Update: final stats JFK, Grzelcyk, O’Gara

UPDATE 1 3/29/4:15 pm EST: TSP has confirmed that Rob O’Gara is signed and in the fold with Boston. Later this week, he will ink the ATO to join the Providence Bruins for the rest of the season. According to ESPN’s John Buccigross, Sean Kuraly is under contract as well. That would put the Bruins at 48  contracts (see update below), so it might be an indicator that Tanev is a bridge too far, so they’re getting Kuraly in the mix to start his pro career now. Also in play- the B’s could allocate their final contract spot on Matt Grzelcyk (more on him below).

Even more out of the box- Maxim Chudinov still technically belongs to the B’s but with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation holding the cards to a transfer of Chudinov to North America this late in the season, it’s a real long shot (h/t to friend Dominic Tiano for the connecting of the dots here). Just like Sweden did with Carl Soderberg back in 2013, the World Championship is coming up and Russia undoubtedly wants him for that event with Chudinov’s team out of the KHL playoffs. We’re not even sure Boston wants to sign Chudinov at this point (and I expressed my doubts about that in a previous post), but I guess we shall see. I wouldn’t close the book on Tanev just yet, but O’Gara is confirmed and with Kuraly appearing to be as well, that means there is one deal left- unless I got the math wrong, which is possible.

 

UPDATE 2 3/29/7:54 pm EST: Because of the ATOs, the confirmed contracts for O’Gara and Kuraly do NOT count against the 50-max limit for Boston. B’s currently at 48. Thanks to Dom for getting that information from someone in the know on CBA and contract-related stuff.

 

Original post:

Three more Boston Bruins prospects’ seasons ended in the NCAA over the weekend, with Boston University and Yale losing to Denver University and UMass-Lowell respectively.

Out of the NCAA tournament are BU Terriers Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson and Matt Grzelcyk. As reported on TSP yesterday, Rob O’Gara’s Yale Bulldogs fell in OT to UMass-Lowell and he should sign a 2-year entry-level deal with the Bruins real soon. What we don’t know yet is if the B’s will have him report to Providence to finish out the AHL season on an ATO (he won’t be eligible for the playoffs but can remain with the team to practice and work out with the minor league affiliate) but those details will follow.

Grzelcyk is in a similar boat: as a senior, his NCAA eligibility is exhausted, so he needs to be signed. Like Jimmy Vesey, he could opt for free agency on August 15 or sign with his hometown Bruins. TSP reached out to several sources about Grzelcyk’s status, but nothing solid has come back. In similar fashion to Sean Kuraly, the B’s can opt to wait on signing the BU captain until other contracts come off the books at the end of the season, but before the 15 August deadline to retain exclusive negotiating rights. The team could theoretically offer him an ATO to play in Providence, but without an NHL ELC in place, that would entail some risk on Grzelcyk’s part.

There has also been some below-the-radar buzz that the B’s were so impressed with JFK’s poise as a freshman that they might try to sign him right now (by right now I mean this offseason- not necessarily this week or next) and put him in the organization right away. That would be a tough loss to David Quinn’s Terriers, but if events of recent days are any indication, NHL teams might be forced to move earlier on prospects they feel strongly about rather than risk losing them to the existing NCAA loophole. Regardless, a decision on JFK doesn’t need to happen right now, so we’ll see how things play out in what is shaping up to be a very interesting offseason.

Don Sweeney and his team are still focused on trying to make the NHL playoffs, and given how much the Bruins were mocked at the 2015 NHL draft for what they were doing, they’re in a pretty decent spot as of right now. First things first, but signing O’Gara now makes sense and the team can afford to take a wait-and-see approach, especially with undrafted free agent Brandon Tanev still unsigned and the Bruins very much in the mix (though facing stiff competition from other serious suitors).

If Tanev signs along with O’Gara, that puts the Bruins at 49 contracts, so they might have to wait for the 2015-16 deals to expire before moving forward on anything else.

Here’s the final stats on JFK, Grzelcyk and O’Gara in the meantime. Since I covered him in depth in yesterday’s post, O’Gara’s writeup is a little thinner than the Terrier duo.

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, C Boston University (HEA)

2015-16 final statistics:

Games played: 39  Goals: 10  Assists: 20  Points: 30  Penalty Minutes: 28  +/-  4

2014-15 stats differential (USHL)

Games played: -11  Goals: -5  Assists: -18  Points: -23  Penalty Minutes: -10  +/-  -6

Season in review: After being the 45th overall selection in 2015 (incidentally the same exact draft position as that of Patrice Bergeron in 2003 and Ryan Spooner seven years later), JFK opened a lot of eyes around the Hockey East with his smooth, poised and refined game as a freshman, playing all 39 of his club’s games. At least two NHL scouts told TSP at various times during the season that JFK was the top player on the ice in games they witnessed, marveling at his smarts and ability to play such an effective and complete 200-foot game. The Stockholm native who spent the previous two years with Omaha of the USHL (a big reason for the disparity in statistics between his last junior season and first NCAA campaign) finished third on the team in scoring behind accomplished seniors Danny O’Regan (Sharks) and undrafted free agent Ahti Oksanen, a former defenseman who converted to forward as a junior. More impressive than the numbers, however, was JFK’s defensive presence on special teams and a polished, veteran-like ability in the faceoff dot.

Outlook: It would be interesting to see the B’s lure the 19-year-old out of school so soon, but not all that surprising. With the possible (probable?) departure of enigmatic center and restricted free agent Alexander Khokhlachev in the offseason, the Providence Bruins would have room to accommodate another young and talented pivot. One thing that could keep JFK at BU is that he’s on the lower spectrum of his physical development at present. Although he’s about 6-foot-1, he’s still pretty light at under 190 pounds and has one of those body types that will be hard to keep weight on his frame during the season. He’s not one of those players who pushes the pace throughout a game- he’s a good skater with a rangy stride, but at times will slow the play down and be more deliberate in the way he operates. We’ve seen him drive defenders back on their heels, so the capacity exists for JFK to be a dangerous offensive table-setter when he wants to be. Right now, he appears to be well on his way to eventually making the Bruins as a third-line center with top-two line upside who can do a little bit of everything for his team. Forsbacka-Karlsson draws a lot of comparisons to Bergeron in terms of his cerebral approach and versatility, but you couldn’t heap more pressure on a kid by likening him to No. 37, so we’ll have to see where it all leads. For now, the first of two second-round selections as part of the trio of picks acquired from Calgary last June for Dougie Hamilton, appears to be on track for bigger and better things in the not-too-distant future.

Matt Grzelcyk, D Boston University (HEA)

2015-16 final statistics:

Games played: 27  Goals: 10  Assists: 13  Points: 23  Penalty Minutes: 36  +/-  17

2014-15 stats differential (USHL)

Games played: -14  Goals: even  Assists: -15  Points: -15  Penalty Minutes: even  +/-  -15

Season in review: It was a tale of two hockey seasons for the second-year captain and Charlestown native who was picked in the third round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft by his hometown team. He missed the beginning of the year recovering from knee surgery last May and wasted no time making his presence felt, only to injure the opposite knee just six games into his schedule, forcing him to miss 12 total contests on the year. He tied his previous season high of 10 goals, including netting his first career NCAA hat trick against UMass. His assist totals dipped, but considering the number of games lost to injury, put him on a comparable pace to his junior year totals of 28 helpers and 41 total points. Offense was more of a challenge for BU this season, and that shouldn’t come as a major surprise given the loss of 2015 MVP and Hobey Baker-winning center Jack Eichel to the NHL. Grzelcyk gutted it out by playing through the pain associated with an LBI, and when speed is your bread-and-butter, that’s a significant challenge to overcome. He did it without complaint and aplomb, which is typical of his character and why his teammates elected him captain in a landslide. Twice.

