Dominic Tiano: What’s Next for the Bruins? (Part 3)

Editor’s note: We continue our series here at the Scouting Post on the end of the 2016-17 Boston Bruins season and 3 Amigo/guest columnist and fan favorite Dominic Tiano is here to provide his informed perspective once again. -KL

TSP founder Kirk Luedeke began this series once the Boston Bruins were eliminated by the Ottawa Senators Sunday from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. When he asked 3 Amigos Podcast Partners Reed Duthie and myself for our contributions, I immediately jumped on the task of shining some light on a few of the boys in Black in Gold that have, for a large part of the season, been “whipping boys” among the Bruins faithful.

Take this as one person’s opinion. Constructive criticism is always welcome but it is what it is, an opinion.

Let me start with Ryan Spooner, who fans are split on. On the surface, it has looked like Spooner’s days with the Bruins have been numbered for quite some time. There were reports that former Bruins’ General Manager Peter Chiarelli almost dealt Spooner to the Sabres during the 2014-15 season. A year later, reports surface that current General Manager Don Sweeney was looking to trade the 25-year-old pivot. But, he survived the rumors and is still on the B’s roster.

The sometimes-rocky relationship between Spooner and former Coach Claude Julien is well publicized, so we won’t get too deep into that. Under (then-interim) Coach Bruce Cassidy, Spooner started out well, but reverted to some of the form that has made him the focus of criticism and rumors for some time now.

Spooner is tagged by many to be nothing but a power play specialist. There is some merit to that assertion. Having followed Spooner since his Ontario Hockey League days began with the Peterborough Petes, he has always been a threat with the man advantage and he’s produced at a high level. When Spooner has the space to create, he can be dangerous. But 5-on-5, that space just isn’t there in the NHL and Spooner lacks the size and physicality to gain an advantage and use the other assets he possesses to be that threat on a consistent enough basis to avoid the negative focus on his performance.

I’ve seen the argument made that Spooner’s abilities are being misused because he is playing with “lesser line mates” and I can agree with that to some extent. He had success playing with David Pastrnak and Milan Lucic. At the same time, I could argue that playing with Lucic gave Spooner the space he needed. While David Backes is no Lucic, Backes himself can create space with his physical play and Spooner had nowhere near the offensive success he had with Lucic.

So, what happens with Spooner going forward? There are many fans who have said they wouldn’t even give him a qualifying offer, but if you don’t, he becomes an unrestricted free agent and you lose the player for nothing. You just don’t do that with an asset like the former 45th overall pick in 2010, whether he fits into your plans or not. His current salary is just $1.1 million and his qualifying offer is the same. You must make that offer just to retain his rights.

But Spooner is a restricted free agent this summer who is arbitration eligible. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Spooner could receive as much as $3 million in arbitration, but the Bruins would have walk-away rights if they feel that doesn’t fit into their budget, but again, would lose him for nothing. Ditto with the expansion draft (we’ll cover that in a future piece).

Many feel the writing is on the wall with Spooner missing the last two games versus Ottawa in the playoffs. But as reported by Hockey Night in Canada, Spooner was not 100% and was trying to battle through an injury. Was he good enough to go? – most players will tell you they want to play. Did the Bruins staff think he wasn’t good to go? Most of us will never know, we’ll just leave it here.

If the Bruins are intent on trading him, then the time to do that is before the expansion draft. I’m sure they don’t want to go into arbitration with him and don’t want to “waste” a protected spot on the expansion draft list. But I’m also sure they don’t want to lose him for nothing, (Editor’s note- and let’s be honest- he’s probably better off with a change of scenery and fresh start- Spooner is a talented and accomplished enough player to merit some kind of return.- KL)

Next, we turn to 2015 unrestricted free agent acquisition Matt Beleskey. Chiarelli tried to acquire Beleskey back at the 2015 NHL trade deadline but was unable to consummate the deal. Sweeney was able to sign Beleskey to a five-year, $19 million deal that now has 3 seasons remaining.

After a first year in Boston in which he set a career high with 37 points, this season can be described as nothing short of “terrible” for Beleskey. He appeared in just 49 games for the Bruins, missing 23 games with a knee injury while being a healthy scratch for the others.

It’s his health that I want to focus on here. Players react and recover from injuries differently, both physically and mentally. I surmise the injury to Beleskey had a major impact on his season. For a player that isn’t a speedster to begin with, losing a step is a major concern. Hesitation in throwing the body can also come into play mentally with such an injury. Look no further than the hit department for Beleskey. This season he had his lowest total in hits per game of his past five seasons.

Beleskey is at his best when he keeps his feet moving and throwing his weight around creating space for his linemates. This observer believes that four and a half months off will give Beleskey the time to get himself back both physically and mentally.

What’s in the future?

It’s hard to imagine the Bruins protecting him in the expansion draft or that Vegas would even select him as he may not be the best option from the Bruins to select. A trade, without retaining much of his salary seems unlikely coming off the season he’s had and his contract. A buyout is also unlikely as it will cost the Bruins over $1 million dollars per season in cap hits over the next 6 years ($2 million in year 3), something they can’t afford to do. Giving up an asset for another team to take his cap hit is a possibility and the Bruins do have an abundance of assets to make that happen, but he does have a limited no-trade clause with 23 teams on his list of acceptable destinations.

Best case scenario: That I am right about next season, and a healthy and re-charged Beleskey returns to form and provides value on the third or fourth lines. (Editor’s note- He’s a better player than we saw this season, and we’ll bet that he’s itching to prove it when he’s had an offseason to heal and get his confidence back.- KL)

Moving forward, we turn to Riley Nash, who is signed for one more season at a cheap $900,000. Nash has taken some heat throughout the season from some fans, and I would suggest, some of it is unwarranted. Is he perfect? No. We did a 3 Amigos podcast last summer after the Bruins signed Nash, and while we didn’t suggest that Nash was more than the sum of his parts, we did suggest the small but important things he does on the ice would be recognized more by management and coaches than the fans would be.

So, what does Riley Nash exactly bring to the Bruins? Well, he is a key part of the best penalty killing unit in the NHL. He is almost always getting into lanes taking away shots and forcing a bad pass. He battles extremely hard at clearing the puck. He has a very active stick that forces play quickly – and not always the best.

