Editor’s Note- No, not Dominic Tiano this time. I’ll do a quick-hitter between packing up the moving truck (that’s dedication for you) and driving away to provide a snapshot of the younger defensemen coming up through the ranks in the Boston system. Because Charlie McAvoy proved himself ready for primetime against Ottawa in six games, he’s not a part of this post- you all saw him and what he’s capable of.- KL
The B’s young defense is shaping up, but even with the immediate splash provided by McAvoy in the 2017 NHL playoffs, there is no surefire way to predict that the team will continue to enjoy the fruits of their system to the degree we saw with their 2016 top pick. However, there are several (left-shot heavy) young blue liners who are signed (we’re not including the college kids like Ryan Lindgren, Wiley Sherman and Cameron Clarke in this particular post but will address them later) and if not playing in Boston regularly next season, will probably make cameos at some point.
Here’s a quick look at how the newest Boston Bruins fared in their NHL debuts.
This is by no means an all-encompassing assessment, but more of some quick observations intended for those who couldn’t see the game or did and either saw some of the same things or might have caught some things I didn’t cover here. It’s also subjective analysis, so there are sure to be disagreements with how I broke the film down. That’s fine…ultimately, we’re in it for discussion or dialogue. This is not intended to be the final word on any of these players, especially after just one game that counts to draw from.
Rob O’Gara, RD– He played the fewest minutes and didn’t make many costly mistakes. With O’Gara, less is more, so on the plus side, he showed some poise with the puck in terms of moving it to the right teammates to break the play out (for the most part) and played within his limitations. He snuck a wrist shot in on Sergei Bobrovsky in the third period that would have found the far corner of the net- the CBJ’s netminder was able to see the shot so perhaps with traffic in front of the net, O’Gara might have hit the back of the net in his first NHL contest.
On the down side, he tried to do too much at times, giving up position to chase the play and leaving Tuukka Rask without coverage. He forced a couple of passes and was guilty of contributing to a few turnovers, but nothing egregious that ended up with a Blue Jackets score. That’s all pretty minor stuff when you consider that he played within himself and didn’t try to be something he’s not. O’Gara is the Danton Heinen of the defensive youngsters- he’s not as flashy as some of the others, but he’s smart and effective. That’s what the Bruins needed more than anything, even if he had just 13 minutes in change and was protected in terms of the workload.
Brandon Carlo, RD- Like O’Gara, you have to take the good with the bad. He was a little jumpy out of the gate and just needed some time to settle in. He was slow at times to pick up coverage and react to the offensive flow in his own end, on the ice for a power play goal against and again when Seth Jones scored to give the home team a 3-1 lead. On that particular play, Carlo had two chances to get the puck out, but he put both weak clearing attempts (the first bounced back to him for a mulligan, but repeated his mistake) into players with blue uniforms. Instead of clearing the zone, the puck eventually got to Matt Beleskey, who was guilty of turning the play over to Jones for the tally, but it all started with Carlo, and Zdeno Chara as well…both of them had opportunities to make the right defensive plays that would’ve prevented the Jones goal but failed to do so.
On the plus side, he showed much promise with his mobility and play along the blue line. The first Backes goal happened in large part because Carlo knocked a clearing attempt out of the air and held the zone, allowing for the Bruins to keep the offensive pressure on Columbus. If he was a few inches shorter, he probably can’t make that play. He also notched his 1st NHL point by getting the puck in his own end and moving it to Brad Marchand as the Boston sniper was exiting the zone. It ended up being a lone helper on Marchand’s highlight reel, individual effort to score his second goal of the night. As said on this space and on the recent Dump N’ Chase podcast with ESPN New Hampshire’s Mike Grinnell, when you’re dealing with a 19-year-old defenseman in the NHL, there will be ups and downs, and while Carlo made some more obvious mistakes out there than O’Gara did, you can certainly see his potential going forward.
Austin Czarnik, C– With his speed and hands, the undrafted free agent was absolutely noticeable out there, but didn’t have much to show for it on the score sheet. He did not do well on faceoffs, and had trouble getting through traffic in the offensive zone to set up consistent scoring chances. He’s building chemistry with linemates Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes, so it’s too early to definitively assess whether that unit works or not, but with Patrice Bergeron potentially not going back into the lineup against Toronto, we should see another kick at the can. TSP thought the call against him, which led to the Columbus power play goal, was soft- it was a marginal, ticky-tack kind of infraction that NHL referees tend to assess against young players but don’t have the stones to call against veterans. Oh well.
Because of his skill set, Czarnik was noticeable and he deserves to be up with the big club, but there’s room for improvement. He needs to use his east-west lateral shiftiness a little more and find ways to get pucks to the net. Boston’s Little Czar of Hockey has the talent and intelligence to be a fine player in his own right.
Danton Heinen, RW- On the surface, he didn’t accomplish much and like Czarnik was hit with a nothingburger of a penalty, but showed off his impressive vision and soft hands/deft passing touch in several instances. It’s easy to watch the game and deduce that he didn’t accomplish anything, but where we saw flashes of promise going forward was in how he helped the possession game by handling backside pressure and moving the puck decisively and smartly throughout the game. As said before, Heinen is not like Czarnik, who is fun to watch because he can scoot and plays with that uptempo style that is noticeable…the rookie Boston winger will look one way and go the other and likes to slow things down and make a more deliberate play. Both styles work, but one player looks like he’s getting more done, even if he isn’t.