Outlook: Although undersized, Grzelcyk has the speed, vision and hockey IQ to be an impact NHLer one day. The easy comparison in playing style is Torey Krug, but outside of the size, the two are their own defender. The former Belmont Hill and U.S. National Team star who led the Americans to a fourth-consecutive gold medal at the U18 championship in 2012 is a faster skater and plays more of a finesse game than Krug’s natural scrappiness. Krug is an aggressive shooter and despite his woes this season at finding the back of the net is probably the better finisher at the NHL level than Grzelcyk will be if he makes it. Both players can carry the puck out of their own zone and when the defender known as “Grizzy” has the time and gets it cranked up in his own end, he can effortlessly go coast-to-coast with the speed and puckhandling ability to beat defenses that try and stand up at the blue line. As mentioned previously, he has no NCAA eligibility remaining, so the Bruins have until August 15 to sign him to an ELC. Because the team is up against the 50 contract limit, they may opt to kick the can down the road until they get some breathing room at the end of the NHL season. Such a decision doesn’t speak ill of Grzelcyk, and where he fits into the organization’s plans going forward, but might reflect a desire for him to have a chance to get healthy and be fully ready to go for the 2016-17 season. Signing him now and sending him to Providence opens the door to the possibility of further injury; not sure the cost-benefit is there just to play a few pro games to close out the year.

Rob O’Gara, D Yale University (ECAC)

2015-16 final statistics:

Games played: 30  Goals: 4  Assists: 8  Points: 12  Penalty Minutes: 41  +/-  5

2014-15 stats differential (USHL)

Games played: -3  Goals: -2   Assists: -7  Points: -9  Penalty Minutes: +10  +/-  -10

Season in review: The numbers were down from what was expected a year after O’Gara posted his best offensive season with six goals and 21 points, to lead the Yale blue line in scoring. Even so, the senior logged consistent minutes in all situations and played a lot with Ryan Obuchowski (undrafted) as coach Keith Allain’s most trusted pairing. In bigger context, Yale is not an offensive team, but limits goals against and scores just enough to come out on top more often than not. Fixating on the statistics does not tell the entire story, even if the scoring totals were a step back for O’Gara this year.

Outlook: The former prep star and graduate of the Long Island Royals minor hockey program has the size (6-4/220) and smarts plus a top-shelf attitude to develop into an anchor-type presence on the Boston blue line. He’s not a flashy, top-end kind of defenseman but is a player you win with. He’s continued to grow and progress since the B’s took a chance on him in the wake of their Stanley Cup victory, but more seasoning and refinement for him in the AHL before he’s ready for primetime wouldn’t be a bad thing. At the same time, O’Gara has the maturity and physical attributes/experience to be a pleasant surprise at Bruins camp next year and challenge for an NHL job as early as 2016-17. Given that we don’t know what kind of offseason changes lie ahead, especially to Boston’s defense as a whole, trying to project O’Gara in the short term is premature.

B’s prospects deep dive 3: Grzelcyk, O’Gara, Lauzon & Arnesson

We’re back with four more B’s prospects- a defense-focused edition that looks at a pair of NCAA players, a major junior D and one unheralded Providence performer who is all but the forgotten man in Boston’s system.

Speaking of unheralded- the next post will take a look at BC junior Ryan Fitzgerald’s progress, plus Ryan Donato, Anders Bjork and Seth Griffith. This blog will continue to be forward thinking…(get it?)

Matt Grzelcyk, D

The Boston University senior has overcome injuries this season to post another fine offensive season from the blue line. He’s already matched his single season-best 10 goals from a year ago, but in 17 fewer games.

Grzelcyk had off-season knee surgery in May, which caused him to miss the beginning of the 2015-16 NCAA season with the Terriers. Unfortunately, after just a few contests back and an immediate contribution on the offensive ledger, he injured his other knee and was lost for several more weeks. However, he came back with a flourish early in the new calendar year and promptly scored his first career NCAA hat trick in the process.

Although he stands about 5-foot-10, Grzelcyk has huge heart and a high-end hockey IQ. He’s an outstanding 4-way compass skater with instant burst, rapid acceleration/top straight-line speed and the ability to move laterally and change direction quickly with smooth pivots and transitions. The 22-year-old Townie pushes the pace by using that pure speed and quickness to lead the rush and has improved his shot significantly from where he was when the B’s drafted him in the third round four years ago.

The two-year captain is more of a skater/puck-mover/distributor in the offensive end than he is a pure trigger man and finisher, but he has the vision and creativity to set the table and finish off plays as one who isn’t afraid to go into the high danger areas and expose himself to a big hit to get pucks to the net. After scoring six total goals in his first two years (57 games- lower minutes/60 than he played as a junior and senior) in the NCAA, Grzelcyk has potted a nifty 20 and counting in the last two seasons (65 games) with a little more to go before he closes out his college career.

Like Torey Krug, Grzelcyk will be forced to prove that he can develop into an NHL defenseman but he’s so dynamic in terms of his skating and ability to get back on pucks quickly in retrieval and then advance the play back up the ice. I avoid player comparisons in general, so I don’t want people to get the idea that Grzelcyk = Krug…they’re two pretty different players once you get past the physical similarities. Grzelcyk will probably beat the Boston veteran (sounds weird typing that, but Krug’s three full NHL seasons and 225 career games affords him that distinction) in a foot race, but Krug’s got a bigger shot and (this year aside) is more of a scoring threat when he uncorks his drives from the blue line and out near the circles. He’s snakebit, but Krug didn’t score 26 goals in his first two NHL campaigns by accident. Both D are good at carrying the puck out of their own end and getting it up the ice with the quick first pass to beat the forechecking pressure or rushing it themselves through the neutral zone and negate any attempt to trap them into surrendering possession. Those are key attributes for the modern NHL rearguard.

Unfortunately, because of Grzelcyk’s size, coaches have to use him in favorable matchups and as Claude Julien has often mentioned when discussing Krug over the past several seasons, the smaller defender has to outwit and play a savvy positional game. Mitigating physical 1-on-1 matchups is the key to not getting overpowered when covering down in your own end, so the more Grzelcyk can help the B’s move the puck out of their own end and maintain possession in the offensive zone, the lest actual defending he’ll have to do.

Factor in the natural leadership and character and he’s the right kind of person and player to bring along and one day put into the NHL lineup. But first things first- he’s trying to get his Terriers back to the national championship after falling short in 2015.

Current assessment: The Bruins are no doubt looking forward to getting this player into their pro system when his college season ends in the next month or so. They took him much earlier than he was projected to go in 2012 and he’s steadily progressed in his development in the Hockey East. He has had two major surgeries, however- his 2013-14 campaign ended early due to shoulder surgery and then he had the aforementioned knee procedure about a year ago. That’s something for the B’s to keep an eye on, but it should not stand in the way of them signing Grzelcyk. Given his dream of playing for Boston and his connection to the team with his father’s position on the TD Garden bull gang, it is difficult to envision a scenario where he would attempt to not sign and become a free agent on August 1. He’ll likely need time in the AHL first but could gradually work into a role in Boston within the next season or two.

Rob O’Gara, D

Brandon Carlo has gotten a lot of attention as a top prospect in the Bruins organization for his size, skating and shutdown potential, but O’Gara is a few years older and plays a more refined game with a similar style and physical package.

O’Gara, who like Grzelcyk, is finishing up his NCAA hockey career after four strong years. The Yale Bulldog was named the ECAC’s best defensive defenseman last season after also putting up career offensive numbers as a junior. The production is down this year, but the Long Island native who turns 23 in July is not the kind of player who should be judged by statistics and offensive output. His three goals and 11 points in 27 games this season are well off his six goal & 21-point effort from a year ago (33 games), but more par for the course in terms of how he’s performed at Yale since arriving for the 2012-13 campaign.

Size and skating are the two main pillars for O’Gara: at 6-foot-4 and about 220 pounds, he’s big and strong, yet mobile enough to thrive in the modern professional hockey circuit. Ever since the B’s drafted him out of Milton Academy at the end of the 2011 draft’s fifth round, O’Gara has impressed with his fluid footwork and smooth, powerful skating stride. Even at his first Bruins development camp (he turned 18 the day he reported to Wilmington), he stood out with his poise and ability to move well and defend his own net. He was an extremely raw young player when drafted, but in the nearly five years since, has developed into one of the more poised and dependable shutdown defenders in the entire NCAA.

O’Gara leads his peers with a quiet tenacity manifested in the near-universal respect he garners from teammates, coaches and scouts. He’s not a rah-rah, in-your-face, fiery leader, but sets the right example and inspires others to follow him through consistency and his natural humility. In his first year of prep school with the Milton Mustangs, he often times had to cover for his higher-risk D partner Pat McNally, but did so with the skill and poise of a polished and seasoned player at that level. Since leading the Mustangs to a prep championship in 2011 (Milton lost the 2016 NEPSIHA/Elite 8 title yesterday to the Gunnery), O’Gara was a member of Yale’s first (and only) NCAA title-winning squad in 2013, his freshman season. He has a proven track record of being part of a winning formula, which is one of the things that attracted the Bruins to him in the first place.

