The third Jake: Forsbacka-Karlsson

My desire to be clever with the Jack Nicholson tie-in to the previous post, plus the fact that center Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson was not participating in the Canada-Czech Republic game means he deserves a post to himself.

JFK is donning the scarlet and white, but don't be surprised if he trades that for the black and gold soon enough.

JFK is donning the scarlet and white, but don’t be surprised if he trades that for the black and gold soon enough.

The Stockholm native who came to the U.S. two years ago was a smart pick by the Boston Bruins, who snatched him up with the 45th overall selection. Other guys the B’s have landed at that precise position have done alright for the team: there’s Ryan Spooner in 2010, Patrice Bergeron in 2003 and Henry “the Medicine Hat Machine” Kuster in 1996. Wait, what?…Okay, so two outta three ain’t bad. (Kuster was a member of another disastrous Bruins draft class which pre-dated 2007 by 11 years but was just as unproductive.)

‘JFK’ who is taking his game to Boston already- though he’ll be plying his trade on Comm. Ave vs. Causeway Street- is a slick, promising two-way pivot who has Bruins hockey written all over him. The Bruins like to break down draft prospects into the 5 S’s: Size, Skating, Shot, Sense and Spirit (read: character, work ethic, toughness, leadership- the key intangibles) so, I’ll give a swag on him- watched him live at Omaha last season and many times on film including a little online action at Bruins development and USA national eval camps, so here we go:

Size: His listed 6-1, 195 vitals are a tad generous, but he’s got long limbs and will have enough strength to hold his own. He doesn’t have the frame to pack on much more mass, and it probably would work against him in so doing. He just needs to work on his upper- and lower-body strength as best he can while maintaining a healthy playing weight.

Skating: He’s an average skater who has a long enough stride, but lacks suddenness in his first few steps and does not possess a top-end gear. He moves pretty well laterally, and has the ability to jitterbug through lanes with an easy agility that makes him a difficult mark to line up in the open ice. Let’s face it- he’s not going to be a burner, but neither is Bergeron. He just needs to improve his short-area burst as much as he can and he’ll be mobile enough to succeed at the next level.

Shot: He doesn’t shoot the puck enough, but the raw tools are there for him to find the back of the net more often than his 26 times in 110 career USHL games with the Lancers. He kind of reminds me of an early NHL Adam Oates in that he’s always looking to dish and hit that open man for a prime scoring chance rather than unleash it himself.  He’s got a pro-caliber release and is pretty accurate with it, so getting more pucks on net will be key for him. When it comes to passing and puck skills, he’s smooth and efficient, carrying the biscuit with confidence and able to feather touch-passes for tap-ins or zip sauce feeds through traffic for the one-timer. He’s at his best when keeping it simple instead of employing cute toe-drags or dangles that work at the lower levels. As the late and legendary American coach Herb Brooks once said- “You’re not talented enough to win on talent alone,” and that applies to JFK.

Sense: JFK’s bread and butter- he’s intelligent and creative. He is what you would call an instinctive 200-foot player in that he can read the play, sense where the puck is going and put himself in position to make plays both offensively and defensively. He’s got that knack for understanding where he is in terms of time and space and can seamlessly transition from defense to offense in a heartbeat. He’s smart and disciplined enough not to make low percentage plays and is unselfish with the puck.  If he had that explosive initial burst, you’d see JFK zooming off on more breakaways… He’s extremely adept in the face-off circle, using a quick stick and some savvy strategies to win the bulk of his draws. As he gets stronger, he’ll get even better. I don’t know that he’ll be a top scoring threat in the NHL, but he’ll be one of those dependable role guys who makes his bones more in the playoffs at crunch time as opposed to putting up big regular season numbers.

Spirit: He’s a nice kid who speaks flawless English and is also a good teammate. He isn’t shy about naming Bergeron as the player he most tries to emulate and being around PB37 (when he eventually turns pro) will be great for JFK. He’s not a particularly gritty, fiery or tough to play against kind of guy, though. If you’re looking for urgency or someone who can really push the pace of a game the way a revved up Bergeron can (go back and watch Game 7 vs. Toronto in 2013 if you don’t know what I’m talking about), you’ll be disappointed with Forsbacka-Karlsson. He’s competitive, but not fiery…he skates hard, he’s just not coming at opponents in relentless fashion or putting defenses on their heels. He’s consistent and steady in his approach, and that isn’t a bad thing at all.

Outlook: This is a solid prospect- the kind of player you eventually win with, but he’s not flashy and isn’t going to come in and win a bunch of scoring titles. Fans should be patient with him, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him earn a big enough role as a freshman under David Quinn at BU this season because of his ability to play a disciplined game and excel on the PK. I see him as an ideal third-line center one day who might do some damage against other third-line units and lower defense pairings, but he’s going to take a while to develop and get himself in that kind of position to contribute.

Ask not what this prospect can do for you…ask what you can do to be patient and watch him grow.

A brief word on the two Jakes

Jakub Zboril and Jake DeBrusk, the 13th and 14th overall selections in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, faced off against one another last night as Team Canada took on the Czech Republic at the World Jr. Summer Development Camp in Calgary. The home team shelled the Czechs to the tune of a 7-1 score after the visitors tallied first- Brayden Point (surprise- another quality Tampa prospect) had a big night with a pair of goals and five points. Neither DeBrusk nor Zboril figured in any of the scoring.

It’s not a bad time to go back and revisit the two players that the Bruins have a lot riding on.

