We hope you’re enjoying the offseason series on the Boston Bruins. There’s more in the works, but this post will quickly break down several of the forward prospects who could be ready for a bigger impact/contribution with the B’s in 2017-18. Now granted- we still need to see who comes and goes when the roster shaping period begins in earnest on and after 1 July, but for now- here are just a few players we think are going to push the coaching staff to either get them into the lineup sooner rather than later, or will make the decision to send them down a tough one.
As promised, back with part 2 of the podcasts, bringing you the outlook on the pro players in the Boston Bruins organization.
It’s a pretty solid group from top to bottom, with a couple of forwards and a goaltender at the top, along with a mix of all positions in between.
Hope you enjoy the rundown- as always- we appreciate the support for the blog!
The Boston College Eagles and Wisconsin Badgers Sunday tilt (the teams split the weekend series in Madison after Wisco triumphed Friday night) featured three Boston Bruins prospects and all of them made an impact in BC’s 8-5 win in what was a highly entertaining game.
The larger story for the Bruins is that the reports of freshman center Trent Frederic’s unworthiness as a first-round pick may have been greatly exaggerated, as he currently leads the Badgers in scoring with six points in four games, posting a goal and three helpers in the Sunday loss. Full disclosure- your TSP founder was one of the critics of the selection, admittedly not seeing much top-six NHL forward potential at the U18 championship last April (and this despite Frederic getting a hat trick in one of the round robin games vs. Latvia). Red Line Report had Frederic outside the top-100 and didn’t see him as much more than a fringe fourth-liner, but the perception began to change when talking to former coaches and players who knew him better than any of the talent evaluators who buried him in the rankings.
There’s much hockey left in the season, but Frederic certainly appears to be silencing the critics in the early going.
Here’s what to like about him (film study of two games): Long, powerful stride gets him up the ice quickly…smart and patient; handles the puck well and makes good decisions in where he moves it. Creative. Uses his big frame to drive the net and is effective around the net.
Frederic has an aggressive offensive mindset- more than I (and others) gave him credit for. On JD Greenway’s first collegiate goal to tie the game (after BC had taken a 2-0 lead) in the second period, Frederic led a 3-on-1 that materialized quickly in the neutral zone because he jumped on a loose puck and caught the BC defense flat-footed. Granted, it was a 3-on-1 advantage, but Frederic showed an immense amount of patience to let Greenway drive to the far post before putting a perfect pass on his blade for the easy score. This apple came after Frederic had tallied to get the Badgers on the board, and he would add two more assists as the home team got within a goal of the Eagles after going down 6-2 at one point in the second period.
But Frederic wasn’t only Wisconsin Badger who turned heads in a losing effort Sunday…
Cameron Hughes, who was drafted by the B’s in the 2015 draft’s sixth round scored as pretty (and filthy) a goal you will see late in the second period to make it a 6-3 game when he wheeled back after a turnover in the high slot of the BC zone got him the puck alone in front of Eagles netminder (and Leafs 2016 third-rounder) Joe Woll. Hughes pulled the puck behind him and through his legs and then roofed the shot up under the crossbar. Forget it…just see the play for yourself and then imagine trying to do that at top speed as Hughes did.
The Alberta native is in position to break out in his junior season after some growing pains as a freshman and sophomore. Always ultra-talented, Hughes arrived in Madison at an alleged 140-150 pounds as a freshman and he wore down pretty early, according to one source close to the Badgers program. As a result, where he was once thought of as a top-60 prospect for the 2015 NHL draft, he fell all the way down to the mid-sixth round where Boston pounced. It’s looking like a solid value pick for the B’s in hindsight- Hughes is more of a passer/playmaker but that goal will be replayed over and over, and shows a deft finishing touch that the 19-year-old hasn’t gotten much credit for.
Not to be forgotten in the game was BC senior and alternate captain Ryan Fitzgerald, who was visible with his energy and two-way play and tallied a late empty-net goal by outworking his opponents on the back wall and then beating everyone to the front of the vacated cage. That play is what makes the 2013 fourth-rounder such an effective three-zone presence for the Eagles. He scored the goal through sheer will and hustle, and that it came via an empty net should not diminish the impact of the play itself.
Anders Bjork and Jesse Gabrielle have begun the season like gangbusters for their respective teams/leagues. It’s funny, because Bjork (5th round) and Gabrielle (4th round) weren’t drafted in the top-100 picks in 2014 and 2015, and yet they’ve been two of Boston’s most productive prospects over the past full season and about a month into the new campaign. It isn’t just about giving the team and scouts credit- give a lot to the two guys who took the later selection as motivation and have both put in the work off the ice to make sure the on-ice performance translates. If I’m Don Sweeney, I’d better get hot on signing both of these players. Bjork will have to play out his NCAA season first, but Gabrielle has between now and June 1 to come to terms- he’s done enough to earn that NHL entry-level pact in our view.
On the pro side, it’s been a disappointing start for the Providence Bruins, but not altogether unexpected when you consider that they’re without Frank Vatrano (though he likely would’ve made the Bruins out of camp), Alexander Khokhlachev (KHL), Seth Griffith (lost on waivers to Toronto) and a couple of key youngsters in Austin Czarnik and Danton Heinen (both in Boston) plus Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara on defense (also in Boston). We expect to see one or more of those latter names back at some point, but give goalie Zane McIntyre a lot of credit- he’s gotten off to a great start after his final 2016 start left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. He’s outplayed Malcolm Subban by a wide margin…some of it is Subban’s fault, but the team has some holes, so there are going to be some bumps in the road this season.
Bruins Amateur (NCAA/major junior/junior) Prospects as of 10/17/2016
|Anders Bjork, Notre Dame||HE-NCAA||4||5||5||10||2|
|Jesse Gabrielle, Prince George||WHL||6||5||4||9||6|
|Trent Frederic, Wisconsin||Big10- NCAA||4||2||4||6||2|
|Jakub Zboril, Saint John||QMJHL||6||2||3||5||2|
|Zach Senyshyn, SSM||OHL||5||4||0||4||8|
|Cameron Hughes, Wisconsin||Big10- NCAA||4||1||3||4||4|
|Jeremy Lauzon, Rouyn-Noranda*||QMJHL||2||1||2||3||0|
|Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, BU||HE- NCAA||3||1||2||3||2|
|Ryan Fitzgerald, BC||HE-NCAA||4||1||2||3||2|
|Jack Becker, Sioux Falls||USHL||7||2||1||3||6|
|Charlie McAvoy, BU||HE-NCAA||3||0||2||2||0|
|Ryan Lindgren, Minnesota||Big10- NCAA||2||0||0||0||0|
|Cameron Clarke, Ferris St.||WCHA- NCAA||4||0||0||0||2|
|Ryan Donato, Harvard**||ECAC- NCAA||0||0||0||0||0|
|Wiley Sherman, Harvard**||ECAC-NCAA||0||0||0||0||0|
* Jeremy Lauzon out indefinitely (UBI/concussion)
** ECAC regular season begins November 4, 2016
Pro and European Prospects as of 10/17/16
|Joona Koppanen, Ilves Jr.||U20- Finland||11||7||9||16||2|
|Emil Johansson, Djurgarden IF||Sweden- Elite||7||0||2||2||6|
|Colton Hargrove, Providence||AHL||2||1||0||1||0|
|Colby Cave, Providence||AHL||3||1||0||1||4|
|Matt Grzelcyk, Providence||AHL||3||0||1||1||2|
|Linus Arnesson, Providence||AHL||3||0||1||1||0|
|Anton Blidh, Providence||AHL||3||0||1||1||0|
|Jake DeBrusk, Providence||AHL||3||0||1||1||2|
|Oskar Steen, Farjestad BK||Sweden- Elite||8||1||0||1||4|
|Sean Kuraly, Providence||AHL||3||0||0||0||7|
|Justin Hickman, Providence||AHL||3||0||0||0||15|
|Chris Casto, Providence||AHL||3||0||0||0||2|
|Zane McIntyre, Providence||AHL||2||1||0||0.57||.969|
|Malcolm Subban, Providence||AHL||2||0||2||4.18||.857|
|Dan Vladar, Providence||AHL||0||0||0||0.00||.000|
|Peter Cehlarik, Providence*||AHL||0||0||0||0||0|
|Brian Ferlin, Providence*||AHL||0||0||0||0||0|
* Peter Cehlarik and Brian Ferlin- injured
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.