Even as a shutdown prospect, O’Gara is an underrated passer and puck mover. He moves confidently up the ice with his head up, looking to hit forwards in stride to force defenses back on their heels. When the play is coming at him, he keeps the puck in front of him and uses his smarts to angle the carrier away from his net and out to more oblique angles to cut down on quality scoring chances. He’s not an overly physical defender but will make contact and use his natural strength to win board battles. He uses his long reach to make effective poke checks in the open ice. Like any young ‘D’ he has to guard sometimes against running around and trying to do too much, but when O’Gara keeps things safe and simple, he’s difficult to beat 1-on-1.

Current assessment: Like Grzelcyk, O’Gara has been carefully cultivated and developed in the Bruins organization, so the expectation here is that he will sign once he plays his last game for Yale. Whether that means he makes the jump to pro hockey right away or finishes out his semester in New Haven as Cornell’s Brian Ferlin did in the spring of 2014 after signing his entry-level contract with the B’s remains to be seen, however. He’s been patient in terms of his development and a long but steadily upwards developmental curve, and the team has exhibited the same kind of patience as well. It’s probably too much to expect him to jump right to Boston straight out of college, but stranger things have happened. If he goes to Providence to finish out the regular season, he’ll likely benefit from the chance to get his feet wet and experience the faster pace and higher skill level of the AHL before he begins his first full pro season in 2016-17. Regardless, O’Gara appears on track for bigger and better things, and consistently is underrated and overlooked when in fact the organization is solidly and firmly in his corner as a solution player going forward.

Jeremy Lauzon, D

The third of three defensemen drafted out of ten selections in 2015 might provide the best payoff of the trio in pro hockey when all is said and done.

Though not a truly exceptional player in any key area or specific hockey skill, Lauzon nevertheless is above average and more than capable at just about everything. He’s got good (Lauzon is about 6-1, 195 pounds) if not great (6-4, 220+ pounds or more is what is considered ideal in the modern NHL for D) size, and skates well though doesn’t provide dynamic speed and quickness. He’s a deft passer and effective goal scorer from the blue line, and has the ruggedness and smarts to neutralize opposition rushes and prevent players from getting to the front of his net.

Lauzon is putting up the best offensive numbers of his major junior career with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in his third season with them. He’s off his goals pace from a year ago (eight vs the 15 he netted in 2015) but with 44 points in 41 contests, Lauzon has already exceeded his 36 points set last season. He’s had to deal with some nagging lower body injuries that have limited his effectiveness in the new year after injuring himself after returning from Team Canada’s World Jr. Championship training camp in December. As one of the final cuts, Lauzon opened a lot of eyes around the CHL this year after being the 52nd overall selection by Boston last June.

Lauzon is a smart player who often does the little things in terms of maintaining his gaps, keeping the proper stick positioning and forcing opponents into committing early. He likes to go for hits in the open ice and will take every opportunity to finish his checks along the boards and remind guys in the other sweaters that he’s there. Though not a feared fighter, he’s willing to drop the gloves to defend teammates and plays a naturally rugged and aggressive defensive style that will translate well in Boston.

Current assessment: Lauzon has work to do in terms of refinements and tweaks to his overall body of work, and unfortunately, as a 1997-born player, won’t be able to jump to the AHL next season. The good news for Lauzon is that after his camp showing in December, he’s just about a sure bet to skate for Team Canada at the 2017 WJC (along with fellow B’s prospects Zach Senyshyn and Jesse Gabrielle I would add) assuming he stays healthy and continues to progress. He’s currently tracking as a potential top-3 NHL defender one day, but will need time to develop in junior. Depending on how Boston’s blue line situation looks in 2017, we’ll have a good read on how much AHL time he might require before he’s ready to stake a serious claim to regular NHL work.

Linus Arnesson, D

Like O’Gara anyone looking at the 2013 second-round selection’s offensive numbers is likely going to think that the smart and poised Swedish defensive defenseman is headed for Bustville.

That’s not the case, though some of us were admittedly thinking that he might develop into more of a two-way threat when Boston drafted him.

The 60th overall pick that year is a lean 6-foot-1 who moves around the ice efficiently with a long, mechanically-sound stride and is known for his consistent and effective two-zone ability. The product of the Djurgardens club isn’t going to wow you on any particular night, as he tends to play a pretty vanilla style. He keeps his stick in passing lanes, makes quick decisions and essentially keeps it simple without taking needless risks. No one is going to mistake him as the next Erik Karlsson, but he’s a more impactful than his four assists in 43 games might attest.

Because Arnesson is a smart and engaged player, he’s picked up fairly quickly on Providence (and Boston’s) zone-oriented scheme after playing more of a man-to-man defense in Europe. It hasn’t been a perfectly smooth transition to date, but when you go back and watch the film, there aren’t many glaring mistakes or issues jumping out at you either. Think about it- how many times do you hear or read about Arnesson and his play in Providence this season? I would submit to you- not very often. And if ever the old adage that says you don’t notice a good defenseman if he’s doing his job properly holds true with anyone, it’s the case with Arnesson.

Current assessment: Because he’s not exciting, dynamic or carries a first-round draft pedigree, it’s easy to overlook or forget about Arnesson. Whether he can carve out a niche for himself in Boston as a solid, steady middle-pairing D who may get you about 10-15 points per season tops but who can likely be paired with a smaller, but more offensively-inclined (read: risk-taking) partner or just never does enough to stick in the Boston organization is something we’ll all have to find out. When Dennis Seidenberg was helping the Bruins win a Stanley Cup and get to the final series of second championship, a lot of people could see his utility. Arnesson is obviously not the same player that Seidenberg is, but he brings the kind of safe, but limited ceiling that every good club needs.

 

 

Bruins beat Sabres & Leafs to show moxie, but the’D’ does not rest

The losses were piling up on the road trip, but the Boston Bruins stopped the bleeding with big wins in Buffalo and at home Saturday night against Toronto to salvage a tough stretch and keep teams behind them in the standings at bay.

Saturday’s 3-2 victory was especially heartening, as the B’s saw a Brad Marchand go-ahead goal with under 13 minutes remaining in the final frame get wiped out on a coach’s challenge that ruled the play offside. After contending with some pretty one-sided officiating all night that play seemed to convince the skeptics that it wasn’t Boston’s night, but the Hockey Gods smiled down on the TD Garden, and a Martin Marincin gaffe allowed for Marchand to pot the winner with under a minute remaining in regulation to break a 2-2 deadlock.

The referees- Dave Jackson and Justin St. Pierre– made me feel at times like Professor Terguson from the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School. The role put comedian Sam Kinison firmly on the map with his “Oh, Ohhhhhh!” battle screech from the mid-80’s until his death in a car accident in 1992. The officials last night brought out the absolute worst that is the two referee system in hockey- two guys who just seemed to make inconsistent, subjective calls at whim while players like Nazem Kadri disgraced the game by flopping to the ice anytime a Bruin touched him without being held accountable. I guess I should not be surprised given Jackson’s reputation, but if this is the kind of effort the fans can expect- then why bother, NHL? Just put the teams out there and let them decide everything themselves- you wouldn’t get much more bang for your buck than what those two did last night. And with that, I cede the floor to Professor Terguson/Sammy K.

The win put Boston back into third place in the Atlantic Division, just one point ahead of Tampa Bay (51-50…hey- that’s an old Van Halen album!), who will play the division leader and Sunshine State rival Florida Panthers this evening. The B’s also stayed ahead of the hated Montreal Canadiens, who hurled 49 shots at Brian Elliott but lost in overtime in a game in which the Blues brought back goaltending legends- Mike Liut, Curtis Joseph, Grant Fuhr and Martin Brodeur for a pre-game recognition ceremony. Interestingly enough, Elliott’s 46 saves were the most at home by a Blues goaltender since…you guessed it…Joseph. And to top it off, Elliott was wearing a special tribute mask to Joseph with the same paint job that the former NHL great wore in St. Louis from 1990-93, before he adopted the ubiquitous CuJo rabid dog visage that decorated his headgear for the remainder of his career. But I digress…

This Bruins team is a game bunch of players who put in a good effort on most nights even if their hard work isn’t always rewarded with a win. For the past several weeks, they’ve been without center David Krejci, but Ryan Spooner rose to the occasion by playing like the  2nd-line pivot that many of us felt he had the potential to be. With Krejci close to returning, that’s good news for the B’s but the issue with this club is not the scoring as much as it is a lack of a viable championship-caliber defense. Unless Don Sweeney and his scouts can figure out a way to bring someone in, then fans can expect that this is about as good as it will get.

