’t lived up to his draft position. Even if he makes the NHL (which is a tall order at this stage of his development), it’s hard to envision him doing it as more than a bottom pairing guy , and with the surplus of similar type defenders ahead of him in the pecking order, it’s hard to see it happening for him in Boston. That said, he made good reads, was involved all night and even got into several scraps, including one fight at the end with Seth Helgeson. If his goal was to send a message to the B’s brass that he’s still here and willing to work for it, he certainly succeeded.

Forwards

Ryan Spooner- It was a good game for the projected third-line pivot to begin the season. His primary assist on the winning goal was vintage Spooner- he took the puck over at the right half-wall and used his puck skill and shifty elusiveness to create space for himself while his teammates helped collapse the Devils PK in front of the net. Then, spotting Irwin leaking in from the blue line, got the puck cleanly to him through traffic so he could make a play on it and put the B’s in front. That’s what Boston most needs from Spooner, and he had his speed game going all night, working well with Jimmy Hayes. He solidified his case as a roster regular last night with his overall play, especially with the man advantage.

Alex Khokhlachev- He raised some eyebrows this weekend with his comments about wanting more of a chance to play in Boston. While his sentiments understandable, he didn’t exactly help his case last night. While his supporters and the folks whose answer to any attempt at meaningful debate when it comes to Koko these days seems to be “SKILL!” are no doubt pointing to the flashes of ability he showed last night. I thought that he looked mighty good at not accomplishing a whole heck of a lot against New Jersey, however. Koko is a very good offensive talent…but he’s not as elite as some make him out to be in my mind at least, and he’s got room for improvement…at the tender age of 22. If he (or his agent) is trying to force Boston’s hands for a better situation where he doesn’t have as many impediments to playing center and getting to the NHL is therefore easier, you can get where he’s coming from, but it isn’t like the B’s have buried him. He should be willing to stick it out and continue to work. An injury here or there and he’ll get his chance. But if you’re pointing to last night as proof positive that he’s earned that chance right now, don’t really see it. He’s shown his offensive skill in flashes, but this is a results-oriented business and he didn’t get them last night.

Jimmy Hayes- It was a nice first game for Hayes who went up and down the wing as advertised and helped on Irwin’s second goal by setting up in front of Scott Wedgewood as the point shot came in. He’s not a snarly, physical presence, but Hayes uses his big frame effectively. Spooner nearly hit him with a nifty behind the back pass on a third-period rush that if, on target, likely would have found the back of the net. The Dorchester native certainly looked the part of a Boston Bruin last night.

Brett Connolly- If Hayes played well on Spooner’s left wing, then Connolly did not have a very good showing over on the right. He did not show much in the way of the skating and speed that he’s known to possess and seemed to have a hard time handling the puck cleanly or getting to open spaces. Let’s face it- when you’re the sixth overall pick, and a team gave up two second-round picks for you, a lot more is expected. We can chalk it up to rust and it being the first action of the new season, but Connolly did not send any kind of message that he’s ready to supplant David Pastrnak or Loui Eriksson on the top-two lines. Where’s the beef?

Jake DeBrusk- Boston’s first forward choice showed some good things last night, but he’s clearly not ready for prime time and will go back to Swift Current soon. On the plus side, he’s active in the offensive end and instinctively reacts as the play develops by getting to the right spots on the ice to make something happen. He also played with some jam, as on one third period play, he fired a shot that Wedgewood made a good save on, then went right to Devils defender Eric Gelinas behind the net and got in his face after Gelinas gave him a little tap, with the two engaging in a quick scrum/wrestling match that the refs broke up before it escalated. I liked the feistiness from DeBrusk, because that’s not really his game. He’s a polarizing player because like Connolly, much is expected of him offensively, so he’ll have to translate the flashes of talent into production here soon.

Joonas Kemppainen- At 27, he had the look and feel of a mature, poised pro forward last night. He didn’t make any real eye-opening plays, but did the little things well like protecting the puck, going to the net and supporting his defense when the play went the other way. He’s not going to wow you, but the B’s could do much worse than entrusting a fourth-line spot to him. We’re still getting the book on him, but Kemppainen has the tools at least to compete- we’ll see where the rest of the exhibition season takes him.

Brandon DeFazio- I thought the free agent depth pickup played a real solid game- he was noticeable and played with energy and jam, showing a willingness to do the dirty work and stick up for teammates. Clearly acquired to be one of Providence’s veteran leaders this year, the former Clarkson Golden Knight who got two NHL games in last year with the Vancouver Canucks did not look out of place as a gritty grinder. He looked like he wanted to kill Tuomo Ruutu near the end of the game, which was good- Ruutu took out Seth Griffith with a knee-on-knee hit in the second period and Boston’s prospect did not return, a fact that was not lost on the Bruins. The refs kept DeFazio from engaging Ruutu, but he showed the willingness to battle- I liked what I saw.

Seth Griffith- Tough night for him, as he began the game playing with Koko and the two did combine to generate a couple of nice scoring chances early. Unfortunately, while on the power play in the second period, he took a knee-on-knee hit from Ruutu and that was the end of his night- hopefully, he did not suffer a serious injury on the play, but we’ll soon find out.

Max Talbot- The veteran did his thing, though it is pretty clear that he’ll make his bones on the bottom line and the team won’t get much in the way of offense from him. On the wrong side of 30, he’s lost a step, which means he has to work that much harder to generate scoring opportunities, but he’s still a feisty, savvy defensive player who understands his role and will be a good example for the younger players around him.

Zac Rinaldo- Well, what can you say about the most polarizing of all the new additions in the offseason? He had one memorable play when he took a Ben Sexton pass and blew by Devils defender Reece Scarlett before cranking a shot off the post. Had it gone in, it would have been a highlight reel goal, but even so, it demonstrated that even if Rinaldo lacks the pure skill and hockey sense to be a productive player, he can still put opponents on their heels. When on his game, he plays with energy, hustle and forces opponents to play with their heads on a swivel. That’s a good thing…so long as he does not cross the line. He drew several penalties which is what the Bruins were looking for. When he’s putting his club shorthanded with stupid, undisciplined plays, however- that’s when he’ll get in trouble.

Devils notes

It was the second loss to the Bruins in a week for New Jersey, who appears to be in for another tough season under new head coach John Hynes. Like Boston, they don’t have a great deal of high-end talent, so they have to out-work their opponents and depend on great goaltending from Cory Schneider to steal games for them. I thought both of Kinkaid and Wedgewood played well tonight- they made some stops that kept the score close and their team in the game.

Pavel Zacha was the sixth overall pick in last June’s draft and showed flashes of why that was the case even if he’s still pretty raw yet and didn’t have anything to show for it. He’s got size and skating but used his vision and anticipation nicely on a few plays where he got in behind the defense. With a little more patience, he might have been able to turn those flashes into goals. The Devils sure look like they got a player with him, and while there are sure to be ups and downs, he’s going to make that pick pay off for them.

I was also impressed with forward John Quenneville last night. The Brandon Wheat Kings star had some jump in his play and demonstrated a nice blend of creativity and skill. He was on Boston’s list in 2014, and had Pastrnak not been there, they might have gone with Quenneville at 25. He went to them with the final pick of the first round, 30th overall.

Damon Severson will build on a solid rookie year that saw him get off to a hot start offensively before injuries took a toll. He is mobile, smart and involved in the offensive flow. He was a real power play threat with the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL and will continue to see time with the man advantage in the NHL.