NHL Free Agency Day 1: Bruins add depth, Acciari to Panthers

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As expected, the Boston Bruins played on the margins during the NHL’s annual free agent derby July 1, re-signing defenseman Connor Clifton to a three-year pact at a $1M per annum cap hit along with Ryan Fitzgerald (pictured) to a 2-way contract valued at $700k for one year. From the outside of things, the B’s added bottom-line forwards Par Lindholm (Jets and Maple Leafs) to a 2-year NHL deal valued at $850 k per, and Brett Ritchie (Stars) to a 1-year, $1 million contract. The B’s also signed 2012 1st-round forward Brendan Gaunce (Canucks) to a 2-way (700k cap hit) deal, 2011 4th-round defenseman Josiah Didier (Canadiens) to an AHL contract and free agent goalie Maxime Lagace (Golden Knights) 2-way (700k cap hit) to bolster their AHL depth.

Clifton was a no-brainer after his emergence in the Stanley Cup playoffs and to lock him up for 3 years at that price is excellent value. It’s nice to see the local Fitzgerald get another shot to find his way to the Big B’s after being a fourth-round pick in 2013, but the scouts were concerned about his overall speed/pace game and how it would translate to the NHL, and thus far, he’s still fighting to break through.

The B’s also saw their first casualty of the free agency period, as grinder Noel Acciari came to terms on a 3-year/$5 million contract with the Florida Panthers. It’s only a matter of time before we find out where Marcus Johansson will end up, but it won’t be back in Boston.

While the groans in some fan circles are audible- most knowledgeable fans understand that given the current cap situation facing Don Sweeney, there simply wasn’t any room for spending sprees on the open market, especially with three key restricted free agents needing extensions in Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Danton Heinen. The only hope for some additional coin to spend here in July of 2019 was for the B’s to somehow off-load David Backes and the 2 years remaining on his $6M cap hit. Since the deal signed in 2016 was front-loaded, Backes’ contract is appealing to teams looking to get to the cap floor whose operating budgets are lower than the richer teams in that the cap hit is higher than the money owed, but it’s easier said than done. Of course, with other teams around the league moving bad contracts, it’s natural for B’s fans to want the same- it always takes two to tango and the team is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to behind-the-scenes negotiations, so good luck finding out what if any overtures were made in this regard. Barring a trade of some fashion, whether Backes or somewhere else on the roster, there simply wasn’t any money to spend on over-priced free agents. And there won’t be much to handle next year’s more challenging roster turbulence.

Fast food mentality ain’t gonna work here, folks- instead of being envious of the huge contracts being handed out around the league today, set your sights to 2020 and the longer game. It never ceases to amaze that so many of the nimrods out there clamoring for the B’s to be players in an annually inflated free agent market will be the first to turn on the GM when said player(s) don’t live up to their big cap numbers. Truth in lending- TSP was bullish on Backes three years ago in the face of some pointed criticisms elsewhere. In hindsight, the fears (at the time) have come to fruition- there’s not much tread left on the tire, and Backes, as tremendous a character/glue guy as he is, hamstrings the B’s for two more years at $6M per. Teams are better to invest in their own players and leave the madness of the UFA market to others who will be doomed to repeat history because they aren’t learning from it.

Think of all the NHL teams today who worked so hard to clear cap space only to fill it up again. Now, in some cases- the signings look smart and should pay dividends (Lehner- CHI; Donskoi- COL; Hartman- MIN; Perry- DAL; Spezza- TOR to name a few). Others are courting major disaster (Bobrovsky- FLA 10M cap hit? For 7 years?? Wow!!; Stralman- FLA; Zuccarello- MIN; Hayes- PHI delayed reaction from 19 June signing & Erik Karlsson’s big pay day as he approaches 30 with a lot of wear and tear on his slight frame). But, if we’ve learned one thing over the past several years, there always seems to be a GM or three out there who will bail some of their spendthrift counterparts out by taking on the remainders of bad contracts handed out on credit.

We learned the lesson with Backes- character matters, but up to a point. You have to balance that with a more realistic assessment of your ROI- return on investment. We all wanted Backes to be successful in Boston, but the warning signs were there. In the end, he’s a player more suited to the NHL of yesteryear…it sucks to say it, but as some predicted three years ago, that contract is, in fact, an albatross. And we’ll have to see what the B’s are able to do about it with 24 more months left on the term.

Now, on to the new guys:

Center Par Lindholm spent the season between Toronto and Winnipeg after signing with Toronto a year ago, and the move makes sense if you believe the rumors that the B’s are shopping Joakim Nordstrom.

Lindholm is an intelligent 200-foot pivot with a wealth of Swedish pro experience, but didn’t play much in his first North American season in the NHL. He’s not a dynamic offensive player and more of a Swiss Army Knife/Jack of All Trades type. He typically played less than 10 minutes a game for the Leafs and Jets, so if you noticed him much, then you’re a far better judge of talent than we are.

We’ll chalk this one up as a wait-and-see kind of addition, as it smacks of a set-up for something else to happen on the roster…otherwise, color us perplexed as to where this player fits in the B’s lineup when all is said and done.

Here’s an informative article on him out of Winnipeg from a month ago…

Brett Ritchie comes to the B’s from the only organization he ever knew- the Dallas Stars- who drafted him in the second round of the 2011 lottery. Interestingly enough, when the rumors of Tyler Seguin being dealt to Dallas first came to light, we (that is Kirk) thought that Ritchie might have been one of the prospect pieces included in that ill-fated trade that is coming up on 6 years old.

We’d like to say that the 26-year-old is on the verge of busting out, but the reality is- he’s a big-bodied (6-4/220) forward who never really developed into the player he looked like he could be in his draft season with the OHL’s Niagara Ice Dogs. While not a bad skater, he has trouble separating and is at his best when his team has possession in the offensive zone and he can get to quiet ice/doesn’t have to win footraces to loose pucks.

Posting a career 0.22 points-per-game average with the Stars in 241 career contests (plus 3 playoff games), Ritchie has always had decent possession numbers in Dallas, and looks to be the kind of player at even strength that the B’s are trying to bring in to improve their overall 5v5 play. The problem is- because they don’t have a lot of money to spend in free agency this summer, they’re forced to bring in a low-end producer like Ritchie who fits that heavy, hard-to-play-against style the team loves in its forwards, but simply doesn’t have the production to indicate that he will suddenly find a scoring touch in Boston.

We suppose the B’s could do worse here, but we hope they will find a way to do better! Ritchie is a role player and not much more than that- 1 year and $1M isn’t going to break the bank, but since posting a career-best 16 goals in 2016-17,  he’s only managed 11 total in the last 124 games/ two campaigns. He’s an offensive upgrade on Acciari, but not by much- what is the real play here as it pertains to the B’s roster?

Here’s something a little dated (written a year ago) on Ritchie from a Dallas perspective.

Brendan Gaunce is like Ritchie-light…he was Vancouver’s 1st-round pick in 2012, selected just after the B’s drafted his Belleville (OHL) teammate Malcolm Subban…and he was a guy we had time for as a Bruins draft option that year. Big and has some skill with a high motor and leadership, Gaunce, who was once the 2nd overall selection of the Bulls in the OHL draft, has been an utter disappointment at the NHL level.

He’s the classic looks like a player prospect who didn’t ever develop into one despite a willingness to drive the net and compete/be effective on the walls and on the cycle. He’s not a snarly, in-your-face physical type and ultimately, that plus a lack of skill to establish himself on the top-two lines in Vancouver spelled the end for him in his first NHL organization. He’s going to be a good add in Providence, and his NHL ceiling might be that of a Tim Schaller if he can somehow get his foot in the door, but even that’s probably a stretch.

Here’s an article on Gaunce when news broke he would not be qualified by the Canucks:

Max Lagace and Josiah Didier– The B’s needed a minor league veteran to replace Zane McIntyre, who left the B’s to sign with the Canucks after being drafted by Boston in 2010.

Lagace has 17 career games in the NHL all with Vegas, and was pressed into emergency duty in 2017-18 when the Knights went through an unbelievable rash of injuries at the goaltender position. He’s not an NHL regular but will provide good insurance down in the AHL, as Providence probably can’t afford to hand the keys to a Daniel Vladar/Kyle Keyser tandem and needs a third/emergency goalie to backfill the second season of Tuukka Rask/Jaroslav Halak.

Didier, who was a 4th-round project pick out of the USHL’s Cedar Rapids Rough Riders by Montreal in 2011 and played for current Dallas HC Jim Montgomery at the University of Denver, just won a Calder Cup with the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL and is another experienced winner who will bolster the Providence blue line and help Boston’s younger players develop.

The final word: The real value to the Bruins will come when their key RFA’s sign. Don’t cry for the big name UFAs, Argentina…the truth is- they were never really in play for Boston.

Everyone likes their shiny new toys and wants their favorite team to be in the mix to get the name guys on July 1st, but in most cases, the big spenders are left with a serious case of buyer’s remorse. Last year, Sweeney hit the middle tier market and did well, but you can’t step up to the plate year after year and pay market prices for the talent out there and expect to keep the real gems in your organization.

It’s like a high interest credit card- you get some immediate satisfaction in the form of landing a brand name that the hockey media will buzz about, but in 3-4 years, who did that phat free agent contract cost you, and was it worth it?