Tuukka Rask has shown that he has more than enough talent and experience to carry the team at times, and Jonas Gustavsson has been the serviceable backup that the team hoped Niklas Svedberg would be a year ago. However, without a balanced defense, the Bruins are a middle-of-the-pack team, and even the most optimistic of observers aren’t blocking off their calendars in May and June for an extended playoff run.

The B’s are doing about as well as they can, even playing above their heads for stretches of the season. However, the elephant in the room is the current makeup of Boston’s defense. The team knew this would be a sticking point when Sweeney traded Dougie Hamilton last June, and the 22-year-old has certainly not taken that next step that seemed a given just seven months ago, but make no mistake: the loss of Hamilton opened up a void that the GM was simply unable to fill and we’re seeing that with a 23-16-5 record and 4-5-1 in the last 10. The B’s are losing games that during the Claude Julien era they wouldn’t have in previous years, by losing leads because they depend too much on their goaltending and forwards to cover up for a group of players that works hard, but lacks the talent and ability to match up effectively against some of the NHL’s better offenses.

Zdeno Chara is the easy target for fans, frustrated by the fact that father time is catching up to him at age 39 (in a couple of months) and hoping against hope that Sweeney could make a trade for new blood using him as capital.

Here are just a few reasons why that isn’t going to happen: 1. He has a no-trade contract and a wife expecting twins in 60 days. Even if he wanted to play for a contender, it is highly doubtful Chara would even consider putting Tatiana Chara through the turmoil such a move would put his family through. That reason alone precludes serious consideration of any others, but here they are: 2. His best years are clearly behind him, and if you are a Boston fan, do you really think that another team would give the B’s the kind of value that improves the team today? If your answer to that question is yes, then I would submit your position is pretty unserious and you might want to learn a bit more about how the NHL works. I don’t say that to be arrogant, it’s just a fact. 3. There is simply no other defenseman remotely close to assuming the role Chara has on this club. It’s easy to declare he should be traded while Boston can get something for him, but with the NTC and a diminishing body of work, the return isn’t going to justify the net effect of such a move, which would be to elevate Torey Krug or Dennis Seidenberg to the top spot, a role neither player is suited for or capable of at this stage in their respective careers. Even when not producing the results that fans seem to have taken for granted in the decade Chara patrolled the Boston blue line, he’s still an integral part of the roster and Julien’s system, whether we like it or not.

Besides, assuming Chara asked out and wanted to be dealt (which he doesn’t at present) there is no shortage of teams that would want to add him, but those clubs aren’t going to give up a premium young roster player in return- that defeats the purpose of adding Chara to a contending team’s lineup in the first place. The best the Bruins could hope for is a young prospect along the lines of a Colin Miller, but more realistically, the trade partner team would give up a 1st-round pick for him, and that’s about it. If you want an improved Boston team in the present and immediate future (next year) that scenario doesn’t help. You can probably make a good trade on NHL ’16 involving Chara, but this is real life so just stop with the video game mentality, please.

But getting away from trading Chara for a second- the future Hall of Famer is worth far more to the Bruins than he is most anyone else. It would be one thing if the B’s had a legitimate young colt waiting in the wings and approaching the time to take over as the No. 1 defender on the Boston roster. Right now, Sweeney and Co. don’t have that player. They don’t even have a clear-cut No. 2, leaving Krug to take  on more of that role, but with very little help around him, as the rest of the defense corps in Boston right now is at best a group of 5/6, bottom-pairing guys. That situation places enormous pressure on Chara and results in his minutes being much higher than they should be at this stage of his career.

So, to close out the thoughts on Chara- he’s clearly not the player he once was, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy answer to just trade him and be done with it. He can still be effective in the right situations because of his size, reach and experience, but his lack of foot speed and declining skill set means that the team that employs him as a top defender cannot rely on him to perform like the dominant No. 1 he was in his prime. That’s sad, but the team and fans, at least in the short term, must come to terms with that fact and look for options that include Chara for now, because with that NTC and a lack of a viable marketplace at present, he isn’t going anywhere.

Krug has earned his way this year as a very good No. 3/4 at the NHL level. He does all the things you want from a puck-moving defenseman, making a brilliant neutral zone pass to spring Patrice Bergeron for the first of his two goals. Krug also put on an impressive display of skill during the second period when he stickhandled through the Toronto defense and deked Jonathan Bernier out of the Leafs net before losing the handle at the last second. However, he saved his best for last when Rask got caught out of his net and lost the puck to Tyler Bozak, who flipped it back to P.A. Parenteau. Krug’s instant recognition of the unfolding play allowed him to go right to the crease and cover for Rask. He dropped into the butterfly and absorbed Parenteau’s shot (that would have broken a 2-2 tie late in regulation and likely crushed Boston’s spirit).

When we talk about how Krug can’t physically outmatch the bigger, stronger forwards but that he needs to play smart defense, there is your exhibit A. He could have chased the puck and tried to make a play on it himself, but he had the hockey IQ and situational awareness to cover the cage with Rask out and made a game-saving stop while doing a pretty passable impression of the former Vezina Trophy winner in the process. Krug is Boston’s best defenseman after Chara- if he was about 4 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier, he’d be that ideal heir apparent that Boston so desperately needs. As it stands, Krug’s tremendous character, competitive drive and ability mean that he is worth getting locked up after this season and if it were up to me, I commit the expected $5 million he’ll command on the market to do so- he’s worth it, and the team can’t afford to bank on unknowns like Matt Grzelcyk, Rob O’Gara or even Brandon Carlo right now by allowing Krug to follow Hamilton out the door.

Against Toronto, we saw flashes of what Joe Morrow could be, but we also witnessed the likely effect of not playing every night, as he mishandled pucks and turned them over in several instances when a better decision to move the puck out of danger would have been smarter. The more I watch Morrow, the more evident it is to me why Pittsburgh and Dallas both decided to trade him. He’s a complementary player- not someone who is likely to develop into a top-3 NHL option. Morrow’s impressive skills are clearly evident when you watch the way he can carry the puck and will jump into the rush, but he looks like more of a specialist than a heavy lifter, and that’s a shame.

C. Miller has the best potential of all the youngsters at the pro level currently, but he’s not a player who can play unsheltered minutes and expect to instill confidence especially late in close games. There’s a valid argument to be made that Chiller should be in the lineup over Kevan Miller and Zach Trotman, especially with Adam McQuaid out, but he gives away toughness and size, even if the difference is so trivial that it seems inconceivable that the Boston coaches would not use him more. Trotman is big and mobile…he can make the crisp first pass and it showed last night with a helper on Bergeron’s second goal. He doesn’t have a big NHL upside, but he’s a serviceable player. With more physicality in his game, he might get more recognition than he does.

Dennis Seidenberg is a warrior, and I’ll always respect him for what he did for the Bruins when they traded for him in 2010 and a year later, he was one of the stalwarts that helped bring Lord Stanley back to Boston. However, he’s playing far too many minutes for what he can bring to his team on a consistent basis. He was solid against Buffalo and Toronto, but those are two clubs behind Boston in the standings- when up against the higher-end teams like Washington and St. Louis, DS44 struggles with containment and coughing up the puck under pressure from the ferocious fore check those clubs can employ. If he was contributing on the bottom pair, that would be one thing, but like Chara, too much is asked of him.

Ditto Kevan Miller- as good and hard-nosed a guy that you will find, but who is simply being asked to do too much and play too many minutes. It’s too lazy to just point to him and say he’s unworthy as an NHL defenseman- that’s simply not true. However- the issue is with the role the B’s have him in. Like Hal Gill in the early 2000s when Ray Bourque was gone and Chara was several years away from signing as a free agent, Miller is in over his head. It’s a shame, because as a bottom pairing D- he’d be a fan favorite. He was when he first showed up in the 2013-14 season with a younger, better cast around him and went out and rocked opponents nightly. He didn’t just forget how to play- but you can’t expect a role player to evolve into a top-2 or 3 option if he isn’t suited for it. And so, that’s what we get with No. 86- a nightly adventure wherein we wonder what exactly we will get when he’s out there. That’s no way to set conditions for success, but given the team’s current state of affairs, it’s what we’re left with.

