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.

A Farewell to Arms: Milan Lucic

Milan Lucic at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Milan Lucic at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver (Kirk Luedeke photo)

I almost opted not to post this at all, because I do not want to this to turn into a debate about whether he should have been kept or traded, but in the end, I’m using this space to say goodbye to Milan Lucic, one of the more important (if misunderstood in recent years) players for the Boston Bruins over the near decade he skated up and down the left wing and (often) left a trail of tears in his wake.

For those who follow the NHL, Lucic’s body of work is well known, regardless of whether you are a fan of the Boston Bruins or not.

From the moment he arrived to the big league in his first real veteran main camp after the 2007-08 season (more on that later- yes, I know he was drafted in 2006), until draft day this past June when Chris Pronger of all people (it isn’t like I know him- he just happened to sit behind me on the bus headed to the BB&T Center from the hotel in Fort Lauderdale and happened to be checking his phone when I sat down.)  broke the news to me that Lucic had been traded to the Los Angeles Kings for their 2015 first, defenseman Colin Miller and goaltender Martin Jones (since dealt to San Jose for their first in 2016 and college forward Sean Kuraly), Lucic was one of the most visible faces of the Bruins franchise. As the league’s premier power forward in terms of his blend of physical prowess and ability to score, Lucic was far more appreciated outside of Boston by media and fans of other clubs who longed to have a similar presence on their respective teams, but could often only watch helplessly if Lucic was on his game and hurtled around the ice like a wrecking ball, daring anyone to stop him. Alas, in recent years, that version of Lucic, the one who had arrived like a meteor at age 19 on the heels of a Memorial Cup championship, and went supernova in terms of his popularity and impact by the time the B’s captured the 2011 Stanley Cup in his own hometown of Vancouver, had become at times an empty caricature- a player who wanted to intimidate and be that force of nature, but often got caught up in sophomoric displays on and off the ice that detracted from the immense player and person he was capable of being.

By the time the 2015 NHL season came to a merciful end for the B’s, a lot of fans were ready to see Lucic go. To a degree, I understand that. The salary cap has made the folks who cheer for the laundry much more clinical in their assessments, especially when players like Lucic see their salaries rise to the point of being cost prohibitive.

Lucic’s cap hit was too high for what he was bringing to the team, and with unrestricted free agency looming in the summer of 2016, he was due to receive offers seemed certain to go north of $6 million, perhaps as high as $7 million or more- a price that Boston simply could not afford. So, new GM Don Sweeney, recognizing that the timing was right rather than wait and risk an injury that might crater his value, moved him to the one team that has been reported should have been the club that had him all along- the Kings. I get it, I really do. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Rather than recap all of his years in Boston, I thought I would share a lesser-known tale about Lucic- how he almost was not a Bruin in the first place, and also provide some perspective on my own personal connection to him- one that in my mind- transcended the game he played and the job I did to cover the team for New England Hockey Journal.

How it all happened…also- hometown kid makes good

At age 15, no one in the WHL had time for Milan Lucic.

Completely snubbed in the WHL bantam draft, he almost gave up his dreams of playing pro hockey. That’s what quitters do, after all– they make excuses and justify their lack of success as something unattainable in the first place. Not the son of Serbian blue collar parents from Vancouver, though- he got over his disappointment, rolled up his sleeves and went to work in the BCHL, earning his way to the WHL the hard way…with his fists and on occasion- soft hands with the Coquitlam Express. He caught the eye of the Vancouver Giants- the WHL club nearby and by the end of that year, was brought in for one regular season game and a pair of playoff contests. Coach Don Hay saw all he needed to at that point, and Lucic came back for his NHL draft season, spending the entire year in the WHL, and scoring just 9 goals but showing flashes of the talent that would eventually make him one of the the NHL’s most recognizable if polarizing players.

As fate would have it, Boston’s then amateur scouting director was convalescing in his hometown of Vancouver after beating a sudden onset of cancer in his knee and having successful surgery to remove it before it was too late. Unfortunately (or fortunately as this tale will show) for Scott Bradley, he couldn’t travel, and so whereas he would normally be jetting all over North America and Europe at the beginning of the 2005-06 season to watch the top-rated late 1987/1988-born hockey talent, he was stuck at home. As a result, Bradley saw far more Giants games than he would have, and the burly No. 27 whose skating was rough beyond belief but was creating space for his teammates and establishing a reign of terror in the toughest league in the CHL started to grow on him after Bradley saw little early on with Lucic that resembled NHL material. By the time Bradley was cleared to do more work-related travel to scout other areas, Lucic was his guy, a player he believed was only scratching the surface of his potential.

Fast forward to the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. Bradley was still sky-high on Lucic, but so were the Kings, whose guys Bradley had seen at Giants home and way games and guessed were also impressed with his upside. That year, the B’s had a pair of second-round picks- they had traded their own (35) to Washington as part of the 2004 trade for defenseman Sergei Gonchar, but picked up a compensatory selection (37) for not signing bust first-rounder Lars Jonsson from 2000 and then acquired Edmonton’s 50th overall choice as part of the deal that sent Sergei Samsonov to the Oil a few months earlier. Bradley, who had watched the Nashville Predators grab defenseman Cody Franson just a few spots before the B’s a year earlier in the third round, when the team had seriously talked about grabbing him early in the second round instead (they went with Petr Kalus), pushed for Lucic at 37th overall. Yes, he reasoned, it was early, but he was sure to be there, and given his potential payoff, was the best way to ensure the B’s landed him.

However, a disagreement at the table occurred, with several scouts lining up together to argue for talented Russian defenseman Yury Alexandrov there instead. Interim GM Jeff Gorton, in what most folks connected to the game would say was surprising given that his amateur scouting director wanted Lucic there at 37, sided with the area scouts and went with Alexandrov, leaving Bradley to sweat out the next 12 selections in hopes he could get his man at 50. You see, the Kings owned the 48th selection, and all the signs pointed to the fact that they were all set to take Lucic there.

Fate intervened once again, however. A report in the Montreal Gazette quoting former Kings scouting director Al Murray, said that at the time of the 2006 draft, recently hired Kings GM Dean Lombardi felt that the team needed a defenseman, so as their pick came up, he turned to his scouts, most of whom were on the same page and united in their desire to draft Lucic. Instead, the new boss wanted to know who the top defender on their board was, and the answer came back- Joey Ryan of Malden Mass. by way of the Quebec Remparts. The rest, as they say, is history- Ryan to the Kings and two picks later, the Bruins called Lucic’s name to a spontaneous (and loud) ovation of cheers at the old GM Place as many of the Canucks supporters in the place were well acquainted with Lucic from his Giants days.

Many saw the pick of Lucic as a reach at the time. After all, he’d managed a paltry nine goals that season, and even if he was tough- why would you take a player like that in the top-50? Some of those concerns were allayed when we first met Lucic in the bowels of the arena in his Bruins sweater for the first time. He was thrilled and genuinely earnest in his assessment of the situation- being a top-50 NHL pick after being passed over in the WHL lottery felt pretty damn special.

That fall, Lucic came to Boston, but was only allowed to participate in the rookie camp portion. Phil Kessel was dominating the buzz as the team’s top selection and after cratering the year before, the B’s had spent huge in free agency to bring in Zdeno Chara, Marc Savard. With other veterans up front like Shean Donovan, Mark Mowers, Petr Tenkrat (TENKRAT!- sorry inside joke there), Yan Stastny and Jeff Hoggan to name a few, the club sent Lucic and Brad Marchand (taste the irony, eh?) back to their junior clubs without giving them an opportunity to take the ice with the veterans.