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, RD Plus: Like Heinen, Carlo’s on a positive trajectory at making the Bruins right away- he’s 6-5 and can really skate and move, already a beast in his own end, something Boston lacked down the stretch a year ago. Minus: Not all that instinctive in the offensive end; could stand to play a lot of minutes in more of a top role and on the power play to try and tease more offensive production and build confidence.
- 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, C Plus: Fine skater with a fine two-way hockey IQ and the raw leadership skills that will be an asset in any room. Minus: We just don’t see much in terms of high-level skill, so he’ll have to win a spot on the bottom lines while swimming in a pretty deep pool.
- 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.
Back with the second part of the 2016 Bruins development camp series.
We previewed the goalies and defensemen who will be in Wilmington from July 12-15, and looked back at 10 years of development camps- a tradition that started in Boston during the summer of 2007 with some big names: David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and Tuukka Rask. Adam McQuaid was there as well.
This post takes a closer look at the 13 forwards who are in town for the event. Ryan Fitzgerald is the “old man” of the group at forward (goalie Zane McIntyre is the organization’s most senior prospect in his seventh camp)- the North Reading native was drafted 120th overall in 2013 and just completed his junior season at Boston College, his finest to date.
2016 Bruins development camp forwards at a glance (2015-16 club in parentheses):
Jack Becker, C/RW (Sioux Falls- USHL): This versatile skater can play the center or wing position and we’ll have to see how Tony Granato opts to use him this season at the University of Wisconsin. Boston’s last choice in 2015 was drafted as a highly raw prospect out of the Minnesota high school (Mahtomedi HS) ranks, where he battled mononucleosis early on to emerge as one of the more impressive power forward prospects at season’s end. At 6-3, 200 pounds, Becker is on the slow boat to Boston as a player who might not ever come close to playing for the big club, but it will be interesting to see how he develops if he can add an extra few steps to his skating and eventually earn a bigger role with the Badgers. He’s likely to have a bit part in his first two years at Madison.
Anders Bjork, RW (University of Notre Dame- NCAA): The 2014 fifth-rounder just completed his sophomore year in South Bend, leading the Fighting Irish in scoring (12 goals, 35 points in as many games). Drafted as more of a grinding/checking presence, the Wisconsin native has shown more of an offensive element than originally projected. Bjork can play either wing and skates with real speed and quickness- his edge control is outstanding, and he drives the net and can also score goals off the rush, catching defenders flat-footed and blowing by them in space. Don’t expect that scoring to continue in the pro ranks, but every team needs capable bottom-six forwards who can chip in with the offense, and with Bjork’s smarts and opportunistic offense, he fits that category nicely. Watch for him to take off even more as a junior, and he might have an outside chance at a contract offer next spring if he puts up another big year on the scoring ledger.
This is pretty sick goal by Bjork in the 2016 WJC bronze medal game…what was I saying about the scoring not continuing at the next level? Wow. Watch the way he goes forehand-backhand then forehand again and roofs it under the crossbar with no room to work. Sniper’s move.
Here’s a nice video from Notre Dame featuring Bjork’s cousin and Fighting Irish alum Erik Condra:
Jake DeBrusk, LW (Swift Current/Red Deer- WHL): It was a good news/bad news season for the 2015 draft’s 14th overall selection. After a quick offensive start in Swift Current, DeBrusk suffered a debilitating injury early in the year that not only shelved him for several weeks, but hindered his play after he returned. He got a reprieve when the Broncos traded him in late December to the Memorial Cup host team Rebels, where he netted a hat trick in one of his first games in Red Deer. Alas, Brent Sutter spent a lot of time tinkering with his lines and DeBrusk’s offense paid the price, as his goal total dropped to half as many as he tallied en route to being a top-15 pick. Still, he stayed with it and raised his production level in the WHL playoffs and at the Memorial Cup, where he looked every bit a first-round prospect. He’s not a dynamic skater, but is quick enough to find open spaces. DeBrusk has excellent hockey sense and will often get the jump on opponents because his anticipation is so instant. With superb hands and the ability to score goals any which way, he’s dangerous with the puck on his stick anywhere in the offensive zone. As a late 1996-born player, DeBrusk can either return to the WHL for his overage season or spend the full year in the AHL with Providence. That decision will likely come down to how he looks at development camp in July and then again at main camp and the NHL’s exhibition play a few months from now. Weekend at Bergy’s put together this highlight clip from DeBrusk’s 2g, 3-pt performance against Calgary in the Memorial Cup:
His dad was a tough customer when he played and that’s not really Jake’s game, but he will drop ’em:
Ryan Donato, C (Harvard University- NCAA): The rising sophomore and second-round pick from 2014 had a strong first collegiate season. The all-time leading scorer for Dexter School in Brookline, Mass. is one of the most creative and skilled offensive prospects in Boston’s system who dominated the prep circuit and then opened some eyes in a limited USHL stint in Omaha at the end of the 2014-15 campaign. He’s bigger than his dad at about 6-1 (he gets his height from his mother’s side of the family) and doesn’t have the same blazing wheels Ted Donato did, but gets an undeserved rap for being an average skater. The younger Donato is highly cerebral and instantly processes the game, often putting himself in position to make a play before it develops. With his slick hands and underrated finishing skills, watch for him to make noise in the ECAC as one of its most dangerous offensive players.
Donato talks USHL after his first game with the Omaha Lancers back in spring 2015:
Ryan Fitzgerald, C (Boston College- NCAA): As the local standout enters his senior year on Chestnut Hill, watch for his scoring numbers to erupt as a bona fide Hobey Baker contender in 2017. Like Donato, Fitzgerald thinks the game at a high level with elite vision and offensive hockey sense. The biggest obstacle for the multiple state championship winner with Malden Catholic is his below average size, but the eldest of Tom (and Kerry) Fitzgerald’s four sons (brother and BC teammate Casey was just drafted by Buffalo with the 86th overall pick in June) is a feisty and gritty player who isn’t afraid to go into the high traffic areas and get his nose dirty. His skating is above average and he’s quick and elusive as opposed to having jets on his feet in the open ice. Fitzgerald is a slasher who is fearless in the way he goes to the net and will take a hit to make the play. He’s often overlooked in the discussion of Bruins forward prospects, but he’s primed for a huge NCAA season and should sign and turn pro in the spring after being a nice value pick for Boston at the end of the fourth round three years ago.
Ryan Fitzgerald’s 2013 NHL combine post-testing interview:
Trent Frederic, C (U.S. National Team Development Program Under-18- USHL): A significant “off the board” selection for Boston at 29th overall in Buffalo, Frederic will get his first opportunity to show Boston brass and the fans in attendance what he’s about. A big (6-2, 205) and athletic center, Frederic played on Team USA’s third line at Grand Forks in the Under-18 tournament after being the second-line pivot for much of the year (Windsor’s Logan Brown took his spot in April). There isn’t much in the way of flash or dynamic offensive ability in the St. Louis native’s game- he skates with a powerful stride but doesn’t have the quickest initial steps or fluid acceleration (though he is fine in a straight line). Frederic can handle the puck well enough, but you aren’t going to see much dangle or ability to score off the rush. Much of Frederic’s offense happens when he crashes the net and bangs in loose rebounds. His physical style- the Wisconsin Badgers recruit finishes his checks and protects the puck well- should translate well at the next level. He got high marks for his character and ability to play well on special teams, along with the way he performs in the faceoff circle. He’s got a big frame that might still be growing, and he gives the Bruins something they lacked in their system at the center position: size and strength. He compares his own playing style to that of childhood hockey idol David Backes, who could be his Boston teammate at some point, and also patterns his play after Detroit grinder Justin Abdelkader. Frederic is more of a banger than a scorer, so he’ll have his work cut out for him to win over those who wanted to see more skill drafted at that late first-round position.