During 5-on-5 play, his positioning is almost always exemplary. He causes unforced turnovers just because of his positioning. But he’s also very good at causing turnovers with his stick. But the most underrated part of Nash is his ability to keep possession and protect the puck. Whether he’s darting in like a bull in a China Shop, or using strength, body positioning, or stick and puck position, taking the rubber away from Nash is not an easy task. He also plays the cycle game extremely well. For the casual fan, those are things that don’t appear on the scoresheet, and sometimes don’t recognize the importance of those assets. As the season progressed, Nash got better in his decisions on what to do with the puck once he had it. A lot of the mid-season “whipping boy” status he had has subsided.

So, what’s next for Nash? I think he’ll be back, and should be, as the fourth line center who can move up in a pinch. I know there are those that think ice-time should be given to the prospects instead, but you might be hard pressed to find a prospect that can bring what Nash brings, at least for next season, value for what Nash costs on the cap. That is virtually equal, and maybe cheaper if you have to consider performance bonuses.

Do they protect Nash in the expansion draft? I don’t think so, like Beleskey, there may be better options for Vegas.

Finally, let’s look at defenceman Kevan Miller. There are many that believe you can’t have Miller and Adam McQuaid on the same roster. There’s some truth to that, but many believe it to be because of style. With Charlie McAvoy showing he belongs in the NHL, Brandon Carlo looking to improve on a fine rookie season and Colin Miller showing signs of improvement (although I’m still not completely sold), it’s more the number of bodies than it is style of play.

What I saw in K. Miller was a player that obviously worked on and improved his skating in the off-season. It became more obvious in the playoffs that he had gained the confidence to skate with the puck and not afraid to take it in deep. With that improved skating, he’s become very adept at pinching at the opposition blue line and taking the puck below the goal line where coach Cassidy seems to want to set up from.

Defensively, K. Miller is part of the penalty kill. He battles hard in front of his goal and tries to give his tender a clear view of incoming shots. He’s got enormous strength and can take opponents out on the wall. He will get in opponents faces and will stand up for his teammates.

So, what’s next for him? This is where Sweeney has a difficult choice to make. Zdeno Chara must be protected in the expansion draft because of his no movement clause. Torey Krug is a lock to be protected. That means two of K. Miller, McQuaid and C. Miller will be exposed for Vegas to select. I like K. Miller here because he can play his off side.

But this may just come down to contract and cap. Miller has 3 years remaining at $2.5 million whereas McQuaid has just 2 years at $2.75 million and C. Miller just one year at $1 million. A stagnant cap may make Sweeney’s decision for him and protecting C. Miller. I just feel it should be “Killer” Kevan back next season.

I was going to add Jimmy Hayes to this piece, but I just didn’t know where to go here, so I will just say what the options are.

1) Try hard to find a trading partner. At the deadline, Sweeney notified other teams that he was available, but there were no takers. It will probably take an asset going with him for a team to pick him up.

2) Buy him out. That would cost the Bruins $566, 667 next season and $867,667 in 2018-2019.

3) Keep him as the 13th forward and absorb the $2.3 million cap hit

4) Send him to Providence for the year and save $1.025 million on the cap – this would be advantageous to Hayes as he is on a one-way contract and there is no escrow on AHL salaries, meaning he wouldn’t lose the 16% – 18% of his salary.

5) Send Vegas an asset to select him in the expansion draft.

There is no polite way of saying this, but I would settle for any of the above. If I had to choose, I’d go with option 4. That gets him off the roster the quickest with the only cost to the Bruins being to Jeremy Jacobs’ wallet.

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”

 

 

 

Scouting Post founder on TSN 1260 Edmonton to talk Bruins & 2016 NHL Draft

I was invited to go on host  on Edmonton-based Allan Mitchell aka Lowetide’s mid-day sports radio show on TSN 1260 yesterday.

Mr. Mitchell is a thoughtful guy with a lot of interest in hockey at all levels. Before the Oilers came along, he was a Bruins guy during their glory years of the early 1970s, so he’s been kind enough to have me on his show to talk Boston since 2011, when he got his own show and has developed quite a following. I do appreciate his kind words about the blog (and me) on his show.

Yesterday, I was asked about Boston’s youth movement (David Pastrnak, Noel Acciari), drilled down on Ryan Spooner’s progress, and an update on the Dougie Hamilton trade. I also talked Riley Tufte, Dante Fabbro and a New England prep sleeper for the 2016 NHL draft.

I hope you will give it a listen. I come on at the 6:55 mark of the SoundCloud clip for a 12-minute segment. And you can follow me on Twitter if you want more: @kluedeke29

10-to-2: the evolution of Ryan Spooner

Spooner3

Ryan Spooner during his Providence Bruins days(Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

 

A child throws a rock into a still pond. The rock sinks to the murky bottom, but the impact creates a reaction well beyond what is seen on the surface.

 

This ripple effect can be applied to the young career of Boston Bruins center Ryan Spooner, who has finally arrived on the NHL stage as a regular contributor to his team’s fortunes.

 

It was not a given, however, that he would reach this point. If history is any indication, there have been legions of talented, skilled players who for one reason or another, could never make that extra step to establish themselves at hockey’s highest level. And, at this point just a year ago, it was looking more and more like Spooner was going to be another name to add to Boston’s growing list of capable, but ultimately unsuccessful draft picks.

 

This is the story of how Spooner and a small bit of help from fate and circumstance altered that trajectory.

 

The hockey prodigy from Kanata

 

Spooner grew up near Ottawa in Kanata, most famous as the home of the Ottawa Senators’ home rink, the Canadian Tire Centre. From an early age, he took to hockey as most Canadian sons do, and excelled as a naturally gifted skater and offensive player. He still laughs about the time he and Sue Spooner skated together in a mother-son game early in his minor career and she scored a goal, adding one tally to an impressive haul from the Spooner duo that day.

 

As he grew older, the little prodigy who wore No. 76 was so fast, so dangerous, so sublimely skilled that there wasn’t a whole lot opposing teams and coaches could do other than to accept that he was going to find a way to break through- the key was in minimizing the damage Spooner would do to them. As the years passed, his peers grew a little taller and stronger, but Spooner did what his coaches asked of him- he went out and scored goals. Lots of them.

 

It was around this time that Spooner met the man who would have the most profound effect on his own pursuit to one day play in the NHL.

