Koko at crossroads

Alexander Khokhlachev has presented the Boston Bruins with a key decision point.

Whether the skilled Russian forward known more popularly as “Koko” establishes himself as a long-term option for the team or moves elsewhere is a situation that will likely resolve itself at some point this season. In the meantime, for a club that struggled mightily to score goals in the non-playoff 2014-15 NHL campaign, the 40th overall selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft certainly provides GM Don Sweeney and head coach Claude Julien with a viable option on offense if the rest of his game is deemed sufficient enough to play in Julien’s system.

Koko is an NHL talent who many would argue should already have established himself in the big show by now. Whether you calk that up to a lack of opportunity (valid point) because of entrenched veterans on the NHL roster, or buy into what his coaches talked about as recently as last January by saying that the dangerous if one-dimensional Muscovite needs to round out his game, Koko is a player who needs to make his mark this season.

“It’s not there to be a regular in the NHL right now to be perfectly honest,” Koko’s AHL coach, Bruce Cassidy, told me in early 2015. “I’ve told him that, Claude’s told him that; he needs to address that and he’s working on it, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy when you’re an offensively gifted (forward). You want the puck and you want to get going and it’s just changing some of those habits, and that takes time.”

Four full years after the B’s went out of character to grab the OHL product with the Windsor Spitfires earlier than they had drafted a Russian native since whiffing on defenseman Yury Alexandrov with the 37th overall pick in 2006, the clock may be ticking on Koko, but as Ryan Spooner demonstrated last season, he’s far from done.

You might recall that after making the Bruins roster out of training camp last October after a productive training camp that also drew its share of criticism from Julien over defensive concerns, Spooner saw very little ice time before being demoted to Providence after just five scoreless games with minimal minutes on ice. Throughout the course of the year, other forwards were summoned to Boston from the AHL, but Spooner remained in the Rhode Island capital. Through it all- while battling injuries that shelved him for weeks around Christmas with trade rumors swirling around him, Spooner didn’t sulk and insisted he wanted to make things work in Boston if the team would give him another chance.

That change came late in the regular season, when veteran center David Krejci suffered another in a series of physical setbacks that essentially made it a lost year for him. Spooner came up and made the most of it, scoring his 1st NHL goal in memorable fashion- a sudden death strike against New Jersey when every point was at a premium for Boston. He went on to finish out the year in the NHL, scoring a respectable 8 goals and 18 points in 24 games with the Bruins. In just a matter of weeks, Spooner went from a player many (present company included) thought was fait accompli to be wearing another uniform after the NHL trade deadline, to the productive, dependable center he had been projected as when he was first drafted in 2010. Now, Spooner isn’t ever going to win a Selke Trophy, but he’s addressed his overall game enough to earn Julien’s trust, and to make it on this team, that’s critical.

Koko and Spooner aren’t the same player. Spooner is faster- he pushes the offensive pace and is at his best when attacking defenses and putting them on their heels with his speed or operating from the half wall with the man advantage where he is a maestro in puck distribution. Koko is more of a shifty waterbug, compensating for a lack of dynamic wheels with high-end puck skills and a killer instinct around the net. I’ve seen him go long stretches of not accomplishing much, only to break a game open on consecutive shifts. The promise is there, and Koko’s exuberance and energy are a credit to what Boston saw in him when they called his name. Cassidy understands better than most that his young charge can break a game open in an instant. If Koko is ready to do the little things his coaches all say he was working diligently to address, then he’ll be in his corner come October to make that  big jump.

Sweeney, too, has recognized a shift in Koko’s perspective in the years he has developed within the B’s system.

“With Koko it’s a matter of addressing the little things,” Sweeney said in December of last year. “He generally played above the puck, but he’s now making a concerted effort to work below the puck and in the defensive zone to make sure he’s supporting the play when it comes back and is ready to then transition to offense.”

So, wither Koko? He has his work cut out for him at center with an expected healthy Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Spooner and possibly Finnish free agent Joonas Kemppainen ahead of him in the pecking order because of the latter’s experience and better fit on the bottom line. Unlike Spooner, who simply could not make things work when moving to wing, Koko might be able to pull that off in Boston. He may not have any points in his 4 career NHL games, but he did fire home the winning shootout goal in a game against Columbus last year, so given an opportunity to play consistently in Boston, his 1st NHL point isn’t long in coming.

The question is- can Koko break through and finally establish himself right out of the gate for the first time in his pro career. That’s something we can’t answer in late July and history is not on his side- the Bruins have tried to trade him before and if not for Jarome Iginla’s decision in 2013 to pass on Boston for the Steel City, Koko likely would have played more NHL games- with the Calgary Flames- than he has with the Bruins.

But- the kid’s got game. And he is a kid- he won’t turn 22 until right before training camp. Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make, and the Iginla deal falling through might have been the Hockey Gods telling the Bruins not to give up on a player whose best attribute is something sorely missing from a year ago.

If Koko comes to camp crisp, then there is no reason to think that he won’t get his shot to make it in Boston.

 

 

 

Random thoughts on the 2016 NHL Entry Draft

Auston Matthews vs Jakob Chychrun. Center vs. Defenseman. Arizona offensive wunderkind with Mexican roots vs. Florida-born Ontario product and son of a former NHLer. Both bring a lot to the table in terms of potential and there is a lot left to play out before the draft. Just like 2013 when Nathan MacKinnon and Seth Jones came into the season with a lot of hype, you could see a similar dynamic play out. If Matthews ends up in Switzerland it would be a fascinating side story to the normal draft race and I don’t think too many NHL scouts would complain about having to go over there to see him. Matthews’ great uncle, Wes, played in the NFL for the Miami Dolphins in 1966, so the high-end athletic ability runs in the family.

As is the case every year, you get a good dose of bloodlines with each draft class. Some of the big names coming down the pike this year: Logan Brown (Windsor Spitfires), Kieffer Bellows (playing in Sioux Falls of the USHL), Matthew Tkachuk (London Knights), and Alex Nylander (AIK) are all sons of NHL players and very good ones at that. Jeff Chychrun was not a high-end player but he was tough and gritty- his son brings some of his dad’s toughness but some top-level skill at the defense position as well.

In Kieffer Bellows’ case- the apple has not fallen far from the tree. The BU-bound center scored 33 goals in the USHL as a 16-year-old which is a remarkable feat when you consider how much older and stronger so many of the guys in that league are. His dad, Brian, was the second overall pick in the 1982 NHL draft, going to the Minnesota North Stars behind Gord Kluzak when the North Stars gave Harry Sinden a couple of journeymen not to take the elder Bellows. In retrospect, Scott Stevens was the real gem of that draft class, taken fifth overall by the Washington Capitals, but Bellows scored 55 goals in 1990, won a Stanley Cup with Montreal three years later, and finished his NHL career with 485 goals and 1,022 points. No pressure or anything, kid!

This could be the year of the Finns, as Jesse Puljujarvi is up near the top of the draft class as a power forward with legitimate skill and scoring ability to go with good size. Defensemen Olli Juolevi and Markus Niemelainen begin the year with 1st-round promise as well.

I’m going to keep an eye on Mississauga defenseman Sean Day this season mainly because a friend of mine who knows his OHL hockey told me I should going back to last year. Day has put up nice numbers so far and seems to have the requisite tools to be the first-round prospect many see him as going into 2015-16.