So- to wrap up. This defense is a gritty, gutsy group that does the best it can with the talent it possesses. Adam McQuaid is the embodiment of this defense both as a tough, rugged, character guy who gives you every ounce of what he has, but also as a limited talent who pays the price for his physical style and is asked to do more than he is capable of. It isn’t a lack of want to for the Bruins defense, but in pro sports, heart and will can only take you so far- if the other guys are more talented and have more of them, then your ability to separate from the pack is greatly hampered.

This B’s defense deserves credit for trying, but the NHL is a cold, results-oriented business. If teams won because of effort or grittiness, then the Buffalo Sabres would have won a Stanley Cup by now.

The Bruins have some potential help coming in the form of youngsters like Grzelcyk, Carlo, O’Gara…Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon look like they could infuse the roster one day with the blend of skill and ruggedness needed, but none of those players are ready. So Sweeney’s challenge is to try and find a player who can not only help now, but be the bridge to a better future than just staying in the middle of the pack and therefore not getting as good a chance at drafting and rebuilding that the league’s doormats get.

Bruins Prospects Update 11/16/15

It has been a tough season for the goalies in Providence.

Malcolm Subban missed just about a month with a lower body injury suffered before the start of the year and has been mediocre at best (and that might be putting it mildly) since returning to the lineup. Zane McIntyre is a gamer, but he’s undergoing  a challenging transition, which only further underscores the folly and foolishness displayed by some who really thought he should just waltz into the NHL backup spot behind Tuukka Rask without having seen a single shot at the pro level. McIntyre is a terrific competitor and will eventually right the ship, but he’s struggling at the AHL level right now.

As for Subban, much bigger things are expected of him, and the 2012 first-rounder needs to start showing more consistency in his preparation and execution. If the B’s had toyed with the idea of trading him in order to get a nice return, they can shelve those plans, because Suban’s value is down is right now. He needs to get back to basics.

Austin Czarnik returned to the Providence lineup and not a moment too soon with Alex Khokhlachev now out with a bad hand. The diminutive former Hobey Baker finalist picked up where he left off, tallying a goal and assist in three games.

The NCAA prospects had another big week, which included a 2-goal, 4-point night from Ryan Fitzgerald and Wiley Sherman’s first career NCAA goal in his second year with Harvard. BU center Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson had another strong weekend and is getting positive reviews by NHL scouts who all point to the uncommon maturity of his game for one in just his first collegiate season. NU defenseman Matt Benning got his second goal of the year, significant in that he went all of 2014-15 without scoring once, though still managed to lead the Huskies in scoring from the blue line.

AHL

Alex Khokhlachev, C Providence Bruins

GP- 11 Goals- 4 Assists- 9 Points- 13 Penalty Min- 2 +/- 6

Hand injury; did not play.

Austin Czarnik, C Providence Bruins

GP- 7 Goals- 2 Assists- 5 Points- 7 Penalty Min- 6 +/-  5

Czarnik returned to the lineup after missing seven games; if he can stay healthy, he’ll infuse the Providence lineup with much-needed speed, skill and energy.

Tommy Cross, D Providence Bruins

GP- 10 Goals- 0 Assists- 7 Points- 7 Penalty Min- 25 +/- -4

Chris Casto, D Providence Bruins

GP- 14 Goals- 0 Assists- 7 Points- 7 Penalty Min- 12 +/- -9

Seth Griffith, RW Providence Bruins

GP- 7 Goals- 2 Assists- 4 Points- 6 Penalty Min- 4 +/- -3

Colby Cave, C Providence Bruins

GP- 14 Goals- 5 Assists- 1 Points- 6 Penalty Min- 4 +/- -4

Colton Hargrove, LW Providence Bruins

GP- 11 Goals- 3 Assists- 1 Points- 4 Penalty Min- 8 +/- -2

Expected to be more of an enforcer type of forward this season, Hargrove has been one of the more consistent players providing scoring from the lower lines.

Anton Blidh, LW Providence Bruins

GP- 14 Goals- 4 Assists- 0 Points- 4 Penalty Min- 8 +/- -1

Noel Acciari, C Providence Bruins

GP- 14 Goals- 1 Assists- 2 Points- 3 Penalty Min- 7 +/- -3

Former Bishop Hendricken and Providence College captain scored his first career professional goal over the weekend.

Linus Arnesson, D Providence Bruins

GP- 14 Goals- 0 Assists- 1 Points- 1 Penalty Min- 0 +/- -2

Malcolm Subban, G Providence Bruins

GP- 5 MIN- 304 GA- 19 GAA- 3.75 Spct- ..850 W- 1 L-3 OTL 1

Zane McIntyre, G Providence Bruins

GP- 8 MIN- 480 GA- 26 GAA- 3.25 Spct- .875 W- 2 L- 3 OTL- 3

 

OHL

Zach Senyshyn, RW Saulte Ste Marie Greyhounds

GP- 20 Goals- 10 Assists- 5 Points- 15 Penalty Min- 2 +/- -6

 

QMJHL

Jeremy Lauzon, D Rouyn-Noranda Huskies

GP- 19 Goals- 3 Assists- 24 Points- 27 Penalty Min- 34 +/- +19

Jakub Zboril, D Saint John Sea Dogs

GP- 16 Goals- 3 Assists- 4 Points- 7 Penalty Min- 20 +/- 2

 

WHL

Jake DeBrusk, LW Swift Current Broncos

GP- 14 Goals- 6 Assists- 14 Points- 20 Penalty Min- 13 +/- -3

Groin injury; DNP

Jesse Gabrielle, LW Prince George Cougars

GP- 19 Goals- 14 Assists- 6 Points- 20 Penalty Min- 29 +/-  1

Big week for Gabrielle, who scored three goals and five points in three games and continues to turn heads in the WHL. By comparison he had 10 goals and 19 points in 33 games with the Regina Pats after a mid-season trade last season. He’s well on his way to beating all of his previous career highs.

Brandon Carlo, D Tri-City Americans

GP- 11 Goals- 1 Assists- 7 Points- 8 Penalty Min- 32 +/- -3

Carlo is injured and did not play this past week.

 

NCAA

Ryan Fitzgerald, F Boston College Eagles (HEA)

GP- 9 Goals- 7 Assists- 6 Points- 13 Penalty Min- 27 +/- 13

Anders Bjork, LW University of Notre Dame (HEA)

GP- 10 Goals- 2 Assists- 8 Points- 10 Penalty Min- 2 +/- 10

Danton Heinen, LW Denver University Pioneers (NCHC)

GP- 10 Goals- 4 Assists- 4 Points- 8 Penalty Min- 0 +/- 4

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, C Boston University Terriers (HEA)

GP- 10 Goals- 3 Assists- 8 Points- 11 Penalty Min- 8 +/- 2

2 goals and 2 assists in 2 games over the weekend put JFK second on the team in scoring behind Sharks prospect Danny O’Regan.

Ryan Donato, C Harvard University (ECAC)

GP- 6 Goals- 3 Assists- 2 Points- 5 Penalty Min- 6 +/- 3

No points in two games played for Donato this week.

Sean Kuraly, C Miami University (NCHC)

GP- 12 Goals- 1 Assists- 4 Points- 5 Penalty Min- 12 +/- -6

The Miami captain finally got off the schneid to record his first goal of the season over the weekend.

Matt Grzelcyk, D Boston University (HEA)

GP-4 Goals 2 Assists- 2 Points- 4 Penalty Min- 10 +/- 3

Cameron Hughes, C University of Wisconsin (Big Ten)

GP- 10 Goals- 1 Assists- 3 Points- 4 Penalty Min- 2 +/- -2

Matt Benning, D Northeastern University (HEA)

GP- 11 Goals- 2 Assists- 2 Points- 4 Penalty Min- 15 +/- -9

Wiley Sherman, D Harvard University (ECAC)

GP- 6 Goals- 1 Assists- 2 Points- 3 Penalty Min- 4 +/- 2

Sherman tallied his first career NCAA goal in game No. 43 for the Crimson.