Frederic’s U18 highlights from bigwhite06:
Jesse Gabrielle, LW (Prince George- WHL/Providence- AHL): The stealth bomber of Boston’s prospects… A year ago, Gabrielle was quietly snapped up in the fourth round (105th) and was traded by the Regina Pats to the Cougars in August. When the WHL season began, Gabrielle went off, finishing with 40 goals and impressing with dramatic improvement in his three-zone game. TSP had a chance to briefly speak with Gabrielle in Buffalo, where he was supporting good friend and workout partner Wade Allison (Philadelphia Flyers- 52nd) and the Saskatchewan product looks to be in tremendous physical shape. An abrasive, fast-skating winger who relishes physical contact and doing the work in the greasy, grimy areas of the rink, Gabrielle struck fear into opposing goalies with his laser release and an aggressive, finisher’s mindset. His favorite player is Brad Marchand, and while this blog normally tries to avoid comparisons- a more appropriate NHL player whose style is a better fit for the 19-year-old is two-time Stanley Cup champion (with Chicago) and new Montreal Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw. Gabrielle’s throwback style is tailor-made for Boston, but he would have to make the Bruins roster out of camp or return to the WHL for the full season. Motivated and ready for the physical challenge, if there is one player at this development camp I wouldn’t want to go into a corner against (ever), it’s Gabrielle…he’s not forgotten about his wait at the draft and it showed in his play last season, as he’s a pure buzzsaw but with some legit skill to boot. He just needs to keep raising the bar and forcing his way into the conversation with continued focus and dedication to his craft.
Gabrielle takes on a much bigger, but not as adept fighter in Ondrej Vala:
Danton Heinen, LW/RW (Denver University- NCAA/Providence- AHL): Like Gabrielle, Heinen was also a fourth-round pick (2014) who joined the Boston organization with little fanfare, but who scored 36 goals and 93 points in 81 collegiate games over two seasons with the Pioneers. As reported first at the Scouting Post last March, Heinen relinquished his remaining NCAA eligibility to sign a three-year contract with the Bruins after his team reached the Frozen Four and tallied a pair of assists in his first professional game with Providence. The left-shooting winger played both sides in college and came out of junior hockey (BCHL) as a center, so he brings the kind of versatility that Boston loves. He’s not an elite skater, but gets from point A to B pretty well and surveys the ice like a chess master, often diagramming plays well in advance and making magic from the mundane. His most memorable game last season was a five-point effort against eventual NCAA champion North Dakota, which demonstrated his excellent puck skills and offensive instincts. Although a shade under 6-1, he’s added mass to get up around 190 pounds, and even if he doesn’t make the NHL roster right away, will have every opportunity to be an impact AHL player with the P-Bruins. Heinen projects as a top-six NHL playmaking forward with 30+ goal upside, but also has the natural smarts and versatility to find a spot on the bottom two lines as well.
Cameron Hughes, C (University of Wisconsin- NCAA): Another cerebral, playmaking center- Hughes was a strong value selection in the 2015 draft’s sixth round after entering the season with top-90 hype. The Alberta product is a smooth-skating, slick-passing pivot who can speed the tempo up or slow it down. Unfortunately, he has extremely average size at just about 6-feet in height and a light frame that won’t get much bigger or stronger than he is now at about 170-ish pounds. He showed off some dynamic, high-end scoring potential when he was skating for the AJHL’s Spruce Grove Saints, but had a tough first NCAA season on a terrible Badgers team. He made some key strides as a sophomore, but under a new coach and system, this could be the year that Hughes breaks out. Although not very big, he’s another similar player to Fitzgerald in that he plays with an edge and isn’t afraid to take the puck into high traffic areas, even though he knows he’ll get blown up. Another project player who may or may not even get offered a contract when he exhausts his NCAA eligibility in 2018, Hughes was a good flyer to take so late in a deep draft.
Joona Koppanen, C (Ilves Tampere- Finland Jr.): Massive (6-5) center is more of a clampdown pivot who clogs up the middle and is difficult to play against as opposed to someone with intriguing potential/offensive ceiling. He’s got some athletic ability and agility for one so big, but needs to improve his initial steps and direction change to thrive at the next level. Koppanen is a deft performer at the faceoff dot, where he uses a quick stick and his large body to win key draws, especially ones in his own end. If you’ve got the lead late in a game and are looking to shut the other team down, Koppanen is a guy you want out there. Having said that, he’s not very skilled and at the most, is a long shot to establish himself as an effective fourth-line NHL center one day. Considering where he was taken, the team could have done worse, but there isn’t a great deal here to get excited about, either.
Sean Kuraly, C (Miami University- NCAA): One of two assets that came back to Boston when Don Sweeney flipped goaltender Martin Jones to the San Jose Sharks after the 2015 draft (the Frederic first-rounder was the other piece), the RedHawks captain had a disappointing statistical senior season. His production dropped from 19 goals as a junior to just six in 2016, and he may not ever be more than a third-liner assuming he is able to play his way into the NHL. On the positive side, the Ohio native is a big-bodied forward who can play an effective 200-foot game. He showed flashes of some nifty offensive ability back in 2013, when he was a member of Team USA’s gold medal-winning World Jr. Championship squad, and his 31 goals in sophomore and junior years at Miami mean that he’s not without talent, though he doesn’t possess much in the way of standout skills that would translate into a top-six scoring role at the highest level. He’s a decent skater and will do the grunt work in tight and along the walls, but will likely need to carve a niche for himself in the minors first.
Mark Naclerio, C (Brown University-NCAA/Providence-AHL): The two-year captain for the Brown Bears signed an ATO with Providence last spring after finishing his college career with 100 points. Also a captain at Avon Old Farms, Naclerio was a member of the Winged Beavers’ 2010 prep championship squad. He’s not overly big or skilled, but plays with a lot of heart, energy and opportunism. At AOF, the Milford, Conn. product scored a lot of points off the rush, but became more of a quick-strike player in college, often drifting through defensive layers to pounce on loose pucks or deflect shots in from the outside. He’s on an AHL deal at present, so he’s not technically a Boston prospect, but hard work and productivity with Providence this season could see him earn an NHL deal down the road.
Oskar Steen, RW (Färjestad BK- Sweden): At 5-9, 187 pounds, Boston’s sixth-round pick in 2016 is built like a bowling ball and plays an energetic style despite a lack of high-level talent. Smart and rugged, Steen gets a lot of his points through sheer will and effort- he’s not going to dazzle anyone and how well his ability will translate as he tries to break into the NHL one day is anyone’s guess. He did manage to suit up and play in 17 pro league games for Färjestad BK (6 assists), in his country’s highest pro league, so there’s something to be said for that. At 165th overall, there were worse choices for Boston to make at that spot than Steen, who was said to be current scout and former B’s fan favorite P.J. Axelsson’s desired target at that spot. Axelsson, who was drafted 177th overall in 1995 and went onto to play nearly 800 NHL games, all with Boston, knows a little something about what it takes to make an impression when drafted later on, as does GM Don Sweeney. At this stage, the bottom line for Steen is: why not?
The team announced that due to family, school and travel requirements, BU sophomore Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson will not attend this year’s development camp. Zach Senyshyn, who is also recovering from a bout with mono, also is not expected to participate.