It’s not as strong a year in New England, but that’s to be expected after Massachusetts saw three players come off the board in the top-21 selections and 13 overall. U.S. NTDP two-way defenseman Chad Krys of Connecticut is the top ranked area native for the preseason. His dad, Mark, was a Boston Bruins draft pick who played at Boston University and the AHL’s Providence Bruins but never cracked an NHL roster. I also like John Leonard, the lone area representative of the USA Under-18 select squad that will play in the annual Ivan Hlinka tourney in Slovakia to make some mid-round noise this year with Green Bay of the USHL. He’s leaving Springfield, Mass. power Cathedral High and it’s a good move for the UMass recruit to play at a higher level of competition. The August Hlinka, along with USA WJC camp at Lake Placid is always the harbingers of the new season for me, and they’re right around the corner.

Until then, smoke ’em if you got ’em and enjoy the hot summer days and nights.

The Last in Line- Cameron Hughes & Jack Becker

With the Boston Bruins having six picks in the top-52 selections of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and just five more scheduled for rounds 3-7 (the B’s moved their fifth-rounder to Minnesota in exchange for the Wild’s fifth in 2016), there hasn’t been a great deal of attention placed on the four players the team took later on.

However, if the club believes that its first and second rounds will build a future foundation of promise, the selections of forwards Cameron Hughes and Jack Becker could tip the scales towards 2015 being a seminal draft class for this franchise. We have a long way to go before it can compare to Bruins hauls in 1979, 1980 and 2006, but the value and upside the team and others feel it got from this duo of raw-but-talented players is encouraging.

Hughes, acquired with the 165th overall selection in the sixth round, came into the season with the promise of being a top-two round selection according to scouts. A product of the Spruce Grove Saints of the tier 2 Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL), the same club that brought Matt Benning to the 2012 draft, Hughes is a Western Canadian who passed on the traditional major junior route to play in the NCAA for the University of Wisconsin last season.

Here’s an except on him from the 2015 Red Line Report draft guide:

“We really like this slick centre’s vision and imaginative playmaking with the puck. Plus, he’s a very gritty, feisty kid who never backs down from a physical confrontation despite his mediocre size- aggressive attitude.”

That’s the kind of skill set that resonates with a team like Boston, whose president, Cam Neely, has talked repeatedly of infusing that “hard to play against” mantra back into the organization.

“He probably made the jump to Wisconsin too early,” said an NHL scout highly familiar with both Huges and Becker. “Had he stayed in junior another season he probably would have gone earlier- perhaps end of the second round or solidly in the third because he would have put up bigger numbers.”

The scout went on to say that he thinks Hughes arrived in Madison at about 140-150 pounds and the lack of strength showed. It isn’t that he didn’t get a lot of opportunities at first, but that the lack of physical readiness when playing against mostly 20-23-year-old men wore the 17-year-old true freshman down. Being on a poor team didn’t help Hughes much, either.

“He’s a creative playmaker,” the scout said. “He’s very intelligent and competitive and skilled. He doesn’t back down from anything, kills penalties, blocks shots and then will skate down to the other end of the ice and score. If there is something I think he could work on it’s his skating. He’s not a poor skater, but when you look at a player with his average size, you want him to be a little quicker and faster out there.”

Hughes demonstrated his impressive skill set at Boston’s development camp last week, standing out for many of the things the scout described, and as he grows and develops physically, watch for him to break out in a big way for the Badgers if not this year, certainly as a junior.

Mark Staudinger, who covers Western Canada for RLR, keeps going back to what Hughes did at Spruce Grove last season as a far better indicator of his potential than the one over-his-head physically year at Wisconsin:

“He was so skilled and smart,” Staudinger said of Hughes in the 2014 AJHL playoffs. “But he’s a tough little SOB, too. He sticks his nose in, fights hard along the boards and wins puck battles against bigger guys because he’s so tenacious.”

Becker, who was Boston’s final selection in the seventh round at 195th overall, is a different animal from Hughes.

The Mahtomedi High School (Minnesota) forward is the son of Russ Becker, whom the NY Islanders drafted in the 11th round, 228th overall in the 1984 NHL draft as a Virginia, Minnesota HS standout who went on to play at Michigan Tech. Cousin Aaron Miskovich was a 1997 Colorado Avalanche draft pick and had a brief pro career, so there are some bloodlines in the mix.

“I saw him earlier in the season and he was this tall kid who was really lanky, couldn’t skate very well, but people told me to just watch- that has the highest work ethic of any player in Minnesota and teams will be kicking themselves for not drafting him,” the NHL scout said. “I went back to watch Becker in April and I was shocked at how good he was.”

Becker was felled by a bout with mononucleosis early in the season, usually a harbinger of a ruined year. But to Becker’s credit, after recovering from the illness, he came back strong to play his best hockey.

“He plays a straight-ahead game,” said the scout. “He goes through people and right to the net. He gets his points by going straight in to to the blue paint and has the hands to score goals in tight. What I like about him is that he has NHL habits already: the stops and starts, he gets back quickly when the play goes the other way, he goes to the net and stops. Those things you don’t tend to see at the high school level when kids can dominate without doing the little things that are so important at the next level.”

Good friend and Red Line scout Dan Shrader saw Becker multiple times this season and smartly listed him in the RLR final rankings.

“He’s not a facilitator but is a great crash and bang type,” Shrader said. “He’s terrific with the give and go net drives. He’s a bit thorny (in his development) and needs time but could be a player when all is said and done. No one in Minnesota high school hockey crashed the net harder than Becker this year.”

Becker will spend a season in the USHL and then is off to Wisconsin where he might get an opportunity to team up with Hughes in the 2016-17 season.

In all honesty, past trends show that you can’t bank on great production from players taken in the latter rounds of the NHL draft, but in Hughes and Becker, the B’s appear to have a duo that are only beginning to scratch the surface of their potential. As the old saying goes- time will tell.

To take it on home, here’s their ‘Last in Line’ anthem from the great Ronnie James (RIP):

Watch this Guy: Jeremy Lauzon

For obvious reasons, Jakub Zboril and Brandon Carlo are getting the most attention as the No. 1 and 2 defensemen drafted by the Boston Bruins in 2015. However, Jeremy Lauzon of the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, chosen by the B’s with the second of two second-round picks acquired from Calgary in the Dougie Hamilton trade, could be the one player who goes on to have the best NHL career of the three.

Lauzon was probably more under the radar than he should have been going into the draft, as he was the goals leader among all Quebec Major Junior Hockey League defensemen with 15 (he had a 12% shooting percentage as a 17-year-old, which should improve over the next two major junior seasons). This reminds a bit of Patrice Bergeron in 2003, who posted a solid season and was ranked 28th among North American skaters by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service, yet generated quizzical looks and in some circles- yawns- when the Bruins snapped him up at 45th overall. The rest, as they say, is history.

As a Red Line Report scout and editor, I admit that I do tend to have blinders on when it comes to certain areas, as aside from a few online viewings, I was not all that familiar with Lauzon for much of the season. However, as we got into March and April, I noticed that Kyle Woodlief and our Quebec/Maritimes area scout started talking about the 6-foot-2, 195-pounder more and more. By the time I read Lauzon’s scouting report in our 2015 NHL Draft Guide published in early June, I was sold on Lauzon as a Boston Bruins type of player. I even posted this on a private message board I contribute to way back on June 21- a little under a week before the draft:

“RLR sleeper who will likely go lower than his #59 ranking in the draft guide. Very good skater with excellent footwork, scored the most goals of any draft eligible defender in the ‘Q’ and plays with a rugged edge- tough to play against and will fight to defend teammates. Fits the bill of being the kind of player the Bruins say they want to add to the mix. Would be a perfect prospect for them if he shot right as opposed to left, but you can’t always get what you want.”