 

Enter Pat Malloy

 

Pat Malloy is an Ottawa native and was a promising player and natural skater growing up. While pursuing his dream of playing hockey in the NCAA and possibly beyond that chance was cut short by chronic injury, which affected his skating. In 2000, Malloy decided that his love of hockey and connection to the game could flourish as a mentor and in the growing area of player development. Over the years, Malloy has not only worked with NHL players like Spooner, but several others including current Kings star Tyler Toffoli and even B’s veteran Chris Kelly. Malloy’s success led to greater recognition and he was ultimately hired by former Senators assistant GM Tim Murray to join the Buffalo Sabres organization as a skating and skills coach when Murray took the helm in Western New York before the 2014-15 season.

 

However, long before Malloy parlayed his local success into an NHL job, he got to know Spooner first as an opponent, and then as a client and student of the game.

 

“I coached against him at first, but even in that situation I could see what a special player he was at that age,” Malloy said from his office as the director of hockey for the PEAK Academy in Ottawa. “Our relationship sort of built organically, if you will. I don’t know if it was a mutual respect with the way he played and the way I coached but as big as Ottawa is, it’s actually a pretty small community and there are no secrets in hockey. We just sort of gravitated to one another and here we are years and years later.

 

“What started out as a skill and skating coach kind of thing has sort of turned into a mentorship situation where there aren’t many days that go by where we aren’t communicating about how things are going, last night’s game and the upcoming game and sort of planning and putting in place things from a personal perspective that we know will help him have success.”

 

Spooner recalled seeing Malloy with his PEAK Academy charges in the same rink he trained in and was at first intrigued by what he saw.

 

“I just remember the Patty works at PEAK and he does 1-on-1 sessions and I remember going to the gym and I would see him out on the ice,” Spooner told the Scouting Post during a recent off day. “He’d be working with some kids that were younger and some kids that were older and it just looked like it was fun stuff- scoring drills, stickhandling drills, footwork and all that kind of stuff. I think I just said to my dad that was something I wanted to do and I went out and tried it, loved it and I’ve been doing it since then.”

 

From OHL star to NHL prospect

 

Spooner ended up being the fifth overall pick at age 16 in the 2008 OHL Priority Selection draft of the storied Peterborough Petes. Already working with Malloy by then, he went on to become the youngest player in Peterborough team history to score 30 goals in the 2008-09 season, and was primed for an even bigger breakout in his draft season.

 

Unfortunately for Spooner, right after the 2010 CHL Top Prospects Game (he scored a memorable goal off a 2-on-1 rush when he ripped home a Taylor Hall cross-ice pass), he fractured his clavicle, causing him to miss just about all of the rest of the 2009-10 OHL campaign. Although he caught the tail-end of the season and playoffs, he wasn’t the same kind of dynamic presence he had been, and that might have been a reason for his fall from projected late first-rounder in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, to the 45th overall pick the Bruins tabbed him with in the middle of the second.

 

Almost immediately, Spooner became a fan favorite when he teamed up with second overall selection Tyler Seguin and 32nd pick Jared Knight at the trio’s first development camp, which brought the Bruins faithful out to the Ristuccia Arena in droves mainly to see Seguin. However, by week’s end, Spooner had caught the fans’ eyes with his impressive combination of speed and offensive savvy.

 

He parlayed that into an extended look at his first NHL training camp before he was returned to junior not too long before the 2010-11 NHL season opened. Spooner returned to a different situation with the Petes than one he had been accustomed in being around the big club, and with Peterborough struggling out of the gate under new coach Mike Pelino, things didn’t click and Spooner asked out. In what was a messy divorce, Spooner was sent to the Kingston Frontenacs, but Pelino blasted him on the way out for not being a good team guy.

 

Spooner, for his part, has always chosen not to directly address the personal critiques from his former coach (Pelino was let go from his duties in Peterborough during the 2012-13 season) but would only say that he was grateful to the Petes organization for giving him an opportunity, and that moving on was the best thing for him at the time.

 

“When that happened, I was a kid- I was 18- I just knew that I wasn’t happy where I was,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do, but I just knew that it wasn’t working for me and I asked for a trade. I learned a lot about the business of hockey going through that and I think it prepared me later for some of the stuff I’ve experienced in Boston.”

 

Still, fans were eager to see him make the Bruins, so when he was returned to junior pretty early in his second NHL training camp in 2011, several months after the B’s won the Stanley Cup, there was some disappointment in multiple circles.

 

“It was an always an understanding that the skill level was there, the creativity was there,” said Malloy. “Growing up he was able to do things in minor hockey and through junior that came very easy to him, came very instinctively than the finer points of the game. I think the areas that the Bruins and my exposure to them, and I would always report back to them in the summers on the things we were working on and was fully aware of what they were looking for and the mindset in terms of making sure he was growing and buying into the idea of doing the things he needed to do to be an everyday guy.”

 

Paying his dues in the AHL

 

Even with the world of skill, Spooner entered his first full AHL season in 2012-13 with a laundry list of things to work on in his game. Starting in Providence was eased by the fact that there was an NHL lockout going on, so he had no opportunity to impress the Boston brass in training camp, but instead reported to the minors to put into practice what he had worked on with Malloy that summer.

 

Defenseman Colby Cohen, who scored the 2009 NCAA championship-winning overtime goal for the Boston University Terriers and was a Boston farmhand with Spooner, fondly recalls how impressed he was with the rookie center’s ability when he first arrived in Providence (he made a couple of late-season appearances in 2011 and 2012 after his junior years ended).

 

“He has one of the highest hockey IQs of any player I’ve ever been on the ice with,” Cohen said via text. “He has 360-degree vision, which not many players have. His hockey IQ and vision has got to be on the 1 percent highest scale I’ve seen. I played some power play with him in the minors and you never had to call for the puck on the back door play. He saw you (and got it to you).”

 

Spooner’s maturation process began with Providence head coach Bruce Cassidy, who told me back during an interview in Spooner’s first season that the rookie was at his absolute best when he was attacking defenses with his speed.

 

“He’s not a player who gets a great deal done when he’s out on the perimeter dancing around,” Cassidy said after a Providence victory in which Spooner netted a pair of goals. “You could see it tonight with him, as he was attacking into the middle of the ice and being aggressive at going to the net. That’s how Ryan has to play if he’s going to be successful not only at this level but in the NHL.”

