Boston Bruins exhibition season update

The Boston Bruins made their first series of cuts on Sunday and there weren’t many, if even any, surprises.

All of the team’s major junior-required players were sent back to their respective leagues: Jakub Zboril (QMJHL), Zach Senyshyn (OHL), Jeremy Lauzon (QMJHL) and Jesse Gabrielle (WHL) all made strides from their first NHL camp a year ago, but because of the CHL (Canadian Hockey League- the umbrella organization of all three major junior leagues) agreement with the NHL to return all players who don’t turn 20 by December 31 of the season back to their junior teams if they don’t make the big roster, it was wishful thinking in the extreme for anyone to believe that any one of those players had a real shot at breaking camp in Boston.

They’re good prospects, all four- but they aren’t ready to seriously compete for NHL jobs. You have to balance the optimism and desire to roll out the shiny new toys with the reality of the current roster makeup and understand that for every major junior kid you try to shoehorn into the lineup, someone else will likely have to be exposed to waivers to keep them on the NHL roster. When you consider the fact that not one of them showed a readiness to be top-end contributors out of the hopper, what is the point of even entertaining keeping them around? Better to return them to junior and let them dominate if that’s their mission. Whether we agree that the inability to put them in the AHL is an issue or not, it’s a moot point, because that’s the system we have, not the one we wish we had.

All of Zboril, Senyshyn, Lauzon and Gabrielle show impressive promise and at some point, their time will come to take their place on the Boston roster…or not. But that time is not now, and the B’s needed to put the emphasis where it belongs: on those who are realistic options to make the team and contribute to the 2016-17 pro hockey campaign.

A raft of players were sent down to Providence, whose AHL training camp opens this week. Peter Mueller, who was in Boston on a professional tryout (PTO) before being released on Sunday will give it a go with Providence in hopes of landing an AHL contract and possibly more. The eighth overall pick in 2006 is 28 and could help the B’s farm team, but any hopes of his being able to make an impact at the NHL level after concussions essentially halted his progression. He’s spent the last three seasons in Europe trying to work his back to the top rung of the hockey ladder, but the Cinderella comeback just wasn’t happening based on early returns with the B’s.

Forwards Anton Blidh, Colby Cave, Peter Cehlarik, Colton Hargrove and Justin Hickman were returned to Providence, along with defenders Linus Arnesson and Matt Grzelcyk plus goaltenders Zane McIntyre and Dan Vladar. Veteran minor league defensemen Chris Casto, Tommy Cross and Alex Grant (all under contract to the Bruins) were placed on waivers and cleared for assignment to Providence. Players on AHL deals: Mark Naclerio, AJ White (forwards); Josh Atkinson, Chris Breen, Alex Roach (defensemen) and goaltender Matt Ginn will attend the P-Bruins camp this week.

Truth in lending here: we keep seeing raves about Blidh’s play and the Scouting Post (TSP) simply can’t get excited about this guy. He’s an agitating, energetic player but we just don’t see the skill/smarts needed to offset his average size at the highest level. Blidh’s moxie is appealing, but he looks like another solid AHL guy but not someone who is going to do much more than contribute in limited fashion if he ever makes the NHL. Unlike Vladimir Sobotka, who actually has some hands and creativity to go with his physical, agitating style, Blidh is an undersized mucker who isn’t going to do much offensively. Those types are a dime-a-dozen, so again- why get excited about a player like this? If he makes it, great- but we wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

TSP is higher on Cehlarik- he does have the size and offensive game to eventually work his way into the NHL mix. His skating has gotten better than when he was first drafted and there’s some upside here, he just needs more time to adjust to the North American pro game and it made little sense to do discovery learning in Boston when he can see a bigger role in Providence.

Grzelcyk showed some impressive flashes that we’ve long known him capable of bringing as an offense-minded defender and power play guy, but like Torey Krug four years ago- he needs to be in Providence where he can play a lot and develop properly under Kevin Dean, the Providence 1st-year head coach after being Butch Cassidy’s assistant for several seasons.

Hargrove and Hickman are both big, rugged power forward bookends who don’t bring much sizzle or flash, but play that heavy, grinding style with the ability to put pucks in the net. Neither is ready for primetime, but watch for both to have expanded roles in Providence this season and work their way towards seeing time in Boston, much like Tyler Randell had to do.

We’ve said it before, but Arnesson is not the droid we’re looking for. He’s a good guy with a solid skating and defensive mindset, but he’s not progressed much from when the B’s took him at the end of round 2 in 2013, and he’s just another guy at this point in a system that has more than enough of those. Talent-wise, he could play on the B’s right now, but he’s not going to make much of an impact. The clock is ticking, but other than being a pedestrian, bottom-pair kind of defensive D-man, it’s hard to project Arnesson as much of an impact player in Boston.