As for that last sentence, it’s a very minor quibble, and who knows? By the time Lauzon is ready to compete for a job in Boston, the cup might runneth over in right-shot defenders and his left-side drive could be a welcome addition.

Here’s what I like about the kid: He’s tough to play against. Too often, fans get dazzled by pure talent and skill, or fixate on production. Not that those things aren’t important- they most certainly are. But the rare player is the one who brings the skill and the passion/propensity to give their all and be a difficult opponent. This is what has made Bergeron (and no- I’m not just comparing them because they both were drafted out of the ‘Q’) so valuable to the franchise in his 12 years with the B’s, and let’s face it- had he been a great skater in 2003, they wouldn’t have had a prayer at drafting him in the middle of the second round because he would have been a household name in that deep class that will produce multiple Hall of Famers.

With a PPG ratio of 0.6 and accounting for 16 percent of his team’s total offense last season, that’s a solid jumping off point for a player who is expected to get better offensively over the next couple of years as he continues to mature and gains a more prominent role on the Huskies. Lauzon was anything but a household name, but even my colleagues at Red Line didn’t think he would go to the B’s as early in the draft as he did:

“When conversation turns to all the great QMJHL d-men this year, this guy never even garners a mention. Why?”

That snippet accompanied Lauzon’s listing as RLR’s 4th-most underrated player entering the draft, so if RLR and the Bruins are right, the value looks pretty solid. He can skate, shoot, pass and score. He can defend. He’s a rugged player not afraid to take the body and fight if need be, though that’s not something he excels at. In short- he’s precisely the kind of player Boston fans value, so remember the name and keep track of him. In about three years, you might be glad you did.

So, why might Lauzon be the best between Zboril (13th overall) and Carlo (37th overall)? Like Zboril, Lauzon brings similar size and a mix of offense and defense. He’s more of a consistent competitor in my view, despite some reports of Boston’s top choice being “ultracompetitive” (I wouldn’t go that far based on what I saw in film study). Carlo is a massive rearguard who excels in a shutdown role, but I don’t know that he has the offensive skill/sense to be much of a consistent points producer. That leaves Lauzon as the best combination of the three- not as talented as Zboril or as big/defensively savvy as Carlo, but solid across the board and a gritty, hard-to-play against -d-man.

Here’s a good video profile done by John Moore of Sports by Moore back in October…you can get a sense of Lauzon’s fluid footwork/mobility, poise with the puck and check out the solid but clean hit he puts on a kid, dropping him near center ice. As Lauzon adds mass and gains strength, he’ll be able to impose himself more physically as he progresses up the ladder.

Right now, Lauzon is seen as more of an afterthought by most because he wasn’t as known a commodity or one of the draft’s sexiest names going in. However, to get a player of Lauzon’s skill set and potential at 52 speaks to the quality and depth of the 2015 class overall.

Mr. Lamoriello lands in Toronto

1987. April 30, to be exact.

That’s when the New Jersey Devils hired Lou Lamoriello to be general manager of a then sad sack franchise that had started as the Kansas City Scouts in 1974, moved to Denver to be the first incarnation of the Colorado Rockies in 1976, only to fail in the Mile High City and move to East Rutherford, N.J. in 1982. When Lamoriello took the reigns of a team that an in-his-prime Wayne Gretzky had once sneered at (the infamous Mickey Mouse operation comment comes to mind), this was what was going on:

– Ronald Reagan was finishing up the third year of his second term as U.S. President.

– The New York Giants had won the Super Bowl that year, and on April 30, the Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Twins were on their way to securing championships in their respective sports as well.

– “This is your brain… This is drugs… This is your brain on drugs” became the anti-drug campaign slogan du jour of the late 80’s/early 90’s that year.

– Spuds MacKenzie made his first appearance in Bud Light beer commercials.

– The Cosby Show and Roseanne were the top-rated television shows in primetime.

– I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) by Aretha Franklin and George Michael was the top Billboard pop single the week the Devils hired Lamoriello.

– The Devils were still wearing their red and green “Christmas tree” uniforms and would continue doing so through the 1991-92 season.

– Perhaps most important of all- the very first draft pick of the Lamoriello tenure in New Jersey- a 17-year-old Brendan Shanahan (second overall in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft) is the man who shocked the hockey world today by hiring Lamoriello away from New Jersey and installing him as the 16th general manager in Toronto Maple Leafs history.

Hold on…what?

Let’s backtrack a minute…

Since Mr. Lamoriello joined the organization, the Devils went from doormats to three-time Stanley Cup champs in 1995, 2000 and 2003. They made the playoffs with a flourish in his first season as GM thanks to a John MacLean (Lamoriello would later hire MacLean as head coach in 2010 only to fire him before Christmas) overtime goal against the Chicago Blackhawks and Darren Pang (back when it was 5-on-5 and a scoreless 5 minutes ended with a tie) on the last night of the regular season (for those who heard it, who can forget Gary Thorne’s “They did it! They did it! They did it! They did it!! call when MacLean pounced on a fat rebound in the slot and put it home on the road).

In nearly three decades with the team, Lamoriello, a native of Rhode Island and the primary architect of the Hockey East from his time as Providence College coach and athletic director, became the Devils organization- as much as one person can assume a team’s identity and culture, anyway.  When I covered the Devils for the New York Hockey Journal during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, the distinct feeling I always came away with was that Lou Lamoriello was the embodiment of the Devils and everything the organization stood for during his tenure through mostly good times, but more losing days in recent years.

When Lamoriello suddenly announced his retirement earlier this summer as GM (but remaining on in his role as Devils President), he elevated former Penguins front office boss Ray Shero to take on the general manager duties for New Jersey.

Lamoriello’s departure is sudden, but underscores how serious the Maple Leafs are about trying to win the organization’s first Stanley Cup since 1967. Lamoriello knows a heck of a lot about winning, and with a formidable front office that includes 29-year-old wunderkind assistant GM Kyle Dubas, plus a completely re-vamped coaching staff in Mike Babcock and assistants (which include Memorial Cup-winning former Oshawa Generals coach D.J. Smith), Shanahan has put his stamp on the Leafs franchise. With Mark Hunter running things on the drafting and player development side, Toronto’s residence near the bottom the of NHL standings won’t last long.

If nothing else, Lamoriello’s old school values and tough love approach will install the kind of accountability that has probably been lacking in the Leafs dressing room for too long. The first shots fired across the bow came when Phil Kessel was traded, and more moves are sure to follow as the soon-to-be 73-year-old builds the team with the blueprint he used to major success with the Devils. If Babcock’s arrival didn’t do it, Lamoriello’s hiring has certainly made one thing abundantly clear in Toronto: the inmates are no longer running the asylum.

It’s hard to believe that Lamoriello is no longer with the Devils, but if anyone is feeling blue in the Garden State, it’s all coming up roses in Ontario.