The B’s prevailed in their season opener mostly on the back of key veteran leaders and contributors. It’s a good reminder about why NHL teams don’t clear the decks of half their experienced lineups to make wholesale changes with untested and raw rookie/youngsters. While there was much to be encouraged about, we didn’t see the kind of performances that would lend themselves to thinking that all four will stay on the roster over the long haul going forward, but they proved they can play at this level. Even as veterans start to return and the coaches/management staff have to make decisions, the ability to see them in an audition setting is good news for the Bruins going forward.
Overall, it was a solid and encouraging showing that is sure to boost some confidence, especially presiding over a win in his first big league game. Had the B’s lost, you know that talk would have shifted to the number of young, inexperienced players in the lineup and the effect their mistakes had on the team’s performance, but the two points started it all out on the right foot.
New Englanders tend to be realistic (pessimistic?) by nature, so while the focus has been on the defense and the potential for gaping lanes that skill teams will find available to them, as the 2016-17 NHL season begins for the Boston Bruins tonight in Columbus, Ohio, there’s some excitement swirling around the big league debuts of four players in the lineup.
Injuries to Patrice Bergeron, Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller have opened the door for a pair of forwards in Austin Czarnik and Danton Heinen, and a defense duo of Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara to get their first taste of NHL action against the Blue Jackets. Bergeron is expected back in the lineup for the weekend action versus Toronto and rookie sensation Auston Matthews, who last night became the only player ever to score four goals in his first NHL game. McQuaid and Miller will be out a little (in the former’s case, a lot for the latter) longer, so we temper the eagerness with which we greet the young rookies with the belief that perhaps half of them have a realistic chance of staying on Boston’s roster for the duration of the season.
In Czarnik, the B’s have a fast and skilled little (emphasis needed) center who was snubbed in the NHL draft, but looks like a pretty savvy pickup after four years at Miami University, the last two of which he wore the captain’s ‘C’. He took a high hit from behind that targeted the head in the final preseason game by Philadelphia defenseman Radko Gudas (he got a six-game layoff from the NHL’s department of player safety) but cleared the concussion protocol in time to play in his first big league game. Czarnik is a classic little engine that could as a player who always had to overcome size bias to work harder than just about everyone else to hone his skills and three zone game. After a 61-point first year in the AHL, he’s made the initial cut to stick in Boston, and that’s the stuff NHL dreams are truly made of. Czarnik is an exciting buzzsaw of a forward- he zips in and out of lanes and can put the shake n’ bake on less-agile defenders. When the puck is on his stick, he brings a similar kind of playing style to that of Brad Marchand. Note- we’re not saying he is the next Marchand, but you can see it in the way he uses his speed, vision and hands to create and give opponents fits. He’s not the abrasive agitator Marchand is, but Czarnik is a big man trapped in a little man’s body who plays the game with heart and energy. Fans love an underdog, and when coupled with Czarnik’s electrifying offensive element, it’s not hard to understand why so many are jumping on the AC Train.
More was expected of Heinen and he entered training camp as a prohibitive favorite to win a spot with the big club, but he is also a feel-good story. Passed over in his first year of NHL draft eligibility in 2013, the British Columbia native hit a significant growth spurt and then opened eyes as captain of the BCHL’s Surrey Eagles. The Bruins liked Heinen enough to snatch him in the 2014 draft’s fourth round despite his being an almost complete unknown in NHL draft pubs. The rumor at the time was that several other teams were hoping to steal Heinen later on, not the least of which was none other than the Montreal Canadiens. That story isn’t verified, but damn- it feels good to B’s fans to hear it. Heinen is a thinking fan’s hockey player- he’s not especially fast or dazzling in the way he handles the puck, but he goes to the right spots, moves it to the correct spaces and plays a quietly effective and productive three-zone game. He’s the quintessential Claude Julien-style forward because he’s both intelligent and efficient. If you’re expecting to be entertained by Heinen, you’ll probably wonder what the hype is about, but if you watch the wall work, the way he slices through layers of defenses and puts himself in position to make plays at both ends of the ice, you’ll gain an appreciation for him.
On the defensive side of things, Carlo is a favorite of those B’s fans who religiously follow the NHL draft and Boston’s prospect development system. Picked 37th overall in 2015, he looks like a brilliant pick in hindsight as his natural 6-foot-5-inch size, mobility and reach instantly jump out at you. Back in 1997, a young Hal Gill caught the eye of fans because he was 6-7, and was the biggest cat in the NHL before some guy named Zdeno Chara showed up on Long Island about a year later. The thing about Carlo is that while he’s not quite as tall as Gill, he’s a better skater and has long arms, therefore brings a similar reach. Fans are excited about Carlo because he’s big and fluid and does a real good job of keeping opposing forwards from walking straight to the net…a turnstile he is not. The jury is out on how much offensive hockey sense/creativity Carlo has, but he’s certainly not limited in terms of being able to handle the puck and join the rush. Having said all that, there will be natural growing pains as is with the case with any 19-year-old defenseman, but to the Coloradan’s credit, he impressed a year ago in his first NHL training camp and exhibition season and then carried that forward to make the Boston Bruins before age 20. He’s not a snarly, intimidating beast on the physical side, but he will rub guys out and is sure to be well-liked in the dressing room because he’s got an even-keeled personality.