Something tells us that Sweeney knows that, and also realizes he will have to find another route to upgrading the second-line right wing. How soon it happens and what form the next addition(s) takes is sure to dominate social media from here on, but anyone who knows how the cycle goes in the NHL understood that the B’s weren’t going to make waves today…whether they moved Backes or not.

As for Acciari, he came to his childhood favorite team as an undrafted free agent and did a solid job on the fourth line. He represents decent but not good value for the Panthers, but the reality is- they need more guys like the former Providence College captain, whereas the Bruins have more than enough of those players already. We wish him well as he moves on to his new team and a solid payday.

Meet me in St. Louie, Louie…B’s blow ’em out 7-2

14 down, 2 wins to go.

The Boston Bruins sandwiched dominant wins between an OT loss in games 1-3 of the Stanley Cup final series, smashing the home St. Louis Blues by a 7-2 score Saturday, including 4 power play goals, a first with Torey Krug’s 4-point night- the only time a Bruin has tallied that number in a final game, and another top effort in net from Tuukka Rask.

Krug has been unbelievable in the playoffs, as has been Rask. I’s ironic that the two most polarizing players for Bruins fans are the ones who are the most deserving of Conn Smythe consideration should the B’s close the deal- and remember- 14 wins doesn’t win squat. Krug has been a man on a mission- always a player motivated by doubters and skeptics who just look at his smaller size and make judgments about his ability to be an impact NHL D. The same people who give big, mobile defensemen who are complete and total liabilities with the puck on their stick have little to no time for Krug, but his play has been so good this postseason, that even the most obtuse of haters out there have no choice but to be silent. It’s been great to see. Ditto Rask. He’s a world class talent in net who hasn’t always played like it, but to his complete and total credit- he’s thus far taken his game to the highest level, and that’s the difference.

Now, on to some other observations about Game 3…

The B’s got the scoring going when Patrice Bergeron tipped home a textbook point shot from Krug, the first of four man advantage strikes. In fact, the B’s logged just 2:06 on the four power plays they had, because they scored on a perfect 4 of 4 shots- 3 surrendered by Jordan Binnington and one final PPG given up by Jake Allen to Marcus Johansson late in the game.

The Blues have a problem. They don’t have the talent to match the Bruins player-for-player, nor do they have the experience this B’s club has. So, they have to play a tough, physical game- but the Blues were running around trying to level kill shots all night, and the end result was catastrophic for them: they can’t hit and intimidate if they cross the line and go to the box, because Boston’s lethal power play will absolutely make them pay…and it has, with PP goals in every game thus far. Game 3’s special teams play for the B’s was sublime, though- they became the first NHL playoff team to tally 4 power play markers in the SCF since the Colorado Avalanche did it against John Vanbiesbrouck and the Florida Panthers in 1996. For perspective, Charlie McAvoy was still over a year away from being born when that happened. The Boston PKers did surrender their first power play goal to the Blues in the series- a shot that hit Brandon Carlo and deflected in (both goals against Rask ticked in off the bodies/skates of B’s D).

With Matt Grzelcyk out of action thanks to a head hit from Oskar Sundqvist (suspended for Game 3), John Moore was next man up and played well. Although he’s been criticized for not having the anticipated impact when Don Sweeney signed him last July, Moore perfectly illustrates the disparity in depth the B’s enjoy over their Western Conference counterparts. Moore kept it simple and used his mobility to good effect, playing a strong defense-first game. The B’s are likely to be without Grzelcyk for the remainder of the series and Kevan Miller is done as well- yet the team’s D remains capable and up to the task.

Although Brad Marchand has yet to get untracked offensively in this series (and he was atrocious in Boston’s 3-2 OT loss in Game 2), Bergeron and David Pastrnak had nice bounce-back games.

But it is Boston’s third and fourth lines that have been the difference and exposed the disparity in depth between the clubs. After Charlie Coyle buried a perfect Johansson pass (secondary assist to Danton Heinen, who had his best game of the series) for his eighth goal of the postseason to make it 2-0, Sean “Clutch” Kuraly stunned the home crowd with a five-hole shot with just 8 seconds or so left in the opening frame to give the B’s a 3-0 lead. Kudos to Joakim Nordstrom, who, though entered the zone ahead of the puck, was not ruled offside because Blues D Joel Edmundson (man, has he been bad this series…P.U.!!!) carried it in…took it away from Edmundson and kicked it to Kuraly who trailed the play and buried the shot.

Blues hero Binnington was grody in Game 3…giving up 5 goals on 19 shots before getting the hook. He’s been beatable this series and isn’t playing with the kind of lights-out mentality that his team needs right now. Allen went in after Krug’s power play marker made it 5-1, but the B’s didn’t get much going in terms of shots until later on in the affair.

Noel Acciari even got into the scoring act- scoring the sixth goal into an empty net. He’s got one more goal in this series than does Blues sniper Jaden Schwartz…just saying. Ryan O’Reilly…sleeping giant? Let him sleep.

Overall, it was a statement game from the Bruins- on paper, we all know they are the better team. Saturday night at the Enterprise Center, they went out and proved it.

Bruins in their 3rd Stanley Cup Final since 2011

The Boston Bruins are back to playing for Lord Stanley’s glittering prize- they defeated the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 for the first NHL championship parade in Boston since 1972, came up short in 2013 against the Chicago Blackhawks and now join the Windy City team as the only the second team this decade to reach the SCF three times.

How did we get here?

Tampa Bay and Washington both flamed out in the first round, opening the door for the B’s (or as old Blue Eyes used to croon “Luck be a lady tonight…”) to handily defeat Columbus and Carolina after battling it out with the Toronto Maple Leafs in a second consecutive 1st-round seven-game barn-burner of a series. Out West, wagons like Calgary and 2018 SCF runner-up Vegas were knocked out in the first round as well. Not a bad draw when all is said and done, but no matter who you have to play- winning a championship is never easy.

Now, onto some thoughts on the players:

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B’s rookies making hay in preseason

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Help coming in the form of Brandon Carlo? He’s ready for the NHL grind.(Kirk Luedeke photo)

The Boston Bruins iced a largely untested lineup Thursday against a more experienced and closer-to-opening-night roster in Columbus versus the Blue Jackets, and the kids skated away with a 2-1 regulation victory.

After carrying play for the first 40 minutes, the Baby B’s found themselves on their heels a bit- they did get goals from Matt Beleskey (1st period on a deflection of a Colin Miller point shot) and Seth Griffith (on a beautiful sauce pass from Jake DeBrusk) to make it 2-0 Boston in the third.  When Brandon Saad beat the D with his speed and Malcolm Subban with a bullet shot to make it 2-1, the home team put on a furious surge, but Subban proved up to the task and stopped everything else that came his way including a last-second Zach Werenski would-be equalizer.

After the game, Boston head coach Claude Julien was effusive in his praise of multiple young players, with most of his positive waves going to defenseman Brandon Carlo and DeBrusk. We’re less than a week from the start of the 2016-17 regular season, and you have to think that Julien was encouraged by what he saw last night on the road. Sure- veterans with bigger-ticket contracts will still likely benefit from the economic reality and make the team ahead of young, lower-cost guys who can go down to Providence without being exposed on waivers, but one of the more important purposes of these exhibition games is to give the coaches a sense of who they would want in the lineup should a veteran get injured, underperform or find himself headed out of Boston in a trade or transaction. The B’s win over Columbus likely earned some respect, even if it may not have been enough to solidify NHL roster spots for a few of the standouts.

Even though many observers tend to seek an egalitarian viewpoint when it comes to deciding who makes it and who goes down, not to mention a natural, shall we call it- an “implicit bias” to want to see shiny new toys up with the NHL club, the league’s salary cap system often makes that a tough balancing act. It is easy to blame coaches like Julien for wanting to ice “binkies” (read: safe, experienced but low-upside veterans)- in lieu of accepting risk with younger, more skilled guys who are also more prone to making mistakes and potentially costing the team points.

The truth is- it isn’t that simple, and management/ownership gets a vote, too. Right or wrong- it doesn’t make sense to spend millions of dollars on one-way contracts in the minors and while you can criticize the wisdom of signing players like Riley Nash and Dominic Moore, there is no shortage of fans and media types who would have blasted the team for putting too much stock in young, untested players. NHL teams have always hedged against putting too much trust in the youth movement, it’s just that the modern era of cost certainty makes some of those moves look bad in hindsight. At the same time, just because a rookie plays well in the preseason does not mean he’s ready for primetime (Cameron Mann, anyone?). And so- it does become a balancing act in terms of deciding whether the value lies in having a young player with the NHL team in a smaller role but benefiting from being at the highest level and immersed in that big league culture on and off the ice, or whether he’s better off playing more minutes in expanded situations in the AHL. Because entry-level contracts are two-way deals, it makes more economic sense in many instances for management and coaches to send the player down for more seasoning at the ‘AAA’ equivalent level.

Having said that, here are many of the Boston rookies (or at least those still with the team as of today) and where we think they stand as the team will make its final cuts in the coming days and ice a lineup next week that will undoubtedly look different from the one that will take the ice in Game 82. Whether the B’s will be looking forward to the postseason at that point or we’re headed back to the drawing board for another disappointing offseason is the great hockey adventure that will unfold over the next six months.