Zboril was not a surprise or issue at 13 because he was pretty solidly in the second tier of defensemen available after you got past Noah Hanifin, Ivan Provorov and Zach Werenski. Depending on the rankings you were looking at going into the draft, his size, skating ability and puck skills put him in the running to go that early, even if most of the public lists had him hovering around 20-28. The B’s wanted at least one defenseman in the opening round, and he was their guy. I have no problem with where he went or why, but there is some risk associated with the pick

There are a couple of things that kept Zboril perhaps from not grading higher than a 20-something ranking. No. 1- he missed significant time last season to a knee injury, including missing the annual CHL Top Prospects Game. That in itself isn’t a huge concern, but the fact that his father lost a promising pro basketball career to wonky knees is certainly something to watch for.

The other thing that is a little more troubling for me at least, and I saw this with him on film plus have been given similar reports from a couple of NHL scouting sources whose teams interviewed him…attitude. Let me be clear- no one is saying Zboril is a bad kid, but let’s just say that he doesn’t exactly set the ice on fire with his drive and hustle either. He rubbed at least one team official the wrong way at the scouting combine in Buffalo with his demeanor and answers in interviews. Maybe chalk that up to a bad fit between player and team, but Zboril has a lot to prove and high expectations to live up to.

The Bruins cannot afford a talented player who shows up to Boston on cruise control, so how hard he works and applies himself will be a key observation point for me.

DeBrusk, who went one pick behind Zboril, was another selection that raised eyebrows because he was consistently ranked on public lists in the 20’s. The Bruins need offense, and he produced it last season to the tune of 42 goals at Swift Current. He’s one of those guys who just always seems to be around the puck. I’ll let Red Line Report scout Mark Staudinger explain more:

“He has all the tools to play out wide and should utilize the opportunity. My only issue is whether he is a top 6 or middle 6 forward at the next level.”

Staudinger, who is in attendance at the Team Canada camp in Calgary this week, also provided me with this scouting report on DeBrusk back in May for the New England Hockey Journal draft preview issue:

Scoring winger constantly patrols the sideboards with purpose, driving sharply into edges making strong cuts to elude contact or head straight into contested areas. Great in transition, using good acceleration with a strong first step to take off in the neutral zone frequently driving past opposing defenses to get in alone on the goalie. Staggers perfectly, trailing a play to become an outlet for teammates, positioning himself to be in place for rebounds or second chance efforts. Strong on his stick in scoring areas, forces the puck towards the goal keeping feet churning through traffic. Zero hesitation; shot gets the puck off his blade promptly with pinpoint accuracy and strong torque  coming off the stick. Offensive zone cycle game must continue to improve by learning how to work more set plays down low- it will create further sustained puck possession.

So, can DeBrusk eventually make the NHL as a first- or second-line scoring winger? That’s the million dollar question, as DeBrusk was able to find a way to finish off plays in every conceivable fashion last season- in tight, from the outside, stick on the ice and flashing a quick release, or using his quick stick in close to deke goalies out of position. He scored a memorable goal on Zane McIntyre at Bruins development camp last month.

But, there are lingering questions about the skating and the overall game with him. He’s on the average side when it comes to size and he lacks an explosive, dynamic element to his game. It seems that if DeBrusk isn’t scoring, he’s not doing much else to help and that’s going to be a major area for him to address in his development going forward. In short, he also has a lot to prove in the WHL this season- to show the Bruins that last season was no fluke and that they were right to pass on the more highly-touted (and ranked) Mathew Barzal and Kyle Connor to take him. Again- when it comes to rankings, Barzal and Connor were higher than DeBrusk on the public lists, but teams do things differently, and the B’s obviously didn’t see it the same way.

“I’m amped up- it seems like I’ve had seven Red Bulls or something right now,” DeBrusk said right after his selection. “It’s an experience- once in a lifetime- and I’m super happy about it.”

DeBrusk made a comment at the draft that is important to keep in context, especially given the remarks about Zboril and his interview with a different NHL club. DeBrusk said that he got a “good vibe” from the Bruins and had an idea they were interested in him because his interview went so well with them; he said he had the Bruins in his top-three wish list after the interview. The same might hold true for Zboril- he might have felt so good about interactions with other teams that he just wasn’t feeling it with this other club whose scout I spoke to. We don’t know how many interviews he had done up to that point, or if he was just having a bad day in general. Food for thought.

Anyway- in closing, DeBrusk and Zboril addressed clear needs for the Bruins- in terms of their offensive upside and potential to generate scoring chances. DeBrusk doesn’t quite have the ideal speed dynamic, but he makes up for it with a shifty elusiveness around the net and the hockey IQ/creativity to put the puck in the net. They are both quality prospects and for good reason- they, along with Zach Senyshyn, are going to be highly important to Boston’s fortunes if the Bruins are expected to get back on track in the next few years.

No pressure or anything, guys.

Boulevard of Broken Dreams- Bruins drafts 2007-09

2009The While working out this morning I was listening to my sleaze rock/hair metal playlist and a song by Finnish glam band Hanoi Rocks provided some inspiration. Here’s what sprang up from one of Michael Monroe (Matti Fagerholm) and Co.’s signature songs.

Three years of draft futility didn’t have an immediate impact on the Boston Bruins’ fortunes, but after winning the Stanley Cup in 2011, the lack of production from 17 total picks from 2007-09 has caught up to the team. Blown drafts are nothing new to NHL clubs- every single team has had at least one in their history, with a surprising number of clubs faring poorly over a stretch. It happens. However, in the old days (read: pre salary cap era), richer clubs could at least attempt to buy back draft mistakes through free agency (didn’t work so great for the late 90’s New York Rangers). Now, with the importance of having impact talent on cheaper ELC deals and the necessity of building a quality supporting cast from within, nobody can afford to string together multiple busted drafts as Boston did early in former GM Peter Chiarelli’s tenure.

Here’s a quick look at three bad draft years with hindsight being 20/20 and who the B’s should have taken when they had the chance.