 

Spooner got a taste of the big league with a brief recall to Boston in early 2013, and then got another, more extended opportunity the following season, when Chris Kelly went down in December with an injury that forced him out of the Bruins lineup for several weeks. Spooner showed flashes of his potential, including a three-assist performance against Nashville, but he was unable to find the back of the net in 23 games (11 assists) with the big club.

 

Although he was ultimately sent back to Providence, the longer Spooner was around head coach Claude Julien and the other coaches and players, the more he saw what was expected of him in Boston’s system and organizational climate.

 

“What you see a lot now is that players that have the ability to do things at a higher rate, and sometimes it takes more time and convincing that those dirtier areas, those smaller areas…that attention to detail defensively- understanding that you earn the right to advance and you need to do the job defensively in order to let your talent level come through,” Malloy said. “That’s not the sexy part of the game, and it’s harder for a player that has high-end ability to get their head around sometimes because at various levels they didn’t have to or it was something they weren’t asked to do, so what I saw with him was the maturity of understanding sometimes I’ve got to do things that I might not think are the best for me but are best for the group.”

 

Spooner played enough on a President’s Trophy-winning roster to show he had enough talent to belong in the NHL, and that December- January run in Boston set Spooner up for even bigger expectations entering the 2014-15 season.

Nearing the end of the line with B’s?

 

The good news for Spooner when the new season started against Philadelphia was that for the first time in his career he was on the opening night roster. The bad news was, that after an up-and-down training camp, Spooner was playing such a reduced role (and on the wing where he did not look comfortable) that it was difficult for him to leverage his game’s strengths. After five games in a bit role and barely an impact, he was sent back down to Providence where the team moved him back to center to try and get him going again.

 

At the same time, rookie David Pastrnak was in the process of producing at a point-per-game rate and would soon grab much of the attention in Providence before he ultimately won a permanent job with Boston by mid-January.

 

Meanwhile, Spooner got injured in late December and went back on the shelf for a period of weeks while he worked on trying to get back on the ice. The injury may have happened at a critical time, and is the first element of circumstance that may have intervened to save Boston management from making a big mistake.

 

There were rumors that the B’s and then-GM Peter Chiarelli were entertaining moving Spooner to a team out in the Western Conference in an exchange of underachieving second-round picks. That team had sent several of its scouts into Providence on several occasions, and just as things where heating up, Spooner was knocked out of action, putting any alleged trade talks on hold.

 

He returned to the Providence lineup in late January and his production immediately improved, as Spooner began playing his best hockey of the season. Not long after that, fate intervened again, this time in the form of an injury to a key member of the Boston roster.

 

When opportunity knocks…

 

When David Krejci injured his MCL in late February 2015, the B’s were in a dire situation.

 

Just one year after cruising to the league’s best regular season record, the team was fighting for its playoff lives, and the loss of Krejci stood to have an enormous impact on the postseason chances.

 

Spooner was called up for a Sunday game against Chicago and promptly made an impact with an assist in a much-needed Boston win on February 22nd. Five nights later, on February 27, Spooner tallied his 1st NHL goal, an overtime strike that propelled Boston to a much-needed 3-2 win over the New Jersey Devils. (Highlight vids courtesy of “Dafoomie”)

 

Although the Bruins ultimately failed in their bid to make the 2015 postseason, Spooner was one of the bright spots in a dismal spring, posting eight goals and 18 points in 24 NHL games after the late February recall. The B’s saw a more confident and rounded Spooner in his second NHL stint last season, and he clicked centering a line with Milan Lucic and Pastrnak.

 

Through it all, Malloy and several other people have been instrumental in helping to keep Spooner grounded and focused on the ultimate goal of establishing himself as a Bruin, even with the setbacks and hits to his confidence at various times.

 

“The thing I like about him is that it’s not like I go out and work on my skills and then I don’t talk to him again until I’m home again,” Spooner said. “I talk to him pretty much after all my games and he tells me things I need to improve on and things I did well. The thing I like about Pat, too, is that he’s very approachable and easy to talk to. He’s a mentor as someone I talk to after the games and I talk to my dad, I talk to my best friend and I also talk to my agent.

 

“Last year was especially tough for me at different times- I had heard some trade stuff and I wasn’t playing my best and I remember Patty saying to me ‘You need to go out and have fun, you need to remember why you’re playing hockey. Just go out there and use your skills and speed.’ He’s always been the one who’s reminded me that I’m at my best and using my speed and skills.”

 

As the disappointment of not making the playoffs wore off last April, Spooner went back home Ottawa to prepare for a new season and for the first time, a true opportunity to contribute to Boston’s fortunes as a roster regular right out of the gate.

 

After a short break, he went right to work with Malloy, who had always had a willing and driven student, but one who now had considerable focus on one area in particular that he wanted to address before the new season began.

 

“Last summer (Ryan) came back and said ‘I need to have more of a shooter’s mentality,’ and that’s absolutely accurate and that of course comes from the top,” Malloy said. “The Bruins had said that with his skill level, they’d like to see him shoot pucks more and become more of a threat from that perspective. So, a portion of that time spent last year and the year before was spent saying let’s develop a mid-range shot, let’s develop a one-timer, which you’re starting to see him use more now, with all that time he sees on the power play, and the confidence to do that under pressure and the confidence to do those things with a mindset that he’s going to dictate the outcome.”

 

Spooner said that in order to improve the mechanics of his shot, Malloy used his iPad to take a tremendous amount of video and then the two broke down his shot in the close level of detail needed to identify ways to improve his release, shot power and accuracy.

 

With the best stretch of NHL hockey in the rearview, Spooner and Malloy both new that now was the time to put all of the hard work from years past into practice and keep the positive momentum going forward.

 

10-to-2: the making of an NHL center

 

Armed with a new two-year, 1-way contract extension, Spooner returned to Boston as the best bet to start the year as the team’s No. 3 center behind Patrice Bergeron and Krejci.

 

After a preseason that began with great promise, the team began to show signs of what was likely to be a year of peaks and valleys in 2015-16, but nobody was quite prepared for how brutal the Bruins would begin the year in a three-game homestand, going 0-3.

 

Spooner, like many of his teammates, took a little longer to get going. He excelled on the power play from the get-go, but his even strength play drew criticism early. Some of it had to do with a revolving door of linemates, but things seemed to hit a low point when he was benched during a December loss to Calgary. The B’s battled back from a deficit to send the game to overtime, but came up short.