The Bruins released the development camp schedule last week:
BOSTON BRUINS 2016 DEVELOPMENT CAMP SCHEDULE AS OF JULY 6:
(Locations and times are subject to change)
Tuesday, July 12 (Wilmington, MA)
-Off-ice testing (Not open to media), Ristuccia Arena, 9:00 a.m.
-On-ice practice, Ristuccia Arena, 11:00 a.m.
Wednesday, July 13 (Wilmington, MA)
-On-ice practice, Ristuccia Arena, 10:00 a.m.
Thursday, July 14 (Wilmington, MA)
-On-ice practice, Ristuccia Arena, 10:00 a.m.
Friday, July 15 (Wilmington, MA)
-On-ice practice, Ristuccia Arena, 10:00 a.m.
As a companion post to what I put up yesterday in going back to look at the Boston Bruins’ roster players and how they were projected in the annual Red Line Report June draft guide issues going back to 1999 (Chris Kelly) through 2014 (David Pastrnak), I thought we could also take a quick peek at the team’s prospects…the good, the bad & the ugly and see what is perhaps in store.
My conclusions from yesterday’s exercise- not enough production from the Bruins with their draft picks. Their best players (not including Zdeno Chara-I didn’t have a RLR 1996 draft year ranking for him, or guys like Tuukka Rask who were drafted by other teams) were all beyond the top-50 as ranked by Red Line, which goes to show you that hitting on first-rounders isn’t the be-all, end-all of developing players. However, there is clearly a dearth of high-end talent: All three of Phil Kessel (2), Tyler Seguin (2) and Dougie Hamilton (5) are gone. Boston had a chance to move up to grab Noah Hanifin (3- 2015) but it didn’t pan out, so they went with three picks in the middle of the round instead.
This gets to the heart of some of the concerns and criticisms fans and observers have voiced in recent years. It’s legitimate, but the B’s have also netted some value selections along the way as well.
So, let’s get onto the prospects, shall we? This post will cover most prospects/players still in the system (and in at least one case- on the way out) from 2010-12.
Zane McIntyre (formerly Gothberg), G Drafted: 165 (6th round- Boston)
Red Line ranking: 154 Key comment: “Has all the technique of a gerbil on roller-skates.”
Observations: RLR nailed the pre-draft projection, and it is true- McIntyre (who changed his last name in 2014) had some technique issues coming out of Minnesota HS. He had a setback last season, as he struggled to adjust to the tempo and skill level in the AHL, but here’s betting that the soon-to-be 24-year-old will bounce back. The 2015 Mike Richter Award winner as the NCAA’s best goaltender has plus character and hockey smarts, but probably needs to settle down and simplify his approach. The shine is off his star a bit compared to where it was a year ago (and it had to hurt watching North Dakota win the 2016 collegiate title without him), but don’t count him out. McIntyre has shown a penchant for mental toughness, and he’s motivated to prove his worth. Watch for something from him this offseason here on the blog.
Alexander Khokhlachev, C Drafted: 40 (2nd round- Boston)
Red Line ranking: 13 Key comment: “Little Russian offensive whiz is vastly underrated.”
Observations: ‘Koko’ slipped to the second round amidst concerns about his average size and relative skating for his diminutive stature, though for several years, he looked to be near the top of Boston’s prospects depth chart. On the plus side, he’s got high-end creativity and to his credit, evolved his game in Providence, going from a bumpy start in 2013 to becoming (now Boston assistant) Bruce Cassidy’s go-to guy up front with two consecutive productive AHL years. Unfortunately, in albeit limited chances in Boston, Koko could never get it going to stick. The debates are endless over whether he was given a real opportunity, but at some point- you have to look past the coaches and focus on the player. For whatever reason, he made barely ripple despite ample preseason ice time and team sources told TSP that Koko did not respond very well to what the coaches wanted him to do. His goose is essentially cooked in Boston, as he has reportedly signed with St. Petersburg SKA of the KHL and will return home to Russia unless the B’s can figure out a way to deal him elsewhere for anything they can get. It’s an unfortunate story for Boston, but the reality is- there is plenty of blame to go around for his inability to make it work here.
Brian Ferlin, RW Drafted: 121 (4th round- Boston)
Red Line ranking: 245
Observations: As a previously passed-up player in 2010, RLR wasn’t keen on Ferlin despite his highly productive 2010-11 campaign with the Indiana Ice. Despite an awkward-looking skating stride, the Jacksonville native did some impressive work at Cornell in three seasons before turning pro in 2014. He made gradual but steady progress in the AHL as a rookie in 2014-15, earning a late-season recall to Boston, where he played a solid, grinding game on the B’s fourth line. Unfortunately for Ferlin, he suffered a concussion in the 2014 AHL playoffs, and one game into this past season, took another high hit that aggravated that injury, costing him much of his second pro campaign. His challenge is to work himself back into the mix with so many other similar bottom-six forwards in the system.
Sean Kuraly, C Drafted: 133 (5th round- San Jose)
Red Line ranking: 263
Observations: Acquired from San Jose as part of the return for Martin Jones, the Ohio native joins Austin Czarnik as consecutive Miami Redhawks captains in the B’s system. Red Line was not all that keen on Kuraly in his draft year, ranking him significantly lower than where he ended up going. With a big frame and decent skating in a straight line, he isn’t naturally skilled or all that creative offensively. He looks and acts the part of a solid grinder who will likely transition to the wing at the pro level. A solid middle tier player, don’t expect any kind of extraordinary return on investment, and he’ll likely spend at least one full season in Providence, maybe two before he’s ready to seriously challenge for a full-time NHL position.
Rob O’Gara, D Drafted: 151 (5th round- Boston)
Red Line ranking: 73
Observations: This Red Line favorite went way beyond where that service projected him, but so far- the Yale grad has lived up to the promise he showed as a Milton Academy junior. A big and mobile shutdown defender, his offensive numbers dropped off in his senior season after a surprising junior year. He’s always been a fine skater with agility and fluid footwork even when a gangly teen, so now that he’s filled out to a solid 6-4, 225 pounds- he has the physical attributes to make a run at the pro level. The Long Island native looked real good in late-season work with Providence in the spring, scoring his first pro goal and demonstrating that he belongs. Watch for him to begin the year in the AHL, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could make the big club with a strong camp and preseason or earn a call up at some point during the season. There isn’t a high offensive ceiling, but with his smarts and skating, O’Gara could stabilize the middle pairing one day.
Austin Czarnik, C Drafted: Undrafted (Free agent- Boston 2015
Red Line ranking: 142 Key comment: “Yet another skilled, entertaining, feisty little dwarf.”
Observations: RLR was ahead of the curve on Czarnik in 2011, when he was ranked in the top-150, but despite being a talented scorer out of Green Bay of the USHL and later Miami University, no one took a flyer on him. Boston surprisingly won the free agent sweeps after he completed his senior season a year ago, and he immediately formed chemistry with fellow free agent Frank Vatrano in Providence and again in their first pro training camp together last September. Although just 5-7, Czarnik has blazing wheels, superior vision and a gritty, energetic game. All he needs is an NHL chance, and he doesn’t appear to be too far away from getting one.
Noel Acciari, C Drafted: Undrafted (Free agent- Boston 2015)
Red Line ranking: NR
Observations: Though not ranked by RLR in the 2011 draft guide, the service was onto him, listing him in the January issue as a player who played a very heavy and physical, but clean game. Four years later, Acciari parlayed that into the captaincy at Providence College and a national championship before signing with his childhood favorite Bruins. Undaunted by the prospect of being an undrafted free agent in a sea of like players, Acciari played hard for Providence and if not for taking a slap shot to the face that broke his jaw, would have made his NHL debut even sooner than he did. Acciari played 19 big league games (1 assist) but impressed with his adept faceoff skills, ability to hit hard but clean (ask Brooks Orpik about that) and ruggedness and mature character as a rookie. He did a fine job as Boston’s fourth line center, and he’ll never be one to put up much in the way of points at the NHL level, but more production would be welcome.