2007

Background: After striking it rich in Vancouver a year earlier with Phil Kessel and Tuukka Rask (Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand had yet to pay off, but that haul made 2006 the best single draft class in about 26 years when the team strung together two brilliant summers in 1979-80) the B’s regressed under coach Dave Lewis, missing the playoffs in Chiarelli’s first Boston season. The eighth pick put them out of range for the guys they reportedly wanted, but a top-10 selection nonetheless came with high expectations.

Who they wanted: London Knights forward Sam Gagner (Edmonton) and the Halifax Mooseheads’ Jakub Voracek (Columbus) both went off the board in the immediate picks prior to Boston’s selection. Gagner made the NHL at 18 but has stagnated, while Voracek was traded to the Flyers and has emerged as one of the league’s better offensive players over the past three seasons.

Who they took: Zach Hamill, C Everett Silvertips. Ouch. At the time, I felt Hamill was a solid pick because he had just led the WHL in scoring at age 18 while playing in a defense-heavy system under former NHL coach Kevin Constantine. What I and most didn’t know is that Hamill had some personality/off-ice challenges that made him a risky pick right off the bat. Suffice to say that his lack of speed and strength were big enough hurdles to overcome and he just didn’t have enough skill to overcome that. He finished his Bruins career in parts of three NHL seasons with just 20 games and four assists; he was traded to Washington for Chris Bourque in 2012, but never saw another NHL shift.

Who they should have taken: Logan Couture, C Ottawa 67’s. Double ouch. The San Jose Sharks knew a deal of the century when they saw one and jumped up to the ninth overall selection behind Boston to grab the OHL star. The All-Star has played in 379 games entering the 2015-16 NHL season with 139 goals and 287 points plus another 18 goals, 36 points in 56 career playoff games. Injuries have interfered with Couture’s production, but for the most part, he’s been everything you want in a top-10 pick and more. Couture here over Jamie Benn is based purely on how the players were projected in 2007, not now. More on Benn below…

The best available player (to Boston) of that draft:  Jamie Benn, C- Dallas Stars 5th round, 129th overall. Benn is exhibit A for how some players don’t hit their stride until after drafted at 17-18. In a re-draft today, Benn goes behind Patrick Kane, and maybe even edges him out for the top pick given his production of late- I’ll leave that debate to others. To know that the Bruins drafted Hamill, Tommy Cross before him is rubbing salt in the wounds. Hey- it’s not all bad, at least German bust Dennis Reul was selected with the pick immediately *after* Benn in the 5th round and not before (the Bruins didn’t have picks in the 3rd or 4th rounds).

The picks: 8- Hamill (20gp, 4 assists), 35- Cross (0 NHL gp), 130- Reul (0 NHL gp), 159- Alain Goulet (0 NHL gp), 169- Radim Ostricil (0 NHL gp), 189- Jordan Knackstedt (0 NHL gp)

The verdict: With 2 picks in the top-35 and just 20 games to show for six selections overall, this is one of Boston’s all-time poorest drafts. Yes, 2007 was not a great year, but imagine what this team would look like if they took Couture or Benn in the 1st and then P.K. Subban in the 2nd.

2008

Background: The B’s surged into the playoffs late and gave a good fight to the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round, going down in seven games but making it fun to be a Bruins fan again. With the 16th overall pick in what was considered a better draft in Ottawa than the year before, the team was looking at a pick with a longer-term payoff.

Who they wanted: Joe Colborne. The Bruins scouted the AJHL standout heavily that season, and so it was no real surprise that they ended up with him, as the team was essentially bidding against themselves. Not many clubs were reported to be as high on the talented but enigmatic center as Boston was.

Who they took: Joe Colborne, C Camrose Kodiaks. No surprise as said above– he was a talented gamble of a player who was controversial for questions over his fire and competitive drive because of his family’s wealth. I always felt that criticism was unfair and while Colborne has reached the NHL after being traded away from Boston and Toronto, he’s not anywhere near the player the Bruins thought they were getting. They moved him in spring of 2011 with picks to the Leafs for veteran defenseman Tomas Kaberle. In a good news/bad news scenario, the B’s won the Cup but in spite of Kaberle not because of him. He helped, but wasn’t the player Boston hoped for. Luckily, neither Colborne, nor the picks the B’s traded have come back to bite them.

Who they should have taken: Jordan Eberle, RW Regina Pats. Eberle’s star has fallen a bit in recent seasons, but he’s still the kind of speedy scoring forward that would have been a fine fit with the B’s.

The best available player (to Boston) of that draft: Derek Stepan, C Shattuck St. Mary’s. The Rangers got a steal with him at 51st overall…the B’s opted for speedy but hockey IQ-challenged Max Sauve instead in the second round. Capitals defenseman John Carlson (27th) is also in the discussion.

Hit: Michael Hutchinson, G Barrie Colts- 77th overall pick in the 3rd round was a good one as he emerged to help lead the Winnipeg Jets to their first playoff berth since the club moved to Canada and overall since 2008 when they were the Atlanta Thrashers. In fairness to Boston, he was inconsistent, alternating in Providence between brilliance and profound mediocrity, and never established himself as a No. 1 at that level in three seasons as a Bruins prospect, but just think how different their season would have been last year with ‘Hutch’ as the backup instead of Niklas Svedberg.

The picks: 16- Colborne (160gp 19-43-62-83- TOR, CGY), 47- Sauve (1gp), 77- Hutchinson (41gp 23-11-5, .918), 97- Jamie Arniel (1gp), 173- Nicolas Tremblay (0 NHL gp), 197- Mark Goggin (0 NHL gp)

The verdict: Colborne at least made it and helped the Bruins acquire a small championship piece, but nothing to show for Hutchinson and lack of success anywhere else (Former OHL forward Rob Flick– acquired for Sauve- was not re-signed) makes this another draft failure for Boston.