I remember talking to Lucic about it after the last rookie camp scrimmage and he was genuinely ticked about it. I recall very clearly him telling me “I skated my bag off” all summer to prepare for main camp…it clearly did not sit well with him that he wasn’t welcome there with the vets. At the same time, he said he understood and would work that much harder to make an impression during the season and be ready to compete in 2007. Therefore, when I said earlier, that he made the Bruins out of his first training camp opportunity- that’s the truth. Like the WHL, he was snubbed his first time out.

We ended up talking a few times while he was still around the team, and he remembered me from the draft. I mentioned in passing that I might not be around to see him at camp in a year because there was a good chance my unit would be sent to Iraq. I recall him stopping what he was doing, getting very serious, and shaking my hand while putting his hand on my shoulder and wishing me luck and safety. He was genuine there, and while I didn’t want to make a big deal of my Army service, it was nice to see a young guy show his appreciation the way he did.

Indeed, my unit was soon after alerted for a deployment (my second) to Baghdad where we would spend 15 months as part of the troop surge in 2007-08. While I was over there, I followed Lucic as best I could- tracking his 30-goal WHL campaign followed by winning the 2007 Memorial Cup. He was named captain of the Giants for the 2007-08 season, but that would not come to pass as he made the Bruins the following fall and went on to post a memorable rookie season with modest scoring (8 goals, 27 points) totals but won the hearts and minds of the Boston faithful with his energy and physicality.

Milan Lucic's Vancouver Giants away sweater worn in the 2007 Memorial Cup tournament (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Milan Lucic’s Vancouver Giants away sweater worn in the 2007 Memorial Cup tournament (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Lucic makes it big in Boston

By the time I returned from my deployment at the end of the 2008 season, I was transferred to the Washington D.C. area over the summer. The Bruins played their last preseason game at Verizon Center against the Washington Capitals (an overtime loss with Manny Fernandez in net). When I walked into the visitors’ dressing room, Lucic was seated over at the far end, still with most of his gear on, but we made eye contact and he immediately bounced up and came across the room to shake my hand and welcome me back. It was a small thing for sure…but for me it was a big thing. Though we did not stay in contact during my tour in Iraq, he remembered that I had been overseas, and seemed extremely glad to see me again. It’s not like I had covered him extensively before I left for the desert, but I guess I made enough of an impression and that simple recognition and act of making a small effort to simply say hello went a long way and tells me a lot about who he is as a person.

That interaction framed all further contact I had with Lucic while covering the team from late 2009 until this past June when he was dealt. Even if not interviewing him as part of the coverage, he would always make time for a friendly chat to catch up, as I am not around the team on a daily basis as the beat reporters are. In short, it was the Milan Lucic I got to know when the cameras and recorders were not turned on that I got to know the best, and will always be grateful for. He was honest, sincere, and even if some of his actions reflected poorly at times, I believe that he tried his best to do the right thing and the emotions of playing on the edge like he did sometimes pulled him over to the wrong side.

So, to make a long post short (and thank you for allowing me to indulge in my own personal accounting here), Lucic will be missed far more than most are letting on. Even if he didn’t fight as often near the end as he had done before…even if he didn’t move his feet with the consistency that a player of his status and cap hit demanded, there were times when he was in a class all his own as a force of nature. Those moments simply weren’t enough for a lot of fans…and the team decided to move on as well. But to me, Lucic symbolizes an important time in Bruins history- as the franchise has won just six total Stanley Cup championships since 1924, he and his 2011 mates established a legacy that will always be respected in Boston. He was the right player, at the right time. His 139 goals, 342 points and 772 penalty minutes in 566 career NHL games with the B’s won’t land him at the top of any of the team’s statistical categories, but they do tell part of the story of a player who wore his heart on his sleeve for eight seasons.

The Kings fans and media, if they haven’t figured it out already, are getting a heck of a player. One, if his career trajectory is to be believed, is probably going to bounce back with the best season of his career. 35 goals is not out of the question, and the Western Conference clubs that used to see Lucic only on occasion are going to quickly tire of him finishing his checks and wreaking havoc.

How do you wrap up a blog post about a player who had such a significant impact in Boston? I can think of no better way than to post this farewell/highlight video made this week by Twitter friend “dafoomie” (who does a lot of great work- you should check out his YouTube channel). The images will capture all I could not, but the shadows grow long and it is time to bring this to a close.

Good luck, Looch- thanks for the memories.

Scouting Dispatches: Twitter mailbag #4

Frank Vatrano, UMass Minutemen (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Frank Vatrano, UMass Minutemen (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Boston Bruins training camp is in full swing after the rookies had their day in Buffalo over the weekend, going 1-0-1 in 2 exhibition games against the Devils and Sabres. Frank Vatrano certainly turned heads with his performance, but now, all eyes are on the B’s veterans who are back and looking to build on last year’s disappointing non-playoff finish.

With that in mind, let’s get to your questions. As always- thanks for sending them along. I try to answer one per person, so if I didn’t get one because you sent multiple entries, try again next time.

If you had to pick one dark horse that’d surprise all and force his way onto roster (now or later in year), who would it be?– Jason Silva @JasonSilva67

Honestly, I’m not sure there are many “dark horses” who are in line for a big opportunity this year unless the bottom falls out of things injury-wise.

We’re getting a closer look at the three first-round picks from 2015 and they all look like they need to go back to junior.

Based purely on the rookie camp, my dark horse is Frank Vatrano– the former UMass standout scored three goals in two games including the OT-winner against the New Jersey rookies when he helped to force a turnover deep in the Devils’ end, then cut right to the net where linemate Austin Czarnik found him with a shot he tipped home. If the B’s suffered an unusual rash of injuries or just wanted a shakeup up front for game or two, Vantrano would be an interesting player up front because of his hands and energy. I cannot say enough how impressive he’s been over the last couple of seasons after playing just one NCAA game in 2013-14.

Realistically speaking, though- we’re probably not going to get a David Pastrnak-like breakthrough this year. Free agent Joonas Kemppainen was signed last spring on the heels of his Finnish league championship run. He’ll turn 28 this year and so I wouldn’t really call him a surprise- the B’s brought him on board I believe with every intention of getting him some time with the big club as a natural center who plays a strong three-zone game. If he makes the roster out of camp, it will be more by design than overachieving on his part.

David Pastrnak, Emil Johansson and Zane McIntyre take a break during 2014 Bruins development camp (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

David Pastrnak, Emil Johansson and Zane McIntyre take a break during 2014 Bruins development camp (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Where do Pasta, Hayes and Connolly play?- Matt Kalin @katomck1981

David Pastrnak is firmly entrenched on David Krejci’s right side for now, and I think the Bruins will try to capitalize on the potential those two have together, not just as fellow Czech Republic natives but because they both bring elite creativity and offensive vision to the mix and Pastrnak’s speed and tenacity is a perfect match for what Krejci brings when on top of his game. Matt Beleskey on that left side filling the spot vacated by Milan Lucic is a good call- he’s not as big as Lucic, but will bring the physicality to help address the loss of time and space ML17 used to bring.