The locks (or who we think will see action in Boston at some point in 2016-17, even if they don’t make the NHL roster out of camp)

Noel Acciari, C- This versatile forward played 19 NHL games with the B’s to close out 2015-16 and is already a trusted agent with the coaching staff. His challenge is to make the opening night roster with the additions of other similar, but more experienced NHLers having been brought in during the summer months. We think he can do it, but going back down to Providence for a spell might help refine this more defensive, grinding center’s offensive skills. He hits hard, but clean and has been a revelation after being one of multiple free agent signings in the spring of 2015.

Brandon Carlo, D- The B’s are lean on right-shooting defenders, so while the soon-to-be 20-year-old is pretty green and raw yet, with his size, reach and mobility- he just might have done enough to grab a roster spot out of the gate. Even if the 2015 second-rounder (acquired with the first of two draft picks for Johnny Boychuk) doesn’t earn his way into the top-six defensive rotation on opening night, we expect that he’s close and should get an opportunity to see playing time when inevitable injuries or other situations occur. He shouldn’t be seen as a dominant two-way D/savior kind of player, but he’s still developing and could eventually become a solid NHL No. 3 who already has advanced shutdown type potential.

Austin Czarnik, F- What else can we say about the little buzzsaw who keeps opening eyes around the organization? Czarnik might be just 5-9 (barely…and that’s in skates), but he’s a speed demon who has the creativity and puck skills to be an offensive threat while is smart and defensively aware enough to thrive in Julien’s system. The biggest question with Czarnik is whether he’ll make it as a center or be employed at wing, where he’s been practicing, but the Bruins love versatile guys who can play anywhere. He was called up late last season but didn’t make his NHL debut. This year, he’s going to get into the historical ledger at some point, even if his role is yet to be determined.

Danton Heinen, F- The first-year pro has been a nom du jour in Boston hockey circles for a while now, as he put up two very good NCAA seasons with Denver University before signing last April. He’s not flashy or dynamic the way Czarnik is…Heinen doesn’t have the seek-and-destroy (without headhunting) mentality of Acciari or Beleskey, either…but he’s fast enough to make plays at both ends and strong enough to excel in the wall work and net-front power needed for the modern NHL. Just when you start to say to yourself “what does this guy do?” he’ll make a sweet dish or bury a quick strike to the back of the net. Julien loves guys like Heinen, and the organization has been highly impressed with Heinen’s mature and refined game for some time now. With Frank Vatrano in recovery from foot surgery, opportunities are there for players like Heinen to take advantage of.

On the cusp (don’t count them out, but likely headed to Providence to begin the season)

Jake DeBrusk, LW- It’s no secret that we’ve been bullish on DeBrusk since before the 2015 draft and perhaps Bruins fans are starting to see flashes of why after he suffered through an agonizing injury last year that left stat watchers ignorantly ranting about him on Twitter and the Internets. Part of why DeBrusk has caught flack in some circles of Boston fandom is something completely foolish that he can’t control- the old covetous attitude of wanting different players taken at the 14th spot instead of him. That’s life and sports- and to be honest- there is an honest argument to be made for several guys whom Boston could have had, but didn’t, Unfortunately, that kind of what-if stuff is counter productive, so have it, but you won’t see it here at TSP. Instead- DeBrusk continues to show off a high-end creativity and offensive skill that saw him net 41 goals in his draft year. Last night’s pass to Griffith for the game-winner was subtle and perfect- he protected the puck from the defender who was hooking and obstructing him to no avail. DeBrusk pulled away and then put it in the one spot his teammate could get to it and fire the shot home. That was a hockey player’s move and DeBrusk is a hockey player. He’s got some rounding out to do in his game and should get a chance to do that in the AHL rather than being forced into the NHL’s bright lights right away.

Sean Kuraly, F- Czarnik’s Miami University (the Brotherhood!) teammate was acquired on June 30, 2015 in the deal that sent Martin Jones to San Jose. He’s a big guy who can skate quite well for his size and has underrated hands, but probably lacks the higher-end vision and hockey IQ to be a top-six NHL forward. Having said that, the Ohio native brings the kind of traits to the table that the Bruins value: he’s heavy on the puck, willing to grind and take hits needed to gain and maintain puck possession and will go to the greasy areas of the ice. He’s been impressive after a pretty lackluster senior year scoring-wise in which more was expected, but a member of the Bruins organization told TSP back when the team acquired him that they envisioned him as a 3rd or 4th-line checking winger, so in that regard- Kuraly is on target. Because he can go down to Providence without being put on waivers, he’ll likely need that chance to play and develop rather than be a spare part in Boston, but he could get a shot at the big time at some point.

Rob O’Gara, D- We agonized over putting the 23-year-old Yale product in the locks section, but in the end- the belief here is that he’s more valuable in the AHL soaking up big minutes in all situations and developing under Kevin Dean rather than sitting in the press box in Boston. Barring a rash of injuries, O’Gara needs to be playing a lot at this stage and he’ll get that chance in Providence moreso than if he slots into Boston, where the left side is pretty well established between Torey Krug, Zdeno Chara, John-Michael Liles and even Christian Ehrhoff, who is in on a tryout but is a left-shooting D. O’Gara’s going to be a good one- he’s shown that time and time again in college, his brief AHL look last spring and in a few impressive spots here in the preseason. But, we don’t think his NHL time is quite now.

Malcolm Subban, G- Give him some credit- the first-round pick in 2012 showed some poise and moxie against Columbus in preserving the win he was handed when he came into the game after Anton Khudobin. Tuukka Rask and Khudobin are Boston’s 1-2 goalies this year, but Subban is showing the coaches that he’s got the stuff to come up and be a backup goalie if someone should get hurt. He’s such an athlete…but that’s also been the knock on him, as he tends to overcompensate for flaws in his technique through his athleticism. As he continues to gain experience and get better in dealing with in-game situations, Subban is looking more and more like he could one day start to fulfill the potential Boston saw enough of in him to grab him where they did. But, he’s also hit setbacks in each and every year of his pro hockey career, so this is huge season for him to stay healthy and be ready to go if Boston needs him.

Not likely

Brian Ferlin, RW- He’s a good guy and you feel for him given the concussion he suffered in April 2015 and its lingering effects. Unfortunately, Ferlin brings a certain lower-line appeal in a sea of players who have the same style and relatively low ceiling. He’s a big-bodied winger who has some untapped offensive tools (he was Kuraly’s USHL teammate with the Indiana Ice), but needs more time to work that out in the AHL- the B’s can’t really afford to keep him around based on the talent and experience levels of others fighting for the same position on the team.

Don’t forget about…

Seth Griffith, RW- He’s technically not a rookie, but he’s still in the mix and last night backed up what he’s been good at (at least in the AHL)- finding  the back of the net. We still can’t help but think he’s a ‘tweener, but he does have sweet hands and a good offensive mind. Ultimately, he’d have to be put on waivers to be sent down to the AHL, so that could mean the Bruins will keep him at the expense of someone else who doesn’t have to clear. Or- he could be included in some kind of trade package going forward. Either way, Griffith is still scrapping for a job and that’s a credit to him after he got injured a year ago and lost his shot at the NHL. He’s a superb player for Providence, but the jury is still very much out as to whether that excellence can translate to the highest level.

2016-17 Boston Bruins preview series: the Centers

Patrice Bergeron is Boston's "Mr Everything" (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Patrice Bergeron is Boston’s “Mr Everything” (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

The NHL season is around the corner, and for the second consecutive season, the Scouting Post blog is back to provide the season preview and deeper look at the Boston Bruins from a position-by-position perspective. The team will soon break training camp on the 2016-17 NHL season at a brand-spanking new practice facility- the Warrior Ice Arena- in Brighton, and although the World Cup of Hockey is up first, there is no shortage of subplots and storylines swirling around this Bruins club.

Given the optimism surrounding the team at forward, we’ll start with the centers. Now, some might take issue with beginning the series from what is Boston’s greatest area of strength, but I started with the goaltenders last year, so there is a method to the madness.

Unlike last year, I am including an audio component to each post, so that allows me to write less and talk a little more, which will save me from carpal tunnel, but will also go a little easier on your eyes. So, without any more foreplay- here we go.

The Bruins are strong at the center position up and down the roster. They don’t have any flashy, dynamic types, but in Patrice Bergeron, have the best two-way pivot in the game, despite what Selke Trophy voters last year would have you believe. David Krejci is the ole reliable playmaking center, but with offseason hip surgery casting his season in doubt, there are some concerns about his durability, especially as he is entering the new year on the wrong side of 30. The B’s big-money free agency ticket item from the summer, David Backes, will be previewed both as a center and a right wing- but we’ve yet to determine where the B’s will slot him, and that promises to be one of the more intriguing storylines as the team breaks camp. Ryan Spooner currently holds down the third center spot, and the fourth line pivot is wide open. Noel Acciari finished the final 19 games of the schedule after recovering from a shattered jaw in his rookie pro season, while fellow Providence College product Tim Schaller was brought in to provide competition in the offseason. The B’s also recently announced the signing of Dominic Moore to a one-year deal, and former 2006 eighth overall pick Peter Mueller, who is trying to make an NHL comeback after concussions and injuries derailed a promising start.

The B’s also have some interesting potential in the system. Whether you’re talking the tiny but ultra-skilled and feisty Austin Czarnik or the slick, cerebral 200-foot pivot in Boston University sophomore Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, the B’s have a couple of options that might not be as far off on the horizon as one might think. Neither is likely to have a great impact this year (though Czarnik is in the AHL and is a dark horse to make some noise and see some NHL action after his excellent rookie pro season), but both Czarnik and JFK are mature players who are likely to work their way into the mix sooner rather than later. The latter player has already drawn comparisons by people in the Bruins organization (as well as some outside the club) to Bergeron, which is a high bar to set for the Swede.