2009

Background: As the B’s headed to Montreal for the draft they had plans to make a splash by trading disgruntled star Kessel, reportedly to the Leafs for Tomas Kaberle and a top-10 selection. Apparently Leafs GM Brian Burke didn’t get the memo about the pick and even thought the Bruins were going to give them their first-rounder (25th overall), but this is hearsay. Bottom line- the deal fell through though Burke would pay a higher price for Kessel a few months later, while Boston held their first and hoped to do something with it after a great regular season and second-round playoff flameout vs. the upstart Carolina Hurricanes.

Who they wanted: Rumors abound that the B’s would have used that Leafs first-rounder on OHL power forward Zack Kassian. At the time, he was being compared to Lucic as a player with the physical prowess and skill to make a difference in all facets of the game. It hasn’t happened for him yet, and B’s fans can be glad that Kaberle and Kassian were not the trade returns the team got for Kessel, though Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton and their ultimate fates as Bruins are a discussion for another day.

Who they took: Jordan Caron, RW Rimouski Oceanic. Sometimes, a player looks like absolutely the right fit and things just don’t work out. Anyone who says they questioned Caron at the time is probably writing revisionist history, because though his skating issues were documented, Caron also had some of the better hands and pure finishing skills of anyone in the draft class. He even made an early impact in Boston, coming up during the 2010-11 season and flashing some impressive scoring on a few plays. Unfortunately, he never seemed to put it together during his time in Providence, and when in Boston, his play (and Claude Julien’s confidence in him) regressed to the point that by 2014-15, he was a popular internet message board whipping boy. When Caron was dealt to Colorado for Max Talbot, most looked back at the pick and felt like he was the can’t miss prospect who did exactly that.

Who they should have taken:  Ryan O’Reilly, C Erie Otters. The 33rd overall pick made the NHL right away and developed into the gritty, two-way forward and heavy player that suits the Boston style so well. He has since been traded to Buffalo and landed in hot water with the law recently, but on the ice, he’s tough to play against and can provide timely scoring, something Caron was never able to do.

The picks: 25- Caron (153gp 12-16-28-78), 86- Ryan Button (0 NHL gp), 112- Lane MacDermid (21gp 2-2-4-36), 176- Tyler Randell (0 NHL gp), 206- Ben Sexton (0 NHL gp)

The verdict: Again, not much to show for the draft picks, though Caron, Button (part of the Seguin trade) and MacDermid (part of Jaromir Jagr trade) all fetched return assets for the Bruins, so it’s not a total wash. Still- teams don’t draft players with the idea of making them trade chips. Randell and Sexton are still in the Boston system, but neither flash anything more than potential as NHL journeymen/role players, so another missed year in 2009 looks like fait accompli.

Conclusion: It’s easy to go back and play Monday Morning GM 8, 7 and 6 years later, and the Bruins are far from the only ones who have hosed up drafts in multiple years (hey- Vancouver, Phoenix, Calgary and so on- here’s looking at you!), but this is what we tend to do. After the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, the team began a natural progression downwards without fresh, young, skilled talent to replace aging veterans. To the B’s credit they got back to the finals in 2013 but could not beat a superior Chicago Blackhawks squad that had effectively re-tooled after winning it all in 2010 and captured another Cup this past June. The Blackhawks have done a great job of hitting on drafts, which was essential to their keeping enough talent in the system to off-set salary cap-driven personnel moves. They’ll be an interesting team to watch with their new look.

As for Boston- those missed years from 2007-09 forced the Bruins to play catch up and while the 2010-14 drafts have been more productive with talent yet to sink or swim, the team’s future may ultimately lie with how well the club did in 2015- with 10 picks, 6 of them in the top-52.

Here is Michael Monroe and Hanoi Rocks to bring it on home…

Observations from USA World Jr. Evaluation Camp

I’ll keep this short and pithy, but watched streams of the two exhibition games at Lake Placid yesterday between USA White-Finland and USA Blue-Sweden.

Brandon Carlo, D USA White (Bruins)- Has the look of a modern prototype shutdown defenseman: big, fluid skater, positionally sound, tough to play against. He’s not a baggage-smasher type, but he uses his 6-5 frame and natural strength to knock opponents off the puck. I was also impressed with his confidence when handling the puck. He made quick outlets or grabbed it in the neutral zone and advanced it smartly up the ice. He’s not all that instinctive in the offensive end and doesn’t walk the blue line like top two-way defenders tend to, but he did have an assist on Sonny Milano’s second goal of the day. Keeper.

Anders Bjork, RW USA White (Bruins)- He was rotating in with Ryan Hitchcock (Yale- undrafted) so he didn’t take a regular shift. I noticed him more on the PK, where he used his speed and quick stick to pressure the Finnish puck carrier and break it out the other way. He’s an effective forechecker and energy player.

Scott Eansor, C USA White (Seattle Thunderbirds- eligible 2016)- Small ’96 from Colorado can really skate and hustle- he was buzzing all game and creating scoring chances, finding the back of the net once. Reminds me a little of Tyler Johnson back in 2010- undrafted little plucky kid from the WHL who got things done. It was one game, and he’s not an offensive dynamo in the WHL (14 goals, 37 points in 72 games) but I want to see more.

Erik Foley, LW USA Blue (Jets)- No surprise here, but this is a player I have been high on for some time and he showed it on one particular play with fellow Bay Stater Colin White, when Sweden got sloppy on the PP and White forced a turnover, streaking up the left side. When the lone Swedish defender leaked over to his side, he then hit Foley in stride in the middle of the ice- Foley walked in alone and buried it for the shorthanded marker. Throughout the game, Foley did what he is known for- grind it out along the walls and help USA’s cause in puck possession. He’s a hard worker and his goal showed he has the hands/skills to match. Jets stole one.