I’ve seen that Jimmy Hayes (normally a RW) is over on the left side flanking Ryan Spooner and Brett Connolly in early B’s camp sessions, and I think that is an intriguing trio for sure. I thought that perhaps the B’s would move Loui Eriksson over to the left side on third line to allow one of Connolly and Hayes to move up to the second line behind Pastrnak (if you slot the Krejci line at the top, that is). However, it looks like Claude Julien and Co. want to keep Eriksson with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, and Eriksson (a left shot) playing on his off-wing.

What’s interesting to me about a Hayes-Spooner-Connolly third line is that this has the potential to be a model example of the new trend towards NHL clubs icing more of a top-9 attack, with three balanced and skilled scoring lines to aggressively attack opposing defenses as opposed to the older top-six/bottom-six design. Connolly was drafted 5 years ago to be a scoring wing, while Hayes is coming off a career-best 19 goals for Florida. Spooner was taken in the same draft as Connolly, and believe me- it wasn’t to be a grinder. If the B’s can figure out how to get enough ice for all three forward units, that third line could give other teams fits, allowing a clamp-down line of Chris Kelly and Max Talbot (and Joonas Kemppainen?) to grind it out and spell the top-9 forwards.

Jared Knight – any NHL upside at all at this point ? Thanks- @pprohaska

If Knight makes the NHL, it will be as a bottom-six, grinding forward in all likelihood.

It’s been a tough road for him over the past three seasons, so the team did him a big favor by getting him out of there and providing a change of scenery. I thought he played with more confidence in the AHL when he went out West, and so I would not rule him out of eventually earning an NHL job. The issue with him is- will he ever justify his draft position as the 32nd overall selection? That might be a bridge too far, as he’s a rugged, hard-working winger but does not appear to have the natural scoring ability to be an NHL-caliber top two line guy.

The deal appeared to be one of those “my bust for your bust” things- where neither Knight nor Zack Phillips, who was quite the hot shot going into the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, sneaking into the late first round, got off on the right foot and things seemed to compound for them. Phillips is more skilled than Knight is, but his lack of pure foot speed works against him. I expect Phillips to be a key cog in Providence’s machine this year, and who knows? If he’s productive enough, he might get a brief look at some point. Realistically, though, like Knight- Phillips is an unenviable position right now as a high draft pick who still needs to prove he can play at the AHL level before we even start talking about the NHL.

I’ve known Knight since the B’s drafted him and he’s a quality person with a great attitude. If anyone can reinvent himself to be that gritty lower-line forward who skates up and down the wing and chips in some modest offense while playing a strong 200-foot game, it is him. I wish him the best.

What do you think about (Joonas) Kemppainen and his potential fit on the team?– davrion @davrion

I think the signing made sense from a pragmatic standpoint- the B’s have an opening for a bottom-line center and the 27-year-old Finn has spent nearly a decade in the pro hockey circuit there, meaning that instead of taking an NHL-inexperienced skill player who is probably ill-suited to play the fourth-line center role as Alexander Khokhlachev is, they’re hedging their bets with an older, more mature player who is more refined and has the intelligence, size and pro hockey experience to come right in and not look too out of place.

I don’t know how effective Kemppainen will be…the B’s have had mixed results when they have brought over older European forwards in the past, but I don’t buy the Carl Soderberg comparisons I’ve seen cropping up on the internet, either. Soderberg was talented, and a lot more was expected of him offensively, but he ultimately played too passive a game and his personality was not a great fit in the room. Kemppainen is quiet and perhaps shy, but I’m told by people who know him that he’ll earn respect because he’s willing to do whatever is asked of him. Plus, having Tuukka Rask around will help him adjust to North America and the B’s dressing room culture.

I like the move- it’s a no-risk attempt to infuse a winner who possesses the size and two-way game (and perhaps some underrated offensive ability) on the checking unit without taking a square peg and forcing it into a round hole. This is not an indictment of Koko, but if people are honest with themselves, they know that expecting him to thrive on the fourth line when he’s a player who is at his best in scoring role (just don’t ask me who he’s going to beat out to provide that in Boston as of today) is a tall order. You don’t call an electrician if your toilet needs fixing…the same principle applies here, so Kemppainen seems like a much better fit at least to start the year. Whether he has the ability to keep the job, however…we’ll find out soon enough.

Could you see Ryan Spooner having a 2008-09 Krejci-esque year (70 points) in his third line role w/ good line mates & PP time?– ETD51 @ETD51

I try not to set expectations on players today based on what others did in the past.

Spooner is to be lauded for seizing the opportunity presented him at the end of last year to establish himself as one of the few bright spots on the 2014-15 Boston Bruins.

Having said that, even though the two players’ (David Krejci and Spooner) numbers are similar at the same age and experience level, unless something happens to move Spooner up to the top two lines for a big chunk of the 2015-16 season, that 70 points is going to happen for him on the third line.

He’s a talented player and if he gets 50 points on that third unit, it will be a big win. Scoring is so down around the league- Jamie Benn won the NHL’s points title last year with 87- so thinking that a third-line player on any team, let alone one that struggled mightily to generate consistent offense a year ago is going to hit 70 points in this current environment (unless there is a major swing of the pendulum that is) isn’t very realistic.

Malcolm Subban (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Malcolm Subban (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Do you see Subban being traded or will he be the backup goalie all year?- Chris @FribbleLover

How about…neither?

I think the B’s would certainly entertain any offers they get for Malcolm Subban, but they aren’t just going to deal him for the sake of doing so.

I’m also not sure Subban wins the backup job in Boston this year after as yet not having established himself as an AHL starter.  I’m not a believer in young (and he’s not even 22 yet) goalies sitting and watching games as a backup during a critical development period in their careers, and I just don’t think the Bruins are going to put Subban in that situation when he could be starting and honing his technique/building confidence at the lower levels.

As for trading Subban, I’ve said this before- the value they would receive for him right now is not likely to justify the effort. Hold onto him and see how he performs in this important third season since he turned pro. If a team comes along and wants to give the B’s a good return for him, they’d be silly not to consider it, but while I’m sure more than a few teams would be happy to take him off of Boston’s hands for a song, that’s what I believe they want to give up. That doesn’t help Boston. Remember- the B’s once hoodwinked Toronto in getting Tuukka Rask even-Steven for Andrew Raycroft. How did that work out for the team that gave up an at-the-time unproven goalie talent for an established commodity?

Patience, young Grasshopper. Resist the urge to play fantasy hockey GM questing for shiny new toy returns and leave Subban where he is for now. The B’s used a top-30 pick on him for a reason.

I would like to know the upside/possibilities of Brandon Carlo?- Anthony Amico @anthonyamico

Carlo looks like the prototypical modern NHL defender: big at 6-foot-5, mobile, physical with a long reach and an ability to make a strong first pass.

I’m not sure that I buy into the over-the-moon excitement I’ve seen about him in some circles on the Internet, however.

Don’t misread that remark into believing I’m not high on the kid, but some fans have let the hype machine get out of control already, with some penciling him into the NHL lineup and I think we have to slow the roll on him. Given the other veteran and other pro defenders vying for spots, it would take a jaw-dropping camp and exhibition performance from the 18-year-old Colorado native to leapfrog some of the guys ahead of him on the depth chart. I fully expect he’ll be back in the WHL this year, but as a late ’96 birthdate, he’ll be eligible to play in Providence for the 2016-17 hockey season, at least.