Seth Griffith, RW Drafted: 131 (5th round- Boston)
Red Line ranking: 52 Key comment: “Average size, skating…all he does is light the lamp.”
Observations: Ranked later in the 2011 draft guide, Griffith was even more impressive the following year, and like Jimmy Vesey, parlayed a superb 18-19-year-old season into a draft ticket in Pittsburgh after being snubbed. Griffith has a smallish frame and is not a dynamic skater, but boy- can he ever score! He finished near the top of the AHL in scoring last season and has an uncanny creativity and knack for generating offense. The biggest issue holding him back is the fact that he might be a classic ‘tweener: a highly effective AHL performer, but simply not fast or strong enough to be a top-six winger in the NHL, while lacking the ideal tools to be an effective bottom-six forward. He’s a heck of a talent, but might not be the right kind of fit to thrive in Boston. The key question is if that is in fact the case- can Don Sweeney leverage him into a helpful return, or will he be lost to another club for little to nothing?
Malcolm Subban, G Drafted: 24 (1st round- Boston)
Red Line ranking: 69 Key comment: “Catches pucks as though they are live grenades.”
Observations: The RLR staff were not fans, as evidenced by Subban’s third-round projection. Boston surprised by grabbing him in the top-25, which was an eyebrow-raiser at the time, mainly because the Bruins didn’t need a goalie and you could make a convincing case that he wasn’t the best player on the board. In fairness to Boston, the talent level in 2012 dropped off a steep cliff in the first around 20, so Subban wasn’t a terrible gamble to make, but he’s struggled to establish himself as the team’s future option in net. Last season, he suffered a lower body injury and then was pretty rotten in his first month of play as he worked through some movement issues. However, in early December through the end of January, it was as if someone flipped a switch- he played the best hockey of his pro career to date. Then, during warmups against Portland, he took a shot to the throat, fractured his larynx, and was lost for the rest of the season. That’s simply how things have gone for Subban, but he might just get the opportunity to be Rask’s backup this season. The talent is there- even if the luck and playing experience hasn’t been. RLR’s low draft ranking reflected questions about his technique and overall long-term potential…he has yet to prove them wrong for the skepticism.
Matt Grzelcyk, D Drafted: 85 (3rd round- Boston)
Red Line ranking: 237
Observations: This Charlestown native is another lower-ranked player that the B’s took much earlier, though in the Boston University captain’s case, he looks a lot better than where he was projected. A standout at Belmont Hill Academy before leaving Massachusetts for the National Team Development Program in 2010, the small but speedy and smart offensive blue liner was not a big riser at the draft, and Grzelcyk originally didn’t even plan to go to Pittsburgh to attend in person until he caught wind that it would be well worth his time. After the Bruins selected Subban in the opening round, they didn’t have a pick again until the late third round, and that’s where they grabbed him. He’s had his injury challenges- losing significant time to shoulder and knee surgeries, but with his wheels and natural offensive instincts, he could contribute at the NHL level one day after an AHL apprenticeship first.
Matthew Benning, D Drafted: 175 (6th round- Boston)
Red Line ranking: Not ranked
Observations: At the time, there were whispers of nepotism when the B’s drafted assistant GM Jim Benning’s nephew out of Spruce Grove of the AJHL, but to his credit, the younger Benning is legit and has worked his way into becoming one of Boston’s most underrated prospects. Although he has just average height, Benning is a punishing hitter who moves around the ice initiating contact. He’s got the vision and a soft touch on the puck to be effective in the transition game, and he also showed some improved power on his point shot this season for the Huskies. He’s not a flashy or dynamic offensive presence, but he chips in with key production, as he did in helping the Dubuque Fighting Saints to the USHL’s 2013 league championship. Banning is positionally savvy with a willingness to do the dirty work and like his dad, Brian, might be one of those players who goes on to fashion a solid if unspectacular NHL career because of his versatility and smarts.
Colton Hargrove, LW Drafted: 205 (7th round- Boston)
Red Line ranking: Not ranked
Observations: The rugged, older Texas power forward was picked up late and had very low expectations headed to Western Michigan University, but he has improved his offense in each season since the B’s grabbed him in the final round. With his big frame and natural strength, Hargrove showed some unexpected offense this season, doing some grunt work out in front of the opposition net and getting rewarded for it. Sweeney said that Hargrove put in diligent work last summer to improve his conditioning for the AHL and it paid off for him. He’s still a work in progress and will likely top out as a grinding third-line wing (at best) if he makes it to the NHL, but has the makings of a capable power forward and depth player for Boston. He needs to take the next step in 2016-17 and not regress after the pleasant surprise that was his rookie pro campaign.
Justin Hickman, C Drafted: Undrafted (Free Agent- Boston 2015)
Red Line ranking: 153 Key comment: “Strong centre with big shot is not the sum of his parts.”
Observations: The Seattle T-Birds standout was on the radar back then, but wasn’t picked up. The B’s ended up winning a bidding war for his services as a free agent 18 months ago, when he had to shut down his final WHL season for shoulder surgery. His rookie pro year was a disappointment in Providence, but reflects being eased back in more than anything. He didn’t play all that much and the production was certainly nothing to write home about, but Hickman has a natural edge and perhaps an untapped scoring skill set that could manifest itself as early as next year. Having said that- he was an undrafted free agent, so temper the expectations. (Of course- the next guy on the list didn’t have much in the way of expectations and look how that turned out…)
Frank Vatrano, LW Drafted: Undrafted (Free Agent- Boston 2015)
Red Line ranking: Not ranked
Observations: What a story- from the outhouse to the penthouse! Very few were on Vatrano in 2012 not because he didn’t have talent, but because he was overweight and didn’t show the requisite work ethic to give teams confidence in taking a draft flyer on him. Those clubs are all regretting that now, as he not only was a goal-per-game guy as a rookie AHLer (36) but even impressed in stints with the big club. Vatrano rededicated himself in the offseason and came to rookie camp in September about 20 pounds lighter, looking like a completely different player. He always had that laser wrister that struck fear into opposing goalies, but he didn’t always move his feet and without the right conditioning, took longer to recover in between shifts. Now, he plays with manic energy and uses his quickness to dart into skating lanes and get himself into scoring position. He was like a mini-Midas last season- practically everything the East Longmeadow native- we like to call him the Springfield Rifle- touched…turned to gold. He’ll have a lot of scrutiny on him in the new season- he won’t sneak up on people like he did this year, but some guys just have “it” when the puck is on their stick, and Vatrano is one. When you hit on an undrafted free agent like the Bruins did with him after just one full year at UMass, then it takes the pressure off of the lack of success the team has had at the draft.
Coming soon: Bruins prospects in their draft years, 2013-15.
Most of the Boston Bruins’ are in offseason mode. Note, I said most- not all.
Jake DeBrusk’s Red Deer Rebels were eliminated from WHL championship play by the Brandon Wheat Kings, but by virtue of being the Memorial Cup host city, they’ll be playing May hockey once the three CHL champions are decided.
Jeremy Lauzon, who dodged a major scare after taking a skate blade to the neck a few weeks back missed Rouyn-Noranda’s third-round playoff series win over the Moncton Wildcats. He may or may not be back for the President’s Cup series against the Shawinigan Cataractes. The deeper the Huskies go, the better the chance that the B’s may see one of their three second-round picks back in action, but that will depend on medical clearance and the player’s long-term health takes precedence over the desire to have him in the lineup today.
For everyone else, it’s about preparing for the 2016-17 season. I’m breaking up the prospects list into pro and amateur sections, and sliding all of the recent NCAA signings and players who are projected to be playing in the AHL season next year onto the pro side.