McIntyre showed promising signs of rebounding from a tough finish to the 2016 season. He’s got work to do in refining his technique, but we’re confident he’ll take strides forward this season in the AHL.

The AHL cuts mean that both of Brandon Carlo and Jake DeBrusk are still on the Boston roster, along with fellow rookie pros Danton Heinen, Rob O’Gara and Sean Kuraly. Put these players in the dark horse category for earning NHL spots out of the gate, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that one or two could make the cut. Heinen seems to be the most mature/refined of the bunch and the B’s took a hit at wing when Frank Vatrano was lost for three months after foot surgery last week.

By virtue of being late-’96 born players, both of Carlo and DeBrusk can play in Providence this season. DeBrusk is a personal favorite- he can score in a variety of ways and is a good kid. I don’t think he makes the final cut in Boston, but wouldn’t completely count him out, either. He scored the decisive goal against Philadelphia via shootout on a wicked laser beam, and he’s done what the B’s have asked of him since being the 14th overall pick in 2015. Now- admittedly, guys like Kyle Connor and Colin White are players you can make an obvious case for over DeBrusk at that spot, but that’s spilled milk at this point- the former Swift Current and Red Deer (WHL) standout has shown himself to have first-round talent and it will be interesting to see how he adjusts as a rookie pro. If he can make a rapid adjustment, 20-25 goals in the AHL is not an unreasonable projection.

Carlo is another guy who could possibly earn an NHL roster spot right away, and if he does that, more power to him. Even if he plays a reduced role from what he would in Providence, Carlo has the size, mobility and drive to make an impact this year. By virtue of being in Boston and practicing with the team he’ll develop, but it is up to the coaches and management to decide what scenario is most beneficial for him.

Everybody likes Danton…and that makes sense. Heinen is a versatile, mature and polished winger who signed with Boston after two years at Denver University (friendly reminder that you heard that here first, folks). TSP has said this repeatedly- he’s not someone who will dazzle you with his skill and ability- you have to be a student of the game to appreciate what Heinen brings in spades. The board work, the subtle passing touch and right spaces he moves the puck to under pressure, the ability to get in position for a quick shot or deflection to find the back of the net. He’s been everything as advertised, and yet we still see folks taking that “entertain me” approach with him and questioning what all the hype was about- well, if you buy into the hype, that’s your problem. Much of what I have seen from Heinen is right on par with what he did in the NCAA after the B’s took him in the fourth round two years ago. He’s making this team, folks- that’s the story and we’re sticking to it.

O’Gara and Kuraly are longer shots. Both have played well, but by virtue of being able to go down to Providence without being exposed to waivers, they’ll likely begin the season on the farm. O’Gara is the sure, steady, shutdown guy we’ve come to take for granted. If O’Gara somehow sticks in Boston, it won’t be that much of a surprise, but given the current makeup of the defense, he’d really have to knock at least one if not more veterans out of the mix- that’s a tall order for a rookie. Kuraly is impressing with his size and skating, but I still don’t see a great deal in the way of puck skills or hockey sense to be a top-six NHL forward. He probably tops out as a lower-end third line guy at the top level, but could be an effective fourth-liner.

Pro prospects Noel Acciari, Austin Czarnik and Seth Griffith are still in the mix as well, and offseason free agent Tim Schaller has battled injuries, but will be given an opportunity to make the final Boston roster. All, save for Czarnik, have NHL experience.

Looks like Acciari dodged a bullet/leg injury in the preseason and is back in action- the B’s are trying him on the wing after he played fourth-line center in the final 19 games of 2015-16. He’s a heavy-on-the-puck hitter ideally suited for a grinding role, and I have to think Claude Julien is looking for excuses to keep him on the NHL roster after what he showed last spring. Czarnik is a little engine that could-type guy- small, but tremendously fast and skilled. He’s making noise in camp after being a top performer in Providence as a rookie last season. He’s a little buzzsaw of offensive playmaking ability (with an underappreciated goal scorer’s knack) and the smarts to be a capable three-zone player in time. The B’s would have to make room for him this season, but Czarnik is earning it the old fashioned way- by working hard in offseason and practice and then going out and performing. Lack of size is the only knock on the former Miami University captain.

Griffith is still hanging around, and good on him. TSP’s position on him is that he’s headed into dreaded ‘tweener territory- an effective AHL scorer who lacks that extra something that translates to the NHL level. Without size and speed, he’s hard-pressed to excel in a bottom-six checking role in Boston.

Schaller, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent on 1 July, was a top defensive forward for Providence College before turning pro with the Buffalo Sabres. He’s split his career between the AHL and NHL, but given that he would have to be exposed to waivers to be sent down, watch for him to be given every opportunity to make the Bruins roster. This gives him an inside edge on Kuraly, who can be optioned down to Providence without being subject to waivers.