As for Carlo’s upside, he has a big shot from the point, but I wonder about the vision and offensive creativity that is needed to emerge as a true-blue, top two-way threat at the NHL level. Instead, I see Carlo as more of a solid middle pair defenseman who can shut down opposition offenses because he moves well and uses his stick and physical strength to keep forwards to the outside. He’s also on the snarly side and will be his team’s captain this year at Tri-City, so there is a lot to like about the kid.

Just temper the expectations and don’t be in such a rush to see him in Boston- all in due time.

Brandon Carlo- "shiny new toy?" (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Brandon Carlo- “shiny new toy?” (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Keys to the kingdom: Tuukka Rask

When it comes to the hopes for an entire hockey season, Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask has the keys to the kingdom. As he goes, so goes any optimism that the team that was a Stanley Cup contender just two seasons ago can be more than a middle of the pack team in 2015-16.

Tuukka Rask: the calm before the storm (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Tuukka Rask: the calm before the storm (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Rask’s journey from former first-round selection of the Toronto Maple Leafs a decade ago to Boston farmhand and Tim Thomas’ backup to NHL elite performer and workhorse has been a model of consistency and patience. Even though he was the 21st overall selection in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, he wasn’t rushed to the big league before he was ready, but instead given an opportunity to compete in his native Finland’s top pro league and play most of the high profile international tournaments before he played a single professional game in North America.

When the Bruins acquired him for one-time Calder Trophy winner Andrew Raycroft in 2006, Rask had already forged a sterling reputation as one of the most promising young goalies in the world. Little did anyone know that aside from Thomas’ injury-riddled 2009-10 hockey season which opened the door for Rask to emerge as an NHL regular and playoff starter, it would be another six years before Rask finally stepped into the limelight as the No. 1 for Boston, a distinction he put an exclamation point on when he won the 2014 Vezina Trophy.

Then (2005 draft and beyond): Rask entered the 2004-05 season as a favorite to be a top-30 pick. Just the year before, Rask had shined for Team Finland at the Viking Cup in Alberta, impressing scouts with his athletic ability and penchant for performing under a barrage of shots.

He made the 2005 Finnish World Jr. squad which competed in Grand Forks, N.D. (when Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel all made significant splashes) at age 17, but struggled on the big stage in that tournament. Still, his stock was high entering the draft that summer (the actual event was not held in usual fashion due to the lockout) and Toronto pounced on him with the 21st pick- right in front of Boston, who reportedly were set to make Rask their selection despite having drafted fellow Finn Hannu Toivonen just three years earlier.

They ranked him 14th overall and the third-best goaltender available behind Carey Price and bust J.P. Levasseur, but here is some of what Red Line Report had to say about Rask in 2005: Bit of an engima all year- very inconsistent. The old Rask we know and love plays with confidence and swagger. Squares up to shooters very well. Goes down into butterfly early but still manages to cover top corners due to great size and flexibility. Exceptionally athletic and acrobatic. Covers a lot of net and moves smoothly side-to-side…but there were times throughout the season when he came unraveled and couldn’t make big saves to keep his team in games.

This scouting report, written more than 10 years ago, could be published tomorrow and it would describe Rask in 2015 to a tee. But part of what makes Rask special is that he is so athletic and able to make stops that lesser goalies can only dream of doing. He didn’t just walk in and sit around while everything fell into place- it took time, work and patience both on Rask’s part and that of the Bruins to gradually develop him, with two full AHL years after the team signed Rask in 2007 (with brief NHL callups sandwiched in there) before he graduated to being Boston’s full-time backup in 2009-10.

When Thomas struggled with a debilitating hip injury that few knew the extent of until after he made his triumphant return to the world stage in 2010-11, Rask filled the void by taking away the top job and getting the nod for Boston’s round 1 playoff series against the higher-seeded Buffalo Sabres. He was superb in dispatching the Sabres in six games, and followed that up by keying Boston to a 3-0 series lead over the Philadelphia Flyers in round 2. Alas, the wheels completely fell off and Boston suffered a historic (since helped by San Jose’s similar collapse to the Los Angeles Kings in 2014) come-from-behind defeat in seven games, with Rask and an injury-decimated B’s team dropping four consecutive games including a blown 3-0 lead in Game 7 at home.

Rask’s stumbles opened the door for Thomas to return with a vengeance after surgery fixed his hip and the veteran went on to have a historic year for Boston, winning a second Vezina Trophy since 2009 and far more importantly, winning the 2011 Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Along the way, Thomas exorcised the demons Rask could not keep at bay with a four-game sweep of the Flyers to avenge the previous spring’s embarrassment.

That meant another season- 2011-12- as backup (and a late-season injury curtailed Rask’s playing time that year even more)- but set the stage for an ascendance when Thomas decided he no longer wished to play for the Bruins and announced he would sit out the 2012-13 season.

Pro goalie consultant and USA Hockey regional scout Justin Goldman wrote a prophetic piece on Rask over at his Goalie Guild website back on August 27, 2012, leading off with this gem:

For a highly-touted prospect of Rask’s caliber, the pressure to win rises interdependently with expectations. Regardless, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he’ll transition from being an “elite backup” to a “workhorse starter” smoothly. He’s not a kid anymore, he has a healthy dose of NHL experience, and he has witnessed both the drama of the Stanley Cup playoffs and the “highs and lows” of an 82-game season.

You can (and should) read the entire post here.

Indeed, Rask followed that path albeit through the challenges of a lockout-shortened season in 2012-13, but leading his team’s charge to the 2013 Stanley Cup final series, where the B’s lost a hard-fought six-game tug of war to the Chicago Blackhawks. That performance affirmed Boston’s belief in Rask and set the stage for an eight-year extension worth an average of $7 million per season, signed in July of that year.

He justified that investment with his Vezina Trophy as part of Boston’s President’s Trophy march in 2014, but aside from an elite January 2015 run, struggled to maintain his form and consistency, finishing with season totals far below his norm. Even with that, the B’s missed the playoffs on the last night of the regular season, which leads us to where we sit today.

Style analysis: Rask is the prototypical modern NHL goaltender: He’s a tall, lean, long-limbed butterfly style stopper who possesses the tremendous reflexes and competitive drive to thrive at the highest level. From a technical standpoint, he’s nearly flawless- he stays square to the shooter, tracks the puck effortlessly, reads the developing play and utilizes a smooth yet explosive side-to-side push to negate cross-ice puck movement and scoring chances. He does have a tendency to sometimes get away from the less-is-more economy of motion that top netminders employ to max benefit.

Here’s Goldman on that:

Like many naturally gifted reflex-based goalies, Rask has a tendency to over-amplify his movements. In some instances, he ends up in less-than-perfect positioning on rebound chances, or in scramble situations.

For him, there is such a thing as being too urgent in the crease. So when it comes to his recoveries, his post-save mechanics, or tracking pucks and staying square in frenzied situations, less is often more. When I look back at my scouting reports over the years, and when I dissect video, I come to the conclusion that sometimes he works way harder than is really necessary.

Overall, Rask’s style lends itself to providing shooters and elite finishers with the predicability that they can sometimes exploit to their advantage by putting the puck where they know the goalie can’t stop it. But scoring is down around the league less because the equipment is bigger and more because there has never been a period of time in the NHL when the league has had more top-shelf athletes and competitors playing the position. Rask is a poster boy for the modern NHL goaltender with his swagger and ability to make tough saves look easy.