 

After that Spooner seemed to bear down and play with more urgency in his game, but the real test came on December 27, when Krejci was lost again from the Boston lineup for an extended period of time against Ottawa.

 

That meant a promotion to the second line again for the first time since a year ago in February when Krejci was lost for most of the rest of the regular season and Spooner proved for really the first time in his young NHL career that he belonged in Boston.

 

From there, Spooner’s production took off, as he was able to more than hold up the offensive end of things while also demonstrating effectiveness in his 200-foot game, something that had long been something critics pointed to as a source of friction with Julien.

 

“I thought he played really well tonight,” Julien told the Boston Globe and assembled media after Boston’s 2-1 overtime loss to Ottawa more than a week ago. “I thought he skated well. I don’t know how many times I saw him make a real great backcheck. Both sides of the puck, he was good. He made good plays, good decisions. A lot of good things happening with Ryan tonight. I thought it was one of his better games.”

 

In a recent win over the New Jersey Devils, Spooner was skating with confidence and effectiveness, employing one of his favorite skating moves, the 10-to-2, on a goal he scored against Cory Schneider.

 

“He was always a kid that had an ability to be mobile,” said Malloy referencing the genesis of the work the two have done to make the 10-to-2 an effective element of Spooner’s skating threat. “I think what we did together was we figured out ways and continue to figure out ways to buy time and space. It’s one of those ways that number one- it makes you a dynamic moving target; it makes it harder for defenders to track you because you can change angles.”

 

For Spooner’s part, he recognizes its effectiveness but also believes in not using too much that he becomes predictable with it.

 

“In terms of it being effective for me, when you get the puck in the corner and you’re attacking out, it seems to work well,” he said. “ On the power play when I come through the middle of the ice, I can use it, so that you’re kind of looking back at the defenseman to get the pass or if you’re coming down the left side of the ice and you have some time you can see the entire rink.

 

“On the goal I scored (against the Devils), I got it and I always do it when I go across at the top (of the offensive zone) because I find that it gives you a better angle, the puck’s in front of me more so it’s tougher for a guy to block the shot and then it’s just been something I’ve done since I’ve been 17 or 18 and it was something I did working with Patty on drills- going around cones, and stuff like that.”

 

In effect, the 10-to-2, in a way, symbolizes Spooner as a scorer. It is something that not just anyone can go out and employ because it requires speed and a mastery of edges and balance to make work, but according to Malloy, it’s something the two have worked at perfecting because of what it does to enhance Spooner’s offensive lethality.

 

“A lot of what we have done in summers past in terms of developing his shot came from having the ability- when you can use your feet to create square hips to the net and balanced power so that you can release pucks at maybe a better pace than he had been previously doing,” said Malloy. “When moves like that get you around the corner, get you square- it allows you to be in spots where spots are better to be created from rather than shooting off balance and shooting on angles.”

 

The next step

 

Krejci is now considered day-to-day and Spooner will likely return to his third line pivot spot in the Boston lineup. However, the last near month multitude of games as a top-2 center has given him the confidence to keep finding ways to contribute to the B’s fortunes.

 

“Going forward, once Krech gets back I’m going to get sent back down to the third line and I just need to focus on the same things I’ve been doing,” he said. “I need to use my speed and my skill and try to make the players around me better and whoever they’re going to put me with, I just need to get them the puck, play responsibly and it definitely helps out for the confidence that I was able to go up there and score a bit. I thought my defensive game was going along better, but I still need to work on it and work on my faceoffs. I’ve played some games where I’ve been 60 percent in the dot and then (against Toronto) I was like 2 and 12, so it’s been up and down, so I need to find more consistency for sure. But for the most part I’ve been happy with my game, but there are things to work on.”

 

Spooner’s old teammate Cohen, now an NCAA television color analyst for ASN, feels like the best is yet to come for him.

 

“He’s done what he’s needed to in terms of improving his defensive game and being lower risk, lower reward in his approach,” Cohen said alluding to Spooner’s success at sticking in the NHL. “He skates so well, so being good defensively is relatively easy for him in that he has an amazing stick and doesn’t need to be physical to be effective on defense.

 

“Give him a longer leash- if a coach gives him that, he is a top-six and really even more like a top-three forward I believe.”

 

Spooner has told Malloy what he wants their focus areas to be when the season ends, hopefully after an opportunity to gain experience in the NHL postseason.

 

“He’s aware of the areas he needs to improve and he’s bought into that,” Malloy said. “We’re already talking about next summer in terms of improving things like his faceoff play; improving areas where he’s harder on pucks and that tells me that we’ve taken that next step in terms of his evolution and his maturity and that he’s starting to feel confidence from a points production standpoint where he feels like he can make plays, but he’s also talking about the things that are a little less sexy to deal with.”

 

And as far as Malloy is concerned, how much work can he still do with Spooner as the soon-to-be 24-year-old continues to mature as a pro?

 

“There’s no such thing as fast enough, there’s no such thing as good enough in the game of hockey. You can always develop and work and so I think the things we do with Ryan is because he’s a high-end skater and he’s got high-end puck skills, we’ll look at taking those skill sets and applying them to areas of the game where he has the ability to dictate the outcomes of plays, where he’s forcing people into situations where they need to react to him or defend against him from things he’s done by applying that high-end ability to skate and navigate the ice with the puck.”

 

And that ripple effect we talked about earlier?

 

Think about how different this conversation would be if Spooner were doing all of this in another team’s uniform. Good thing for the Bruins that’s not the case.

 

Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview: the Centers

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

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

In retrospect: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…well, not really. The 2014-15 NHL campaign was a rough one for the Boston Bruins’ men up the middle.

Patrice Bergeron led the club in scoring with 22 goals and 55 points- the lowest for a non-lockout season since 2009-10 when he and David Krejci both finished with 52 points. It was a step back for Bergeron from his 30 goals and 62 points in 2014, but Krejci’s season was downright miserable.

The 29-year-old missed 35 games and finished with just 7 goals and 31 points in the 47 contests he played after signing a lucrative contract extension that will pay him $43.5 million ($7.25M AAV) for the next six years starting in 2015. This is not to indict the team or player for that deal, but if the Bruins are going to take steps forward, then Krejci is going to have to put the last 12 months behind him and take his game back up to the level he’s capable of.