Last but not least is O’Gara- a TSP personal favorite going back to 2010-11 when he left the Long Island Royals AAA midget program to win a prep championship with the Milton Academy Mustangs. The B’s drafted him with the final selection of the fifth round, and he was described by then-assistant GM Don Sweeney as a “big piece of clay” that required a great deal of molding and shaping. Five years later, the 23-year-old Yale grad might not be a finished product, but he’s close enough and tonight will earn a status no one can take away from him- NHL player. O’Gara is a good skater- it’s less about speed and stride with him than it is fluid and agile footwork, which allows him to pivot and change direction quickly and efficiently. He’s got size and reach…and he can make an effective outlet pass to aid in the transition game. Like Carlo, there are sure to be mistakes and mishaps, but O’Gara is smart and motivated- he’s a quick study and character guy who has been around long enough that he understands the system and is ready to prove himself. It might mean more of an apprenticeship in Providence when other players return, but for now, O’Gara has earned the opportunity and will begin on the second pairing with Torey Krug on the right side (ROG shoots left, so it speaks volumes about the level of trust he’s earned that the Boston coaching staff is fine with him playing his “off” side).
David Backes will skate on a line tonight with Marchand and David Pastrnak if nothing changes between now and puck drop, and with Bergeron out (albeit temporarily), maybe bringing in an experienced veteran center wasn’t such a bad idea after all. David Krejci has a great deal to prove, and with Heinen and Ryan Spooner flanking him, there’s no shortage of offensive creativity on that unit. Spooner’s speed is a welcome addition to the lessened pace of Krejci and Heinen, but the trio provide quite an intriguing matchup on paper. All three of them are or have been centers before, so that’s a line that gives Julien a lot of flexibility and versatility.
Czarnik will likely test his NHL mettle with Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes. Beleskey doesn’t have the high-end skill to put up big numbers (and he’d be on the top two lines in any event if that were the case) but he’s gritty and should develop some chemistry with Czarnik. Hayes is the wild card- the B’s desperately need a revival from him this season much like Reilly Smith had with Florida a year ago. It would be foolish to think that Hayes doesn’t want to make it work in Boston, but he’ll have to shrug off the external pressures and get down to the basics by just doing what he does best. He doesn’t have either of his linemates’ wheels, so it will be interesting to see if they have some set plays to leverage Hayes as a trailer into the zone with his soft hands and big shot.
Tim Schaller is back up with Boston with Bergeron out and may get a chance to skate with Noel Acciari and Dominic Moore, but the guess here is that Riley Nash will round out the fourth line. It’s not a nasty unit in terms of abundant physicality, but they’ll all grind it out and bring some veteran smarts to go with Acciari’s exuberance.
Defensively, the Bruins need their veterans- Chara, Krug and John-Michael Liles– to provide some glue for the younger guys- Carlo (Chara), O’Gara (Krug) and Colin Miller (Liles) as they shake out the butterflies and deal with the immense difference in speed, skill and pace from what they are used to. Chiller got enough action in last year, and Joe Morrow is also around to step in should anyone get hurt or falter, but this is an untested bunch and the biggest source of consternation with the 2016-17 Bruins.
Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin were the tandem in Boston’s net the last time the B’s went to the Stanley Cup final series in 2013, so there are no concerns with the talent or experience. They can’t carry a team on their backs, though- so everyone will have to row hard in the same direction. If the talent gap becomes too great, then Sweeney will have to act at some point.
That’s all going to have to wait for the time being, because this is what the B’s are going with to begin the new season.
As the Dropkick Murphys so aptly like to belt out- drop the puck…it’s time to go. (Thanks BruinsBabe176)
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.
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.
Zdeno Chara returns for his eleventh season as the captain of the Boston Bruins (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)
Closing out the post and podcast series on the Boston Bruins outlook for 2016-17.
I won’t be redundant here in hopes that instead of reading the post, you’ll carve out time to listen to the 55-minute podcast breaking down the defensemen. As I say up front in the pod- I’m not saving the best for last, and hope is not a method here- they’ve not gotten appreciably better since the catastrophic finish to the 2o15-16 campaign.
Even the most optimistic of fans would be hard-pressed to express confidence in the collective Boston blue line, but it is a hard-working bunch and if they don’t get the B’s back to the postseason, it won’t be for a lack of trying.
Listen to the podcast here:
Check out the rest of the series posts and podcasts here:
Zdeno Chara returns for his eleventh season as the captain of the Boston Bruins (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)
It’s been a slow August, but I had an exchange on Twitter today that inspired a new post- the first since the Jimmy Vesey recap last weekend. There will be more content in store as we get closer to the new season and of course the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
With Vesey now officially with the Rangers, Bruins Nation turns its lonely eyes to Don Sweeney, looking at the proverbial elephant in the room- the lack of a clear and meaningful upgrade on the Boston blue line since the end of last season. Re-signing John-Michael Liles was fine on its face, but remember- he was a part of the April implosion that saw the B’s crater after sitting as high as second place in the conference a week and change after the trade that brought Liles to Boston. Also extended- Kevan “Killer” Miller, Colin “Chiller” Miller and Joe (Don’t call me “Blow”) Morrow...what do they all have in common? That’s right- they were all a part of the epic spring collapse for the second year in a row, but 2016 was worse because the B’s seemed to be well-positioned for playoffs at least before coming completely undone.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the coda- an embarrassingly bad home loss against the nothing-to-play-for except to be spoiler to a division rival Ottawa Senators was a final humiliating kick in the crotch to a season that had far more peaks than valleys, but will ultimately be remembered for the inglorious ending.