On the mental side, Rask looked tired and worn down by the end of the season, which is something to keep an eye on. He played in a franchise record-tying 70 games last year and at one point, appeared desperately in need of a break when Malcolm Subban took the start against St. Louis. When Subban was chased from the B’s net early in the second frame, a clearly flustered Rask had to come into the game in relief. The key takeaway here is that we cannot forget that these guys are not robots and even the best need time to step back and recharge the batteries.

Now: Entering the third year of his pact and at age 28, Rask is the linchpin of the B’s new season.

Though critics will point to his lack of a Stanley Cup championship when debating his impact on the salary cap, even the most ardent, but intellectually honest of his critics will concede that Rask represents Boston’s best chance to make the playoffs *this* year, and as any savvy hockey person will tell you- whether in transition or in complete rebuild, if you don’t have a top goaltender, no matter what you do, you’re not likely to get far.

The key to Rask’s success lies not only with a defense that admittedly has more than a few questions headed into the new year, but also with whom the B’s will turn for backup duties. Niklas Svedberg didn’t work out, but if veteran (and fellow) Swede Jonas Gustavsson plays well in camp and the exhibition season, he’ll likely get a one-year deal at the minimum to provide that capable relief. His biggest issue is durability, which might also provide several of the youngsters with a brief chance to show their mettle in the NHL on a limited basis. But for Rask’s and the team’s sake- the best bet is to go with Gustavsson.

The Bruins need that cocky swagger back from Rask, and he enters the season in his prime years, best positioned to put forth his best effort. We’ll soon find out if that will be enough.

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Brett Connolly’s moment of truth

Leading up to last February’s NHL trade deadline, there was a lot of talk about the Boston Bruins acquiring veteran forwards for that late season push to make the postseason after struggling to put together sustained stretches of high-level play and wins.

That’s why it  came as a mild surprise when Peter Chiarelli pulled the trigger on a deal for then-22-year-old Brett Connolly, the sixth overall selection in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning. The move raised eyebrows because ‘Bolts GM Steve Yzerman was moving on from his first-ever draft choice with that organization, a player who had been selected just four spots after Chiarelli tabbed Tyler Seguin. Unlike Seguin, Connolly was dealt for different reasons, and ironically enough- the player whom Boston hoped would help them earn enough points to get into the dance was felled in his very first practice with the team, missing all but five of the final 18 games, as the B’s came up short on the last night of the regular season.

Connolly arrived to pro hockey with great expectations, and at least thus far, has been a disappointment given where he was drafted. After signing a one year, $1.075 million “show me” extension with the B’s, he is in position to establish himself as a legitimate top-six NHL right wing this season on a team that was starved for goals at the 22nd overall position for offense after finishing third overall in 2013-14.

In this post, we’ll take a look at Connolly then and now- and try to project what he’ll bring to Boston at age 23.

Then (the 2010 NHL draft and beyond): A little over five years ago, questions swirled around Connolly’s long-term viability because of a serious hip injury he sustained early in the 2009-10 season, which limited him to just 16 games (10 goals) for the Prince George Cougars of the WHL. A season after posting 30 goals as a rookie, Connolly was seen as the consensus top WHL player available in the 2010 NHL draft class, and though Portland Winterhawks forward Nino Niederreiter would move up to edge him by just one draft position (NY Islanders) in Los Angeles, most conceded that given a full and healthy season, Connolly had impressive potential.

Take a look at this NHL draft profile, which features the late great Central Scouting director, E.J. McGuire, former Maine Mariners coach, who lost his battle with cancer in 2011. RIP E.J.- a true class act who did so much for the CSS when he was in charge.

Here are excerpts from the profile I did on Connolly for my 2010 Bruins Draft Watch blog, which some of you may or may not remember.

One of the most skilled and dangerous forwards in the draft had an injury-marred campaign and faces questions about his lower body’s long-term health..Excellent skater with a flash initial burst and ability to separate when observed last season before his hip problems flared up during the Ivan Hlinka tourney in August ’09. A dynamic presence when fully healthy and on top of his game: darts into open spaces with the puck and can wire it into the back of the net in the blink of an eye. Has that offensive zone killer instinct you want in your forwards; takes the puck to the net and shows off some real grit when it comes time to pay the price down low and in front of the net.

His health was the biggest obstacle facing Connolly, as he returned to action for the Under 18 championship tournament in April, but did not look all that effective after such a long layoff. Here are the downsides to him as I saw them back in June of 2010:

Faces some major scrutiny in light of serious hip flexor injuries this season that shelved him for all of 16 games. Looked strong in a late-season stint in the WHL, but raised real concerns with his tentative, ineffective performance for Team Canada at the World Under-18 tourney in Belarus in April. Lacked explosiveness and jump in his stride. Word out of the NHL combine is that the hips aren’t chronic problems, but with the failure of New Jersey 2001 first-round pick Adrian Foster still fresh in a lot of minds, many teams can’t afford to gamble. Not an overly physical player despite a long frame that will bulk up in the next few years. Needs to add a lot of mass/fill out his lanky build.

My draft day and after projection for Connolly was this (after mocking him to Dallas with the 11th pick):

He’s got all the tools you look for in a high-end scoring wing, and it’s a shame that he had such problems with injuries this season, because it robbed him of the chance to generate a potentially intriguing draft subplot to challenge Hall and Seguin near the top. Now, he’s caught in that limbo/Twilight Zone between those publications that are steadfast in their belief that he’ll go off the board around No. 5 overall, and those who are a little more conservative and who think NHL teams will take some safer options rather than risk taking a player who could be damaged goods and never again look like the 16-year-old who scored 30 goals in the WHL. Bostonians know all too well how devastating bad hips are to a hockey player; it was a degenerative hip condition that forced Cam Neely to tearfully hobble away from the game he loved at just 31 years of age in what was a memorably heart-wrenching press conference. Teams who don’t take the potential disaster of a player who faces a lifetime of being day-to-day the way Neely was over the last five years of his career seriously may jump on Connolly well inside the top-10, but they do so knowing that if he can’t go, it could cost the jobs of those management and personnel types who made that call.

Okay, so the hip hasn’t proven to be all that big a factor, though he’s had other health issues (more on that later).  Tampa grabbed him early and he appeared to justify that faith in 2010-11, as he put his hip woes behind him to the tune of 46 goals in 59 WHL games. That was good enough for the team to sign him and give him a shot in the NHL for the 2011-12 campaign, but he had a bit part, scoring just 4 goals and 15 points in 68 games. With the lockout occurring the following year, he began the season with Tampa’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse and stayed there, scoring 31 goals and leading the Crunch to the AHL championship series. Unable to lock down an NHL job the following year, Connolly had another solid if unspectacular AHL outing in 2013-14 (21 goals, 57 points in 66 games).

Now: A year ago, Connolly made the big club, but found himself skating on the bottom-six, where he was able to score a respectable 12 goals in 50 games at the time of his trade to Boston.

Much was hoped for when he arrived, but a freak injury suffered when a Dennis Seidenberg shot in practice caused a displaced fracture in his right index finger, forcing him out of action for the next five weeks. He got into Boston’s last five games (2 assists) but could not have been 100 percent- especially for a shooter who needs his hands to be at his most effective.

For a club that gave up a pair of second-round selections in 2015 (Tampa took Peterborough Petes d-man Matt Spencer) and 2016, losing Connolly when they needed him most was one more added insult to injury (pun intended), but he has never played more than 71 games in any of his pro seasons whether spent in the AHL or NHL. There always seems to be some kind of physical issue preventing him from playing a full 82-game schedule.