Shanahan and company just served notice to the rest of the league with this move, and if you don’t think Lou has lost his fastball, then get ready for a much more competitive Eastern Conference with the new-look Leafs.

Final thoughts on the New York players from the 2015 NHL Entry Draft

Jordan Greenway (Canton, N.Y.), 50th overall selection, 2015 NHL Entry Draft (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Jordan Greenway (Canton, N.Y.), 50th overall selection, 2015 NHL Entry Draft (Kirk Luedeke photo)

I posted previously some thoughts about the 13 players drafted out of New England (Massachusetts and New Hampshire), so I thought I would cover the five prospects taken from the Empire State in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. The numbers tell the story- with just five area natives taken out of the 211 total selections and none before pick 50 when the Minnesota Wild chose power winger Jordan Greenway who grew up near Potsdam in Canton, N.Y. before leaving in middle school to play for Shattuck St. Mary’s in the state of the NHL club that drafted him. Overall, it was a down year for New York with no players from New Jersey getting the call, a first since New York Hockey Journal covered its first NHL draft in 2011.

The player I actually had rated higher than Greenway is playmaking forward Jeremy Bracco, whom the Toronto Maple Leafs got terrific value with at 61st overall- the last pick of the second round. Bracco had solid first-round talent, but working against him was size, a lack of dynamic speed and according to some NHL scouts, he didn’t make the best impression during interviews. From my perspective, I didn’t see that– Bracco was extremely accommodating in terms of the pre-draft interviews and work I did with him. What is undeniable is his high-end hockey IQ, vision and creativity- he finished his career at the U.S. National Team Development Program as one of the all-time assists and points leaders in two years there. Bracco is a good fit for Toronto and what they’re doing there as someone who can dish the puck and has the kind of flair in his game and personality to be able to handle the increased scrutiny of that hockey market.

Jeremy Bracco (Freeport, N.Y.), 61st overall selection, 2015 (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Jeremy Bracco (Freeport, N.Y.), 61st overall selection, 2015 (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Getting back to Greenway- one NHL scout told me that he was easily a top-15 talent, and I have to say that having covered a lot of hockey players in my career, there aren’t many with the sheer size the 18-year-old has at a listed 6-foot-5, 230 pounds. Some kids look big in their gear but smaller when they take it off, others look bigger out of their gear than with it on. In Greenway’s case- he looked massive on the ice, and he’s just as much of a force of nature when dressed in his suit and wearing his Wild jersey at the BB & T Center.

Two things more than any probably conspired to make Greenway’s wait a little longer at the draft: he did not have the kind of consistent performance over the course of 2014-15 that was expected of him after showing a lot from a year ago with the NTDP. When a player brings so much in terms of the size and skating package, you naturally want to see him assert himself and at the very least, generate offense commensurate with his skill level. It just didn’t happen enough for him this year, and that hurt his stock a bit going in. Compare that to the kind of offensive season fellow Wild first pick (and fellow New Yorker) Alex Tuch had a year ago and you begin to understand the disparity. In addition to the disappointing season, there were whispers about Greenway’s conduct off the ice. In fairness to the kid- I’m not going to repeat or substantiate any of those allegations from NHL circles, but it does at least begin to explain how someone with such pure potential dropped down to 50. At Boston University, Greenway will have a chance to learn from the experience and elevate his game in order to make all the teams that passed on him regret doing so.

The reigning Stanley Cup champs grabbed two-way defenseman Dennis Gilbert from Buffalo at the end of the third round, another solid value and typical pick of the NHL’s modern dynasty that has endured as a three-time champion in six seasons because of a great core and smart drafting to keep a solid supporting cast in place even when pricey contracts force pieces to find work elsewhere. Gilbert may be the latest in one of those smart picks by the Blackhawks, as he has a solid, tall frame (6-2, 201); he can skate very well for his size and has the vision and puck skills to move the play forward with authority and quarterback his club when on the man advantage. Although raw, Gilbert showed a lot playing in the Windy City’s USHL entry the Chicago Steel this past season, having a particularly strong second half. He’ll be able to develop gradually in the ‘Hawks’ system, starting at Notre Dame in the fall.

Another Western New York kid who had his name called last month was big defender Joseph Cecconi, who made a positive impression with the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks. At 6-2, 205 he has size and is a pretty good skater in a straight line, though will need to improve his lateral mobility and pivots/transitions as he continues to develop. Cecconi relishes playing a defense-first style and impressed some people in the playoffs last spring when he battled Kyle Connor hard and effectively neutralized the league’s top scorer and Winnipeg’s top pick. As a fifth-round selection (133rd) of the Dallas Stars, Cecconi is a good value and the University of Michigan-bound player is in a good spot to take his time. He’s been knocked for not playing with enough urgency/pace at times.

Finally, Steve Ruggiero was the area’s last pick, coming late in the sixth round. He had a bunch of family and friends in attendance and I happened to be taking a break from the action nearby in the stands eating a box lunch when his name was called and their section erupted. To me, Ruggiero’s selection underscores what this sport is all about. These kids-  and so few of them at this stage are left to seriously pursue a dream of playing pro hockey- put in so much work over the years to even get themselves in position to be drafted. Their families pay enormous costs to support the hockey lifestyle and give up a normal life (along with their player) to have a chance at one day reaching the NHL, so it was nice to see Ruggiero’s faith that by coming to Florida he would not sit there all day only to be passed over.

A rugged, mobile stay-at-home defenseman with character, the Anaheim Ducks got more solid value at 178 overall, and he looks to be another one of those good character types that Nate Leaman and his staff have done so well to stockpile down at Providence College.

Steven Ruggiero (Kings Park, N.Y.) 178th selection in 2015 (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Steven Ruggiero (Kings Park, N.Y.) 178th selection in 2015 (Kirk Luedeke photo)

All in all- not a great draft haul for New York, but there might be a rebound next season when talented defensemen Charlie McAvoy, Griffin Luce (son of Florida Panthers head of player development Scott Luce) and forward Luke Kirwan are eligible. Kirwan took a step back in the OHL this past season, but the toolsy winger could appeal to teams early if he can get back on track in 2016.

Y2K: Tom Brady not the only franchise player stolen

Anyone who follows the NFL and reads a story about Tom Brady won’t get too far along without seeing a reference to the fact that he was a late-round selection. The 199th overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft has gone on to build a Hall of Fame-worthy resume (and no- “Deflategate” won’t change that) capped with four Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots.

But, there is an NHL equivalent from that very same draft year: Henrik Lundqvist.

King Henrik- the NY Rangers’ franchise netminder and perennial all-star was drafted in the seventh round, 205th overall, that year out of the Vastra Frolunda Indians junior team. No, Bruins fans- we won’t rub salt in the wounds by reminding you all that Boston used the 204th selection on OHL forward Chris Berti– he of 0 NHL games played. Oops- I did it again.

The only thing the 2012 Vezina Trophy winner is chasing is significant: a Stanley Cup championship. He led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup final in 2014 but fell to the Los Angeles Kings. He did win a gold medal for Sweden at the 2006 Olympic Games and has been a workhorse for the Rangers ever since breaking into the league in 2005-06.