So, here we are- a few days before September and unless we missed something- the only new blood the Bruins brought into the organization over the summer via free agency at the defense position is AHL journeyman Alex Grant. Nothing agains the former 1st overall midget pick in the 2005 QMJHL draft- he’s had a cup of coffee in the NHL and even scored some goals- but doesn’t this look a lot like Matt Irwin from a year ago?
We’re still waiting for a serious move to address a defense that was overmatched at best when skating against the top NHL offenses a season ago. This is not a slam on the current Boston defensive core- we think the world of Torey Krug, for example- he deserves to be surrounded by better talent. Zdeno Chara is at the end of a Hall of Fame career, but he’s still a serviceable defender…so long as no one expects his old near-30 minutes in any situation. Gone is Dennis Seidenberg, who, despite his huge heart, just couldn’t be effective on his surgically-reconstructed bottom trunk. Ability-wise, Seids is addition by subtraction, but his experience and veteran leadership will be missed, so you can make the case that this defense is actually worse than it was a year ago. This group needs help and one top-three NHL defenseman acquired via trade would do wonder to take some of that pressure off.
Help is coming in the form of a youth movement that shows a ton of promise. Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara could be skating for the NHL club at some point this season (they’re both slated for the AHL at a minimum, maybe more depending on how camp/preseason goes for them) and with their size and mobility, there’s a lot to like about their NHL potential. However, no one should be expecting either player to come in as a rookie and stabilize the Boston blue line. Charlie McAvoy is the cat’s meow after being picked 14th overall and having a sharp B’s development camp in July and even better showing at USA World Junior camp in Plymouth, Mich. earlier this month. But, he’s an NCAA player, so unless he bolts from BU, he won’t help the B’s this season until spring at a minimum when his sophomore year at Boston University is in the books. Jakub Zboril, the team’s top pick from a year ago, is in better shape and rehabbing an image that took a hit from a lackluster start last season- he’s talented enough to be a top-three one day, but how badly does he want it? And don’t forget Matt Grzelcyk, Jeremy Lauzon and Ryan Lindgren– all impressive defenders who bring a little something different to the table. Let’s face it, though- even with the optimism, these players aren’t going to give the 2016-17 Boston Bruins what they really need. Hey- if someone within the organization steps up and delivers, more power to ’em, but this is why folks are getting antsy.
So, based on some things I was told by sources in the Bruins organization and around the NHL, here’s a quick look at some options, or, irons in the fire, that the second year Boston GM and his management group might be looking at. On paper, this defense is simply not much to write home about given how things went a year ago, and while Sweeney has talked about the challenge of finding the right players at the right price, we’re a few days from September and while you don’t want to use words like alarming to describe the situation, what else are we left with. Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. You could apply that to the Boston defense and someone would have a hard time arguing against it.
Preamble over, let’s look at some options- by no means all of them, but something to get the juices flowing, at least:
Kevin Shattenkirk, Blues: The Bruins thought they had a deal for the former BU standout back in February in a deal that would have netted a return for Loui Eriksson, but according to a source close to St. Louis, those talks fell apart over the Blues’ desire to move another bad contract to Boston. Sweeney balked and no deal. Now, same source tells TSP that trade talks are heating up for Shattenkirk again, but not necessarily between Blues GM Doug Armstrong and the Bruins. It sure sounds like the NY Rangers would be a club sniffing around Shattenkirk, especially given his Empire State roots.
Armstrong’s in a tough spot and he knows it- the Blues came close to reaching the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since Bobby Orr took the pass from Derek Sanderson, beat Glenn Hall and hurtled through the air, frozen forever in time (46 years ago), but the San Jose Sharks ruined their (and Boston’s 2016 late 1st-round draft) party. Shattenkirk will be a free agent next summer and he’ll command big bucks even though his value as a two-way defender and power play contributor seems all but assured of declining. Assuming the Blues don’t try to re-sign him, trading Shattenkirk now means Armstrong gets more of a return, but he weakens his talented veteran team. The longer they hold onto him, the more he becomes a “rental” and the acquisition price becomes less than what it could be. Decisions, decisions.
The good: Shattenkirk would instantly upgrade the Boston defense and a top-3 of Chara, Shattenkirk and Krug isn’t a top NHL group, but it’s respectable. He’s very good in transition and paired with an effective shutdown guy (Adam McQuaid?), the shortcomings exposed by San Jose in the Western Conference final series last spring wouldn’t be as profound.
The bad: Let’s be honest- Shattenkirk is a fine player, but he’s on a cap-friendly deal right now, and he won’t be 12 months from now. If you acquire this guy, you either do so for one year and accept that he’ll be gone next July 1 or you have to commit upwards of $7 million a season (ballpark) to extend him. Is he worth it? Remember- you’re going to pay a handsome price to get him from St. Louis, and then you have to commit the cap allocation (and real dollars) to keep him in Boston.