“Obviously, it’s tough for him coming off his hand (injury) right when he got here, but he’s got a natural ability to skate,” B’s defenseman Zach Trotman said this week when asked about the player he competed against in the AHL and was teammates in Boston with to close out last season. “He’s a really good skater and he’s got a good shot even with his hand being…I don’t know what percentage it was at the end of the season but I’m sure it wasn’t full. He seemed pretty hungry and anxious to get the puck to the net and go in after it. I’m not going to project on what line he’d be or anything, but as far as skill goes, he’s got that hunger and he’s got that ability to skate and get the puck on net and just having those tools alone is going to be very advantageous for our team and I’m excited to see him play more this year fully healed and see what all he can do. I thought at the end of the year he was impressive and his speed and skill will help make the pace of our team faster.”

Trotman may not predict what line Connolly will be on, but I’ll take a stab. He’ll work in early on the bottom-six with special teams time on the power play, but I think the Bruins are hoping he and Jimmy Hayes will give them enough confidence to perhaps have the confidence to trade Loui Eriksson to open up some breathing room on that right side. This is not a slight to the veteran Eriksson, but with his impending unrestricted free agency, the team cannot afford to be sentimental. If neither Connolly nor Hayes are up to the task to take on more of a scoring role for the B’s, then Claude Julien may stick with Eriksson, as he is a more proven player at this stage of his career. However, with just $3.5 million invested in the two younger wingers, that salary flexibility is how a team like Boston can get further out of the cap hell that dogged them the last two years, forcing the parting of ways with key contributors and fan favorites like Johnny Boychuk, Jarome Iginla, Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton.

Nobody said building a Stanley Cup-caliber team would be easy, but it goes without saying that if Connolly can develop into a 25-30 or more goal scorer this year for the B’s, Don Sweeney would have more options open to him to make the club better in the present and longer term. Of course- that kind of success comes at a price and if Connolly comes through with a season like that, he’ll be looking at a hefty raise in 2016.

All in due time, I suppose- and first things first. There’s a hockey season to play…in the meantime, Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita & Billy Zabka know what we’re talking about in the style of Survivor.

Confirmed: Bruins hire veteran scout Andrew Shaw to cover Ontario

Since letting Mike Chiarelli go after his brother was relieved of the GM duties, the Boston Bruins had been without a dedicated Ontario amateur scout.

Several sources have told me that Don Sweeney, Keith Gretzky and Co. have brought longtime scout and OHL veteran talent evaluator Andrew Shaw on board. He, obviously, is not the Chicago Blackhawks forward who was instrumental in beating the B’s in the 2013 Stanley Cup final.

You can read more on Shaw here- it’s a press release announcing his hiring as head scout of the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves back in 2012.

Shaw is a respected presence and voice of scouting experience throughout Ontario, though the Wolves did not have the greatest of runs while he was a part of that organization. We’re in a wait-and-see pattern with his three OHL drafts as Sudbury’s scouting chief, but he did some good work with Columbus and Sarnia.

To have NHL guys already coming up on the net and telling me that this is a good hire is solid enough evidence for me, so watch for news coming out of the organization in the coming days announcing Shaw formally, along with perhaps another addition in the Quebec and Maritimes (QMJHL) region.

Update: Team source says yep. Shaw now in the fold- good guy, good add sayeth scouts from outside the org. NY Islanders’ Matt Martin one of his guys from Sarnia days, I’m told.

Summer cooler interview series 4: Zach Trotman

Zach Trotman is poised to make the Bruins on opening night for the first time since he turned pro for the 2012-13 season. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Zach Trotman is poised to make the Bruins on opening night for the first time since he turned pro for the 2012-13 season. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Boston Bruins defenseman is an NHL draft rarity: he’s only the third player selected with the final pick in a class since 2000 to ever see a single shift in the NHL. The other two- Jonathan Ericsson (Red Wings- 2002) and Patric Hornqvist (Predators- 2005) have gone on to have solid big league careers, each with 400+ NHL games and counting.

Trotman’s 29 NHL games (1 goal, 5 points) is a far cry from them at present, but since the B’s traded with Chicago to acquire the pick they used to tab the Indiana native out of Lake Superior State University 210th overall, he’s gone on to reward the team’s patient approach with him.

At 6-foot-4 and a shade under 220 pounds headed into training camp, Trotman is one of the bigger and stronger players on the team. He’s a fluid skater for a guy his size and he sometimes does not get enough credit for his vision and ability to move the puck. His rocket shot forces penalty killing units to respect him by trying to disrupt and take away his time and space.

Though he’s not likely to ever develop into a dangerous two-way threat, his size, reach and smarts makes Trotman a good bet to be a solid supporting cast player as a bottom-pairing NHL defender with the chance to evolve his game into the middle pair with special teams contributions down the road.

Trotman spoke to the Scouting Post while on the road today to Indiana for a quick stop before he drives to Boston this week. With the B’s, the team that gave him a chance five years ago as a twice previously passed up player in the NHL draft, he is in the second of a 2-year pact and the first in which he receives 1-way pay. Bigger things are expected of Trotman this season and he has the inside track (in my view) of taking one of the available defense positions when the regular season begins.

It has been a pleasure to bring you this series, which started with center Ryan Spooner, continued with Boston blueliner Torey Krug in 2 parts, detoured a little with Flames goalie prospect and NCAA champion Jon Gillies before concluding with Trotman.

I think that sometimes, fans have trouble managing expectations due to draft pedigree. Some of the bigger critics of Trotman’s chances of sticking in the NHL would likely have less of an issue with him had he been 18 when drafted and picked earlier, but because he was just one selection away from being an undrafted free agent, some hold that against him. Well, that’s a fair point, but given how far he’s progressed from the raw, gangly 20-year-old at his first Boston development camp, I’d submit that the B’s have done pretty well with him. There will be bumps in the road along the way, but he’s got the tools and character to become a solid, if unspectacular presence at a bargain rate for this club, and has performed far better than a good number of defensemen taken well before him in the class of 2010.

Enjoy the interview- more in store with the blog this week, including a two-part rookie camps preview by Conference with players to watch and some guys I just happen to like and why I like ’em.

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Kirk Luedeke: Zach, the last pick in the NHL Entry Draft may not come with as much fanfare as the “Mr. Irrelevant” selection in the NFL draft does, but take us back to 2010 and tell us what you remember about being the final pick, how you found out about it, and what it has meant to you to work your way into the 29 NHL games you have played since the 2013-14 season.

Zach Trotman: It started during my freshman season (at Lake Superior State University)- I started get to get a little more notoriety and some interest from NHL teams. I interviewed with New York and my agent had kind of told me there were some (NHL development) camps that I was going to be able to get into next summer and all that, so I kind of viewed it as a long shot to be drafted into the NHL and didn’t really think that I was going to have that opportunity.

I knew I was a late bloomer and I was coming around later, so I was hoping for a chance but never really expected to be drafted, so just the interest teams had and the possibility of being drafted was cool for me and then as it got closer to the draft, it seemed like it might happen, so I watched it…not real closely or anything…I watched the first round and a little bit of the second and third round the next day, so I was driving home from Lake State- was working camps up there. I was on the way home and it was kind of later (Kirk note- the 2010 draft was held on the West Coast in Los Angeles) five or six o’clock maybe, and my agent gave me a call. I thought, the draft is over, and I knew he was going to talk to a couple of teams about getting me into some camps, and so I thought that’s what his call was all about. He called me and told me that Chicago had traded the last overall pick to Boston and that they had picked me with it.