Finally- the B’s also brought in veteran defenseman Christian Ehrhoff on a PTO. He’s no longer the player he was for Vancouver in 2010-11 when he was one of the most sought-after free agents, and to be completely honest- isn’t likely to return to his zenith as a top-2 NHL defender- so even if Don Sweeney were to sign him, he represents a marginal upgrade at best. The problem isn’t Boston’s back-four- it’s the top-two/three. Ehrhoff is more fool’s gold- he’s a name guy from five years ago who simply hasn’t performed to the level of expectations after elevating himself over a two-season period with a top Canucks team. He’s probably better than Joe Morrow, who has shown he has the tools but might lack the toolbox to be an effective NHL defender (and we were big on Morrow’s potential coming out of the 2011 draft and after the B’s acquired him two years later), but saying that is more akin to putting lipstick on a pig at this point. At 34, he’s not getting any younger, but with almost 800 NHL games under his belt he’s got experience and can play both the left and right sides even though he’s a left shot.

The Bruins are already being projected to miss the playoffs for a third straight season. Barring any significant change to the top of the defense, that’s not a prediction to taking major umbrage to, but the team is showing signs of developing talent to contribute down the road. That isn’t going to help the 2016-17 B’s roster all that much, but with a savvy move or two, not to mention key NCAA prospects like Charlie McAvoy, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson and possibly even Anders Bjork on the horizon- there is reason for optimism.

2016-17 Boston Bruins preview series: the Centers

Patrice Bergeron is Boston's "Mr Everything" (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Patrice Bergeron is Boston’s “Mr Everything” (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

The NHL season is around the corner, and for the second consecutive season, the Scouting Post blog is back to provide the season preview and deeper look at the Boston Bruins from a position-by-position perspective. The team will soon break training camp on the 2016-17 NHL season at a brand-spanking new practice facility- the Warrior Ice Arena- in Brighton, and although the World Cup of Hockey is up first, there is no shortage of subplots and storylines swirling around this Bruins club.

Given the optimism surrounding the team at forward, we’ll start with the centers. Now, some might take issue with beginning the series from what is Boston’s greatest area of strength, but I started with the goaltenders last year, so there is a method to the madness.

Unlike last year, I am including an audio component to each post, so that allows me to write less and talk a little more, which will save me from carpal tunnel, but will also go a little easier on your eyes. So, without any more foreplay- here we go.

The Bruins are strong at the center position up and down the roster. They don’t have any flashy, dynamic types, but in Patrice Bergeron, have the best two-way pivot in the game, despite what Selke Trophy voters last year would have you believe. David Krejci is the ole reliable playmaking center, but with offseason hip surgery casting his season in doubt, there are some concerns about his durability, especially as he is entering the new year on the wrong side of 30. The B’s big-money free agency ticket item from the summer, David Backes, will be previewed both as a center and a right wing- but we’ve yet to determine where the B’s will slot him, and that promises to be one of the more intriguing storylines as the team breaks camp. Ryan Spooner currently holds down the third center spot, and the fourth line pivot is wide open. Noel Acciari finished the final 19 games of the schedule after recovering from a shattered jaw in his rookie pro season, while fellow Providence College product Tim Schaller was brought in to provide competition in the offseason. The B’s also recently announced the signing of Dominic Moore to a one-year deal, and former 2006 eighth overall pick Peter Mueller, who is trying to make an NHL comeback after concussions and injuries derailed a promising start.

The B’s also have some interesting potential in the system. Whether you’re talking the tiny but ultra-skilled and feisty Austin Czarnik or the slick, cerebral 200-foot pivot in Boston University sophomore Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, the B’s have a couple of options that might not be as far off on the horizon as one might think. Neither is likely to have a great impact this year (though Czarnik is in the AHL and is a dark horse to make some noise and see some NHL action after his excellent rookie pro season), but both Czarnik and JFK are mature players who are likely to work their way into the mix sooner rather than later. The latter player has already drawn comparisons by people in the Bruins organization (as well as some outside the club) to Bergeron, which is a high bar to set for the Swede.

In addition to Czarnik, Colby Cave is an effective two-way center who had a scoring role as captain of the Swift Current Broncos (where he lined up with B’s 2015 1st-rounder Jake DeBrusk) and showed some flashes of ability as a rookie in 2015-16. Sean Kuraly was a center in college, but is expected to shift to wing in the pros, now that he’s expected to start out in the AHL at Providence.

The B’s stirred up some dust when they drafted U.S National (U18) Team center Trent Frederic with the 29th overall pick. Interestingly enough, management (to include the departed former chief scout Keith Gretzky to Edmonton to be Peter Chiarelli’s newest assistant GM) likened the St. Louis native and University of Wisconsin-bound power forward to none other than his childhood idol Backes, who gave up the captaincy of the Blues to sign with Boston a week after the 2016 draft. In Frederic, the B’s get a big slab of beef at the center position for down the road, and if you believe his various coaches who rave about his intelligence and work ethic, there’s more than meets the eye here- he could be a late-bloomer, though don’t expect all that much in terms of production. The B’s also added huge Finn Joona Koppanen (6-5), but he’s more of a defensive clampdown specialist, so even if he makes the NHL, it’s not going to be as a scorer.