 

Rob O’Gara, D Yale University (ECAC)

GP- 6 Goals- 0 Assists- 2 Points- 2 Penalty Min- 8 +/- 2

 

Europe

Peter Cehlarik, LW Lulea (Sweden)

GP- 14 Goals- 3 Assists- 3 Points- 6 Penalty Min- 0 +/- -2

Emil Johansson, D HV71 (Sweden)

GP- 16 Goals- 0 Assists- 2 Points- 2 Penalty Min- 12 +/- -2

Maxim Chudninov, D St Petersburg SKA (Russia)

GP- 24 Goals- 5 Assists- 4 Points- 9 Penalty Min- 71 +/- -5

USHL

Jack Becker, C Sioux Falls (USHL)

GP- 15 Goals- 2 Assists- 4 Points- 6 Penalty Min- 0 +/- -3

No points in three games for the 7th rounder since last update.

Daniel Vladar, G Chicago (USHL)

GP- 9 MIN- 490 GA- 19 GAA- 2.33 Spct .912 SO- 1; 1-4-2

Vladar’s only action last week came in 21 minutes of relief of a losing effort, where he allowed no goals.

Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview: Defensemen

Zdeno Chara returns for his tenth season as the captain of the Boston Bruins (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Zdeno Chara returns for his tenth season as the captain of the Boston Bruins (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

In retrospect: It was a rough ride for the Boston D party in 2014-15, as former GM Peter Chiarelli traded glue guy Johnny Boychuk on the eve of the new season, a move that went on to have significant second- and third-order effects on a roster ravaged by injuries to  Zdeno Chara, Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller. Adding to the struggles was the lackluster performance of Dennis Seidenberg, who returned from a major knee injury suffered in 2013-14, but was not the effective, shutdown presence for Boston he had been previously.

The Bruins allowed 30 more goals last season than the year before, and the lack of collective team foot speed often found them susceptible to being beaten off the rush and often collapsing into their own end while struggling to generate a transition to offense the other way. Torey Krug was a bright spot for the club, finishing second on the blue line in scoring with 12 goals and 39 points. The team’s offensive leader, Dougie Hamilton, was traded to Calgary on the day of the 2015 NHL draft in a rapidly developing (and shocking) move that sent the 22-year-old out West and left a sizable hole on the Boston depth chart that the team has yet to fill.

Younger guys like Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow showed promise in flashes, but ultimately, the disappointing non-playoff 96-point finish was reflected in a defense that lost a major on- and off-ice contributor in Boychuk and never really got a healthy Chara going for the duration, as he returned to action after missing nearly two months at well less than 100 percent.

The view from here: Chara remains the face of the franchise on the blue line, though he is past his prime at age 38 and is coming off his lowest production (8 goals, 20 points in 63 games) since the 2001-02 campaign, his first as an Ottawa Senator. He faces the prospect of playing the rest of his NHL career on a wonky knee, which essentially makes him day-to-day for life, and means that the B’s must be prepared to lose him to injury at any time.

Chara is the consummate pro and veteran, but his injury complicates the often armchair GM discussion of the team simply trading him. Even at his age and declining offensive numbers, Chara is more valuable to the Bruins than he is to other teams that might be in the position to trade for his $7 million salary (he’s signed for two more seasons- at $5M and $4M respectively before becoming an unrestricted free agent again in 2018), simply because with Hamilton out in Boston, the B’s don’t have any other legitimate player to thrust into the top role today. The onus is now on Claude Julien the Boston coaching staff to better manage Chara’s ice time and game situations to get the most of his experience and 6-9 frame with the lengthy reach. His best days are clearly behind him, but it’s not quite so simple to sit back and talk about trading Chara for cap relief and a younger talent- you’d not only need a willing buyer to give up a roster player worthy of the move, but Boston’s captain would have to waive his no-trade to go. It’s not unthinkable to consider it, but the likelihood of it happening is slim- the Bruins need Chara this year more than ever.

The team can only hope Seidenberg can rebound from as brutal a year as he’s had in his career. His struggles underscored the fact that literally days after signing his four year, $4M per extension with the B’s he suffered his knee injury and the very real possibility exists that at age 34, he’ll never get back to the player who was so instrumental in one Stanley Cup championship and a second trip to the finals in three seasons. The German has given a lot to the Bruins, but his contract, only in its second year, looms like an albatross around the team’s collective neck if he is unable to round back into form. The analytics from last season do not paint a pretty picture, however, and things may get worse before they improve.

Krug is preparing for an expanded role given Hamilton’s departure, and the B’s could greatly benefit from him taking his offensive production to the next level to help offset the loss of their former 2011 top choice’s numbers, especially on the power play. At 24, the diminutive Michigander has the heart of a lion and is embracing the challenges that await him with increased minutes at even strength, but like Chara, the team will have to manage the matchups when he’s defending against the NHL’s bigger, powerful forwards and live with the higher-risk style Krug employs when carrying the puck on his own. Krug has enough talent, hockey sense and an off-the-charts work ethic/character to compensate for his undersized frame, and the belief here is that he’s going to make it work.

The team raised eyebrows when it re-upped Adam McQuaid, the club’s resident baggage-smasher at 6-5, 210 pounds. Another quality person and teammate, McQuaid has overcome a lack of foot speed with a tenacious, pay-for-every-inch-of-real-estate approach that has served him well. When it comes to toughness, no one on the current roster can bring it better than the former Sudbury Wolf can, but he’s a pretty one-dimensional shutdown defender. One of the biggest issues with McQuaid is in his struggles to stay healthy and play a complete 82-game schedule over the course of his career. Since breaking into the NHL full-time in 2010-11, he’s never played more than 72 games, and appeared in just 93 contests over the last two seasons. If how honest, dedicated and hard-working a player was all you needed, McQuaid would be worth every cent of the 4-year, $11 million contract he signed this offseason. As it stands, the Bruins can only hope he can reverse past trends and become a durable presence. Even if he does, the debate will rage on as to how wise an investment it is for a rock-solid third-pairing defenseman.

Veteran Kevan Miller played 41 games last year before being lost to season-ending shoulder surgery. He’s a similar player to McQuaid, but at a substantially less cap hit of around $800k. A gritty, character undrafted free agent who worked his way to the NHL after captaining the University of Vermont Catamounts, Miller’s mobility and experience stand him in good stead heading into the new season, but there isn’t much in the way of offense from him.

The B’s signed free agent Matt Irwin to add to the mix from the San Jose Sharks. The 27-year-old played about 17 minutes (you’ll hear the sheltered minutes argument with both he and Krug) with the bulk of his 8 goals and 19 points coming at even strength last season. He doesn’t bring a lot of pure foot speed with him to Boston, but he’s not a substandard skater either. Irwin has NHL experience and has shown promise as a two-way contributor- he’s third on the blueline behind Krug and Chara in scoring from last season.

This leaves a trio of younger defenders with the two-way potential that Boston desperately needs, two of whom spent some time with the big club a year ago in Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow. Trotman is bigger than Morrow, but does not have the former 2011 first-round pick’s speed or puck skills. Both can hammer the puck from the point and move it effectively, but of the two, Morrow is more of the offensive threat and special teams presence, whereas Trotman is a little safer and more polished defensively. Both will battle it out for a sixth position in the regular rotation if you believe that Miller or Irwin could end up being the seventh defender. Trotman was the last pick of the 2010 draft out of Lake Superior State, and Morrow’s been a disappointment as a pro after leaving the Portland Winterhawks. He was traded to Dallas from Pittsburgh and just a few months later, flipped over to the Bruins in the Tyler Seguin trade. Given what we’ve seen from Loui Eriksson, Morrow (and Jimmy Hayes to be fair) is the last best hope the team has in getting a long-term return on that deal.

As for Colin Miller, the AHL’s reigning champ in the hardest shot and faster skater competition at the 2015 All-Star Game doesn’t have NHL experience, but he has the offensive skill set to see time and even win himself a full-time role with Boston this year. This is a huge camp for him, but at 23, it won’t be the end of the world if he’s not on Boston’s opening night roster, but given that he was part of the Milan Lucic deal, if he earns a spot, the B’s will gladly take it.