Now, I won’t go so far as to say the NHL draft is a “crapshoot” which I think is a lazy way of looking at it but has become kind of an accepted term by rank and file fans and some analysts, but Lundqvist falling that low seems incomprehensible 15 years later. One might attribute it to his being a late bloomer, but that’s not right, as he was one of the top junior goaltenders in Sweden, performing well at the 2000 Under-18 tourney with a .939 save percentage in four games. I do think that it illustrates the challenge in projected 17 and 18-year-olds. But it’s not a crapshoot- to say that the draft is essentially a game of chance is to disregard the astounding amount of work and travel that amateur scouts do over the course of the season to prepare for the entry draft each June.

Is the draft more of an art than a science? Absolutely. Advanced statistics and analytics are allowing teams to narrow their focus and tailor their desires based on a pattern analysis, but when it comes to the eye test, some scouting methods are sure to endure.

For whatever reason, Lundqvist didn’t pass the eye test for all 30 NHL teams back in 2000…even the Rangers. Because, if he did, they sure as hell wouldn’t have waited 205 spots and 20 goaltenders ahead of him to act (several of those 20 came out of Sweden- so he wasn’t even the top netminder chosen from his own country that year!)

Final thoughts on the New England 2015 NHL draft class

Noah Hanifin of Norwood, Mass. goes 5th overall to the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Noah Hanifin of Norwood, Mass. goes 5th overall to the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Now, that the 2015 NHL Entry Draft is in the books, the real fun begins- we get to chart the progress and success of the 13 area natives taken from Massachusetts and New Hampshire (Mike Robinson), and we’ll see if anyone else from that group who wasn’t picked (Cam Askew, Brien Diffley and Casey Fitzgerald all could have gone but didn’t have their names called) makes their way to the NHL.

Back in 2011, I sat in the New England Sports Center rink in Marlborough, Mass. with my Red Line Report boss, Kyle Woodlief, and I remember us talking about Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin and how exciting the two then-14-year-old players were. Having been in the business much longer than I have, Woodlief was a voice of caution that day, reminding me that the critical years of development still lay ahead- and that sometimes the early risers plateau and others move to the forefront. As he and I arrived in Fort Lauderdale last month, we revisited that conversation and were glad that in the case of those two terrific players, both Eichel and Hanifin continued to be every bit the players we and every other scout who was watching them back then thought they could be. Now, we get to see if the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes will benefit from the enormous potential shown by both.

Kudos to the Ottawa Senators for grabbing Hanover’s Colin White 21st overall. He’s going to be an NHL player- he’s simply too smart and talented not to at least make it as a grinder eventually. But the real interesting question is whether he will get back to his scoring ways. He had a tough season- hampered by mononucleosis and nagging wrist and arm injuries, but as he got healthier at year’s end, he blew up at the Under-18 championship, even scoring the sudden death gold medal-winning goal for Team USA. He’s a terrific player and my bet is that he’s a natural scorer and will prove that in the next couple of years.

I like the Winnipeg Jets’ draft more and more with each passing day. They nabbed a high-end offensive talent in Kyle Connor after the Bruins passed on him three times (and the Isles grabbed Mathew Barzal at 16) and continued with value selections throughout the draft. But the player no one is surprised that I will key in on is Mansfield native Erik Foley, whom the Jets landed in the third round, 78th overall. Foley is your prototypical power forward who may not have ideal height, but is naturally strong and plays hard from the first faceoff until the final buzzer. He’s going to kill it for Nate Leaman at Providence College, the team he grew up cheering for as a lad. It’s a shame his favorite hometown Bruins didn’t have more time for him as well.

Mike Robinson was an interesting selection for the San Jose Sharks in the third round. The lone non-Massachusetts pick- from Bedford, N.H. by way of Lawrence Academy- has tremendous size and natural tools for the modern NHL goaltender, but we have not seen a New England high school/prep goalie taken earlier than that since Jonathan Quick was taken 72nd overall in 2005 out of Avon Old Farms. That pick turned out pretty darn well for the Kings, so if the UNH-bound Robinson delivers on his immense upside, Tim Burke and the Sharks will be sitting pretty.

I liked the value where the Blackhawks took defenseman Ryan Shea (final pick of 4th round), the Coyotes picked up Conor Garland, and the Hurricanes grabbed Luke Stevens. Those aren’t bad spots to take a chance on a trio of players who are all different, but bring some nice payoff on the long road. I was not bullish on Stevens, but you’ll hear no arguments on getting him in the fifth round. As far as natural tools go, he has some of the most impressive gifts of any player from the area. Garland is a great example of not giving up when passed over in the draft and he exploded this year to lead the Quebec League in scoring, the first time in 32 years an American has done that when some guy named Pat LaFontaine blew things up in that circuit.

There weren’t many surprises from the New England class, but mobile defender Patrick Holway to the Red Wings and big forward Pat Shea (no relation to Ryan) to the Panthers at 170 and 192 respectively is probably the closest thing. Both are South Shore natives, both are headed to the University of Maine, and both parlayed Central Scouting snubs into draft selections ahead of more than a few other listed guys who weren’t picked. It just goes to show you that NHL clubs do their own thing when it comes to the draft regardless of the more and more prolific public lists out there each passing year. If you can find either guy on one of those lists (Red Line included) be sure to let me know so I can give credit where due.

Ultimately, the draft is a dream first step to the reaching the NHL for the 211 players selected, but that’s all it is. You won’t find former and current NHL stars Adam Oates, Steve Thomas, Tyler Johnson or Torey Krug on any draft lists, and there are far more “can’t miss” players who do just that because other players develop into better pros after age 18. In my view- guys like Askew, Diffley and Fitzgerald should have had their names called, so don’t sleep on them. Throw in Robert ‘Bobo’ Carpenter as well, but all will have a chance to make it either in future drafts (except Diffley) or via free agency.

For every one of the 2015 selections- they can hang up or frame their draft jerseys, look at the photos and articles one last time and re-set their focus and personal goals: the work is only beginning.

Boston Bruins prospects update- Jr/NCAA

Boston Bruins prospects update- Amateur

Earlier, we took a look at the AHL/European pro prospects in attendance at Boston Bruins development camp this week, but the bulk of the recent draft picks from 2013, 2014 and 2015 are still playing in the major junior and NCAA ranks.

This post covers the players who were in Wilmington, Mass. this week (those who did not attend due to injury or other commitment are not included) and is intended to scratch the surface of what each brings to the table for the organization. Enjoy!

Jack Becker, C Sioux Falls (USHL); 6-3, 190

Acquired: 7th round, 2015 NHL Entry Draft

Lanky Minnesota high school product is about as raw as it gets at this stage, but could bring some long-term boom potential if he continues to progress. Felled by a bout with mononucleosis this season, he came back strong to finish the season at Mahtomedi High and then played a couple of USHL games at Sioux Falls. He lacks initial burst and agility in his skating, but crashes the net hard and scores goals the old fashioned way. Watch for this son of a former NY Islanders draft pick to make noise at Wisconsin eventually.

 Matt Benning, D Northeastern University (HEA); 6-0, 200

Acquired: 6th round, 2012 NHL Entry Draft

Vancouver GM Jim Benning’s nephew didn’t find the back of the net last season, but was one of the Huskies’ top players for his all-around game and ability to move the puck effectively. For someone with pretty average size for a defender, Benning activates smartly on offense, takes care of his own end without fanfare and has a knack for making contact in the open ice. There isn’t a whole lot here to get excited about, but the NHL needs rugged, dependable blue liners of his ilk. If you are a believer that “less is more” with defensemen, Benning fits that category as someone who makes the right plays and uses his natural hockey sense to make it look easy.