The good news for the team is that young pivot Ryan Spooner finally broke through after several years of teasing with flashes of his pure speed and offensive skill. He made the club out of camp, but after five games on a very short leash, he was returned to Providence where he battled injuries and up-and-down play until late January when he rounded into form and established himself as a consistent scoring presence. When Krejci went down for another extended absence in late February, Spooner returned to Boston and stayed there, finishing the year with 8 goals (his 1st in the NHL in spot duty the previous two seasons) and 18 points in 29 games (24 if you throw out the first five where he barely played).

Gone is third-liner Carl Soderberg (traded to Colorado for the 2016 pick Boston sent to the Avs for Max Talbot) and fourth line staple Gregory Campbell. Soderberg flashed his big-time ability in spots, but whereas he thrived in his third-line role, he was ineffective when asked to center one of the team’s top-two lines when Krejci was out. Campbell was a good soldier whose declining production and being on the wrong side of 30 made him a free agent departure to Columbus.

Overall, Boston’s 22nd-ranked offense (all the way down from third in 2014) was reflected in the team’s low scoring totals by their centers and the club’s non-playoff finish. Bergeron was steady and dependable, especially when it comes to the other things like faceoffs and defensive zone play, but the lack of production from Krejci and Soderberg, due in part to a dropoff on the wings, all contributed to a down year.

The view from here: Patrice Bergeron, as veteran forward Chris Kelly has often said, is Boston’s “Mr. Everything”- he’s arguably the true face of the franchise. He also turned 30 in July, a remarkable turn of events considering it seems like only yesterday that he was a fresh-faced 18-year-old rookie who made the veteran-laden 2003-04 Bruins out of camp after being the 45th overall selection in Nashville (with a compensation pick the B’s got for losing Bill Guerin to free agency). Since then, Bergeron has won a Stanley Cup, two Olympic gold medals, both a men’s World and World Jr. championship and added three Frank Selke Trophies as the NHL’s top defensive forward. If you looked up “winning” in the Urban Dictionary, you’ll not find Charlie Sheen but Bergeron’s mug looking back at you.

He’s the team’s active points leader with 206 goals and 550 career points in 740 games, all with Boston. He currently sits 12th on the franchise’s all-time scoring list and is just 26 points from moving past Milt Schmidt. Assuming he stays healthy and posts another typical offensive year for him, he could move all the way up to eighth past Terry O’Reilly (606 points). Think of where Bergeron would be  on the scoring ledger had he not lost an entire 82-game season to the 04-05 lockout, another 72 games to the near career-ending hit from behind he took from Flyers defenseman Randy Jones (who?) and then another lockout-shortened half season in 2013.

What makes Bergeron so good is that he’s a complete player. Sure- he doesn’t have the open-ice speed, and to be honest- the Bruins are lucky he wasn’t quicker than he is now at age 17, or else there’s not much of a chance he would have been available for them to draft. Bergeron seriousness and dedication- evident from the very first time I sat down with him for an extended interview at our hotel in Nashville the day after the ’03 draft- is why he not only made the NHL just a few months after turning 18, and ahead of many of the more-heralded 44 picks in front of him, but is a big reason he’s thrived.

Any hopes the B’s have of getting back to being a playoff caliber club starts with him.

Krejci begins the year as the second-ranked active scorer with 409 points in 551 games. When healthy and on top of his game, he’s a cerebral centerman who compensates for his average size and speed with high-end playmaking skills like vision, soft hands and offensive creativity. The Czech product who was a steal at the 64th overall selection in 2004 is quiet off the ice but fiercely driven and competitive as evidenced by his 29 goals and 77 career playoff points, good for ninth all-time for the Bruins (and 11 more than Bergeron has in the postseason).

There isn’t much to add about the previous year’s performance other than to say that the Bruins must get more from him going forward or they’re going to be in trouble. His contract is paying him like a top-level producer, which he has shown he can be in the playoffs, but for a player who has never scored more than 23 goals or 73 points in an entire regular season, it was a generous increase, and for someone who will turn 30 in late April, the Bruins are counting on him taking his production to another level than what we have seen in his previous NHL seasons. Doable? Yes. Likely? That’s an entirely different debate.

Spooner is a speedy, skilled offensive forward who hit his stride after his second call-up late in the year, scoring his first NHL goal in sudden death against New Jersey and playing the best hockey of his young NHL career to finish out the season. At one time the youngest player in Peterborough Petes history to score 30 goals in a season, like Bergeron, he was the 45th overall pick (seven years after PB), slipping in the draft a bit due to a broken collarbone suffered right after the CHL Top Prospects Game in January 2010- dooming him to the “out of sight/out of mind” phenomenon that can occur in a player’s draft season. Although Spooner’s road to the NHL was more down than up, he earned a two-year contract extension and has the inside track to the third line center job when camp opens up in a few weeks. For a kid who appeared done and for whom trade rumors swirled in the first half of last season, he’s back to where the B’s thought he should be.

A player who enters camp with expectations of winning the fourth-line center job is Finnish veteran pro and newcomer Joonas Kemppainen. A member of the SM-Liiga’s championship team Karpat this past spring, Kemppainen has a big, 6-2, 200-pound frame and at age 27 is a mature two-way center who can do all of the little things you need. Although not especially fast, he has a powerful stride and uses his body well along the walls and in front of the net. He doesn’t have high-end puck skills, but he works hard in the trenches and gets his points off of opportunism and hard work. He was brought to development camp in July, but pulled a hamstring while working out at home before the trip, so fans unfortunately weren’t able to see him. He should be fine for camp, but this will be something to monitor and watch going forward.

Alexander Khokhlachev and Zack Phillips will also be vying for NHL jobs this season going into camp, but may have their hands full trying to make a splash with Boston. Koko is ready for NHL duty, but he may need to make a positional switch to the wing in order to do it. He’s not as fast as Spooner is, so splitting him out wide may be a better fit for his style of game and gives the Bruins more of a dynamic option scoring-wise- he’s not an ideal candidate for the duties and responsibilities of a fourth-line pivot, and he’d have to beat out one of the 1-3 centers to make it there, which, given his current body of work to date, is not likely.