A Dennis Seidenberg rebound could be an important factor in a Boston return to the playoffs (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

A Dennis Seidenberg rebound could be an important factor in a Boston return to the playoffs (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

On the farm: Boston’s first pick in 2013, Linus Arnesson, will be playing in his first complete AHL season. The late second-rounder has good size and mobility, but he’s more of a no-frills, solid defensive presence than he is a player who will push the pace, join the rush and contribute consistent offense for his team. If he’s in the Boston lineup next year, then something has likely gone terribly wrong in terms of injuries and/or performance. Arnesson is steady and consistent, but he’s not going to wow you in any one facet of his game. Every good team needs players like him to win with, but he’s not going to be a savior.

Chris Breen is back for a second year in Boston’s system and at 6-7, 224 he certainly provides the size and reach for a defensive-minded defender.  He has some limited NHL experience and doesn’t move his feet all that well, but will be another key contributor in Providence and can help in a pinch.

Gone is David Warsofsky, but fellow New Englander Tommy Cross is back for another tour of duty in Boston’s system with Providence. If only that’s all it took to be an NHL regular… Cross is the very last piece remaining from that disastrous draft year and he’s ticketed for the AHL once again, where he could see an injury recall at some point as a reward for his hard work, but in all reality, the one-time Boston College captain will be fortunate to ever establish himself as a bottom-pairing player at the NHL level.

Chris Casto is underrated, and as a free agent signing out of University of Minnesota-Duluth back in 2013, he looked as if he might have the size and wheels to develop into a solid NHL defender, but it just hasn’t happened for him in the AHL. Nobody ever talks about him, but he’s a fluid skater with a big shot, who has at times struggled with processing the game and pace. He’s got one more year on his ELC to raise his profile in the organization.

A look to the future: The B’s drafted three defensemen in the first two rounds this past June, all of whom bring much needed skating and size to the mix. Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon are the ones the team hopes will be more complete two-way defenders who can help kickstart the attack, whereas Brandon Carlo is a huge (6-5) and mobile rearguard who is a better shutdown guy than offensive producer. All three look like players, but won’t likely help out in the short term (though with all three being products of major junior- they’ll at least be at training camp and one could pull a surprise- it’s happened before).

One player who has a shorter wait to making an impact in Boston as early as next spring is Yale senior Rob O’Gara. The fifth-rounder in 2011 has patiently and steadily progressed in the system, winning championships at both the prep (2011) and NCAA (2013) while developing his two-way game. At 6-4, he has a rangy stride and fluid footwork and pivots. He started out being a top shutdown defender, even earning that honor this season in the ECAC. He also improved his offensive production in his junior year, leading the Bulldogs’ blue line in scoring. He’s a smart, industrious 22-year-old who is expected to sign at the conclusion of Yale’s season and who knows? He might even get a quick look in Boston depending on how the defense is situated by then. If not, watch for him to help Providence down the stretch if he’s not still in school finishing up his course work.

Matt Grzelcyk is another prospect worth watching this year. The BU senior and captain is on the shelf for a while after May knee surgery, but he’s expected to be a major contributor to the Terriers’ fortunes again after posting career bests in all offensive categories a year ago. He’s undersized but brings excellent speed, vision and skill to the mix. Watch for him and O’Gara to push one another as complementary players to one another going forward. At the very least- they’ll be helping Providence in the AHL until they can push for time in Boston.

On the longer track, collegians Matt Benning and Wiley Sherman still have time in the NCAA to hone their respective games (Sherman is still a major project just entering his sophomore year at Harvard) while Swedish defender Emil Johansson will spend another season at least in HV71 before he might come over.

The wild card: Cody Franson, D. We know that Franson and Don Sweeney have both admitted that the two sides have talked contract, with Franson reportedly holding out for value and longer term than Boston is willing to give. With about $4M in available cap space, Sweeney wants to preserve as much flexibility, and as we get closer to September, Franson may have to come off plan A in favor of incentives and a chance to prove himself this season for a bigger payday next July. On the upside- Franson is an experienced NHL veteran who will help offensively and especially on the power play with his booming point shot and ability to distribute the puck. One thoughtful Twitter follower I engaged in a debate today over Franson pointed out that in Nashville after the winter trade, Franson was on the ice for just 9 even strength goals against and that he accounted for 56% of shots attempted from the blue line- good for the lead among all Predators defensemen. On the downside, he’s not a swift skater for a club in major need of getting faster and his hockey IQ at times lends itself to him running around and making bad turnovers in his own end. There is no doubt he’d make the Bruins defense better than it is today, but how much and at what cost is a question Don Sweeney has to answer. One shoe dropped today with Christian Ehrhoff agreeing with the Los Angeles Kings to a team-friendly 1-year pact at $1.5 million. If Franson’s price tag is expected to go down as he gets closer to the start of NHL camps, then other teams are likely to start sniffing around. Something’s gotta give here.

The wild card pt 2: Maxim Chudinov, D SKA St Petersburg. The KHL champ is getting ready for another year in Russia after the Bruins made him the 195th overall pick in 2010 as an undersized but speedy and feisty offensive player. Truth in lending- I don’t think Chudinov adds much more than what the Bruins already have in Krug, though he’s faster on his skates (but in my view lacks Krug’s leadership and heart). If the Bruins want to add him to the mix, that’s a call they’ll have to make and information is out there (h/t Dominic Tiano) via Chudinov’s agent that the 25-year-old is willing to give the NHL a shot. I guess we’ll see, and you can never have too much depth, but it’s hard to imagine that he’d want to sign and play in Providence, so it would have to be a similar situation to Carl Soderberg a few years back.

Adam McQuaid was extended four years in June (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Adam McQuaid was extended four years in June (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

The verdict: I have to call it like I see it and this defense as a whole doesn’t scare many (except for perhaps some Bruins fans).

Team speed, which was the biggest need in the offseason, was addressed in the draft, but those kids won’t help this year unless the B’s luck out with another David Pastrnak-type situation. They’ll get faster with Morrow or Miller added to the mix, but the team will still have their hands full trying to generate an attack through the neutral zone or standing up opponents who can push the pace of a game.

The time has come to actively manage Chara’s role and put some constraints on what is asked of him. He’s got a lot of tread on the tire, and it’s time for others to step up and take some of the pressure off. I don’t know how much longer that troublesome knee and his huge frame will hold up. Forget trading him for now- Boston needs him and if things change (especially if he decides he’d like a change of scenery) then that can be revisited. In all reality, unless Chara wants out, it’s hard to imagine the Bruins trading their captain and getting anywhere near close to the value that would make such a move worth it.

Krug is the one player who appears primed for an important role this season. It’s a chance for him to answer questions about his ability to play upwards of 21 minutes or more a night, against top opponents and continue to carry the offensive mail for this team. Mistakes are bound to happen, but how much Julien trusts him going forward will be something to watch. Krug loves playing with McQuaid…will the two stay together or will the team break them up and try something else?

Whether the team adds Franson or goes with 1 or more of the youngsters in Trotman, Morrow and Miller- the Boston defense is not going to be much of a threat offensively, so they’ll have to take care of things in their own end. Without the requisite speed and ability to contain speed to the outside, that’s going to be a challenge.

It’s a game and gritty group- but there are a lot of if’s heading into the new season. That means the goaltending and the forwards are going to have to pick up the slack.

2012 NHL Draft Flashback: Matt Grzelcyk

A knee injury and surgery in May will likely prevent Boston University Terriers captain and Bruins prospect Matt Grzelcyk from beginning the 2015-16 season on time, but the Townie is still expected to be a major contributor to BU’s fortunes when he returns.

I spoke briefly to Terriers coach David Quinn in passing at the NHL draft a few months ago shortly after A.J. Greer was selected, and I brought up Grzelcyk. The surgery didn’t come up, but Quinn was more than happy to heap praise on his defenseman. Many of us didn’t know it at the time, but when BU played in the Hockey East and NCAA tournament, “Grizzy” had already suffered his ACL injury, and was not 100 percent. That’s why some observers may have noticed he wasn’t playing his best hockey in those final games, but he was there for his team and if not for a 3rd period comeback by Providence College in the championship match…woulda, coulda, shoulda.

I first saw Grzelcyk when he skated for Belmont Hill in 2009, before he left for the U.S. National Team Development Program for the 2010-11 campaign. He was such a high-end offensive defenseman at the prep level, but I wondered how he would fare with his lack of size out in Ann Arbor. Well, he certainly made the most of it, even overcoming a pretty lackluster ranking by Central Scouting and other public lists to be a third-round selection of his home town Bruins.