 Anders Bjork, LW University of Notre Dame (HEA); 6-0, 180

Acquired: 5th round, 2014 NHL Entry Draft

Smart, speedy two-way forward took some time last season to adjust to the NCAA with the Fighting Irish, but came on strong in the spring. Look for bigger numbers and contributions from this former U.S. NTDP star who may not have the silky hands to put up major points, but uses his speed to back defenses up and has the vision/hockey IQ to make plays offensively. He didn’t make a lot of noise at camp this summer, but for a player of Bjork’s style, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

Brandon Carlo-

Brandon Carlo- “shiny new toy?” (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Brandon Carlo, D Tri-City; 6-5, 210

Acquired: 2nd round, 2015 NHL Entry Draft

Enormous rearguard has an even bigger reach; this value selection (acquired with one of the picks in the Johnny Boychuk trade) brings fine mobility and agility for such a big kid. Concerns about his offensive game may have dropped him down to 37, but he skates with his head up and can advance the puck effectively enough even if the production doesn’t develop as hoped. Where Carlo’s real value lies is in his size and quickness as a player who will be very difficult for opponents to get around and make them pay for every inch of real estate with a physical, hard-nosed style. Don’t expect him to win a job with the Bruins this season, as the team will likely want him to keep playing prime minutes in the WHL under all situations. Carlo appears to be the latest example of “shiny new toy” syndrome- that phenomenon where fans glom onto a name and seem to obsess over him making the NHL right away- but if he does happen to join the Bruins out of the gate, it will take a phenomenal training camp and preseason, and not what he did at Ristuccia in July.

 

Jake DeBrusk, LW Swift Current (WHL); 6-1, 180

Acquired: 1st round, 2015 NHL Entry Draft

The son of former NHL enforcer Louie DeBrusk finished 6th in the WHL with 42 goals playing alongside fellow Bronco and B’s prospect Colby Cave (35 goals) last season. Much bigger things are expected of this natural finisher, who can find the back of the net from just about anywhere on the ice. DeBrusk is not a power forward, but more of a skill forward who uses his offensive instincts and quickness to make things happen around the net but is far from a finished product in terms of his complete game. He has quite a bit of physical maturing to do, but the natural scoring tools are there for him to evolve into a top prospect.

 

Ryan Donato, C Harvard University (ECAC); 6-1, 190 (Scituate, Mass.)

Acquired: 2nd round, 2014 NHL Entry Draft

The most dominant scorer in prep hockey a season ago took a step back offensively at Dexter School as a senior, but sacrificed numbers in leading his team to the championship game before falling to Salisbury. Ted Donato’s eldest of three sons finished the year with a flourish in Omaha of the USHL, registering more than a point per game and showing off his creativity and dynamic game-breaking ability on numerous occasions. Although his top speed is not like his dad’s, the younger Donato projects to be a more dangerous scorer, and will get a chance to prove it with the Crimson.

 

Ryan Fitzgerald, LW Boston College (HEA); 5-10, 180 (North Reading, Mass.)

Acquired: 4th round, 2013 NHL Entry Draft

The rising junior has two productive scoring years with the Eagles in the books, and will be even more dangerous offensively this season. Although not blessed with a lot of size or blazing speed, the nephew of Bruins assistant scouting director Scott Fitzgerald has elite vision and some of the softest hands of any Boston prospect. Because he slipped down to the end of the fourth round in his draft year, the two-time state champion with Malden Catholic doesn’t get as much attention as other players with higher draft pedigrees, nor is a development camp a great setting to display what Fitzgerald does best, but his smarts and energy will carry him far.

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, C Boston University (HEA); 6-1, 185

Acquired: 2nd round, 2015 NHL Entry Draft

“JFK” wasted little time in telling media at the draft that the NHL player he most tries to emulate is Patrice Bergeron. Like Boston’s three-time Selke Trophy winner and franchise center, this Swedish import plays a polished defensive game in addition to a pretty underrated offensive skill set. He’s got quite a bit of physical developing ahead of him with the Terriers, but film study reveals a player with slick hands and a knack for making plays in key situations. A superb faceoff man, watch for Karlsson to earn David Quinn’s trust early on with key defensive zone draws. He’s been knocked for not playing with as much pace and urgency as his talent level will allow, but seems to be making strides in addressing that shortcoming as he goes forward. A recent discussion with a member of the Bruins organization kept going back to JFK’s natural smarts and intelligence- he certainly showed that at camp and should draw positive attention to himself on Comm. Ave. this year.

JFK

Jakob “JFK” Forsbacka-Karlsson, 45th overall, 2015 NHL Entry Draft (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Jesse Gabrielle, LW Regina (WHL); 6-0, 200

Acquired: 4th round, 2015 NHL Entry Draft

Built like a spark plug and with the fiery, agitating demeanor to match, this draft choice could one day turn out in similar fashion to the one NHL player Gabrielle tries to pattern his play after: Brad Marchand. He may not have Marchand’s high-end speed and stickhandling ability, but can blow the puck past goalies and has a high motor. He’s a little bigger and stronger than Marchand, and able to be more effective along the walls and down in the dirty areas, where he uses his strength to fight through checks and maintain possession. The Saskatchewan native who grew up rooting for the B’s needs to prove he can work as hard off the ice as he does on it, but was a solid value choice at 105th overall.

 

Danton Heinen, LW Denver University (WCHA); 6-0, 180

Acquired: 4th round, 2014 NHL Entry Draft

Perhaps one of the 2014’s draft’s true stealth picks, the former Surrey Eagles (BCHL) captain burst onto the scene for the Pioneers last year to finish 15th in the nation in scoring as a freshman. Bigger things are expected this time, which could be a challenge for the slick, heady playmaking wing who shows an excellent grasp of how to play with and without the puck. Appearing in just his first development camp (he was enrolled in classes at DU a year ago), Heinen showed the fans in attendance what the buzz building from last year was about with a standout performance, making high-end passes and plays look pretty routine.

Cameron Hughes, LW University of Wisconsin (Big Ten); 5-11, 170

Acquired: 6th round, 2015 NHL Entry Draft

If there is one player in the current Boston draft class that could pull off a surprise like Heinen did a year ago, it is Hughes, who was an offensive star for the AJHL’s Spruce Grove Saints in 2013-14 before landing with the Badgers and being relegated to a smaller role in Madison. A speedy, intelligent forward who also plays with energy and grit despite not having an abundance of size, he’s the model type of player the Bruins talk about having. If the unproductive freshman season was a reflection of a lack of opportunity, then watch for Hughes to breakout offensively as a sophomore and earn a lot more positive attention. He’s relatively undersized at present, but has room to grow and add strength in the coming years.

Sean Kuraly, C/LW Miami University (NCHC); 6-2, 200

Acquired: Trade with San Jose- 2015

The RedHawks’ captain this season was acquired along with a first-round pick in the trade that sent goaltender Martin Jones to the Sharks late last month. While not a high-end prospect the Ohio native is big, skates well, and plays a strong two-way, grinding game. He scored 19 goals a year ago, so he might be primed for a bigger offensive jump this season. Realistically, Kuraly projects more as a third-line winger in Boston if he reaches the NHL, but has the makings of a solid forward who will be tough to play against and can move around up front as the coaches need him to.