B’s pro prospects
Noel Acciari, C (undrafted free agent- 2015): The former Providence College captain finished the season with the big club, playing 19 NHL games down the stretch and impressing with his skating, smarts and effort. The single assist with the B’s is an indicator that offense will not be Acciai’s strong suit, but given more time to center the bottom line as he gains experience, more production will come. He’s an overachiever who is strong on draws, hits everything forcefully but cleanly, and immediately earned the respect and trust of coaches. He broke his jaw when he took a Chris Casto shot to the face earlier to the season or else, as reported by Providence Journal veteran reporter Mark Divver, Acciari would have made his Boston debut even earlier. He’s signed through next season (pending RFA) at a $792.5k cap hit.
Linus Arnesson, D (2013 draft, 2nd round): The Swedish defender had tougher first full North American season than projected, dealing with nagging injuries for most of the year. Never a player who was thought of as having a high offensive ceiling, he’s mobile and savvy, but more was expected of him. With a year under his belt, Arnesson is a player who could see a Boston opportunity via recall at some point next season if there are injury issues on the B’s blue line, but if he can stay healthy, the focus will be on continued development. Arnesson is under contract through 2017 (pending RFA) at a $817.5k hit.
Anton Blidh, LW (2013 draft, 6th round): Gritty, abrasive forward doesn’t bring much in the way of points potential, but if you’re looking for a grinding energy winger who forces turnovers and plays a heavy game, Blidh’s your guy. Having said that, the B’s have no shortage of forwards who fit in this category, so there’s not a big buzz factor here. He’s got two more years on his ELC (2018) with about a $784k cap hit.
Brandon Carlo, D (2015 draft, 2nd round): One of Boston’s more eagerly anticipated prospects after being the 37th selection in June 2015, the late ’96-born Colorado native is eligible to spend the 2016-17 season in the AHL if he doesn’t make the Boston roster out of camp. At 6-foot-5, he’s highly mobile and a premium shutdown type defender. The jury is still out on his offensive instincts/vision to develop into a higher-end two-way threat at the NHL level, but make no mistake- this guy will play. Last fall, Carlo signed a three-year ELC that will keep him under contract through the 2019 season (RFA) at a rate of $820k per.
Chris Casto, D (undrafted free agent- 2013): Casto posted his best pro season to date, but has the look of a journeyman pro at the AHL level and it’s hard to see him beating out those higher on the depth chart to make a go of it His ELC is up and there’s a good chance that the B’s will allow the former University of Minnesota-Duluth star to hook on with another team.
Colby Cave, C (undrafted free agent- 2015): After signing with the Bruins a year ago, Cave showed some promise in Providence as an effective two-way forward with speed. He’s not a top-six project, but could in time establish himself on the lower lines. With two more seasons left (2018) on his ELC before Cave becomes a RFA ($655k), the former WHL captain is in the fold at a nice rate.
Austin Czarnik, C (undrafted free agent- 2015): The AHL’s leading rookie scorer with 61 points had opened eyes this season. Despite his small stature, he’s a plus-skater with superb puck skills and the hockey IQ to provide offense. He nearly willed Providence to a victory in Game 3 of their sweep at the hands of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and is a solid bet to see NHL time with the Bruins next season. He’s signed through 2017 at a rate of $817,500 (RFA).
Brian Ferlin, RW (2011 draft, 4th round): He was greatly impacted with concussion woes this season, his second pro campaign after a promising 2014-15 year that saw him earn a late stint in Boston. A bottom-six winger who can skate and excel in puck possession, Ferlin needs a bounce-back campaign in 2016-17. His ELC ($875k) is up and he is a restricted free agent.
Seth Griffith, RW (2012 draft, 5th round): Providence’s top scorer (23 goals, 77 points in 57 games) saw some very limited time in Boston this season and is still on the bubble in terms of proving whether he can break into a top-six forward role or might be a ‘tweener as someone who puts up points in the AHL, but has trouble establishing himself in the NHL. He’s got the hands and head to score, but the lack of size and speed make it a challenge for him. Griffith’s ELC ($759k) is finished and he’ll likely be tendered a qualifying offer, but whether the B’s dangle him as part of a trade package at some point remains to be seen.
Matt Grzelcyk, D (2012 draft, 3rd round): The Boston University captain signed a two-year (thru 2018) NHL contract worth a reported $858,750 per season (RFA) at the conclusion of his NCAA season. It was a tougher year for the Townie, as he dealt with starting the season late after knee surgery, only to injure his other knee shortly after coming back. His excellent speed and puck-moving ability will make him one of Providence’s top threats in all situations if he doesn’t win an NHL job out of camp next fall.
Colton Hargrove, LW (2012 draft, 7th round): A pleasant surprise, finishing sixth on the team in scoring with 14 goals and 30 points in 66 games. A big, rugged forward- Hargrove’s improved conditioning helped him to have success, but after a productive and impressive middle stretch of the season, he cooled off at the end. There is one more season left on his ELC, which pays him a $737,500 rate (RFA)
Danton Heinen, RW/LW (2014 draft, 4th round): After a tough start offensively, the British Columbia native erupted in the second half of the year for Denver University, finishing as the team’s top scorer and helping DU reach the Frozen Four. He’s a slick, playmaking wing who posted a pair of assists in his pro hockey debut with Providence and is a darkhorse to break camp with the NHL Bruins on the opening night roster come October. He’s signed through 2019 at a $872.5k cap hit.
Justin Hickman, LW (undrafted free agent- 2015): The Seattle Thunderbirds captain did not have the anticipated impact after missing the rest of 2015 to shoulder surgery and signing with Boston. He’s a hard-nosed winger with underrated scoring ability, but took a while to adjust and adapt to the demands of the AHL. Heavy on the puck and willing to play a physical, grinding game- watch for him to take on more of a consistent role next season, with about 15-20 goals at the AHL level a reasonable target to aim for. Hickman is on an ELC that keeps him a Bruin through 2018 at an (unconfirmed per General Fanager) $700k hit.
Alexander Khokhlachev, C (2011 draft, 2nd round): Despite making a difference in the AHL for much of the season, the 40th overall selection was not able to do much with the limited ice time he was given in Boston. There’s not much else can be said that hasn’t been already at TSP- he’s talented enough to be an NHL forward but hasn’t translated being an impact performer on the farm to the big show. Koko’s ELC has expired and he is expected to either be traded to another organization or pursue his Europe options with St. Petersburg, which owns his KHL rights.
Sean Kuraly, C (trade with SJS- 2015): The Miami University RedHawks captain signed for two years (thru 2018 at a $809k cap rate) after finishing a disappointing senior year. Acquired from the San Jose Sharks last June as part of the return for goaltender Martin Jones, Kuraly has good size and skating ability to be more of a two-way center or wing who is heavy on the puck and does the grinding work on the bottom-six.
Zane McIntyre, G (2010 draft, 6th round): A TSP favorite since before he was drafted in 2010, it was a season of ups and downs for the rookie pro. The former star at University of North Dakota has some work to do on technique and mechanics after being exposed at times during the regular season. His performance in Game 3 was a particular disappointment, but he has the drive to roll up the sleeves and get to work, so it will be interesting to see how he responds to the adversity next year. He’s signed through 2017 at a $975k cap hit (RFA).
Colin Miller, D (trade with LAK- 2015): The NHL tools are clearly there for the one-time Kings prospect picked up last draft day as part of the Milan Lucic trade. Although not tall, Miller has a thick build and has the skating and puck skills to be a solid NHL defender, but he also has to show he can think the game enough to log bigger minutes and take care of his own end. Miller’s ELC ($602,500) expired and he is RFA. Expect the B’s to extend him a qualifying offer and we’ll see what happens next.
Rob O’Gara, D (2011 draft, 5th round): Four-year starter and NCAA champion at Yale University finished up his eligibility this past March and signed a two-year ELC worth $925,00 per through 2018.A big (6-4), mobile defender who is sound positionally and can move the puck effectively, O’Gara may need developmental time in the AHL, but could one day join Boston’s blue line to form a pretty good shutdown presence with Carlo.