Here’s a profile I wrote on him for New England Hockey Journal about a month before the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. It tells his story as a “little engine that could” defenseman. At the time, the B’s had just signed Torey Krug, but he had yet to make his mark. The two have a lot in common in terms of style and substance- both are undersized, but play with a lot of offensive flair and passion. Grzelcyk is the better skater between the two, but Krug’s shot has allowed him to score 26 goals in his first two full NHL campaigns in Boston.

Some will say you can’t have two smaller defenders on the same blue line, but I contend that when it comes to these two, don’t dismiss the notion out of hand. Grzelcyk will turn pro after this season and likely spend at least one or more years in the AHL. By then, who knows what the makeup of the Bruins defense will look like, but with his speed, vision and offensive upside- I wouldn’t count him out.

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Matt Grzelcyk profile

New England Hockey Journal; May, 2012

Matt Grzelcyk is one of the best 2012 NHL Entry Draft prospects no one is talking about.

The 5-foot-9, 171-pound speedy, offensive defenseman from Charlestown, Mass. recently returned home to the Bay State after two years in Ann Arbor, Mich. with the U.S. National Team Development Program. Grzelcyk admitted that it was tough to leave the comfort zone of home surrounded by friends and family, but looking back on it, there is no question that he made the right choice.

“My whole mindset has changed with everything from the training to all the roadies we went on,” Grzelcyk told New England Hockey Journal recently. “I’ve become more mature as a person and the program not only developed us as hockey players, but also developed us as men. I never really thought I’d be the person I am today, but I couldn’t be happier in terms of the confidence I’ve gained and all the great experiences I had.

“It’s sad that it’s all come to an end, but I’m excited about being back home and getting ready for my next big challenge.”

The luggage that brought him back to Boston was a little heavier, as he carried numerous awards and accolades from his myriad international experiences, including the gold medal he won as a member of Team USA’s fourth consecutive championship squad at the World Under-18 Championship.

“The first year (in the NTDP) was a grind, but the second year brought us all together and was just amazing,” he said of his time in the program, capped by achieving the team’s ultimate goal of an U18 title. “I think—it’s just we obviously knew people kind of doubted us. We had an attitude that it was us against the world—everyone wanted us to lose. It felt so satisfying to play those games and come out on top in the end. I can’t even begin to describe it.”

Yet, even though he has that winning pedigree, a blazing set of wheels and is one of the smartest two-way defenders available in the 2012 draft class, he’s only rated the 177th-best North American skater by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service and is almost an afterthought when it comes to discussing a defense-rich group of prospects.

“I guess it is motivation,” Grzelcyk said. “I’ve heard it ever since a young age and people telling you that you’re too small to play. I like it, actually. I have nothing to lose and I just take the attitude that if I work as hard as I can, I can block the doubters out.”

The player more commonly known to his friends and hockey observers as “Grizzy” is one of three former players with the Middlesex Islanders minor program available in the 2012 NHL draft.

The team was coached by former Merrimack College star and NHL forward with the Blues and Bruins, Jim Vesey (Charlestown, Mass.). Grzelcyk, along with Vesey’s own son, Harvard-bound Jimmy and close friend and fellow Townie Brendan Collier formed a trio that proved to be inseparable in those early hockey years when the boys were aged 7 to 12. All three later skated with the New England Nordiques AAA summer hockey program as well, helping to form a lasting bond between them.

“Hockey helped us stay out of trouble,” Grzelcyk said. “Coach Vesey—we never really noticed at the time what he was doing for us—we just thought they (Vesey and the assistant coaches) were old guys yelling at us, but he built a strong foundation for us early on. We all realize now how important it was for us to stick together and to apply the fundamentals and skills we learned from them.”

At least one hockey parent with those Islanders teams recently recalled how Grzelcyk and Collier would play roller hockey for a large portion of the day, then skate to the rink on their rollerblades for ice hockey practice. Even then, the duo displayed a passion for the game that was palpable.

“Yeah, we couldn’t get enough of it,” Grzelcyk said with a laugh. “I think Brendo’s probably my first friend and he was really my only friend for awhile. We’re still very close. Growing up, it was nice playing with someone from the same town with the same passion for the game. We’re both not the biggest guys, but when you look at what we’ve been able to do, I think it’s something we’re both proud of—that even when we were told that we could play at certain levels because of our size—we were able to rise above that.”

Collier, who will join his buddy Grizzy at Boston Unversity in 2013, is coming off a second-consecutive Massachusetts high school championship. In 2011, he scored the winning goal in overtime. This past spring, with his team dedicating the season to cancer-stricken coach Chris Serino (Saugus, Mass.), he tallied an important goal in the title match against BC High.

“He was my first friend and when we we’re together we’re inseparable,” Collier said after a recent workout. “You won’t find any pictures of one of us when we were little without the other. Whenever I would go anywhere, I would always ask my mother if Grizzy could come too, and vice versa.

“In all the time we played together he was the best defenseman I ever skated with.”

The two remain close to this day as workout partners in renowned strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle’s local program. With smaller frames under 6-feet, both players understand that they must maximize their core strength to be able to better handle the bigger, stronger and more physical players at the higher levels.

Working in Grzelcyk’s favor, however, is the fact that he skates extremely well, with an explosive first few steps and smooth footwork. If he lacks natural size and strength, he offsets those shortcomings with a brilliant mind for the game, a deft passing touch and the heart and character to bring his best effort to the ice on every shift.

“The first thing is that I try to establish myself as a two-way ‘D’,” Grzelcyk said. “When you look at my size, it has to be about offense., Hockey IQ and smarts. I’m not going to be a physical guy, so I have to be able to move the puck out of my end smartly and help my team transition to offense smoothly.”

The future BU Terrier added that the biggest improvement to his game this season had to do with his timing in terms of jumping up on the rush and pinching in from the point. He’s also worked on adding power and accuracy to his shot.

Having grown up in the shadow of the TD Garden, where his father, John, has been a member of the bull gang for more than 40 years dating back to the historic Boston Garden, it isn’t difficult to see where he got his passion for hockey. John and Kathleen Grzelcyk raised their family of hockey players and Bruins fans in Charlestown, with two older brothers in John and Andrew, plus older sister Julie, who all embraced the game.

Skill. Passion. Character. They are all hallmarks of Grzelcyk’s game, and the NHL is rife with examples of other undersized skaters who have overcome doubts to thrive in the league.

“Grzelcyk is a good player, and it’s so important in today’s game to get the puck out of the zone—he does that quickly and moves the puck well. He’s smart, and smarts can outweigh size,” said an NHL scout for an Eastern Conference team. “You’d never ask him to go up against an Evgeni Malkin or Jordan Staal, but there’s a place in the NHL for a player like him.”

After years of being told he is too small to effectively play defense, Grzelcyk has an international gold medal on display at home to symbolically thumb his nose at the critics. As he embarks on an NCAA career and hopes to one day achieve his dream of playing in the NHL, don’t count against him adding more hardware to the family trophy case.

Matt Grzelcyk was Boston's third-round selection at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He enters his final season at Boston University in 2015. (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Matt Grzelcyk was Boston’s third-round selection at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He enters his final season at Boston University in 2015. (Kirk Luedeke photo)

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Postscript: I was riding a cab into Pittsburgh from the airport just before the 2012 NHL draft and my cellphone buzzed…it was Grzelcyk calling me to say he was headed to the Steel City.

We had talked a few weeks before, and he had told me he planned on staying home for the draft as he was an “at risk for selection” player- no kid wants to go to the NHL draft and sit in the stands for a night and entire day and not hear their name called.

“What changed?” I asked him.

“My family adviser got some information and said we should come,” he replied.

After the first round concluded on Friday, I was walking into the Consol Energy Center for Saturday’s rounds 2-7 and there was Grzelcyk, so we chatted a bit. He admitted to being nervous…I remember saying something like- “Well, who knows Grizzy- maybe you won’t ever have to leave Charlestown and Boston?” He laughed and said what a dream it would be if the Bruins picked him.

A couple of hours later, that dream came true in the third round- 85th overall- some 90 selections before Central projected him.

Grizzy has come a long way since, but he knows the biggest task lies ahead- cracking that NHL roster he grew up bleeding black and gold for.

No sweat.