In addition to Czarnik, Colby Cave is an effective two-way center who had a scoring role as captain of the Swift Current Broncos (where he lined up with B’s 2015 1st-rounder Jake DeBrusk) and showed some flashes of ability as a rookie in 2015-16. Sean Kuraly was a center in college, but is expected to shift to wing in the pros, now that he’s expected to start out in the AHL at Providence.

The B’s stirred up some dust when they drafted U.S National (U18) Team center Trent Frederic with the 29th overall pick. Interestingly enough, management (to include the departed former chief scout Keith Gretzky to Edmonton to be Peter Chiarelli’s newest assistant GM) likened the St. Louis native and University of Wisconsin-bound power forward to none other than his childhood idol Backes, who gave up the captaincy of the Blues to sign with Boston a week after the 2016 draft. In Frederic, the B’s get a big slab of beef at the center position for down the road, and if you believe his various coaches who rave about his intelligence and work ethic, there’s more than meets the eye here- he could be a late-bloomer, though don’t expect all that much in terms of production. The B’s also added huge Finn Joona Koppanen (6-5), but he’s more of a defensive clampdown specialist, so even if he makes the NHL, it’s not going to be as a scorer.

A project who will be worth the wait in terms of ceiling and offensive potential is Harvard sophomore and 2014 2nd-rounder Ryan DonatoWatch for the South Shore (Scituate) product to make some noise- this kid is the real deal, and we think he’s going to break out in Cambridge now that Jimmy Vesey has moved on to Broadway. TSP has been a huge fan of Donato’s ever since watching him first dominate the New England prep circuit in 2012-13 and then raise the bar in his draft season. He’s as intelligent and skilled as they come, and knocks on his skating aren’t fair given that he’s bigger than his dad (he gets his size from his mother’s side of the family and a former NFL linebacker uncle), but the hockey sense and hands are elite. Wisconsin junior Cameron Hughes and rising freshman Jack Becker (6th and 7th picks in 2015) are also in the mix as potential payoffs, but will require time and patience, and even then- neither might not ever make it as viable pros.

Outlook: The Bruins have ability and depth up the middle. Bergeron and Krejci (when fully healthy) give the B’s as good a 1-2 punch as any team in the league, but how Backes will fit into that dynamic as the potential third-line center (or whether he moves up and plays a top-two line RW role) remains to be seen. We also have to see how Krejci fares at camp; now that he’s been ruled out of the WCOH for Team Czech Republic, he has some extra time to heal, but if he’s not ready to go, then it’s a no-brainer: Backes moves up to the second line behind Bergeron. Spooner is the source of quiet debate- he appears to be the odd-man out here, as he’s not an ideal fourth-line center if Backes is 3C, and he is one of Boston’s few real trade chips given his youth, skill level and cap-friendly deal (though he’s up for a new pact in 2017). Dominic Moore is a 36-year-old veteran who could mean that Acciari goes back to Providence for more seasoning, and of course- the B’s added Mueller to a PTO, though that is no sure bet that he will even sign or play center for them. Schaller is a wild card for the fourth line as well, but if he’s going to make the Boston roster, he’ll probably need to do it on the wing somewhere.

All in all- center will be the absolute least of Boston’s worries this season, as the team has talent, experience and a roster to weather injuries and unexpected setbacks.

Now, listen to the pod for more (and working on getting these exported to SoundCloud for those who want to do download and listen later- bear with me- it’s coming):

 

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson aka "JFK"

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson aka “JFK”

 

 

 

The undrafted free agents: Noel Acciari

The Boston Bruins undrafted free agents series rolls on with a closer look at Rhode Islander Noel Acciari. He’s a personal fave but I can’t really claim it because I had a chance to sing his praises publicly but didn’t. More on that later, but read on…

No(el) sure thing: Acciari

Noel Acciari was no sure thing.

And after the Boston Bruins signed him in June of 2015, some would say that he still isn’t, even with a promising NHL debut under his belt.

The former captain at Bishop Hendricken, Kent School and Providence College would probably be the first to tell you that even though he played 19 NHL games with the B’s in March and early April to close out a highly disappointing 2015-16 campaign, he has not yet arrived in the big show. However, when you consider the many obstacles that Acciari climbed from his minor hockey days as a Johnston, R.I. native who played with fellow NHLer Kevin Hayes on the South Shore Kings, reaching the highest level in his rookie pro season was a pretty special accomplishment.

The early returns are encouraging, and it shouldn’t be all that surprising if you go back and look at Acciari’s track record. Although he hasn’t ever truly projected as a major league scoring presence, the key cog in the Providence College Friars’ 2015 national championship machine has always brought tenacity, smarts and an ability to elevate his play in key situations.

He showed some of that panache in Boston, when he immediately found a way to make an impact by establishing effective pressure on the puck carrier and finishing his checks at every opportunity. Acciari reads and reacts to the play well and excels when play is in the defensive and neutral zones because of his quickness and anticipation.

“I think Noel is doing a great job in our D-zone as far as really being reliable, closing quickly,” Bruins head coach Claude Julien told the Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa back in March. “On the offensive side, those other two guys (Landon Ferraro and Brett Connolly) are skating and creating some opportunities there, so I think we’ve got a good combination so far.”

Acciari won’t just walk in and grab the fourth-line center job in Boston, but there aren’t many players better positioned to go out and earn it coming out of training camp and exhibition play than the 24-year-old is. After all, he’s no stranger to hard work and has seen his share of setbacks, so at this stage, having already achieved his dream of playing in the NHL has provided him with the proper grounding to go out and carve a niche for himself.

Growing up in the Ocean State, Acciari bounced between top hockey programs in Massachusetts (SSK) and Connecticut (Kent) to round out his development as a Rhode Island product. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for him, though. Never possessing an abundance of size or standout skill, Acciari often had to bring an off-the-charts work ethic and desire to the ice, along with a physical style. Coaches and scouts have always noted that he is the classic forward who plays “bigger than his size” and much of that comes from his natural head and heart.

Veteran Providence Journal assistant sports editor/hockey scribe Mark Divver probably has the best handle on Acciari of anyone in print (he’s watched him for years), and last March, he wrote the following:

If Acciari hadn’t missed a month after fracturing his jaw when he was hit by a slap shot on Dec. 4 — he expects to shed the protective guard on his helmet after the weekend — he might have been recalled sooner. His play in Providence has improved steadily from the start of the season.

Known for his hitting, Acciari said postgame that lining up NHLers is harder than hitting AHL or college players.

 “Every guy out here is very shifty. I can’t just throw my body — then I’ll be out of position. It has to be timed pretty perfectly. I’ll definitely throw my body around when I can. Hopefully, I’ll get some turnovers with that,’’ he said.

“For me, it’s just when I get my chance, be hard to play against. Throw my body around. Get to the net when I can,’’ he said.

Academics also posed a challenge for Acciari as he progressed up through the ranks. Several schools he was interested in were out of reach, and even when he arrived to the Friars, he had to sit out his first year for classroom-related reasons.

Matt Metcalf, writing in the Johnston Sunrise, told of Acciari returning to Bishop Hendricken to talk to student athletes about his hockey journey, and the story took an interesting turn when chronicling his final two years of high school, as he prepared to transition from prep hockey to the NCAA:

Providence, too, was a bit hesitant to take him in because of grades, but Acciari worked hard in his final stages at Kent to prove to the Friars that he could handle the academic load in addition to playing hockey.

Ultimately, Providence and its coaching staff believed in him and Acciari enrolled at PC for his freshman year.

But that freshman season couldn’t have gone any worse. Acciari found himself academically ineligible. Not only could he not play the whole season, but he couldn’t practice or work out with the team either.

“It was the worst feeling in the world,” Acciari said of that freshman year. “There’s nothing worse than seeing your friends playing while you’re just sitting around waiting.”

But Acciari took that time to work harder than he’s ever worked – not only in the classroom, but on his own in the weight room.

And by the time the following winter rolled around, he became an integral part of the team, playing in 33 games and posting 11 points.

However, none of that would’ve happened without working hard in the classroom. Acciari wanted the kids to know that it doesn’t matter how good of an athlete you are because, if you don’t perform well in the classroom, you won’t even get a chance to perform on the field or on the ice.

“I’m glad I could come back to talk to these guys,” Acciari said. “Just to know that I was in their shoes just five or six years ago, I wanted to get the message across that it’s not just all athletics, it’s academics. I wouldn’t be able to be where I am today with just hockey, I needed academics too. I wanted to get that across – that academics is a big part in getting to where you need to be in life.”

Some things in life come more readily to some than others, and in Acciari’s case, he found success in the classroom at PC, earning enough credits to graduate with a marketing degree in the spring of 2015. Even though he had a year of college hockey eligibility left by virtue of redshirting that freshman year of 2011-12, winning a national title and even more- pulling down a bachelor’s in the process- made the decision to sign with the Bruins that much easier.

Once again- credit Boston scouts like Ryan Nadeau, Scott Fitzgerald and ultimately- GM Don Sweeney, who made the final decision on offering a two-year deal to the PC captain- for finding another undrafted gem in Acciari.