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, C Sweden (Bruins)- It was a tale of two games for JFK, and not sure what happened. In the first two periods (especially the second) he was effective and energetic, making solid plays on both sides of the puck. He assisted on a second period tally by breaking up a USA chance in his own end and then transitioning the play from defense to offense with some shifty skating in the neutral zone followed by an on-target pass. In the third period, he saw his shifts reduced and didn’t accomplish much for the limited time out there. Don’t know if it was an injury or what, but it was curious.

Conor Garland, RW USA White (Coyotes)- Typical game from the undersized but skilled agitator from Scituate. It didn’t make it into the final copy of the 2015 Red Line Report draft guide, but here is what I submitted for him as an award nomination for pest/toughest player to play against- He’s like the mutant baddies in the new Mad Max movie- relentless, just keeps coming at you with the quick stick and the yapping until the puck’s in your net or you blow up, whichever comes first.

Chad Krys, D USA White (Eligible 2016)- Impressive game from the Nutmeg Stater and BU recruit- he skates very well and was poised, confident with the puck. He was effective on the point, getting shots through on net and it was his point drive that Eansor capitalized on in the 2nd period. Like many young players, he needs to guard against trying to do too much at times- he allowed a couple of turnovers because he didn’t make the smart, simple play, but he looked like a top-30 pick in this game and is someone to watch at the NTDP this year.

Auston Matthews, C USA White (Eligible 2016)- The pure skill and talent jumps out at you. It wasn’t a dominant performance by Matthews and he reminded me a little of Jack Eichel last year on a few shifts in that he seemed to be revved up and trying to do it all himself. He’s got that long, fluid stride and anticipates the play so well, often getting the jump on a defender because he has that elite vision and sense for where the puck is going.

Sonny Milano, RW USA White (Blue Jackets)- He put a stamp on the game with his first goal to tie it up- streaking in alone and putting a series of moves on the Finnish netminder before closing out the play. He then tallied again in the final frame on another jailbreak play, beating the Finns with his speed and flashing his lightning release.

Jesse Puljujärvi, RW Finland (Eligible 2016)- Currently projected as a top-5 candidate next June, this wasn’t a great showing for the big Finn. He did assist on Patrik Laine’s goal to open the scoring, but was largely ineffective in terms of sustaining offensive pressure or making the kinds of plays you would expect of someone with his talent. He showed it in flashes- on one shift late in the game, he took the puck off the faceoff and bulled his way through 2 USA defenders only to have the puck knocked off his stick before he could shoot. It was only one game- the ability is there. Looks like one of those big horses who can take control of the flow on one shift, but it didn’t happen yesterday.

Alex Tuch, RW USA Blue (Wild)- Snarly, effective game from the skilled New York and BC power winger. Milano and Tuch were their state’s first two players off the board in 2014 and they showed why yesterday with pretty disparate styles. Tuch’s team was on the receiving end of a loss, but he created space for himself and his linemates and stood out, especially in the second period.

A public service announcement from the Herlihy Boy: Please don’t over-hype the kids

Herlihy Boy

The internet is a wonderful thing.

It has allowed for the instantaneous transfer of information and insights on hockey players who, if not for the internet, would require you to be sitting in Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, NY to see them and have an idea of how they are performing.

Thanks to sites like FASTHockey, the annual USA World Jr. Evaluation camp is being streamed online, which gives part-time hockey guys who don’t have the ability to personally go to events like that the chance to see youngsters like Brandon Carlo, Anders Bjork, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Auston Matthews and so on.

Of course- the moment you begin to share the observations of how they are doing, the inevitable questions come streaming in as eager, excited fans want to know what the analysts think. It’s only natural, and while I welcome the excitement and genuine enthusiasm, I also think this “shiny new toy” mentality contributes to the overall negativity that we see associated with prospects and players as they work their way up the ladder and gain more exposure either in the NHL or minor leagues. Some tend to be disappointed or let down when they finally see this elusive prospect species competing at the higher levels because they built them up to be something they aren’t based on Twitter comments or message boards.  Beauty is often in the eye of the beholder, so one must be careful not to hype a player too much lest those on the outside build up unrealistic expectations and turn to negativity if they don’t pan out.

Not to pick on folks- but a positive tweet about Carlo turned into some pretty substantial logic leaps on the part of a few eager followers. While Carlo shows a lot of promise because of his size, mobility and refined ability to defend, he’s been a Bruins prospect for a little more than a month and is still very much a work in progress. Let the kid develop without trying to rank him in the USA pecking order or project him to be the next big thing in Boston.

I guess what I’m trying to say is- take it with a grain of salt. When you ask hypotheticals like- “Is this player going to be a future No.1?” The answer can be a resounding yes or no…but no matter who you’re getting that from it’s just a projection and it doesn’t mean anything until the player goes out and proves it. Some fans are generally positive, others more negative and yet some just try to play it down the fairway to be realistic. I go back to the old goaltending saw of not getting too high or too low after a game and finding the middle ground when it comes to following prospects. Instead of being in a rush to see them make the NHL, just let them develop on their respective timelines and evaluate them as they go. Some will live up to the hype, others won’t.

I’ll let Adam Sandler and Chris Farley explain what I mean with the old SNL Herlihy Boy House-Sitting Service skit. Just imagine that the Herlihy Boy is pleading with you not to get too wound up over these kids, and his assistant will drive home that message as only the late Farley could. Instead of asking you to let him sleep in your bed or move in, he’s just asking you to slow the roll a little bit.

https://screen.yahoo.com/herlihy-boy-house-sitting-000000334.html

Summer cooler interview series 1: Ryan Spooner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scouting Post Dispatches- Twitter mailbag #1

I want to thank everyone who submitted questions to me for the first edition of the electronic mailbag of questions. If you want to participate in this effort that we’ll do every two weeks or so, shoot your question to my Twitter account @kluedeke29 or use the comment feature on the blog itself to make your query.