Naturally, I was ecstatic and awestruck I guess. It was a surreal feeling. I obviously called my parents right away and I was extremely excited and at the same time, I knew that it set me up for a lot of hard work that I had to do to overcome being the last overall pick- those are long odds. So, I think in a way, it kind of made me more focused and more determined to prove myself.

KL: You’re only the third player in the last 15 years going back to the 2000 NHL draft to play in an NHL game after being the last selection. The other two are Jonathan Ericsson in 2002 and Patric Hornqvist in 2005, so it is a rarity. People who have reached the NHL say that getting there is difficult enough, but staying in the NHL is the real challenge. What are your own thoughts and perspectives on that given your own experiences in Boston over the last two seasons?

ZT: I spent three years in Providence and my (first NHL when the Bruins were playing in Ottawa) call up was based on me being lucky enough to have my passport on me and that’s what gave me the opportunity just to get a game in. I think that was a huge opportunity and the fact that I think I had a pretty good game kind of opened eyes, like, ‘Oh, wow- he can play at this level,’ and from there it almost gave me a little more attention and allowed people to realize I had another level I could go to. So I think that you’re right- it takes a lot to get there, not only in terms of hard work and the right tools, but just the opportunities, too. And so actually being able to get there took a lot of things to line up right and once I did get there, and I wouldn’t consider that I’m there (in Boston) yet, even though I’m on the one-way next year- I have a lot of work ahead of me to stay at this level and play consistently and be successful both as a player and as a team, which is the biggest part.

I’m looking forward to the challenge from just getting there to staying there and becoming a regular and not just being a bubble guy or someone where people think- ‘maybe he can play here or maybe he can’t’ play here- I want to be one of those guys who can play every night and so that’s the next step and it’s something that’s going to be very difficult.

KL: Your first NHL goal came against Detroit. It was not only the winning goal, but happened in front of friends and family given your years spent living in Novi. How special was it for you not only to get that 1st NHL goal but to have it happen under those circumstances and against the Red Wings as well?

ZT: It was an awesome feeling- it was one of those things where I hadn’t really gone through a long stretch of games like that before where I hadn’t  scored a goal. I’m not a huge goal scorer but I manage to get some in every once in a while with my shot, so being up there for quite a few games before it happened and then you get to a point where you say, ‘I’ve had my chances, and I’m wondering if I’m ever going to get another one to go in here,’ and then I just stuck with it and kept shooting and for that one to go through in overtime, in Detroit, with all my friends and family there and such a critical part of the season- it couldn’t have happened in a better way and looking back on it now, it makes the wait worth it- just to have the first goal be such a special one like that. It was incredible.

KL: Were you a Wings fan growing up? Who were some of the NHL players you always admired and rooted for? Who are some of the defensemen you’ve always tried to model your game after?

ZT: I was. I always watched Nick Lidstrom growing up and I’m sure there are a ton of defensemen who say that. But, being right there in Detroit and it gave me a chance to watch him a lot and obviously, everyone wants to model their game after a guy like that. The style of play…he was such a smart player who knew where everyone was, what was happening on the ice- it almost seemed effortless in the way he would shut down plays and move the puck and get his shot through. Those are all things I’ve always wanted to be able to do and bring to my game. Obviously, I’m less of the finesse side and a little bit more of the larger player side so I have to bring the physicality aspect along with that and those main things of moving the puck quickly and efficiently, being a smart IQ player and knowing what’s going on at all times and trying to use that to your advantage are definitely things I picked up on watching him over the years.

KL: Looking back on the several Bruins development camps you attended before becoming a pro, what aspects of your game do you think have seen the biggest improvement since 2010, and how important were those camps to your preparation in terms of getting to Providence and knowing some guys and understanding the systems and what was expected of you when you got there as opposed to seeing and hearing it all for the first time?

ZT: In college, we played a lot more of a man-on-man system, so for me, closing on guys was a lot different in pro than it was in college because I could contain more in college. Once I got to pro, and it’s more of a zone, you need to close on guys and end the play so that the rest of your teammates can read off of you and then the system starts to take effect. So, I think the biggest challenge for me was continuing how to learn to close on guys and using my size more efficiently to be physically punishing in corners and reading when I could  jump a guy and really close him off like that. It wasn’t easy- it was difficult, and I struggled with it my first year and then progressively got better with it from there. I think that’s one thing that has improved a lot and can continue to improve. I would say that my physicality has gone up but some more big hits, learning how to catch guys a little more so I can make those closings and those hits in the corner more punishing on people so that the next time they go into the corner, they’re thinking about what happened the last time.

KL: So when you talk about closing on players and the man-to-man system you played in college versus the zone schemes Providence and Boston employ, for the layman- and I mean sometimes, players or analysts throw out terms that fans might not be familiar with, so this is a chance for Hockey 201 with Zach Trotman– you’re talking about gap control. So, for folks who might not know what that is- can you talk about gap control and why that is such an important skill for an NHL defenseman to have?

ZT: Whether it’s in the neutral zone or the offensive zone, it’s keeping the distance between me and the player with the puck or the puck itself close- a small distance so that when something happens or I have the opportunity to make a hit on a player to separate them from the puck, it’s not very far that I have to go to do that. I don’t give them extra room to make a play, I don’t give them room to get a shot off or have time to do something and feel comfortable with the puck. It comes back to watching Lidstrom when I grew up because I could recognize when can I play a little tighter on this guy or do I need to back off a little bit. So, that really gives me an extra step and jump a guy in the corner before he can make a play and be able to play tighter on guys and realizing when you can do that and taking a good angle on the play so they can’t beat you out of the corner or beat you down the wall on the rush.

KL: Bruins have had a summer of change here- what are your thoughts on how you felt when getting the news that both Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton were traded on the same day? The larger thing is that neither player brought back a plethora of talent that are expected to play and contribute right away. What are your thoughts on the opportunity that Dougie’s departure presents for someone like you and the other defensemen in the Boston system?

ZT: Obviously, it’s an NHL defenseman that’s out of the system but it’s not one that is going to be easily replaced. He was a huge presence- he ate up a lot of minutes and put up a lot of points. He was a very talented player and so in some way, shape or form, that’s a job we’re going to have to take care of as a (defense) corps and especially the right-handed ‘D’ this year- finding a way to create offense to make up for that loss, and then trying to eat up those minutes. He’s a good player and he ‘ll be tough to replace, but I think we can do it.

Seeing Looch go obviously is tough because he’s a great guy as well, and he’s a very hard-nosed, physical player that can put up points. He’s a Bruins-type player, but every once in a while I guess things just have to change and the team needs some fresh faces. We’ve got some guys like (Matt) Beleskey and (Jimmy) Hayes that are big and play that hard, strong game. I think the team has filled in what we lost or traded and I think we’re going to be a really good team this year.

KL: Do you think that you and Torey Krug– I know you’re an Indiana native but you can also claim Michigan because you spent a lot of years and finished high school there- a couple of Michigan guys would be a good pairing there in Boston and are you looking forward to maybe seeing more of a chance to settle in and play some extended minutes with him if it works out?