He’s not going to put up a great deal of offense at the NHL level, but he’s a proven winner. With the wheels, physicality, faceoff prowess and character/poise to get you big time points when the game is on the line, Acciari is a strong bet to establish himself as Boston’s fourth-line pivot this season and beyond.

Here’s one last personal perspective to share on No. 55 for the Bruins:

Back in March of 2011, while watching the NEPSIHA Elite 8 prep tourney, Acciari far outshined other bigger “sexier” names on the Lions roster, such as manchild D Mike McKee (not drafted) and 2012 NY Rangers second-rounder Boo Nieves.

I kept looking at Acciari in those playoff games (his team lost a 2-1 heartbreaker to Rob O’Gara’s Milton Mustangs in the championship contest) and asking myself what was I missing? He was not overly big, but so physical- and it was an effective physicality. He demonstrated superior closing speed and instincts- he would often read and react so quickly that the puck carrier was on his butt and sans biscuit before he could even process what had hit him (Acciari). He wasn’t getting whistled for his play, either. Even then, he played the game hard, but clean. When it came time to key goals, he had a knack for scoring them or making the important plays to set them up.

I lacked the courage of my convictions to stand up for Acciari and take the time to write about him on my Bruins 2011 Draft Watch blog (to my eternal shame). The fact is- after watching Acciari in prep and since, there was nothing I was missing- he’s a player. The Bruins stand to benefit from his contributions provided he’s used in the right bottom-six role and more is not expected of him than he is suited for.

Acciari reinforces the importance of recognizing that there is always something new you can learn in the business of evaluating hockey talent. Sometimes, the gut feeling is the right one. Four years after watching him rock the competition as a prep but not having the guts the float his name out there as having legitimate pro potential, even as a lower-end checking player, it just goes to show that you don’t have to be a highly-touted teen who lands early in the first round to be an NHL player.

Not every prospect projects to be a top-end guy, but to build winning teams, you need players like him. He’s got a nice NCAA championship ring in the collection- perhaps some more hardware and jewelry could be in Acciari’s future.

 

Noel Acciari 2012-14 Providence College away frontNoel Acciari 2012-14 Providence College away back

The undrafted free agents: Torey Krug

Torey Krug, David Krejci and Tommy Cross at training camp. Photo by Alison Foley

Torey Krug, David Krejci and Tommy Cross at training camp. Photo by Alison Foley

One can argue that a lack of draft pedigree and the retention of those top-10 picks that the Boston Bruins scored with in 2010 and 2011 is a significant factor in the team’s recent two-year, non-playoff slide.

The flip side to that argument is that the B’s have been able to remain competitive in the Atlantic Division, and aside from last spring’s implosion in the last 25 days, a big reason for that are the contributions of several undrafted free agents to the club’s fortunes.

All three of Torey Krug, Frank Vatrano and Noel Acciari were completely passed over in NHL draft.  The trio went on to play NCAA hockey and eventually signed with Boston, all of them seeing NHL action pretty soon afterwards. In Krug’s case, he’s become one of the team’s most reliable two-way defenders, recently inking a four-year extension. Vatrano and Acciari could both take big steps this year as key contributors while providing different roles in Boston. A fourth free agent, Austin Czarnik, is coming off a very good rookie pro season in the AHL last year and could push for NHL playing time as well, as could journeyman defender Chris Casto (signed in 2013) and former Swift Current (WHL) captain Colby Cave is in the mix down in Providence as well.

Some will say that the lack of former first-round picks puts the Bruins at a disadvantage, but when you consider that Brett Connolly (now with Washington) was the highest-drafted player on the roster from a year ago, draft position isn’t as important as the consistency and production. Without the early draft positions of teams that bottom-out in the standings, the B’s are going to have to keep making hay by finding players wherever they can, and players like Krug and Vatrano are showing that you don’t have to be a top selection to make an impact.

This post, one of several that will go into detail on each undrafted free agent on the Boston roster, looks at Krug, who has been the team’s biggest success since joining the club in the spring of 2012.

He’s proven his mettle: Torey Krug

One of the things the 25-year-old defenseman and veteran of 241 NHL games usually brings up when you talk to him about how he beat the odds without the natural size or a draft pedigree to reach hockey’s highest level is the fact that he grew up with three brothers who all helped immeasurably to toughen him up. The word the Krugs all like to use is “mettle,” and since breaking into the NHL, Boston’s No. 47 has proven his mettle time and time again.

But, in order to begin to understand what makes him tick and drives him, you have to go back well before his time with the Bruins.

A supremely gifted athlete, Kyle and Cheryl Krug’s third of four sons often had to contend with older brothers Adam and Matt, who didn’t cut their diminutive but fiery younger sibling any slack despite a significant age gap between them. With eight and six years respectively on Torey, they were much more physically advanced, which meant they usually prevailed in physical contests. Note the use of the word usually in lieu of always, and young Torey learned at a tender age how to use guile and cleverness to gain an advantage wherever he could (remember that- it becomes important later on). Youngest brother Zak (who didn’t play hockey, instead choosing volleyball as a NCAA student athlete), Torey says, is the most competitive of all of them. The Krug brothers brought out the best in each other, and those intra-family rivalries helped to build a foundation that paved the way for the third Krug son’s NHL success in the wake of his older brothers’ college and pro hockey example.

The former Michigan State captain (named to that position as a 19-year-old sophomore- a rarity that speaks to his character and ability to inspire) has always been driven by his love of family, passion for hockey and the slights and doubts that have dogged him since he was a standout minor player, buzzing around the ice and making players much bigger than he was look quite small by comparison.

His dad, who played at Eastern Michigan and is a well-known coach in and around Detroit, helped build a suit of armor around his son as Torey progressed up the elite hockey ladder there, teaching him the hard lessons that went well beyond the systems their teams executed. There were times when other kids and parents whispered that Torey got preferential treatment as the coach’s son, but the reality is that Krug was pushed harder than anyone else, and he earned that ice time the old fashioned way. When you consider that folks still talk about Kyle Krug cutting some kid named Mike Modano from one of his teams back in the day, it isn’t hard to realize that Coach Krug drove his son harder than anyone else, but he did it to bring the best out of him. Mission accomplished.

Yet, even as Krug excelled in the sport as a teen, college programs kept their distance. Unfortunately for him, the size bias he faced as a high schooler wouldn’t end there. Ultimately, Krug has taken relish in proving the doubters wrong time after time since then, but it was a bitter pill for him to swallow when he would see inferior players his age being recruited and locked up to scholarships while he received tepid D1 NCAA interest at best.

However, as he began to look ahead to his final year of high school for the 2008-09 season, there was one team that came calling. Krug’s willingness to take some risk by leaving home at 17 to play in the much more rugged USHL- a junior league dominated by older, bigger, stronger players provided him with an opportunity to not only win a championship, but put Krug on a path that would bring him to Boston and the NHL just three short years later.

The Indiana Ice convinced him to leave his family in Detroit for Indianapolis. It was a major sacrifice to give up a comfortable situation and play at a much higher level than he was used to, but he went, because if you haven’t figured it out by now- Krug has never backed down from any challenge. And wouldn’t you know it- a young coach named Jeff Blashill, who would one day rise to take a position behind the bench of Krug’s beloved Detroit Red Wings, saw the young defender’s potential and gave him the ice time and trust with which to flourish. Although it wasn’t enough to get him drafted into the NHL that June, Krug’s 10 goals and 47 points in 59 games (very impressive numbers for a 17-year-old rookie defenseman in that league) secured him a place with the Michigan State Spartans, where he would go on to have three fine seasons in East Lansing (and where he got engaged to the love of his life, wife Melanie).

The Bruins could have drafted him, but didn’t. Heck all 29 other teams are in the same boat, and while the bidding was fierce for him in 2012 after a 12-goal, 34 point (38 games) junior season, Krug remembered the interest Boston had showed in him early on. Give Boston assistant amateur scouting director Scott Fitzgerald an assist- he and others in the organization too the time and cultivated a relationship with Krug before he decided to leave school. Even though the B’s courted disaster by not investing a draft pick to secure his rights when they should have, they still got their guy.

Give Krug an apple as well- he could have  chosen from several NHL destinations that might have afforded him a shorter path to the big show given the B’s were just one year removed from winning a Stanley Cup and still had a solid veteran defense in place, but personal principles matter to Torey Krug. Why? Because that’s how Kyle and Cheryl Krug raised him, and he learned the game and personal discipline from his dad, but also courage, selflessness and commitment from his mom. He chose Boston because those are the values he learned from following Adam and Matt around observing their sacrifices and work to play hockey at the pro level. He didn’t just grab the money and quickest path to the NHL because he recognized his youngest brother’s personal courage at walking away from the family’s focus on hockey to blaze his own successful trail in a different sport. The biggest difference between those other teams and Boston is that back when Krug was trying to establish himself at Michigan St., the B’s were the ones who took the time to say they believed in him. Those other guys? Johnny-come-latelies, walking through the door of the party after the main event already happened.

Before you confidently declare that athletes will only act in their self interests, take a moment and remember what Torey Krug did.

Four years and a lockout that wiped out half of the 2012-13 campaign later, Krug led all Boston defensemen in scoring last season with 44 points. Though he scored just four goals, he also played much of the year with one arm, having offseason shoulder surgery that is expected to make him right again. He’s at a disadvantage when it comes to size, but Claude Julien has talked repeatedly about how smart Krug is and how he uses his natural wits to outthink opponents and make the right defensive plays. Some out there might declare that he can’t play defense, but the film study and analytics don’t lie. Every NHL defenseman, no matter how accomplished, gets beaten for a goal on occasion, but Krug is far more effective with and without the puck on his stick in his own end than some give him credit for. Just like he did with his brothers, Krug often outsmarts the opposition and thinks the game at such a high level that he can more than compensate for what he gives away physically to a bigger, stronger forward in most situations.