The skinny: Last February, this made sense for the Bruins. Now? Not so much. If Sweeney is going to pay a premium, look for someone younger and more cost controlled. Recommendation: Pass on Shattenkirk and let someone else overpay for him not only in terms of assets surrendered, but in his next deal, which will be a doozy. The B’s already signed David Backes to a controversial big-ticket contract- remember Einstein.
Jacob Trouba, Jets: We’re hearing from several sources around the league that tension and friction is growing more intense between the 2012 NHL draft darling and Winnipeg management. Where he once looked like a franchise player-in-waiting, he’s taken steps backwards after a very promising rookie year, but wants big bucks and more playing time. The Jets committed to Dustin Byfuglien on that, so it sure looks like Trouba’s days are numbered in the ‘Peg, but GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is under no timetable to resolve the issue…if there even is one. On the positive side- Trouba has all the tools of a top-2 NHL rearguard, even if he hasn’t shown it. The risky aspect is that he’s really in no position to be dictating terms, and yet here he is, apparently. That will make NHL suitors wary for third and fourth contract-type maneuvers, assuming he gets there.
The good: Trouba would give the Bruins a young D they could sign to a “show-me” contract (if he just wanted out of Winnipeg) with a delayed payday, much like they did with Krug. He’d instantly move into the top of the rotation and be given every opportunity to prove he can be a bell cow D and earn that massive deal he seeks. The B’s would benefit from his skill and young legs to take some pressure off of Chara and Krug.
The bad: Trouba is risky right now and pro scouts might be a tad squeamish about laying it on the line for him. Is he just human and his play affected by the environment with the Jets? Or is he more of a dud than a stud? Any trade for him is going to cost a lot- he’s only 22 and was a top-10 pick, so Cheveldayoff can drive up the bidding and come away with a nice package/return- you’ll have to overpay for Trouba to get him, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be the player you’re praying he will. If he doesn’t, that’s what costs people their jobs.
The skinny: Go East, young man! Forget the rumors about an offer sheet for Trouba, but if Sweeney could wrangle a deal, Trouba just might be the droid the B’s are looking for. This risk is worthwhile, and when you stack Trouba up against the Bruins defenders player-for-player, he’s better than most, and with the promising defense prospects coming up (at least one or two not named McAvoy would have to go back to Winnipeg, no doubt) within the organization, he’ll get help at some point. But the Bruins need a defenseman now…what good is putting Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Backes, Chara and company through another season like the last two if you don’t find a way to improve your team and give them a chance to build on two very frustrating finishes.
Cam Fowler, Ducks:I talked about him being an option via trade for the B’s in early July here, so I don’t have a great deal to add other than to say, it’s more of the same with Shattenkirk- Fowler improves the Boston defense and makes them more competitive. Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins via trade is probably a pipe dream- if Bob Murray is going to move a blue liner, we can’t see it being him- Fowler is a more obvious choice. But hey- if that happens- that’d be huge (but again- pipe dream).
Just in case you’re disinclined (too lazy?) to click on the link I provided above, here are some nuggets from that Fowler post from July 2:
Fowler’s your “bridge”- he makes $4M and has 2 years left to UFA status, meaning he gives the Bruins two seasons before they have to make a decision and brings them two years closer to seeing one of their recent top-60 D selections evolve further to see where they might be as NHL players. The issue with Fowler is that he shoots left, whereas the B’s need to shore up their right-shooting talent. So, in essence- if the B’s are able to go out and get Fowler, they then probably need to add another right-shot D for depth and hope that Colin Miller takes a big step next season for them.
The good: Fowler makes the Bruins better. How much? That’s up to you, dear reader, to decide.
The bad: If you pay attention to advanced stats and analytics, Fowler’s valuable on the power play but more of a 3rd-pairing guy at even strength, and the B’s have plenty of those. He’s also going to cost a lot to acquire at age 24. Teams with good D-men are in a seller’s market, which the B’s are unfortunately (for them and their fans) on the wrong side of.
The skinny: Fowler is worth pursuing- there’s real ability there, and he might prove to be a good fit to help stabilize the defense until one (and) more of the young guns are able to develop into NHL regulars on the Boston blue line.
Kris Russell, Unrestricted: In the free agent game of musical chairs, the music has stopped and Russell is looking for a seat. It’s surprising really, even with the concerns about how the analytics translated to his overall game and potential going forward. He’s 29 and has nearly 600 NHL games under his belt. The former Medicine Hat Tigers standout and Columbus 3rd-rounder can really move the puck and pass, but his turnovers and decisions (not to mention the fact he’s undersized) get him into trouble. Granted- how is it that we’re almost to September and he still hasn’t found a landing spot? In a word- money. His agents shot far too high, so he’ll have to take a lot less and the lower the cap hit, the more reasonable a guy like Russell will be.
The good: Russell can move and aid in the transition game. He’s a veteran and he’d represent an improvement on paper to the Boston roster, but that assumes his play doesn’t fall off a cliff- a major factor perhaps in why no team was eager to sign on for the big bucks he was looking for on July 1.
The bad: The analytics are not kind…and we need to be honest with ourselves- the Bruins and their fans aren’t either. A player like Russell will be so heavily scrutinized that he’s more likely to wilt in a bigger role with Boston than he would in more of a complementary spot with a better, even contending club.