Jeremy Lauzon, D Rouyn-Noranda (QMJHL) 6-1, 195

Acquired: 2nd round, 2015 NHL Entry Draft

This Red Line Report favorite for his combination of size, skating, shot and smarts didn’t get a lot of advance billing throughout the season, but started to generate buzz before the June NHL draft. In addition to being the QMJHL’s top goal-scorer among draft eligible defenders, Lauzon also displayed a physical, edgy side to his game as well, making him the kind of ideal fit in Boston if he can translate his junior success at the pro level. The 52nd overall selection will likely spend two more years in the ‘Q’ but don’t be surprised if he makes a run for an NHL job shortly thereafter, as he appears to have the blend of skill and moxie that every team looks out for.

Rob O’Gara, D Yale University (ECAC) 6-4, 215

Acquired: 5th round, 2011 NHL Entry Draft

Like Zane McIntyre, the Long Island native is one of Boston’s longest-tenured prospects, having been chosen four drafts and five B’s development camps ago. The tall, relatively lean defenseman still has more room to add mass and will likely hit his peak playing weight at about 225 pounds as he continues to mature. At 22, O’Gara is an advanced player who has superb skating and footwork and has also continued to develop as a fine puck-mover even if he isn’t projected to put up big numbers at the pro level. A smart player and tireless worker, he’s returning to Yale for his senior season and is expected to sign with Boston after his final game. Also like McIntyre, O’Gara would qualify for the free agency loophole, but has had such a good experience with the Bruins, he’ll likely stay true to the club that has believed in him all along.

Zachary Senyshyn, RW Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) 6-2, 195

Acquired: 1st round, 2015 NHL Entry Draft

The 2015 NHL draft’s first true off-the-board pick has the natural skills to eventually justify the selection, even if the Bruins took an acknowledged risk with other more established players on the board. The good news: the Ottawa-area product is a fine skater who can beat defenders wide with his speed, takes pucks to the net and has the hands to find the back of the net with regularity. On the downside- scouts question his natural creativity and there is significant risk associated with him if he does not take the next anticipated step in the OHL with the departure of several key veterans he was playing behind. Although he isn’t an intimidating presence on the ice, Senyshyn is saying and doing all the right things and demonstrated his raw, but promising talent at development camp.

Daniel

Daniel “Darth” Vladar- 3rd round, 75th overall in 2015 (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Daniel Vladar, G Chicago (USHL) 6-5, 190

Acquired: 3rd round, 2015 NHL Entry Draft

This massive netminder from the same Czech program that produced Jaromir Jagr 25 years ago has major long-term potential, but will need to address holes in his game and refine his technique before he sets foot anywhere near NHL ice. An outstanding athlete, “Darth Vladar” has the natural quickness to make beating him on the first shot a chore, but gets into trouble when he doesn’t square up to the shooter or allows pucks to get through him/his equipment when in position to make the save. A good kid with a solid work ethic, coming to the USHL and possibly going the NCAA route will help him adapt to North American hockey, but some observers feel that he lacks a natural feel for the play, and falls prey to allowing goals because he is late reacting to where the puck is coming from. Vladar is a good flyer to take in the mid-third round, especially after the B’s watched what Mike Hutchinson, their third-rounder in 2008, did for the Winnipeg Jets this season.

Jakub Zboril, D Saint John (QMJHL) 6-2, 190

Acquired: 1st round, 2015 NHL Entry Draft

Boston’s top pick last month, 13th overall, has already signed a three-year Entry Level Contract (ELC) with the team, but that won’t affect his timeline to the NHL unless something unforeseen occurs. On the positive side, Zboril has all of the key attributes you look for in the modern big league defender, and his skating and vision in particular makes him someone who will be able to carry the puck and run the power play down the road. Reviews on his work ethic however, are mixed, and he had issues with his knees last season, something he unfortunately has in common with his father, who reportedly saw a promising athletic career cut short because of. Make no mistake- Zboril’s booming point drive and ability to distribute the puck with ease, not to mention a snarly, physical side to the way he defends made him a solid choice for the Bruins, but like the other two first-round selections, he carries some risk that will bear close watching as we go forward.

AHL contract/invites

Here are some notes on a few of the development camp invited players I’m familiar with/who stood out in live and online viewing during the past several seasons and at development camp.

Max Iafrate, D Providence (AHL) 6-3, 215

Al Iafrate’s son got a lot of attention for his family pedigree and like his dad, he can scoot-n-shoot. However, Max is not his father, and after going undrafted while playing in the OHL with the Kitchener Rangers, he signed an AHL contract with the P-Bruins. With his size and physicality, the younger Iafrate is an intriguing player to watch if he can make better decisions and keep things simple. Putting him out with someone like Tommy Cross could make for a mighty interesting duo.

 

Frank DiChiara, RW Yale (ECAC) 6-2, 218

The rising Yale junior has been a favorite of mine since the 2012-13 season, when the Ronkonkoma, N.Y. native helped lead the USHL’s Dubque Fighting Saints (he was on the team with Matt Benning) to the Clark Cup. Although he went undrafted, DiChiara is a big-bodied winger who uses his size and soft hands to find the back of the net and generate offense. He’s not an ideal skater, but if he can improve his initial quickness, his straight-line speed and natural strength will appeal to NHL clubs come free agency time because he has a nose for the net. In addition to Benning, DiChiara is a current and former (in minor hockey) teammate of Rob O’Gara and the two are close friends.

 

Brien Diffley, D Boston University (HEA) 6-2, 200 (Burlington, Mass.)

Honestly thought this ’95 defender who posted a solid freshman season with the Terriers would get drafted last month. What you see is what you get with Diffley: he skates and moves laterally well, has an active stick to disrupt passes with, fills lanes and willingly blocks shots- in other words, he does all the little things you need your back end to do. There is not much in the way of upside, but if you’re looking for a safe, steady defenseman, there aren’t many undrafted options out there better than Diffley is.

 

Mike Vecchione, LW Union College (ECAC) 5-10, 185 (Saugus, Mass.)

After winning a state championship at MC with Fitzgerald, this smallish but talented and creative winger spent two years in the USHL before winning an NCAA title with Union College in 2014. Speed is the name of the game with Vecchione, who has explosive initial quickness and has an impressive glide. He’s also a savvy two-way forward who shows hustle and diligence on the back check and with his defensive responsibilities. With 33 goals in his first two college seasons, he is primed for a major breakthrough this year and big bucks as a free agent.

Boston Bruins prospects update- July 2015

With the final session of the Boston Bruins development camp in the books, it’s time to take a quick snapshot of where things are shaping up with about 60 days before the organization’s young players (minus those in the NCAA) will return to Boston for rookie and main training camps.

Given my admittedly limited online viewing of the development camp on-ice sessions available, here are some notes and observations of the players in attendance at Ristuccia Memorial Arena, supplemented by my own previous viewings of many of these players live and via streaming. More seasoned veterans like Malcolm Subban, Alexander Khokhlachev, Joe Morrow and Brian Ferlin to name a few were not present, while other players such as BU and Harvard defensemen Matt Grzelcyk (Charlestown, Mass.) and Wiley Sherman (Greenwich, Conn.) were injured.