That intelligence and the white-hot fire that burns within Krug’s heart are what define him as an NHL defenseman. They are what convinced the Bruins that he was absolutely worth burning a year off his ELC to secure, and going forward- is the kind of player who you can expect will do all in his power to get the B’s back on track. The team barely missed the playoffs in April and he was playing on just one arm. Think of what a fully healthy and established Krug might help the team accomplish.

That’s the Krug family mettle taking over again, and if you don’t believe it- just ask them to show you their tattoos. Mettle is much more than a word to them, and they’ve got the ink to prove it.

Torey Krug played at Michigan State from 2009-12 before signing with Boston after his junior season.

Torey Krug played at Michigan State from 2009-12 before signing with Boston after his junior season.

 

 

 

 

Boston Bruins post-development camp prospect check- the Pros

Heinen

The purpose of this two-post series is to make a quick snapshot of where one analyst sees the Boston Bruins’ professional prospect depth chart stacking up after the 2016 NHL Entry Draft and this past week’s development camp. We’ll start with he professional players who are expected to be in Providence or in the North American and European pro ranks this season. On Monday, we’ll hit the amateur (NCAA and junior players).

Caveat up front- I did not personally attend development cam this year, so am basing my assessment on feedback from members of the Bruins organization, media and fans who were there in person to see the players. I have seen every prospect on the list, either on film or live, so the bulk of this assessment comes not from four days of on-ice drills and a 3-on-3 scrimmage, but from a season and in several cases, multiple years worth of evaluation. Note- I am only covering players aged 25 or under, so that takes Tommy Cross out of the mix on this list for those who might be wondering. Noel Acciari  and Chris Casto just make the cut as December 1991-born players.

Here we go, and I’ve done an audio file to supplement the limited write-ups below, so for all you Bruins hockey junkies, there’s more content in this post than ever…tell your friends!

The Pros (AHL, ECHL or Europe)

  1. Frank Vatrano, LW (East Longmeadow, Mass.) Plus: Put up mind-boggling numbers with 36 goals (55 points) in as many AHL games, while adding another eight goals in 39 NHL games with the big Bruins. The undrafted free agent turned himself into a sleek scoring machine as a rookie pro and is primed for a bigger Boston role this year. Minus: Without ideal NHL height, Frank the Tank will have to maintain a high-energy pace and work in all three zones to maximize his potential.
  2. Danton Heinen, RW Plus: After two high-end scoring years as a collegian, he put up a pair of assists in his second AHL game last spring; with his genius-level hockey IQ and slick hands, the 2014 fourth-rounder could earn an NHL job right away. Minus: He’s about 6-foot and not even 200 pounds, so he’s going to have his hands full with the increased speed and physicality of the pro game.
  3. Brandon Carlo, RD Plus: Like Heinen, Carlo’s on a positive trajectory at making the Bruins right away- he’s 6-5 and can really skate and move, already a beast in his own end, something Boston lacked down the stretch a year ago. Minus: Not all that instinctive in the offensive end; could stand to play a lot of minutes in more of a top role and on the power play to try and tease more offensive production and build confidence.
  4. Rob O’Gara, LD Plus: At 6-4 and north of 220 pounds, this premier shutdown/defensive mind can also skate extremely well for one so big- his speed and footwork has always been advanced, and the rest of his game has come along quite well in the five years since he was drafted in the fifth round. Minus: More of a “safe” prospect than one you would assign talk of high “upside” or “ceiling” to, O’Gara isn’t quite the physical specimen Carlo is (they’re close), but he may be a more complete defender when all is said and done.
  5. Colin Miller, RD Plus: “Chiller” has top-shelf skating, passing, shooting skills; showed off some offensive flair in his first NHL campaign, putting up a respectable 16 points in 42 games despite not having an overabundance of ice time/becoming a spare part in the season’s second half. Minus: The former LA Kings farmhand has a lot of work to do on the defensive side in terms of processing/making better decisions and improving his three-zone play.
  6. Austin Czarnik, C Plus: Dazzling offensive center impressed in his first rookie pro year with 50+ points to back up his tremendous speed, lightning-quick hands and ubermensch-worthy vision/hockey sense. Minus: At barely 5-8 (and that’s probably being charitable) the former Miami RedHawks captain wasn’t drafted, and will have to overcome size concerns at a position the Bruins are pretty deep at.
  7. Malcolm Subban, G Plus: The progress has been slower than expected, but there is no doubt that he’s one of the more dazzling athletic talents at the position and when healthy, has shown some major league promise. Minus: The fractured larynx was a significant setback, and if it hasn’t been one thing for Subban, it’s been another (    outplaying him in 2014-15)- this is the year that he proves his worth to Boston and justifies his selection in the 2012 first-round once and for all.
  8. Noel Acciari, C (Johnston, R.I.) Plus: Ace two-way center earned his way to Boston for a 19-game stint at the end of the year after being an undrafted free agent less than a year earlier; a good skater, superb faceoff man and intelligent, charismatic 24-year-old who plays the game hard, but clean- he’s got a lot in common with Patrice Bergeron, without the scoring. Minus: With just one NHL assist- there isn’t a whole lot of scoring in the well for the one-time captain of Providence College’s 2015 championship squad; as he turns 25 in Dec., there probably isn’t a whole lot of development left- he’s a solid, if unspectacular grinding bottom-line pivot.
  9. Matt Grzelcyk, LD (Charlestown, Mass.) Plus: When it comes to speed, sense, and spirit/heart- they aren’t built much better than the Townie, whose veins probably bleed black and gold; the former BU captain is an ultra-slick puck-moving defender who can push the pace and get the puck out of his own end with ease. Minus: At about 5-foot-10, Grzelcyk is going to have his hands full forcing his way into Boston’s top-six D rotation and might have to benefit from some luck and minors time to get there.
  10. Peter Cehlarik, RW Plus: Big-bodied Slovak plays the off-wing and signed with Boston after spending four years playing pro hockey in Sweden; he’s got a nice 6-foot-2 frame plus some offensive chops as a late third-round pick in 2013. Minus: He’s just an okay skater- he’s gotten better and can move pretty well in a straight line, but his first few steps and acceleration are clunky; he’s not great at the quick stops/starts/direction change and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to the smaller North American ice surface.
  11. Zane McIntyre, G Plus: When it comes to drive and character, they don’t come much better than the native of Thief River Falls, Minn. who once earned top goalie honors in that state- named for former Bruins great Frank Brimsek; whenever tested, the 2010 sixth-rounder has always responded with dramatic improvement and maturity beyond his years. Minus: It was a tough transition to pro hockey for the NCAA’s best goalie; he’s got technique issues to work through and will have to fend off fellow pro Daniel Vladar for internal crease competition.
  12. Seth Griffith, RW Plus: Despite the odds working against a smallish forward without dynamic wheels, the 2012 fifth-rounder has seen NHL action in each of the past two seasons; he’s a highly creative scoring mind with the superb puck skills to set up plays or finish them off. Minus: We so want to have Griffith higher on the list, but what is he at the NHL level? Scorer? Checking forward? We probably know the answer to the second question, so he’ll have to make it in the top-two lines- good luck.
  13. Daniel Vladar, G Plus: Huge (6-5), athletic and learning- he put up pretty nice numbers with the Chicago Steel of the USHL in his first North American season; very tough to beat on the first shot and improving his technique. Minus: After the B’s signed him to a 3-year ELC in the spring, where is the still quite raw Czech native going to play next year? ECHL? AHL? Europe? Clock is now ticking on his timeline.
  14. Linus Arnesson, D Plus: A bit of a forgotten man and 2013 second-rounder didn’t forget how to play- he’s got good size, can skate, make a clean first pass and is a smart, savvy defensive player even if he’s very much on the vanilla side of the red line. Minus: Nagging injuries kept Arnesson from getting out of second gear, and questions about his vision and ability to process the game well in the offensive aspects mean that at best, he’s probably a 4/5 at the NHL level assuming he ever gets there.
  15. Brian Ferlin, RW Plus: Looking for someone who can play the right side effectively and has enough size to drive through traffic and skill to make things happen around the net? Ferlin’s your guy. Minus: After a promising rookie pro season in 2014-15 that saw him see seven NHL games near the end, a concussion forced him out of most of this year- he’s got a lot of work ahead to put himself back to the fore.
  16. Sean Kuraly, C Plus: With his pro-style body (6-2, 210) and wide skating base, the Ohioan gets around the ice pretty well and has shown the potential to be a solid if unspectacular bottom-six option, either at center or more likely on the wing somewhere. Minus: There’s just not a whole lot to get excited about when it comes to Kuraly’s hands and creativity- when forced to carry more of an offensive load for Miami U. as a senior, he flamed out.
  17. Anton Blidh, LW Plus: You gotta love this energetic, abrasive little cuss of a Swedish forward who plays bigger than his size and stands out with his pure hustle and physical style. Minus: Unless you’re fine with him on Boston’s fourth line (which is A-OK) there’s simply not enough pure talent/ability in our view for much of an impact at the NHL level.
  18. Colby Cave, C Plus: Fine skater with a fine two-way hockey IQ and the raw leadership skills that will be an asset in any room. Minus: We just don’t see much in terms of high-level skill, so he’ll have to win a spot on the bottom lines while swimming in a pretty deep pool.
  19. Chris Casto, RD Plus: With his thick build and pretty quick feet to go with a bomb of a shot, Casto is a bit like Arnesson in that he’s not suited to ride around near the top of Boston’s prospect lists; he just spent three years in Providence after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota-Duluth and was qualified, so that speaks to the fact that the B’s saw something in him worth keeping around. Minus: Every team needs solid, safe, unspectacular players to feed their minor league farm teams and Casto might be that guy- unless the B’s get into a real pickle with injuries this season, it’s hard to envision him being seriously in the mix as a regular.
  20. Colton Hargrove, LW Plus: Put up surprising numbers in his first full AHL campaign; big, gritty power winger is heavy on the puck and finds ways to get dirty goals- one tough nut. Minus: There’s a lot of competition for bottom-six jobs and Hargrove  needs to improve his foot speed and maintain his focus/drive. He’s getting there.
  21. Emil Johansson, LD Plus: Another Swede in the Boston system- he impressed at development camp after a real strong finish to the Swedish pro season with HV71; he skates well and moves the puck with gusto- something the B’s desperately need. Minus: Excelling at drills against amateurs when you’re playing pro hockey overseas is one thing, being able to process, read and react in the NHL is another- still not sold on the 2014 seventh-rounder’s ultimate big league potential.
  22. Justin Hickman, F Plus: Coming off shoulder surgery, it was a frustrating year for the Seattle Thunderbirds captain and power forward who was slow out of the gate and never recovered. Minus: Undrafted free agent just another physical forward in a sea of them, but could rebound and improve his stock with better health and more confidence after playing through a challenging rookie season.
  23. Oskar Steen, F Plus: Energetic and gritty; excellent skater who has a low center of gravity and powers through would-be checkers while taking pucks tot he net. Minus: He probably deserves a better fate than to be at the bottom of the list, but someone has to bring up the rear- reports said he showed quite nicely in drills at development camp but was not as noticeable in the scrimmage/replicated game situations. A 5-9 forward has to be better at that.