ZT:  I think I played with him a couple of times last year at points and he’s an extremely talented offensive player and he’s extremely smart in the d-zone as well, so playing with a guy who can move the puck like that, who can make plays offensively would be a complementary pairing where I can be more of a shutdown guy and keep it simple in the offensive zone by getting my shots through and covering for him so that he can feel like he can jump in the play. I think it would be a blast to play with Torey- he’s a really talented player. He plays with a lot of heart and that’s something that’s contagious.

KL: Congratulations on your engagement- is it safe to say that the people of Boston might eventually see an even bigger talent with your fiance, Jeanna, who got her Master’s from Boston University’s journalism school and is already the sports director for her television station in Rochester, Minnesota?

ZT: Yeah- she’s definitely got all the talent over there (laughter). Talent and hard work- that’s how she’s earned her success- I just try to keep up.

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(Kirk Luedeke photo)

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

Seth Griffith faces logjam at RW

Last season, the Boston Bruins got some surprising production from 2012 draft choice Seth Griffith, a former prolific goal scorer in the OHL with the London Knights before turning pro for the 2013-14 hockey season.

Griffith, who was passed over in his initial year of NHL eligibility in 2011, overcomes a lack of size and dynamic skating ability with elite offensive hockey sense and a great set of hands. Fans will no doubt remember this beauty he scored last November against Cory Schneider and the New Jersey Devils.

The finish is vintage Griffith, but the highlight also shows the lack of open ice foot speed and the difficulty he had in gaining separation once he blocked the shot and chased the puck into the neutral zone. Granted, the now-retired Bryce Salvador took a good angle in recovery, but Griffith would have gone in alone on Schneider if he was a faster skater. Instead, and what makes the goal all the more remarkable, is that he fought off Salvador and Marek Zidlicky to put the shot between his legs and under Schneider’s left pad for one of the prettiest goals of last season.

Griffith has made a career of memorable goals, as he uses his keen offensive instincts, quick release and lacrosse background to pinball off of opponents and make scoring plays that other forwards aren’t capable of creating themselves. However, in the NHL, he won’t be faced with many opportunities like that one, where it all seemed to come together for him for a magical scoring chance. Ultimately, Griffith is going to have his hands full winning a job on one of Boston’s top-three scoring lines as we enter the 2015-16 NHL campaign.

Let’s take a closer look:

Your top spot is pretty well filled with David Pastrnak expected to build on a surprising and successful rookie season, one that saw him score 10 goals and 27 points in 46 games to finish out the second half of the year in Boston. Pastrnak will be given every opportunity to skate on that RW1 spot for Boston next season and if he stays healthy and all plays out the way the B’s expect, the 19-year-old will take another step forward in his development as the franchise’s next face up front.

Loui Eriksson and Brett Connolly are solid bets for second- and third-line duty in Boston.

Eriksson is coming off his best offensive season (22 goals) since 2011-12, when he tallied 26 goals and 71 points. He turned 30 in July, but he’s anything but past his prime. Eriksson has been a popular target of criticism in Boston since the trade that sent Tyler Seguin to Big D, and that’s understandable given that the 2010 second overall selection scored as many points (84) in his first full season with the Stars in 2014, as Eriksson has done in two seasons with Boston. Eriksson dealt with two concussions in 2013-14, but he re-emerged last season with some of his patented ability to make consistent plays on offense. It’s not enough for many Boston fans to accept that Seguin has tallied 74 goals and 159 points for Dallas since the trade- nearly a 2-to-1 advantage over Eriksson, but the veteran Swede often gets the short shrift in Boston for what he does well, which is a creative, opportunistic approach to scoring. His 22 goals was second only to Brad Marchand on the team last year (which is also an indictment of Boston’s popgun offense) and his 47 points trailed only Patrice Bergeron (ditto).

GM Don Sweeney is in a tough spot with Eriksson- the unrestricted free agent-to-be will likely fetch a decent trade return as the season progresses, but timing is everything- pull the trigger on a trade too soon and you’re sending the message that the year is over. Wait too long, and you could end up like Tim Murray and the Buffalo Sabres with Chris Stewart last winter. Eriksson reportedly has a 14-team trade list, so any transaction Sweeney makes short of just riding it out and likely parting ways with him next summer is already constrained with only limited destinations.

Connolly is the big wildcard for the Bruins entering the new year. I won’t go into as much detail, because I plan to dedicate a future and comprehensive blog post to him, but let’s just say that the B’s did not expend a pair of second-round draft choices on a player they expect to remain a third-line presence for them. The sixth overall selection in 2010 (just four spots behind Seguin for those keeping score at home) has yet to justify the faith Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning scouting staff had in him just five years ago, but the B’s signed him to a one-year “show me” deal valued at a little over $1 million.  If that pure skating and sniping ability that manifested itself (in albeit a more limited sample size given the time he missed with a hip injury) during his WHL days with the Prince George Cougars starts translating in the NHL, the B’s could have two exciting right wingers in Pastrnak and Connolly. It’s an intriguing possibility, but not something you can take to the bank.

To complicate matters (for Griffith), the B’s acquired the Boston-born-and-bred Jimmy Hayes on July 1, subsequently signing the 19-goal scorer with Florida a year ago to a three-year extension. They did not do that to stick the 6-foot-5 former Toronto second-rounder in 2008 on the fourth line, so it will be interesting to see what the team’s plans are for Hayes and in all likelihood- Eriksson. Something’s gotta give, and best guess is that the club will do some mixing and matching up front to start the season and see how the makeup looks before acting.

Also on the Boston depth chart’s right side power winger Brian Ferlin, who is more of a natural fit for fourth line duty given his size, skating and modest (projected at the NHL level) ability to chip in offense.

Someone, anyone, might earn some more playing time in Boston with a switch over to the left side, which enters the season with Matt Beleskey and Brad Marchand clearly entrenched on the top two lines, but only veterans Chris Kelly, Zac Rinaldo and Max Talbot as the other NHL-established players over there. Griffith has better offensive chops than both of them put together, but he’s nowhere near the defensive player and veteran dressing room presence. Based on Claude Julien’s body of work to date, unless injuries eat into Boston’s depth, does anyone realistically see Griffith beating those players out for a job out of camp?

That leads us back to the gist of the post. With six goals and 10 goals in 30 NHL games last year, the potential is clearly there given his scoring upside. Working against Griffith is the fact that he does not possess the ideal traits that Cam Neely and Sweeney have said they want to employ in Boston- to be a bigger, faster, harder to play against club. That’s what the guys ahead of Griffith on the current roster projections possess in terms of natural tools, so the 22-year-old has his work cut out for him this year.

Sweeney once told me during a break in the action at the annual Flood-Marr prep tourney at Noble & Greenough School a few years ago that he admired Griffith’s “dog on a bone” mentality when it comes to scoring. He was referring to the fact that although Boston’s fifth-round choice does not have the natural size/strength to win a lot of board battles, nor the pure explosion and separation gear to put defenses on their heels, he nonetheless brings a tenacity and inner fire to out-hustle opponents and find ways to get the puck in the net. In two pro seasons split between Providence of the AHL and Boston, Griffith has scored 32 goals in 108 minor league games. That’s something you don’t just give up on.

At the same time, Griffith is going to want a chance to play in the NHL sooner rather than later. That might just make him an attractive trade chip to include in a larger package at some point to help shore up Boston’s team where it is needed most: on defense.

We shall see.