The skinny: Signing Russell to a prime market deal on July 1 was the major red flag, but now that we’re reaching the end of the offseason, there are worse things the Bruins could do than sign him to a 1- or 2-year team-friendly deal. Having said that- he’s not a great fit as a left-shot D with similar attributes to Krug- do the B’s need two similar players? Probably not- balance is the key and Krug is the much better overall player- it’s not close. Pass- let some other club roll the dice.
Okay- there it is. Not all the bases covered, but if we get to the start of training camp after the World Cup of Hockey and nothing has been addressed with the Boston defense, then you’re going to see and hear the criticisms ramp up. This 16-17 Bruins roster is a game bunch, but they don’t have the talent on the whole to compensate for the lack of skill on the back end, and throwing up the hands and claiming an upgrade is too hard to pull off won’t cut it with the natives.
Help coming in the form of Brandon Carlo? Might be too much, too soon (Kirk Luedeke photo)
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)
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.
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.
Brandon Carlo, RDPlus: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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Colby Cave, CPlus: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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Five years ago, the Boston Bruins had just won the Stanley Cup and made six selections 10 days after raising hockey’s silver chalice in Vancouver. Just two picks from the 2011 Bruins draft class remain: fourth-round choice Brian Ferlin reached the NHL in 2014-15 season, playing seven big league games (1 assist) before his development was derailed by concussion issues stemming from a hit he took in the 2015 AHL playoffs. (Editor’s note- Alexander Khokhlachev- taken 40th overall that year- is still technically Boston property after getting a qualifying offer to retain his rights as a RFA, but he signed with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL and if he ever makes it back to the NHL, it won’t likely be with the Bruins.)
Defenseman Rob O’Gara, who was drafted one round after Ferlin, has taken a longer, more gradual developmental path to pro hockey, but is finally beginning his first full season after completing a four-year degree at Yale University. The 23-year-old (he celebrated his birthday last week), who spent another year in prep hockey with the Milton Academy Mustangs after the Bruins made him the final selection of the fifth round (151st overall) five years ago, won a NCAA title as a freshman and earned ECAC defensive defenseman of the year as a junior. Although he has just five pro hockey games under his belt (he did score his 1st pro goal in the process) with a late-season appearance in the AHL with Providence, O’Gara is a dark horse candidate to see playing time in Boston at some point this season if everything breaks right for him.
This post will peel back the onion so to speak on one of Boston’s more unheralded prospects- a guy who has been as consistent and effective a player since bursting onto the prep hockey scene six years ago and forcing NHL teams to take notice of him en route to Milton’s 2011 championship. O’Gara isn’t flashy, but with his size, skating and potential, he could be a solid contributor to the organization’s fortunes sooner rather than later.
Prep hockey 2010-12
O’Gara was an unknown commodity when he left his home in Nesconset and the Long Island Royals 16U minor hockey program for Massachusetts and prep school at Milton Academy.
At about 6-3 at the time (and very thin/lanky), he caught the eye of scouts immediately because he moved pretty well and didn’t show a lot of that gangly awkwardness that is so prevalent with players at that size/age. What also stood out was the contrast O’Gara provided to his Milton defense partner Pat McNally, another New York guy who had been drafted in 2010 by the Vancouver Canucks (now with the San Jose Sharks organization). McNally was an attacking, push-the-pace and often get caught up the ice defender, so O’Gara stood out for his more measured style and for the fact that McNally’s gambles at times meant that his partner was back to defend odd-man rushes on his own. O’Gara showed off a natural poise and smarts right away to go with an active stick- he landed on NHL radars and was identified as one of the top New York talents available in the 2011 draft.
O’Gara reached his zenith in March, when in the championship game against a Kent Lions team that featured current Boston Bruin Noel Acciari (the captain) along with 2012 NHL second-rounder Cristoval “Boo” Nieves, he made a critical play along the blue line to keep the puck inside the offensive zone during a 2-2 game late in regulation. He then made an on-target pass to teammate Sean Okita, who buried the puck for the winning goal. O’Gara only had seven assists (along with two goals) that year, but one of those helpers was as big as it gets, which gets to the heart of where his big league potential might truly lie: he’s always been big time in the clutch (more on that later).
O’Gara told TSP about the game and play just a few short weeks later, when yours truly maintained the 2011 Bruins Draft Watch blog:
“That was just amazing; I have trouble putting it into words sometimes just how awesome it was to be part of such a great team here,” O’Gara said recently from his Milton Academy dorm room, where he is finishing up the semester and playing lacrosse to keep his body in peak form. “We went back and watched the DVD of that game (3-2 win over Kent School) and the tempo was unbelievable- the fast pace of that game and how everything was up-and-down the whole time. We went into that third period with the score 2-2 and knowing that we had 18 minutes. It was do or die time and we pulled it off.”
Although not invited to the NHL’s annual draft combine because he was not ranked inside the top-50 among North American skaters, O’Gara interviewed with at least five NHL clubs during the spring and more clubs expressed interest before the draft. He and his family opted to stay home rather than travel to Minneapolis/St. Paul and he followed the selections along with his father, Brian (and mom Christine). Although the family grew up staunch NY Islanders fans and supporters, that all changed when the Bruins called Rob’s name at the end of the fifth round.