Bruins prospect updates- the Pros

Most of the Boston Bruins’ are in offseason mode. Note, I said most- not all.

Jake DeBrusk’s Red Deer Rebels were eliminated from WHL championship play by the Brandon Wheat Kings, but by virtue of being the Memorial Cup host city, they’ll be playing May hockey once the three CHL champions are decided.

Jeremy Lauzon, who dodged a major scare after taking a skate blade to the neck a few weeks back missed Rouyn-Noranda’s third-round playoff series win over the Moncton Wildcats. He may or may not be back for the President’s Cup series against the Shawinigan Cataractes. The deeper the Huskies go, the better the chance that the B’s may see one of their three second-round picks back in action, but that will depend on medical clearance and the player’s long-term health takes precedence over the desire to have him in the lineup today.

For everyone else, it’s about preparing for the 2016-17 season. I’m breaking up the prospects list into pro and amateur sections, and sliding all of the recent NCAA signings and players who are projected to be playing in the AHL season next year onto the pro side.

B’s pro prospects

Noel Acciari, C (undrafted free agent- 2015): The former Providence College captain finished the season with the big club, playing 19 NHL games down the stretch and impressing with his skating, smarts and effort. The single assist with the B’s is  an indicator that offense will not be Acciai’s strong suit, but given more time to center the bottom line as he gains experience, more production will come. He’s an overachiever who is strong on draws, hits everything forcefully but cleanly, and immediately earned the respect and trust of coaches. He broke his jaw when he took a Chris Casto shot to the face earlier to the season or else, as reported by Providence Journal veteran reporter Mark Divver, Acciari would have made his Boston debut even earlier. He’s signed through next season (pending RFA) at a $792.5k cap hit.

Linus Arnesson, D (2013 draft, 2nd round): The Swedish defender had tougher first full North American season than projected, dealing with nagging injuries for most of the year. Never a player who was thought of as having a high offensive ceiling, he’s mobile and savvy, but more was expected of him. With a year under his belt, Arnesson is a player who could see a Boston opportunity via recall at some point next season if there are injury issues on the B’s blue line, but if he can stay healthy, the focus will be on continued development. Arnesson is under contract through 2017 (pending RFA) at a $817.5k hit.

Anton Blidh, LW (2013 draft, 6th round): Gritty, abrasive forward doesn’t bring much in the way of points potential, but if you’re looking for a grinding energy winger who forces turnovers and plays a heavy game, Blidh’s your guy. Having said that, the B’s have no shortage of forwards who fit in this category, so there’s not a big buzz factor here. He’s got two more years on his ELC (2018) with about a $784k cap hit.

Brandon Carlo, D (2015 draft, 2nd round): One of Boston’s more eagerly anticipated prospects after being the 37th selection in June 2015, the late ’96-born Colorado native is eligible to spend the 2016-17 season in the AHL if he doesn’t make the Boston roster out of camp. At 6-foot-5, he’s highly mobile and a premium shutdown type defender. The jury is still out on his offensive instincts/vision to develop into a higher-end two-way threat at the NHL level, but make no mistake- this guy will play. Last fall, Carlo signed a three-year ELC that will keep him under contract through the 2019 season (RFA) at a rate of $820k per.

Chris Casto, D (undrafted free agent- 2013): Casto posted his best pro season to date, but has the look of a journeyman pro at the AHL level and it’s hard to see him beating out those higher on the depth chart to make a go of it His ELC is up and there’s a good chance that the B’s will allow the former University of Minnesota-Duluth star to hook on with another team.

Colby Cave, C (undrafted free agent- 2015): After signing with the Bruins a year ago, Cave showed some promise in Providence as an effective two-way forward with speed. He’s not a top-six project, but could in time establish himself on the lower lines. With two more seasons left (2018) on his ELC before Cave becomes a RFA ($655k), the former WHL captain is in the fold at a nice rate.

Austin Czarnik, C (undrafted free agent- 2015): The AHL’s leading rookie scorer with 61 points had opened eyes this season. Despite his small stature, he’s a plus-skater with superb puck skills and the hockey IQ to provide offense. He nearly willed Providence to a victory in Game 3 of their sweep at the hands of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and is a solid bet to see NHL time with the Bruins next season. He’s signed through 2017 at a rate of $817,500 (RFA).

Brian Ferlin, RW (2011 draft, 4th round): He was greatly impacted with concussion woes this season, his second pro campaign after a promising 2014-15 year that saw him earn a late stint in Boston. A bottom-six winger who can skate and excel in puck possession, Ferlin needs a bounce-back campaign in 2016-17. His ELC ($875k) is up and he is a restricted free agent.

Seth Griffith, RW (2012 draft, 5th round): Providence’s top scorer (23 goals, 77 points in 57 games) saw some very limited time in Boston this season and is still on the bubble in terms of proving whether he can break into a top-six forward role or might be a ‘tweener as someone who puts up points in the AHL, but has trouble establishing himself in the NHL. He’s got the hands and head to score, but the lack of size and speed make it a challenge for him. Griffith’s ELC ($759k) is finished and he’ll likely be tendered a qualifying offer, but whether the B’s dangle him as part of a trade package at some point remains to be seen.

Matt Grzelcyk, D (2012 draft, 3rd round): The Boston University captain signed a two-year (thru 2018) NHL contract worth a reported $858,750 per season (RFA) at the conclusion of his NCAA season. It was a tougher year for the Townie, as he dealt with starting the season late after knee surgery, only to injure his other knee shortly after coming back. His excellent speed and puck-moving ability will make him one of Providence’s top threats in all situations if he doesn’t win an NHL job out of camp next fall.

Colton Hargrove, LW (2012 draft, 7th round): A pleasant surprise, finishing sixth on the team in scoring with 14 goals and 30 points in 66 games. A big, rugged forward- Hargrove’s improved conditioning helped him to have success, but after a productive and impressive middle stretch of the season, he cooled off at the end. There is one more season left on his ELC, which pays him a $737,500 rate (RFA)

Danton Heinen, RW/LW (2014 draft, 4th round): After a tough start offensively, the British Columbia native erupted in the second half of the year for Denver University, finishing as the team’s top scorer and helping DU reach the Frozen Four. He’s a slick, playmaking wing who posted a pair of assists in his pro hockey debut with Providence and is a darkhorse to break camp with the NHL Bruins on the opening night roster come October. He’s signed through 2019 at a $872.5k cap hit.

Justin Hickman, LW (undrafted free agent- 2015): The Seattle Thunderbirds captain did not have the anticipated impact after missing the rest of 2015 to shoulder surgery and signing with Boston. He’s a hard-nosed winger with underrated scoring ability, but took a while to adjust and adapt to the demands of the AHL. Heavy on the puck and willing to play a physical, grinding game- watch for him to take on more of a consistent role next season, with about 15-20 goals at the AHL level a reasonable target to aim for. Hickman is on an ELC that keeps him a Bruin through 2018 at an (unconfirmed per General Fanager) $700k hit.