Overall, there is some promising potential in Boston’s system, but fans were not treated to a dynamic breakout performance like they were a year ago when David Pastrnak introduced himself in memorable fashion. It’s a solid if unspectacular group, with several players such as Denver sophomore Danton Heinen, WHL defender Brandon Carlo and Harvard-bound center Ryan Donato (Scituate, Mass.) opening some eyes with consistent performances all week. Goaltender Zane McIntyre won the 2015 Mike Richter Award as the NCAA’s best goaltender, and did not take advantage of the loophole to maximize his coin by declaring himself a free agent, instead signing with the Bruins. He is in his sixth and final development camp with the team, breaking the unofficial mark of five, set by Tommy Cross (Simsbury, Conn.).

The B’s trifecta of first-round picks showed off their talents in flashes, but underscored the conventional thinking on draft night that none appear to be ready to grab an NHL job out of the gate. Things could change for them between now and October, but realistically, this is going to be a deliberate process for each one of Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk and Zachary Senyshyn. All three show promise but anyone hoping for a repeat of David Pastrnak from a year ago should temper their expectations for a longer timeline.

In part 1 of this 2-part series, we’ll look at Boston’s pro prospects, likely ticketed for Providence, and those playing overseas in the 2015-16 season. Part 2 will focus on the bulk of the camp attendees, still in the amateur ranks playing junior in Canada and the U.S. and college hockey.

Providence/pro prospects player capsules

Noel Acciari, RW (Johnston, R.I.); 6-0, 200

Acquired: Free agent, 2015

So, what do you do for an encore when you win a national title with Providence College? Why, you sign with the NHL team you always dreamed of playing for in the Bruins, of course! Perhaps one of the most unnoticed but key free agent signings of the past several months, the former Kent Lions and Friars captain plays a throwback, hard-nosed style, leveling opponents with clean hits but not engaging in unnecessary fisticuffs. The Hockey East’s top defensive forward is a crafty shooter who doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to finish, especially in clutch situations. However, where the Rhode Island native truly excels is in making life tough on opponents whenever they’re looking for space and can’t shake loose from this relentless forechecker who generates turnovers. He’s a player you go to war with.

Anton Blidh, LW; 6-1, 190

Acquired: 6th round, 2013 NHL Entry Draft

This gritty, agitating Swede is more of a bottom-six, in-your-face disruptive force on the ice. Blidh opened some eyes last winter with an impressive performance at the World Jr. (U20) tournament, and despite a lack of ideal size, his playing style is tailor-made for the Bruins and what he will face in the AHL next season. He’s not the most skilled forward, but he’ll force opponents to keep their heads on a swivel and he’s proven he has an opportunistic scoring touch when he generates turnovers. Blidh came out of the same Swedish team and system- the Frolunda Indians- as long-time fan favorite and current Boston scout P.J. Axelsson. He’s an industrious, abrasive player who catches your attention because he’s constantly in motion, and he has the makings of a solid bottom-six forward who will see time on the penalty kill.

Peter Cehlarik, LW; 6-2, 200

Acquired: 3rd round, 2013 NHL Entry Draft

The skilled scoring winger from Slovakia has spent the last three seasons playing pro hockey in Sweden is on the verge of being ready to try his hand in North America but is expected to spend one more year overseas with Lulea. He does not play a physical style, but uses his large frame to navigate traffic and establish a net-front presence when on top of his game. With an accurate shot and quick release, he has 20-30 goal potential in the NHL, but must show more dedication to a three-zone approach and improve his consistency and intensity.

Colby Cave, LW/C; 6-1, 200

Acquired: Free agent, 2015

The Swift Current Broncos captain is a versatile, underrated forward who can skate at center or the wing and brings a tenacious disposition to the ice with him on every shift. The B’s have looked to the WHL both in the draft and via free agency this season and the undrafted Cave was a solid get who is a two-way player with the intelligence and character to be more than the sum of his parts. Cave isn’t going to wow you with his skill level or earn a lot of “top player” honors in a development camp setting, but he’s fast off the mark and will give you a consistent effort and a heavy, effective 200-foot game that is so important in the NHL these days.

Colton Hargrove, LW; 6-2, 215

Acquired: 7th round, 2012 NHL Entry Draft

This rugged Texan does not bring much pro scoring upside to the table, but with his toughness and ability to finish around the net, he’s worth keeping an eye on. After improving offensively in each of his three seasons at Western Michigan he’ll likely see a limited role in Providence, where he’ll need to make the most of ice time and practice opportunities to pick up a step or two. With Tyler Randell already on hand to provide nastiness and occasional offense, Hargrove is going to have to put in the work, something that has been said he’ll need to improve as a pro.

Justin Hickman, RW; 6-3, 215

Acquired: Free agent, 2015

Multiple teams were in on the Seattle Thunderbirds’ captain (picking up on a trend here, Bruins fans?) who chose Boston in January after he had to shut it down for the rest of last season for shoulder surgery. The undrafted Hickman is back and ready to go for the 2015-16 campaign as a big-bodied power forward who needs to improve his first couple of steps but is tough to play against. He creates space for his linemates and does the grunt work along the walls and in front of the net, though will need time to work his way to the NHL. He’s a fierce competitor who isn’t flashy but will drop the gloves to defend teammates and is going to make his money in the greasy areas of the ice by paying the physical price to open things up.
Emil Johansson, D; 6-1, 195

Acquired: 7th round, 2014 NHL Entry Draft

The two-way defenseman who plays for HV71 has a pretty good skill level for being a seventh-round selection but often leaves you wanting more from his play. He’s a fine skater in a straight line and backwards, but his footwork is not the smoothest, and he struggles to move as well laterally. He can fire the puck well from the point and makes the first pass effectively enough. Johansson’s overall hockey sense and awareness is questionable, as he struggles with making decisions under pressure and can get to running around in his own end.

Joonas Kemppainen, C; 6-2, 200
Acquired: Free agent, 2015

Finnish pro league standout and champion had a fine playoff run and World Championship performance, earning a Boston contract this spring. Tall and thick-bodied, the 27-year-old is more of a defensive (though not all that physical) type who chips in key goals and timely offense than a consistent scoring center, but he might be an ideal bottom-line pivot. He’s accomplished at winning draws and a recognized penalty killer for his smarts and strong defensive awareness. Unfortunately, he injured his hamstring in Finland shortly before development camp started, so fans were unable to get much of a look at him.

Zane McIntyre, G; 6-2, 200

Acquired: 6th round, 2010 NHL Entry Draft

The NCAA’s best goaltender and Hobey Baker finalist in 2014-15 added another stellar season to his resume, and is finally ready to embark on his pro career five years after the B’s drafted him. McIntyre has done tremendous work to improve his technique and fundamentals over the past half decade, but his promise continues to lend itself to his battler’s mentality and emotional toughness that allow him to shake off bad goals and make key saves at crunch time. He’s still improving his skills, but there is so much to like about McIntyre, who has made a career of playing well in any situation, whether serving as a backup or playing every game as he did for the Sioux last year.

Frank Vatrano, LW (East Longmeadow, Mass.); 5-10, 205

Acquired: Free agent, 2015

The B’s may have leveraged the hometown advantage in landing the UMass Minuteman who tallied 18 goals (36 games) in his first and only full season in the NCAA before deciding to turn pro. A natural scorer with a wicked release and nose for the net, Vatrano came to development camp on a mission and in outstanding shape- having shed a few extra pounds for added quickness. The former U.S. National Team standout appears ready to make an honest run at a primetime role in Providence and perhaps something more next season and beyond.