1. Who is leading in the race for backup goalie and how short will their leash be?- Tyler @tylerbingham123

As a former beer league goalie, I’ll give this one a shot.

The current backup situation invites a lot of risk in my view. On paper, Jeremy Smith makes a lot of sense because of his low cap hit and the fact that the Bruins can afford to let him sit for long periods while Tuukka Rask makes a lot of starts. Smith was the most dependable option in net last year in the AHL, but that’s also the issue with him- he has no NHL experience, which essentially puts them right back to square 1 where they were a year ago when they gambled on a similarly inexperienced Niklas Svedberg to be the No. 2.

Some might point to the idea that Svedberg was a serviceable player who was poorly used, but the bottom line is that Claude Julien had very little confidence in him. There are compelling statistical arguments that Svedberg wasn’t utilized properly, but be that as it may- a good backup goaltender enjoys the trust of the coach and team to spell the starter in a lot of different situations. That Julien seemed almost perversely unwilling to use Svedberg when it appeared Rask needed a break the most is beside the point if you believe that going to the well with Rask repeatedly cost the Bruins a playoff spot in 2015. Part of what helped the Bruins earn the President’s Trophy the season before had to do with backup Chad Johnson and Julien’s willingness to give him starts and ease the starter’s burden. Johnson can’t be a starter in this league, but he was an effective backup in his one season with the B’s.

The question becomes- will Smith find himself in a similar predicament to Svedberg? Can the Bruins afford to have a repeat of last spring, when Rask went on a hockey-like death march of consecutive starts without rest because the head coach was not willing to put the backup in? This is the same kind of scenario the Bruins are inviting with Smith and Malcolm Subban or Zane McIntyre as well- all three are capable options on paper, but none are established NHL players- with Subban alone of the trio even having seen a minute of big league action.

On Subban- I just feel he’s better off playing his way into a more prominent role in the AHL with Providence while McIntyre apprentices behind him. Heck- McIntyre might even wrest more starts away from him like Smith did a year ago, but as fine a goalie as Zane looks like coming out of college as the NCAA’s top goalie last season, he’s still in his very first pro year. Expecting him to just go right to the NHL and then have to sit behind Rask most nights is not a realistic option in my view.

So- I think Smith makes the most sense as B’s backup as of July 31, but I still think the team will look to add someone with more of an NHL body of work, either as a bargain bin signing or training camp invite with the option to sign before the season if the coaches feel good about him. Who that is at this point is anyone’s guess- I thought Jason LaBarbera would be someone to fit the bill, but the best of the free agents are gone, so the team might just feel like going with Smith or one of the other kids depending on things go at camp and preseason is the best option. We’ll see, but I’m a believer that younger guys like Subban and McIntyre are best served by playing and not spending the bulk of their time opening and closing the door to the bench for their NHL teammates. We’ll see.

2. If Koko pushes Spooner out of 3C job, what happens with the two of them? Leave Spooner there and try Koko on wing? Jbench @jacobbench

The short answer to this question is that I don’t see Alexander Khokhlachev beating Ryan Spooner out of the 3C job anytime soon.

At this point, Spooner has done a lot to earn Claude Julien’s trust as someone who has grown up a lot over the years he’s been in the organization and finally started putting the offense together when the team needed it the most. Koko needs to prove he can do the basic things the team expects of him, so until that happens, it does no real good to fret over what to do. I will say that Koko is probably better suited to transition to wing and be effective there, and if he’s going to break camp and enter the 2015-16 on the NHL roster, that’s probably his best chance to do it unless Spooner gets hurt or plays so poorly against a lights-out showing from Koko.

That’s not impossible, but  it is a tall order. I think Koko fell victim to the hype machine that often occurs in the internet age- he simply wasn’t ready to compete for NHL time at 18, but that didn’t stop overzealous fans and analysts like myself from being dazzled by his offensive talent and overlooking the glaring defensive deficiencies in his game. He’s come a long way since 2011, but the team tried to trade him in the past and you can’t overlook that. If he is as valuable to the Bruins as he is on Twitter to a select group of folks- he would not have been in play. It’s the old adage that says if they traded you once- they’ll do it again. It would be great for Koko to establish himself as a Bruin, but as far as trade-worthy commodities go, he’s one of the few pieces that could fetch something of value right now.

3. Where do you see Mark Jankowski projecting to in an NHL lineup? Thoughts on John Gilmour as well please Nigel @red_monster

Jankowski still has top-six  NHL forward potential in my mind, and he was really starting to come on when Providence College needed him to. With an earlier-than-projected draft position comes high expectations, so I believe realistically, if he makes it in Calgary it will be more of a third-line center role. When you look at who is ahead of him on the depth chart, third line duty with the Flames would be a win for him and the team.  I do like that there is still room for growth and development with him, even if he’s fallen short of some of the lofty goals envisioned of him three years ago with his pure points and production, which has admittedly not been what everyone was hoping for. He’ll have to continue to get stronger and play heavier if he’s going to make it in Calgary, though.

Gilmour has the makings of a serviceable pro who is going to have to put in the work at the lower levels. He has good all around ability, but because he has less-than-ideal size for the position, he’ll have his work cut out for him. I personally think Gilmour is a journeyman big leaguer/solid AHL player at best, but I love it when players prove prognosticators wrong. He’s a winner, and if he uses that as a springboard to bigger things, more power to him.

What Bruins dman is most likely to slot alongside Chara? Greg Babbitt @babbitt_greg

Barring a change, I could see the team trying big Zach Trotman there to see if it can work. He lacks experience, but showed big league ability in flashes last season and if he keeps things simple, his mobility and long reach would make for a solid defensive partner. He’s a right shot and while not a physical, snarly kind of player, with more experience and the benefit of skating next to one of the game’s all-time greats much like young Kyle McLaren did with Ray Bourque two decades ago, Trotman might be a quiet but effective internal solution to that which has vexed the Bruins since Johnny Boychuk was sent to Long Island…kind of like what happened in 2009 when Johnny Rocket came to town and established himself as an NHL defenseman when some had all but written him off.