Alexander Khokhlachev, C (2011 draft, 2nd round): Despite making a difference in the AHL for much of the season, the 40th overall selection was not able to do much with the limited ice time he was given in Boston. There’s not much else can be said that hasn’t been already at TSP- he’s talented enough to be an NHL forward but hasn’t translated being an impact performer on the farm to the big show. Koko’s ELC has expired and he is expected to either be traded to another organization or pursue his Europe options with St. Petersburg, which owns his KHL rights.

Sean Kuraly, C (trade with SJS- 2015): The Miami University RedHawks captain signed for two years (thru 2018 at a $809k cap rate) after finishing a disappointing senior year. Acquired from the San Jose Sharks last June as part of the return for goaltender Martin Jones, Kuraly has good size and skating ability to be more of a two-way center or wing who is heavy on the puck and does the grinding work on the bottom-six.

Zane McIntyre, G (2010 draft, 6th round): A TSP favorite since before he was drafted in 2010, it was a season of ups and downs for the rookie pro. The former star at University of North Dakota has some work to do on technique and mechanics after being exposed at times during the regular season. His performance in Game 3 was a particular disappointment, but he has the drive to roll up the sleeves and get to work, so it will be interesting to see how he responds to the adversity next year. He’s signed through 2017 at a $975k cap hit (RFA).

Colin Miller, D (trade with LAK- 2015): The NHL tools are clearly there for the one-time Kings prospect picked up last draft day as part of the Milan Lucic trade. Although not tall, Miller has a thick build and has the skating and puck skills to be a solid NHL defender, but he also has to show he can think the game enough to log bigger minutes and take care of his own end. Miller’s ELC ($602,500) expired and he is RFA. Expect the B’s to extend him a qualifying offer and we’ll see what happens next.

Rob O’Gara, D (2011 draft, 5th round): Four-year starter and NCAA champion at Yale University finished up his eligibility this past March and signed a two-year ELC worth $925,00 per through 2018.A big (6-4), mobile defender who is sound positionally and can move the puck effectively, O’Gara may need developmental time in the AHL, but could one day join Boston’s blue line to form a pretty good shutdown presence with Carlo.

Malcolm Subban, G (2012 draft, 1st round): After a rough beginning due to a lower body injury, Subban was playing the best hockey of his pro career over a two-month stretch in the AHL when he took a shot to the throat in warmups. A fractured larynx cost Subban the rest of his season and means he has to hit the reset button, so to speak. He’s talented enough to win the Boston backup job this fall, but experience and an extended run as an AHL starter have continued to elude the 24th overall pick. His ELC runs  for one more season at about $863k before he becomes RFA.

Frank Vatrano, LW (undrafted free agent- 2015): The crown jewel of undrafted free agents last year tore apart the AHL (36 goals, 55 points) in 36 games with Providence, and still found time to make an impressive showing in Boston, where he finished the NHL season. The Springfield Rifle (no, I’m not calling him the “East Longmeadow Rifle”- that doesn’t have anywhere near the ring) added eight more goals in 39 games while exhibiting the speed and gusto that is sure to produce more offense at the highest level. Vatrano’s transformation and sheer impact this season earned him AHL co-Rookie of the Year honors (with Colorado prospect Mikko Rantanen) and set him up as a potential key contributor in Boston going forward.

Daniel Vladar, G (2015 draft, 3rd round): After finishing a solid USHL season with the Chicago Steel, the 75th selection last June is a giant (6-foot-6) project with impressive athletic ability. On the flip side, Vladar needs work with his technique and is still pretty raw- it remains to be seen whether he will be in the AHL, ECHL or possibly Europe next season. While not impossible, NHL is about as long a shot as it gets for Vladar at this stage of his development. Signed a three-year contract in late April worth $742,500 annually.

(Source for contract updates: http://www.generalfanager.com/teams/boston-bruins)

Update:

Maxim Chudinov, D (2010 draft, 7th round): After reports that the small, speedy and feisty defender wanted to sign and come over to North America, his St. Petersburg SKA team in the KHL just announced that he agreed to another two-year contract extension. Though it does have several reported provisions to give him an out if he gets an NHL offer or if his salary isn’t paid on time, the Bruins lose his exclusive negotiating rights on July 1. It looks like Chudinov won’t justify Boston’s decision to draft him six years ago, though the door isn’t completely closed. His agent is former NHL defenseman Petr Svoboda. If you can read Russian, here’s the extension announcement: http://www.ska.ru/news/view/ska-prodlil-kontrakt-s-maksimom-chudinovym

(h/t to Dominic Tiano for the update)

 

 

A little more on Noel Acciari & why he’s impressing people

Exhibit A for stats not telling the story- I give you Boston Bruins center Noel Acciari.

(Acciari talks to reporters about his 1st NHL shift vs Calgary- when Landon Ferraro scored to take a 1-0 lead; Boston Sports Desk video)

The Johnston, R.I. native was an undrafted free agent signing after being one of the captains who led his Providence College Friars to the 2015 National Championship, stunning their Hockey East rival (and the favorite) Boston University with a third period comeback Acciari had a hand in.

Aside from his minor hockey days, Bishop Hendricken high and final year of prep with the Kent Lions (the Connecticut school that if I’m not mistaken produced one Billy Jaffe, esteemed hockey analyst and broadcast personality) under Jaffe’s fellow Michigan Wolverines alum, Matt Herr, Acciari has not been one to put up big offensive numbers. That’s not his game.

What is his game is what we saw from him last night, in his third NHL contest since being brought up from Providence this week when Zac Rinaldo was optioned to the AHL. In a hard-fought 2-1 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals, winners of seven straight games against the B’s going back to the 2013-14 season, Acciari stood out in a good way, even if he has yet to register a single point.

Besides, who doesn’t love a good underdog?

His signature moment, the one that created major buzz online among B’s fans last night, was when he dropped Caps defenseman and former BC standout Brooks Orpik with a big, clean hit along the boards. Many folks don’t like Orpik for some of the predatory hits he’s laid on players during his career, and he more recently (in December, 2013) took out Loui Eriksson, leading to Shawn Thornton’s retaliation and subsequent suspension, as he caused injury to Orpik when he pulled him down from behind and pounded him on the ice. Regardless of whether you root for Orpik or not, he’s a legitimate shutdown defenseman who is known for and experienced in playing a physical brand of defense- so when he’s out looking to make body contact, the veteran defender is usually the one who comes out on top.

Acciari, still playing with a jaw protector on his helmet after taking a slap shot to the face from Providence teammate Chris Casto earlier in the season, stepped into Orpik like a seasoned vet and used his lower center of gravity to drive the Washington player back and off his skates.

That’s the type of hard, but clean hit that has become Acciari’s hallmark over the years. He stands at just a shade under 6-foot, but he’s a stout 200+ pounds and understands how to give and take a hit.  Ever since he broke in with the Friars after taking a red shirt season in 2011-12, he’s done it. And while his offensive numbers grew in each of the three consecutive seasons he played in his home city, what was always consistent for him was how he finished his checks and forced opponents to think about how early or how late they held onto the puck, because they knew Acciari was coming.

He’s not a prolific scorer and won’t ever be that kind of guy, but he brings a well-rounded set of skills to the table: he’s a good skater who has the kind of short-area burst that is essential to thrive in a checking line role. To be able to do the job right, it’s about being more quick than straight-line fast and being able to change directions through a series of rapid stops and starts- Acciai’s excellent command of his edges allows him to be a disruptor on the forecheck and deny the opposing center time and space to make plays when the puck is in the Boston end. Watch the way he comes in behind unsuspecting puck carriers and lifts their stick to (legally) interfere with their possession. When you say that a player is smart- it’s not just about how creative he is at creating scoring chances. Making the right defensive play is just as commendable, especially when you’re in a 1-1 contest.

Acciari is a relentless ball of energy when he plays. As he gets more comfortable and experienced, he’s going to be able to assert himself a lot more in all three zones. Last night against the Capitals was the first of the three games he’s played (he was whistled for two marginal fouls against the Blackhawks) in which I’ve truly seen him start to morph into the wrecking ball that we’ve seen him be since his days at Kent and PC. Like most youngsters getting their first taste of NHL action- he was playing conservatively and skating more not to lose than to win. Against Washington, we started to witness that grinder who can wear opponents down and force players to think about what’s coming. Overthinking it equals errors that can be forced and exploited.

What’s best about Acciari is that he comes in with zero fanfare. He was a late-bloomer who was never drafted, but got the thrill of his young life when his favorite Bruins team came calling to offer him a job last June. Like Frank Vatrano, he simply could not pass that up, even though he was eligible to stay at PC under head coach Nate Leaman for another year. Also like Vatrano, the undrafted free agent that no team ever spent a pick on, can now say what a lot of guys who were drafted in each of the three years Acciari was available (2010-12) can’t: he’s made it to the NHL. Where he goes from here is still very much open to debate, but the B’s are no doubt pleased at what they’re seeing in his small audition. A team can do far worse than NA55 as a fourth-line center, and perhaps not a whole lot better.

We’re seeing things come together for Boston’s forward lines. A fourth unit that gives Claude Julien and his staff confidence and can do all of the things you want from the bottom-three, but also chip in with some speed and scoring to go with the physicality- that’s coming to fruition with Landon Ferraro and Brett Connolly flanking Acciari.

Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke, and for one Rhode Island kid who grew up in local rinks plugging away and envisioning himself putting on the Black and Gold for the big club that played in the shiny building about an hour up the road on I-95, that time has come.

Here’s to seeing continued growth and Acciari being that next good “hometown kid makes good” story for the B’s.