Malcolm Subban, G (2012 draft, 1st round): After a rough beginning due to a lower body injury, Subban was playing the best hockey of his pro career over a two-month stretch in the AHL when he took a shot to the throat in warmups. A fractured larynx cost Subban the rest of his season and means he has to hit the reset button, so to speak. He’s talented enough to win the Boston backup job this fall, but experience and an extended run as an AHL starter have continued to elude the 24th overall pick. His ELC runs for one more season at about $863k before he becomes RFA.
Frank Vatrano, LW (undrafted free agent- 2015): The crown jewel of undrafted free agents last year tore apart the AHL (36 goals, 55 points) in 36 games with Providence, and still found time to make an impressive showing in Boston, where he finished the NHL season. The Springfield Rifle (no, I’m not calling him the “East Longmeadow Rifle”- that doesn’t have anywhere near the ring) added eight more goals in 39 games while exhibiting the speed and gusto that is sure to produce more offense at the highest level. Vatrano’s transformation and sheer impact this season earned him AHL co-Rookie of the Year honors (with Colorado prospect Mikko Rantanen) and set him up as a potential key contributor in Boston going forward.
Daniel Vladar, G (2015 draft, 3rd round): After finishing a solid USHL season with the Chicago Steel, the 75th selection last June is a giant (6-foot-6) project with impressive athletic ability. On the flip side, Vladar needs work with his technique and is still pretty raw- it remains to be seen whether he will be in the AHL, ECHL or possibly Europe next season. While not impossible, NHL is about as long a shot as it gets for Vladar at this stage of his development. Signed a three-year contract in late April worth $742,500 annually.
(Source for contract updates: http://www.generalfanager.com/teams/boston-bruins)
Maxim Chudinov, D (2010 draft, 7th round): After reports that the small, speedy and feisty defender wanted to sign and come over to North America, his St. Petersburg SKA team in the KHL just announced that he agreed to another two-year contract extension. Though it does have several reported provisions to give him an out if he gets an NHL offer or if his salary isn’t paid on time, the Bruins lose his exclusive negotiating rights on July 1. It looks like Chudinov won’t justify Boston’s decision to draft him six years ago, though the door isn’t completely closed. His agent is former NHL defenseman Petr Svoboda. If you can read Russian, here’s the extension announcement: http://www.ska.ru/news/view/ska-prodlil-kontrakt-s-maksimom-chudinovym
(h/t to Dominic Tiano for the update)
The 2015-16 hockey regular schedules are over for NCAA prospects Sean Kuraly and Cameron Hughes, plus European pro D Emil Johansson, whose HV71 club was eliminated from the Swedish Hockey League playoffs this week by Skellefteå AIK.
We’ll hold off for now on updating Daniel Vladar and Jack Becker, both of whom I referenced recently on Twitter. The USHL season still has a few weeks left to play out, so will revisit them later.
The Bruins have a more immediate decision to make about Kuraly, who just exhausted his NCAA eligibility and can either be signed now or prior to August 1, at which point he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Hughes just completed his sophomore season at Wisconsin. Johansson is 19 and will probably be left overseas to continue his development for a few more years at least before any decision on him is made.
Sean Kuraly, C Miami University (NCHC)
2015-16 regular season stats:
Games Played: 36 Goals: 6 Assists: 17 Points: 23 Penalty Minutes: 39 +/-: 5
Differentials from 2014-15 stats:
Games played: -4 Goals: -13 Assists: +7 Points: -6 Penalty Minutes: +1 +/-: +4
Season in review: The senior captain got of to a poor statistical start and never quite recovered, finishing the year with the lowest goal total since his freshman season with the RedHawks. A year after posting 19 goals as a junior, the 23-year-old Kuraly was expected to provide more production for the disappointing 15-18-3 Miami squad. Having said that, his ’15-16 offense was comparable to his previous two years with 29 points each, and Kuraly has never been a point-per-game player at the NCAA level. He increased his assists at the cost of goals, but truth in lending- aside from one impressive 32-goal, 70-point season with Indiana of the USHL, scoring is not what he’s known for. Here’s a Miami RedHawks rink report featuring Kuraly from February:
Outlook: The Boston Globe reported that Kuraly is in town this week getting checked out by the team’s medical staff. That’s a curious disposition that begs the question as to whether he was playing hurt this season and if there is something under the surface that might preclude the Bruins from signing him in the immediate sense of things. The former fifth-round pick in 2011 by the San Jose Sharks is a big, heavy-on-the-puck forward who may get moved to the wing in the pro ranks where he can perhaps one day skate a regular shift as a bottom-6, checking and energy guy. The Ohio native doesn’t have a great deal of high-level potential in the NHL, but he’s useful and versatile. With 47 contracts out of 50 already on the books in Boston, this is something the team might elect to kick down the road until some of the existing contracts come off the ledger and sign Kuraly then. Either way, aside from getting some AHL games in with Providence the way Brandon Carlo is doing, there isn’t an immediate requirement to agree to terms. And even so- the amateur tryout option allows for the team to assign him to the Baby B’s without an NHL deal in place. Here’s a highlight video package on Kuraly and fellow Miami RedHawk Riley Barber from the gold medal-winning Team USA squad at the 2013 World Jr. Championship (posted by Brendan Burke):
Cameron Hughes, C University of Wisconsin (Big Ten)
2015-16 regular season stats:
Games Played: 32 Goals: 5 Assists: 20 Points: 25 Penalty Minutes: 12 +/-: -11
Differentials from 2014-15 stats:
Games played: -2 Goals: +2 Assists: +10 Points: +13 Penalty Minutes: -25 +/-: +6
Season in review: Boston’s sixth-round choice last June nearly double his points output from his freshman year, a tough campaign for the Badgers (4-26-5) that saw his draft stock fall off dramatically. This past year was another sub-.500 season that cost head coach Mike Eaves his job, but Hughes demonstrated growth and progress, finishing second on the team in helpers and fourth in scoring overall. He stands only about 6-foot and has an extremely light frame that won’t fill out all that much as he matures, but Hughes is gritty and willing to stick his nose in. He’s not ultra speedy, but moves well laterally and brings shifty elusiveness, especially in traffic. Hughes only tallied five goals, and has been more of a passer/playmaker at every level, but his vision and creativity are impressive attributes. Here’s a 1st half highlight video set to one of my favorite bands Chevelle (the Red) from the Badgers YouTube feed with a nice shootout goal from Hughes (No. 19) at the 2:35 mark:
Outlook: If Wisconsin can get its program back on track, Hughes stands to be one of the go-to forwards as an upperclassman. The former Spruce Grove (AJHL) star came to the NCAA last year tipping the scales at a rumored less than 150 pounds, so he’s one of those guys who will need plenty of time to get stronger and develop his body. Even so- he might not have the build to pack on much mass, so Hughes will have to keep honing his hockey skills and make an impact on the score sheet. For a player taken as low as 165th overall, Hughes doesn’t have much pressure on him to take his time in college and then see a minors apprenticeship if the B’s sign him in a few years. He’s got an uphill climb, but there are encouraging signs that the Edmonton native could emerge as a name player in the college ranks as early as next season.