Phillips, who was drafted 12 spots ahead of Koko in 2011 by the Wild (and Koko’s pick ended up being Minnesota’s 2nd-round selection- acquired in a trade that sent Chuck Kobasew out west early in 2009-10). He’s a talented offensive player who tallied 95 points in a Memorial Cup-winning campaign his draft year, but has struggled since to live up to the billing of being taken in the top-30. He performed well enough for Providence after being acquired even-up for Jared Knight at the deadline, tallying 11 points in 16 games, but has yet to show that he’s someone who will vie for regular NHL duty, at least as far as this season is concerned. At age 22 (he turns 23 in late Oct.), he has time, so it behooves the Bruins to take a wait-and-see approach.

Ryan Spooner enters his fourth professional season for the first time as an expected NHL roster player (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Ryan Spooner enters his fourth professional season for the first time as an expected NHL roster player (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

On the farm: If neither one of Koko or Phillips makes the Boston roster, they’ll be the 1-2 punch in Providence this year (though it stands to reason that Boston’s skilled Russian prospect might balk at another demotion- we shall see, and I’ll cover him in the forthcoming post on the B’s options on the wings as well).

There isn’t a whole lot else to speak of down in the AHL. Providence College captain Noel Acciari is a blue collar prospect as a versatile if not high-end offensive player who plays a rugged two-way game and hits everything in sight. He’s not an NHL option at this point, but has steadily developed at every other level and is a winner, having been a key part of the Friars’ first-ever NCAA title this past spring. He was a solid free agent pickup for the B’s.

Rugged WHL center Justin Hickman, a free agent signed last January after shutting it down for shoulder surgery, may be a diamond-in-the-rough at Providence this year. The former Seattle Thunderbirds captain didn’t put up eye-popping numbers, but he was starting to get there in his final major junior season until he went under the knife. He skates well for his size, plays a fearless game, and will stick up for teammates. He was still limited (no scrimmage) at development camp, but is expected to be cleared by the start of the season and could become a fan favorite in short order. Fellow WHLer Colby Cave may be another center option in Providence or could be switched to wing. He’s not as physical as Hickman but plays a smart, underrated offensive game as evidenced by the chemistry he showed at Swift Current last season with Jake DeBrusk. We’ll give him more coverage in the wingers section.

Diminutive little buzzsaw Austin Czarnik has the speed and style of game to turn heads in camp as well. Like Acciari, he captained his club- Miami University- and was a nice free agent get last spring. Although tiny by NHL standards (5-9, about 160 pounds), he’s a superb playmaking center with the quick feet and stick to back defenses up and cause problems for would-be checkers. Don’t know what I mean? Check out this highlight vid from the playoffs a few months back:

He’s going to do some good work in Providence and if he can be a forward version of Torey Krug and overcome the size bias, he has the versatility to play on the lower lines and at wing as well (though he’s best in the middle).

Look to the future: The B’s have some intriguing talent in the pipeline, even if there isn’t an elite center among a solid group of players.

Harvard University is eagerly awaiting Ryan Donato, Boston’s second-round selection in 2014 and the son of head coach (and former Bruin) Ted Donato. After starring for four years at Dexter Southfield in Brookline, Donato took his game last spring to the USHL’s Omaha Lancers, where he put up more than a point per game and silenced some of the critics and doubters. Although not blazing fast like his dad, he’s bigger and plays a more dangerous offensive game. He’s a long-term project with a sizable potential payoff.

Not too far away from seeing duty in Boston is current Miami University captain and senior Sean Kuraly, who was acquired in late June along with San Jose’s first-round pick in 2016 for goaltender Martin Jones. Though he hasn’t been overly productive in his NCAA career to date, he has that kind of potential as he enters the new year coming off a 19-goal junior campaign. He’s a heavy player who uses his size and quickness to excel in puck possession and is at his best when creating space for his linemates and taking pucks straight to the net. Don’t be surprised to see the B’s explore bringing him straight to Boston in March or April when his season ends.

Ryan Fitzgerald is entering his junior year at Boston College and will face the team’s newest center prospect, Swedish two-way playmaker Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, who is a freshman at Boston University. The two are similar in that they can both score and play responsible defensive hockey. ‘JFK’ is a little bigger and has the better draft pedigree, but don’t count out the 2013 fourth-rounder who appears to be on the verge of breaking out with some big-time production at the Heights. I’m not sure how that will translate at the pro level, but Fitzgerald’s hockey sense and bloodlines will take him far.

2015 sixth-rounder Cameron Hughes has a lot of skill and grit if not the size- but he’s expected to play a bigger role at the University of Wisconisin this season and is definitely a player to watch as a value selection.

The verdict: Center is the strongest position in Boston currently, even if the position lacks the dynamic scoring and production other teams can boast.

In Krejci, Bergeron and Spooner- if all stay healthy and produce to their potential, you’re looking at a balanced attack that will at least put the wingers in position to finish off plays. This isn’t a sexy group by league-wide standards, but they don’t have to be. Bergeron’s leadership will continue to pay off in the room, while Krejci is the kind of guy motivated by the lost season a year ago. He took the team’s failure to make the playoffs personally, but talk is cheap- it will be interesting to see how he responds and if he can avoid the injury bug, a legitimate concern given his slight frame and the wear and tear on his body.

Kemppainen is the favorite for the bottom line coming out of camp but he’s not a lock. Should he struggle or Koko have a great outing, the coaching staff will be faced with some tough decisions. The standard play is usually to send the waiver-exempt players down and protect those who must be exposed, so we’ll see how things turn out. Chris Kelly has the versatility to play a fourth-line center role if the B’s want to use him there, but given his faceoff strengths, it makes sense to put him on the wing with Spooner on the third line until the youngster can earn more defensive zone faceoff trust from the coaches.

Ultimately, as long as the group stays healthy, the center position will be the least of Boston’s worries, but whether they can be good enough to make up for the rest of the team’s shortcomings remains to be seen.

I’ll be back with the preview on the wingers to include future options like Denver University’s LW Danton Heinen, who might be closer to the show than we realize.