If the Bruins want to infuse more offense with Chara, then Colin Miller also makes sense there. He doesn’t have a lick of NHL experience, but he skates extremely well, would add another right-shot, howitzer cannon from the point, and seems to be a player who would thrive next to Boston’s captain, especially on the power play. He’s not as big as Trotman, and his hockey sense is a bit of a question mark right now, but Miller could be the one who takes that top pairing job if not on opening night, but perhaps as the season progresses.

Assuming Miller plays for the Bruins this season (I believe he will) the Barry Pederson for Cam Neely trade will continue for Boston into a third decade as the Glen Wesley-Sergei Samsonov-Milan Lucic branch continues to bear fruit.

4. I’d like to see Hamilton/Saad stick with their teams for longer. But do scouts think the current model is bad for development?- brimcq @mcqbri

It’s not something I’ve discussed with scouts or management types to be honest, but it makes for an intriguing topic.

Ever since the league instituted cost certainty- the salary cap- in 2005, we’ve seen the game’s economic landscape evolve over several trend lines. For a while, it was long-term frontloaded deals that allowed for teams to bury or move them at short money later on. Now, it’s the dissipation of second or bridge contracts for key performers coming out of entry-level contracts or ELCs in favor of significant dollars- those used to be reserved for top tier talents, but I think we’re seeing a paradigm shift with players like Dougie Hamilton and Brandon Saad whose cap-crunched teams are either forced to move them or the player is able to leverage the lack of cap flexibility for a change of address. This drives the talk of the NHL’s middle class getting squeezed, which is becoming more and more prevalent as clubs will have bigger ticket contracts and then have to rely on cheaper ELCs or bargain basement deals with little room for the middle ground/solid veteran types who typically clock in at around $3-4M a the current (and rising) market rate.

Hockey is a business- it always has been. But the days where owners and teams held the cards are long gone, so I think that teams and players/their representatives will continue to evolve with each emerging economic trend. I don’t blame Hamilton for seeking a situation he thought would be better for him, and in Saad’s case, they made a decision that they could not afford him at the going rate- that was a tough business decision that more and more teams will have to make if things continue. But, both situations have jolted teams and fans alike into the realization that you can’t simply assume restricted free agents will remain all that restricted for long depending on a team’s salary structure and how much they have invested in the veterans.

At some point- you wonder if the ever-rising salaries and the kabuki dances teams go through to stay cap compliant will kill the golden goose and force a seismic sea change, but it hasn’t happened yet.

5. With the Bruins prospect pool now overflowing who would be consider the 5 untouchables in the organization.- Mike O’Connor @mike77ca

The Bruins have quantity in their system for sure. The quality of the prospects is very much up for debate, however so it will be interesting to see how the 10 picks from 2015 plus the others from previous years perform and develop in the new season.

I don’t know that when it comes to prospects there is ever truly an “untouchable” because if another team is willing to pay a king’s ransom for an unproven player, I believe a savvy GM will often times make that deal. Of course- that position is becoming tougher to defend for the precise reasons I explained above as economics and the importance of landing impact players on 3-year (max) ELCs becomes ever more critical for teams who want to win the Stanley Cup. It’s hard to imagine the Edmonton Oilers or Buffalo Sabres parting with either one of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel for any offer given that reasoning, but I do believe that GMs have to at least listen and think hard about a team that comes in with high-end NHL players to offer, not the proverbial two dimes and a nickel for a shiny quarter kind of trade. In the end, the money and cap play much bigger roles than ever before.

The Bruins don’t have a McDavid or Eichel so to speak, so their situation is different. I’ll take a stab at it and offer these three players up in an effort to answer your question:

1. Danton Heinen, LW Denver U.- I have it from several sources that the one name teams asked about repeatedly at last winter’s deadline was the 2014 fourth-rounder who finished as the NCAA’s third leading freshman scorer. He may not have ideal size or speed, but his hands and hockey sense are top-shelf. As a late bloomer, Heinen has the look and feel of a classic diamond-in-the-rough who is going to one day play very well for the Bruins, so unless a team wants to give up the moon and stars for him, don’t expect him to go anywhere. His upside will also likely drive the team to court him to come out of school earlier because ELC term and CBA loopholes will force them to act.

2. Zane McIntyre, G Providence- The B’s are all-in on this kid, and he showed loyalty to them by not exploiting free agency to get the biggest money or a better opportunity to start elsewhere. Now, folks will say there is no room for sentiment in pro sports and they’re right, but I just feel like that Bruins are sold on the soon-to-be 23-year-old’s potential, character and all-around ability. They want him to be a part of the organization, so unless a team comes in to blow their doors off with an offer, he’s as close to untouchable as you will get. Besides, unproven non-NHL goalies don’t tend to fetch enough of a return from teams to make dealing him at this point worth the effort.

3. Jakub Zboril, D Saint John- He’s the top pick, he’s signed and the Bruins think he is going to be a future top-2 defender for them. Both Don Sweeney and Scott Bradley used the word “elite” to describe his ability, so you can be sure the B’s had him higher on their list than the 13th spot where they took him. They’re not going to turn around and flip him without seeing if all that potential they’re banking on starts to pay off for them. You can almost throw Zach Senyshyn into this same category as well- they have a lot riding on him and want to prove that he was worth the risk they took by grabbing him in the top-15. It’s hard to imagine a team coming in to offer the Bruins a top-6 NHL forward for a raw prospect like Senyshyn, so they’ll sit back and see if their gut instincts about him are proven correct.