Soon afterwards, he attended his first Bruins development camp, arriving on July 6, 2011- his 18th birthday- and O’Gara was no doubt raw, but game- his skating and fluid footwork stood out in positive fashion even then. Current Bruins GM Don Sweeney was the assistant GM back then and long recognized as Boston’s player development chief. He had this to say about O’Gara after the first day of that camp:
“Robby [O’Gara]’s a piece of clay right now, albeit it’s a big piece. At 6’4” it can change. Things have come at him here a little quicker in the last, I’d say, eight months. But we got a chance, I did in particular and other people got a chance, to see him a lot…The good thing is there’s no timetable for him. He’s not going to get any smaller. He’s only going to fill out and continue to get better. And he’s going to be right in our backyard for another year then on to a real good program in Yale. So I think that he’ll learn a lot. He’ll be one of those kids that walks out of here, hopefully, and learns an awful lot and takes some of this stuff going forward.”– Sweeney
Here’s my own assessment of him from that very first on-ice session at development camp five years ago:
Turned 18 just yesterday and his skating really came to the fore today. He’s tall, but a stringbean. But, have to keep going back to the fluid stride and quick, agile footwork. Had he spent two years at Milton Academy before the draft instead of just the one, I’m convinced that he would have been as high as a third-round pick, but solid at least a solid fourth-rounder. I don’t think enough NHL teams knew about this kid going in, but Boston did because he plays in their backyard. Long-term project, but O’Gara could be a steal. Size + mobility + intelligence + character almost always = player.
He returned to Milton for his senior season in 2011-12, wearing the captain’s ‘C’ and while the team did not enjoy the success of the previous year with so many veteran departures, O’Gara produced at nearly a point per game pace (25 in 24 games after 9 in 29 as a junior) and was widely recognized as the top defenseman in prep hockey that season, earning All-New England recognition.
With that, he completed his prep career and moved on to the next challenge in New Haven, Conn. with Yale.
Yale University: 2012-16
O’Gara wasted little time demonstrating to head coach Keith Allain and ECAC hockey watchers that he was a worthy NHL prospect, quickly establishing himself in a lineup that would go on to win it all in the span of about five months once the 2012-13 campaign got underway.
As was the case in prep, O’Gara was relied upon to be a defense-first, stay-at-home guy as a freshman with the Elis, and he carried it off well, despite not finding the back of the net at all- posting seven assists in 37 games. Never one to dwell on the numbers, the real pride O’Gara had was in showing off the kind of ability and poise to earn a regular shift in Allain’s rotation throughout the year. His team allowed just two total goals in its two-game Frozen Four appearance that year in capturing Yale’s first (and only) NCAA title.
In Yale’s 4-0 championship game over Quinnipiac University, as the clock ticked down to zero, O’Gara was on the ice playing a tenacious defense and making sure that he did his part to preserve the shutout.
Rob O’Gara in 2013 after Yale won the NCAA championship (Photo courtesy of Rob O’Gara)
In the span of just two years, O’Gara had claimed the rarest of feats- championships at the high school and college level. While his Yale team was not able to repeat their national title in his remaining three NCAA seasons, O’Gara went on to earn numerous accolades under Allain and the Yale staff:
In 2013-14, O’Gara earned the team’s John Poinier Award as Yale’s top defender. He also earned Second All-Ivy and ECAC All-Academic honors.
In 2014-15, he was named the ECAC’s top defensive defenseman, which is impressive because he also posted his career-best in offense with six goals and 21 points, leading the Yale blue line in scoring. He was First Team ACA/CCM All-American (East), First-Team All-ECAC and First-Team All-Ivy among several other distinctions to include another Poinier Award as team defensive MVP.
2015-16 was disappointing statistically compared to his breakout in 2015, but O’Gara finished his college career strong, nominated for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player, named a semifinalist for the Walter Brown Award (New England’s top college player) and a second consecutive All-Ivy League First Team selection.
TSP featured O’Gara last October, as he prepared to embark on his senior year. For those who missed it, you can read it here.
“He really epitomizes what we want our hockey players to be,” said Yale coach Keith Allain, who also worked in the NHL for 15 years as an assistant coach, goalie coach and scout.
“He’s got great size and reach. He’s extremely mobile, particularly for a big guy. He has great defensive awareness, can make a pass and he’s got the ability to jump up into the play on offense. I see him as an all-around defenseman. I expect him to one day be a regular defenseman in the National Hockey League.”
O’Gara joined the Providence Bruins late in the season, commuting between Rhode Island and Connecticut so that he could complete his course work and graduate with the degree in Economics he worked four years to achieve. Scoring his first professional goal for the P-Bruins was an added thrill for a player who won’t likely be known for his contributions on the offensive side of the ledger, but who is built for the modern NHL with his sturdy 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame- the body sculpting having taken quite some time to build.
With nine defensemen in Wilmington this week, O’Gara is not required to join in the development camp fun, having benefited enough (in the team’s eyes) from his 2011-15 experiences. With his first full NHL training camp ahead in September, O’Gara will keep working out to prepare for that new challenge.