Chris Kelly could be pressed into center duties if others fail (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Chris Kelly could be pressed into center duties if others fail (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Summer cooler interview series 1: Ryan Spooner

Ryan Spooner finally got the scoring monkey off his back last spring, and bigger things are expected of him in 2015-16

Ryan Spooner finally got the scoring monkey off his back last spring, and bigger things are expected of him in 2015-16

The Boston Bruins drafted center Ryan Spooner 45th overall in the second round five years ago, but it took the 23-year-old Ottawa-area native  some time to find find his NHL groove. Despite showing flashes of promise in several stints with the big club during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, around Christmas of last year, it was looking more and more like the Bruins were giving up on him, as he was linked to several trade rumors and it was later reported that former GM Peter Chiarelli had at one point earlier in the 2014-15 campaign offered him to Buffalo as part of a package to land veteran winger Chris Stewart. In a classic sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make moment, Spooner recovered from some nagging injuries in mid-winter to become one of Providence’s most consistent forwards and when given another opportunity to skate with the big club when David Krejci was injured in late Feb., Spooner seized upon his chance.

Fast forward to August and he’s under contract for two more seasons and enters the 2015-16 season with expectations to be a regular performer for Boston. He’s currently No. 3 on the center depth chart behind Krejci and Patrice Bergeron, but for Spooner, that’s a good place to be.

I had a chance to catch up to him at his home in Kanata, ON where he is spending the bulk of his offseason (he took some time off with a visit to Mexico), and we talked about his new lease on life with the Bruins and how he feels about the new season among other things.

***

Kirk Luedeke: Talk to me about the the end of last season and the call up to Boston- how your confidence ended at the end of the year as opposed to where you were at the beginning?

Ryan Spooner: The beginning of the year was a bit strange for me- I would say that it was the most absolutely challenging position I’ve been put in starting in terms of being sent and then getting hurt and missing months of hockey which had only happened to me (in my career) once. When you miss that much hockey, especially when you’ve been sent down and are trying to get called back up and you just want to play well, that was a challenge for me; I tried to stick with it and stay positive. When I got called back up, that was an opportunity to play and play with some awesome players, so I’m grateful for that. I feel a whole lot better about myself how I played at the end and I know a lot of that was because of the people I was playing with. In terms of my confidence at the end, scoring that first goal definitely helped by taking the pressure off me, so that was good.

KL: On that first goal- you were drafted to score in this league and you had several other opportunities with the team but the pucks had not gone in for you. Go back to that night against New Jersey and that goal and what it felt like to score and how that changed your outlook going forward?

RS: Each day I went in asking myself ‘I wonder if I’m going to score this game?’ and I was thinking how long would I go without scoring a goal and it was in the back of my mind- I was kind of tense around the net. It was a 4-on-2  and it was a great play where all of the sudden I had the puck on my stick and I just tried to hit the net- I didn’t even know if it went in. It hit the goalie’s arm, went in and hit back of the net and came out . When it turned out that it went in, I was extremely relieved. I think after that I felt a lot better around the net, more willing to shoot the puck- that was good to feel like that again.

KL: Two-year extension signed in the off-season- the message that sends to you is that you’re a part of the process, the solution going forward in Boston…how does that security and the knowledge that the team wanted you back change your approach going into training camp?

RS: I think it takes a little weight off my back. In the past, I came into camp on a two-way (contract) and it was very easy for them to send me down, and I just feel like going into camp this year and playing like I did at the end of the season by showing I can produce (in Boston). I feel better about myself going into camp and knowing I can help out- that’s all I really want to do. I want to help the team win at the end of the day, that’s why I play. It’s about helping the team in any way I can by doing all the little things beyond the scoring, so that’s what I want to do.

KL: Given that your coach has spoken openly in the past about you and areas where he felt you were falling short, how do you feel about your relationship with Claude Julien going into the new season based on your time on the club last spring?

RS: At the beginning of the year, I think he expected a lot more of me. I don’t think I was playing up to how I should have been and at the end of the day, he’s going to tell me what things he thinks I should be doing better. I think he just wants me to be the best player I can be and that’s why he called me out. In the long run it helped me; I think at the time I felt he was being a little hard on me, but now that I look back on it, he was trying to help and make me a better player and I’m grateful that he did that. In terms of the beginning of the year he was good with me and told me ‘We want you to use your speed and your skill, we want you to be a good two-way player. As long as you do that, I have no issues with you creating offense,’ so that’s what my coaches say to me- as long as I am good in my own end you can go out and make the plays you make, just make sure that you’re responsible.

In terms of next year coming up I want stress getting better at the faceoff dot; trying to work on that and maybe even start a faceoff in my own zone, which I didn’t do a lot of. I know that it takes time as a young guy, and we have some of the best faceoff guys in the league, and he’s going to use them, but I’m striving towards being trusted in situations like that and it’s giving me something to work towards.

KL: It’s been a summer of change for the Bruins- I can imagine some of the changes came as a shock to the guys…how are you processing the changes in terms of the departures of Milan (Lucic) and Dougie (Hamilton) and the arrivals of Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes, plus management in what looks to be a different construction of the club in October versus where you finished last April.

RS: Yeah- it’s always sad to see some of the guys get moved. You build friendships with them and that kind of stuff and then in a split second they’re gone and you don’t really get to see them again so that’s the tough part about playing. At the same time, I’m excited to see what the new team can do and the new additions to the team and I think we’ll be an exciting team to watch- I think we should be good.

KL: So- the rest of August- what is in store for Ryan Spooner- what is your focus going to be so you can be ready for the main camp in September?

RS: I’m going to see John Whitesides, actually- I’m leaving tomorrow morning and driving to Boston. So, I will be there for about three days- just to do a checkup and do a couple of workouts and stuff. Then, I’ll come back home and get back in the gym. I’m going to a charity tournament in Quebec City with me, (Patrice) Bergeron, Jordan Caron- we’re all playing on the same team. It’s a tournament run by Cedric Desjardins– he plays in the American League I believe with Syracuse- he gets a tournament together and gets all the guys and we all play, so I’m going to go out there for about three days. And then back home to see the family for a bit before I head back to Boston.

KL: Will you attend some of the annual non-official captain’s practices that Zdeno Chara leads in the area before the start of camp?

RS: I remember last year I went up around the 10th of September, I believe. Camp opened up on the 18th, so I’ll probably head out there around the same time- around six days beforehand and get to skate and get into the gym there- get settled in and all that.

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Spooner’s biggest challenge will be to build on the positive momentum he generated at the end of the year, when his team was struggling to score, but he was one of the few consistent bright spots. He can’t afford a sluggish showing at camp given the depth that the organization has, and given the peaks and valleys Spooner has experienced to date in his young career, he’ll be ready to go.