That does it for this first edition- thanks to everyone that submitted questions and I hope we can do this again in a couple of weeks. You can follow me on Twitter at @kluedeke29

Dog Days of Summer- Franson, WJC National Eval Camp & Ivan Hlinka

We’re at that point in the offseason where there simply isn’t a whole lot going on hockey-wise. The top free agents are signed and off the market, many of the 30 NHL teams’ personnel are taking what little time off they can before annual August events pull them back into rinks and onto the job for the 2015-16 season.

Here are a few notes to keep us all centered, especially as NFL training camps open up and the pending football season grabs a lot of the headlines (not touching Tom Brady or Deflategate, though folks- and many of you are probably glad for that).

Cody Franson to the Bruins would certainly bring a player with name recognition to the team, but I’m not sure it’s the right kind of move for the long term.

Now, we have both Franson and Don Sweeney admitting that the two sides are in talks (among others) and I know that back in 2005, he was high on Boston’s draft list- they contemplated taking him in the 2nd round (they went with flash in the pan Petr Kalus instead). Some of you may remember that coming out of the lockout, the ’05 lottery was a snake draft, meaning that the B’s had the 22nd selection of the first round, then the order reversed in the second, giving them 9th pick and then back to the original order in the 3rd and so on- like the fantasy drafts for those who are into that sort of thing. So, the B’s contemplated taking Franson as early as 39, and then were hoping he would fall to them with the 22nd pick of the 3rd round. They got close, but it didn’t happen and they ended up with Finnish bust Mikko Lehtonen (later traded to Minnesota as part of a package for Anton Khudobin) instead.

Getting back to Franson- he was in prime position to cash in as an unrestricted free agent at mid-season, having the best year offensively of his career, but when the wheels fell off in Toronto and he was moved to Nashville for a premium return, he was unable to get going on a playoff team. That’s a red flag, and he’s a cautionary tale for the cap era, giving teams pause in locking him up for term and value because depending on which version of Franson you get, it’s the kind of signing that can make or break a team trying to contend.

On the upside, he’s an effective power play performer and physical defender who uses his 6-5 frame and long reach well enough. On the downside, he’s not all that mobile (the B’s have enough issues with team speed, thanks) and is not the most instinctive of players. To me- he’s more of a complementary piece who looks good on paper but isn’t talented enough to be a real difference maker. Some would argue that his performance in Toronto means that he plays better on a poorer club than on a good one, but I need to take a deeper look at some analytics on this one.

Should the Bruins end up signing Franson, I’ll do just that, but for now- I think the team is better off preserving the some $4 million it has in cap space and maintaining some flexibility to make an in-stride course correction without being up against the cap ceiling, which is what signing Franson will entail.

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The annual Team USA National Junior Evaluation Camp will get underway next week, and it’s a pretty good group of players attending this year’s event in Lake Placid August 1-8.  A complete roster of the invites can be found here. 

The Bruins have two prospects attending: 2015 second-rounder Brandon Carlo and 2014 pick Anders Bjork. Carlo played for Team USA at the 2015 World Jr. tourney and acquitted himself well as a late ’96 who had just turned 18 when he played. Bjork made it to the national evaluation camp but was cut from the squad. My guess is that the savvy two-way forward who finished his first season at Notre Dame makes it this time around because of his speed and versatility, but he’ll have his work cut out for him.

Carlo is a lock after having made the last WJC entry and with his 6-5 and condor’s wingspan, USA will need him. He’s an intriguing prospect because of his pure size and mobility (contrast that to Franson for example). It’s going to be interesting to follow the Colorado native in 2016.

Also attending are New England favorites Noah Hanifin (Hurricanes) and Johnathan MacLeod (Lightning) on defense; Colin White (Senators), Erik Foley (Jets) and Conor Garland (Coyotes).  Connecticut native Chad Krys is a 2016 draft eligible and will also be in attendance. He is my top area native for the draft class going into the season as an effective two-way defender.

Several other high-profile Americans for 2016 are at the camp as well- Auston Matthews (who made the cut a year ago at 17) will attract a ton of attention, of course. Matthew Tkachuk is on the roster as well, and is taking his game north to the OHL and Dale Hunter’s London Knights this season.

The 2016 WJC takes place from December 26, 2015-January 5, 2016 in Helsinki, Finland.

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The Ivan Hlinka select tournament is the annual NHL draft’s 1st/2nd round primer and is happening from 10-18 August in Breclav, Czech Republic and Piestany, Slovakia.

Here’s the USA roster for the Hlinka. Many will note that the National Team Development Program kids are not in this group, so this is a good place to explain why that is. The NTDP typically competes in the bulk of the Under-18 tournaments throughout the course of a season, but the Hlinka tourney is one time that USA Hockey takes a roster from all over the country with players that are not in the NTDP.

Bruins fans may not know that Zane McIntyre was USA’s goalie at the Hlinka tourney in August 2009. For him, it was his first real taste of international competition, and he used it as a springboard to greater success at the World Jr. A Challenge in the next couple of years after Boston took him in the 6th round in 2010. And of course- Johnny Gaudreau– anything but a household name in August of 2010, tore it up for USA and led them to a silver medal (along with the stellar goaltending of Harvard star Steve Michalek).

Canada owns the Hlinka because they can send their best under-18 players from the CHL without missing out on those who are often in the playoffs during the annual under-18 championship tournament each April. If you look at Canada’s roster for the Hlinka, it is literally a “who’s who” of top-60 picks for the next draft (and in some cases, the following year).

Once the Hlinka happens, the CHL is right around the corner and before you know it, summer is over and the 2015-16 hockey season is underway.

So, enjoy the dog days– boating, backyard barbeques and whatever you enjoy in the summer months, because winter is coming.

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.