Here’s a nice pass by Hughes to 2016 NHL draft 1st-round prospect & Badgers freshman Luke Kunin at 1:28 of this highlight package from the University of North Dakota:
Emil Johansson, D HV71 Jonkoping (SHL)
2015-16 regular season stats:
Games Played: 50 Goals: 2 Assists: 8 Points: 10 Penalty Minutes: 12 +/-: 2
Differentials from 2014-15 stats:
Games played: +18 Goals: +2 Assists: +7 Points: +9 Penalty Minutes: 0 +/-: +11
Season in review: 2014 seventh-rounder was just another face in the crowd for much of the SHL campaign until he took off in the postseason, scoring three goals and five points in just six playoff games. A year ago, he played 35 games and didn’t find the back of the net. Until the last couple of weeks of this past season, he was held without a goal until he tallied a pair of scores in quick succession en route to posting 10 points in 50 games in Sweden’s top pro league. A more confident Johansson saw more ice in the extra season and made it pay off, leading his team’s blue liners in playoff scoring in a six-game opening round loss.
Outlook: Even with the impressive showing in the SHL playoffs, you don’t want to read too much into things. Johansson is a very good skater but has average size and strength, so he’s got to be able to push the pace a bit and find a way to chip in offensively. At one point, he was shaping up to be an impressive draft prospect, but it didn’t happen for him. However, Johansson is earning an extended look, as the B’s are impressed with his performance. The hockey sense and vision is still a bit of a question mark, and he’ll have to put in the weight room work, but Johansson might be able to elevate his stock within the organization next season and with a new team if reports he’s leaving HV71 are true.
As tweeted out over the weekend, several reliable sources told me that Denver University sophomore forward Danton Heinen will turn pro after he plays his last game for the Pioneers. What remains to be seen is how soon the Boston Bruins will sign their fourth-round selection from the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
With the team at 47 contracts and allowed a max of 50, the B’s have some decisions to make on timing of signings, as in addition to Heinen, there are three other NCAA seniors that will need NHL deals before August 1: Matt Grzelcyk, Rob O’Gara and Sean Kuraly, who was acquired from San Jose last June along with the Sharks’ first-round selection for goaltender Martin Jones. With respect to Heinen, he has NCAA eligibility remaining, and the other guys don’t, so that’s a total of four contracts assuming the B’s sign all of them.
Last weekend, the RedHawks and captain Kuraly saw their NCAA tournament hopes dashed by the University of Minnesota-Duluth, who knocked them out of the NCHC playoffs. That makes Kuraly eligible to sign now and go to Providence on an ATO to finish out the season in the AHL if the Bruins so choose. Whether they will do so is going to come down to an internal organizational decision, as the 23-year-old center is less of a scoring/top-six type of forward and more of a bottom-six/grind-it-out checking player who plays a heavy game but doesn’t bring much in the way of a high offensive ceiling for the NHL.
Kuraly is coming off of a disappointing statistical season- one that saw him crash from a career-best 19 goals as a junior to just six tallies in 36 games with head coach Enrico Blasi’s Redhawks. He’s a good skater for his 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame and has a hard, heavy shot. The Ohio native is not all that creative nor does he bring much of a high-end skillset with the puck. He’s a good faceoff man and penalty killer, so there’s promise here- not everyone can progress on to the NHL and once there, then slot into a prime scoring role. In Kuraly’s case, he’s always been one of those players whose game and versatility translated more as a checking forward at the highest level and there’s nothing wrong with that. One member of the Bruins organization told me hours after the trade bringing Kuraly to Boston went public that they were hoping he would one day be a third-liner for them, so even at the most optimistic period- coming off a career year in Oxford- the B’s didn’t have many illusions about what type of player he was going to project as for them.
That brings us back to Heinen. To say his upside is considerably bigger than that of Kuraly is an understatement. After a tough team start offensively (DU was just 7-7-4 and 3-4-1 in the NCHC back in late December- the Pios finished with a 17-5-2 conference record, going 14-1-1 after the halfway point) Heinen and the Pacific Rim line went into overdrive when the calendar turned over to 2016 and he’s been absolute dynamite since February. The versatile winger who played LW for Jim Montgomery as a freshman after being a center in junior hockey, has been over on the right side this season with Trevor Moore on the left and Dylan Gambrell in the middle. Denver just knocked University of Nebraska-Omaha out of the postseason, with Heinen playing a prominent role and his 18 goals in 36 games leads the club (he’s third overall in scoring behind his linemates with 40 points). Even if the Pioneers don’t win the NCHC (they face stiff competition in the Frozen Faceoff to include No. 1-ranked North Dakota), they’re a lock for the NCAA tournament, which means he could be playing into April and won’t be available until late March or into the middle of April.
We’ll leave it to the Bruins to figure it out- timing is an issue for Heinen signing, but it’s a done deal that he will not stay another year in the NCAA, as he has reportedly told the Pioneers of his desire to move on. So, when the Bruins officially announce the signing (whenever that happens), you’ll know the decision was in the works for some time.
Meanwhile, the B’s will have to see what happens out East as well, with a pair of senior defensemen in Grzelcyk and O’Gara who are wrapping up their collegiate careers. Grzelcyk’s BU Terriers were unceremoniously bounced by the upstart UMass-Lowell Riverhawks, who got some outstanding goaltending from Kevin Boyle (a UMass castoff, btw- I bet the Minutemen could have used him, eh?) but are expected to make the NCAA tournament card, so we’ll have to see how that plays out first.
Also knocked out of the Hockey East tourney in surprising fashion- the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (and B’s prospect Anders Bjork) by Northeastern University, featuring B’s 2012 draft choice Matt Benning on defense. The 21-year-old junior and nephew of Vancouver Canucks GM (and former Boston AGM) Jim Benning is a defense-first guy who plays bigger and with an impressive physical edge for possessing pretty average size at 6-foot, 200+ pounds. He’s posted a career-best five goals this season after not finding the back of the net at all last year (his 24 assists/points still rate as his highest NCAA single season total to date). Benning isn’t going to wow you- he’s a consistent presence if nothing else. He’s not flashy or dynamic but is smart and rugged. He fills lanes quickly, gaps up well, and will pop you good if there are any thoughts of trying to cut to the middle- keep the head on a swivel when Benning is out there for the Huskies. His father, Brian, played more than 500 NHL games as a defenseman and tallied nearly 300 career points, so while his career wasn’t all that long (he retired at age 29), he was an impact two-way threat/effective puck-mover who was at his best in the late 1980s with the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings. Matt Benning is a chip off the old block- he’s got nice vision, the ability to make an effective first pass and a willingness to join the rush, not to mention the little bit of nasty he brings to bear during the trench battles along the walls and in front of the net.
Come to think of it, young Benning might be one of the most underrated prospects in Boston’s system. He’s rarely discussed or talked about and because he’s a sixth-round pick, he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to NHL draft pedigree. He’s been nothing but solid since the B’s drafted him- helping the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints win the 2013 Clark Cup championship and being one of head coach Jim Madigan’s go-to guys (he was an alternate captain this season). With his active stick and watching him effortlessly slide across the ice to put a shoulder into an encroaching opponent and often times get the better of physical matchups against bigger players, there is a lot to like about Benning and his pro future, even if he isn’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Here’s an excellent Hockey East All Access feature on him (including the tidbits about his grandfather Elmer, longtime NHL scout and his efforts to have his son and grandson get involved with figure skating as youngsters to improve their balance, edging and overall mobility):
Everyone is excited to see how NU will do against Boston College (and Ryan Fitzgerald) this coming weekend’s semifinal match in their bid for Hockey East supremacy.
As for O’Gara, he and his Yale second-seed mates were bounced out of the ECAC tourney over the weekend in two close, hard-fought games by the seventh-seed Dartmouth Big Green. Dartmouth’s goaltender stopped nearly 96% of the shots he faced in overtime and regulation wins Friday and Saturday. Yale played well enough to win those games, but the offense failed them at a critical juncture. O’Gara and Yale will find out their NCAA tournament fate (along with BU) on March 20 when the entire field of 16 teams (which includes the automatic-bid six conference champions) is announced.
If neither BU nor Yale get a chance to see their seasons extended, then Boston’s hand could be forced sooner rather than later.
Things are heating up…not just a sign of the coming spring but on the ice for the NCAA playoffs as well.