If you’re into flashy, “upside” players then O’Gara won’t be at the top of the list, but when it comes to the big-bodied, mobile and smart defenders that have become critical components to winning in the modern NHL, Boston’s investment over time appears to be inching closer to paying off.
He’s always been a smooth skater for his size- able to stay contain speed and prevent forwards from getting around him wide. While not an intimidating hitter and snarly type, O’Gara uses his body effectively and has made substantial gains in strength and quickness in the five years since the B’s chose him. With his long reach and positional savvy, he’s difficult to beat 1-on-1, but probably doesn’t get enough respect for his ability to skate with his head up and advance the puck quickly with a crisp outlet. This is not to say that he’ll be a classic two-way threat on defense, but he has enough in the feet, hands and head department that he can chip in with timely offense when needed. The guy is a winner- he always has been- and there is a great deal to be said for that. He made a critical play that resulted in a high school-level championship and then was put out in the final minute of a collegiate title as a freshman (full disclosure- his team was up by four goals)- that tells you all you need to know about what kind of performer O’Gara is when the game is on the line.
As Jack Nicholson aka Marine Colonel Nathan R. Jessup once said- “You want me on that wall…you need me on that wall!”
Why O’Gara will play in the NHL this season: You can’t teach his size or physical attributes, and his steady development means that he’s mentally and physically ready to come in and play a lower pairing role right away (or in a pinch if the team is hit with injuries). He’s a likable guy who can walk into any room and fit right in because he’s always had the people skills and carried with him a measure of respect- he’ll sit down and listen/process everything around him and isn’t one to spend a lot of talking. When it comes to doing his job, O’Gara is the consummate quiet professional who gets after it without fanfare and is just as happy being a cog in the bigger machine- he doesn’t have a thirst for attention.
Why O’Gara won’t play in the NHL this season: Right now, the B’s have some pretty well-established veteran players on the blue-line who like O’Gara, are left-shooting players. There is no need to rush him to the big show when he can take another year to play prime minutes in the AHL in just about every situation and shoot for making the Boston lineup when he has more pro experience under his belt.
Whether he plays NHL minutes this season or doesn’t is not the question, but rather- that he continues to move forward and progress in his developmental trajectory. There will be ups and downs at the pro level, like many young players there are times when he will get caught puck watching or won’t make the physical play on defense when it is there for him. If you watch enough hockey, no matter how accomplished, every defenseman will be part of a goal scored against, it’s just a matter of learning from mistakes and not repeating them.
When it comes to Rob O’Gara, the promise he showed as a mature and capable prep school defender more than a half decade ago is coming sharply into focus. Dougie Hamilton, who was taken 142 spots earlier than O’Gara was, is a Boston footnote who now plays in Calgary. As we all know from the old tortoise and hare parable, the race is not always to the swift…it appears that Boston will benefit from the faith and patience they showed in this player.
Because of his playing style, O’Gara has never really occupied space near the top of the various Boston prospect lists nor has he been at the tip of everyone’s tongue when it comes to projecting who will meet or exceed expectations, but there aren’t many who have performed with more consistency or promise.
He’s on the verge of achieving that goal that others selected well before him have not yet come close to. Don’t call him a tortoise, but he’s been steady as she goes all along.
Weekend at Bergy’s has his first pro goal- a rocket from the point (wearing his old No. 15 from Milton Academy days):
The 3 Amigos- LTD (Luedeke-Tiano-Duthie) are back with our second hockey podcast on the Scouting Post after previewing the OHL in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft on Father’s Day weekend.
This podcast not only recaps the Torey Krug extension and Dennis Seidenberg buyout, but looks at the Boston Bruins’ efforts in Buffalo, breaking down all of the players and handing out (admittedly premature) grades at the end. We also preview what is shaping up to be an active NHL free agent frenzy tomorrow.
We’re already hearing rumors that Oilers Prez and GM Peter Chiarelli is bringing Milan Lucic to Edmonton on a big deal on term and AAV. Just a crazy, wild thought here, but isn’t this the kind of thing that got Chiarelli shown the door in Boston? We break it down a bit. You’ll not find many bigger supporters of Lucic than yours truly- but if we’re talking 6 or 7 years at around $6.5-7M AAV, that could pose a huge risk for the Oil. Lucic is 28 and there’s a lot of tread on his tire- this contract if the rumors are right- could end up being an albatross in relatively short order if Lucic’s body doesn’t hold up. We shall see.
We also talk about the Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, PK Subban for Shea Weber trades and the announcement that Steven Stamkos is staying in Tampa Bay- all huge stories from June 29.
We also dive into the B’s rumors, especially the reported offer sheet stuff and possible moves for Don Sweeney and company.
It’s a veritable smorgasbord and it clocks in at slightly under 1 hour and 45 minutes. Alas, my esteemed colleague Reed Duthie was having some internet connectivity issues, so he breaks up in parts. Everyone’s a loser because we don’t exactly get every word he says, but he brings plenty of great insights. When you hear the connection go wonky, know it is not your computer acting up on you- the issue was on our end.
Finally, I posted 3 photos of Charlie McAvoy last night and promised to explain them. Our analysis comes at the 1:31:30 mark, so if you must have that burning meaning of life-type question answered for you, skip ahead.
Or listen to the whole thing. This podcast thing is fun! (Thanks for listening and all of the support for our merry little band- enjoy the theme music)