A project who will be worth the wait in terms of ceiling and offensive potential is Harvard sophomore and 2014 2nd-rounder Ryan DonatoWatch for the South Shore (Scituate) product to make some noise- this kid is the real deal, and we think he’s going to break out in Cambridge now that Jimmy Vesey has moved on to Broadway. TSP has been a huge fan of Donato’s ever since watching him first dominate the New England prep circuit in 2012-13 and then raise the bar in his draft season. He’s as intelligent and skilled as they come, and knocks on his skating aren’t fair given that he’s bigger than his dad (he gets his size from his mother’s side of the family and a former NFL linebacker uncle), but the hockey sense and hands are elite. Wisconsin junior Cameron Hughes and rising freshman Jack Becker (6th and 7th picks in 2015) are also in the mix as potential payoffs, but will require time and patience, and even then- neither might not ever make it as viable pros.

Outlook: The Bruins have ability and depth up the middle. Bergeron and Krejci (when fully healthy) give the B’s as good a 1-2 punch as any team in the league, but how Backes will fit into that dynamic as the potential third-line center (or whether he moves up and plays a top-two line RW role) remains to be seen. We also have to see how Krejci fares at camp; now that he’s been ruled out of the WCOH for Team Czech Republic, he has some extra time to heal, but if he’s not ready to go, then it’s a no-brainer: Backes moves up to the second line behind Bergeron. Spooner is the source of quiet debate- he appears to be the odd-man out here, as he’s not an ideal fourth-line center if Backes is 3C, and he is one of Boston’s few real trade chips given his youth, skill level and cap-friendly deal (though he’s up for a new pact in 2017). Dominic Moore is a 36-year-old veteran who could mean that Acciari goes back to Providence for more seasoning, and of course- the B’s added Mueller to a PTO, though that is no sure bet that he will even sign or play center for them. Schaller is a wild card for the fourth line as well, but if he’s going to make the Boston roster, he’ll probably need to do it on the wing somewhere.

All in all- center will be the absolute least of Boston’s worries this season, as the team has talent, experience and a roster to weather injuries and unexpected setbacks.

Now, listen to the pod for more (and working on getting these exported to SoundCloud for those who want to do download and listen later- bear with me- it’s coming):

 

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson aka "JFK"

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson aka “JFK”

 

 

 

B’s add C Dominic Moore to mix on 1-yr, $900k deal

As alluded here the other day, the B’s made good on the rumor that they were looking to add a veteran forward, announcing Tuesday that former Harvard standout Dominic Moore signed a one-year pact that will pay him $1M in 2016-17. He reportedly gets a bonus of $100,000 if he plays north of 42 games, so that deal adds to his announced base salary of $900k. TSP didn’t list him in our option players rundown, but we thought about it- Moore is just one of those players that in hindsight is the kind of guy that appeals to the Bruins and what they like to do.

On the bright side- Moore is an experienced center who is one of the better faceoff men in the league, even if his offense is a far cry from what it used to be (and with a career-high of 41 points- Moore was always known as a bottom-six, defensive forward). He’s a good guy and leader who will be a trusted veteran for the coaches and someone to mentor a few of the younger players.

On the down side, Moore is 36 and if no other moves are made to the roster, represents more of the same old, same old (pun intended) where the progression of younger players on the Boston roster is blocked by a low-upside but established NHL old salt. While you can make the argument that rookie Noel Acciari lacks the kind of higher-end potential to argue against Moore taking his spot on Boston’s 4th line, there are other players who represent an upgrade in skill at the position who now are effectively relegated to Providence (Austin Czarnik comes to mind) with the arrival of Moore in Boston.

It would probably be a bad assumption to say that the arrival of Moore and a possible trade of forward assets to acquire help at the defense position are mutually exclusive, but according to the Boston Herald’s Steve Conroy (via Twitter), B’s GM Don Sweeney said yesterday that “he’ll continue to look for D help but nothing imminent. Believes current group can improve & youngsters can challenge.”

Moore has gone through a lot in his 765 NHL games, including the loss of his wife (and former Harvard soccer star), Katie, to cancer. If you can’t get behind his potential to help the Bruins, even the most clinically detached of fans can recognize that the guy has overcome a lot to get to where he is in his pro hockey career, and sometimes- those intangibles are worth more than meets the eye. HNIC and NHL video on him here (you might want a tissue handy):

http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/console?id=548835

ESPN E:60 feature on Moore and leaving the NHL for a year to be with his wife:

Don’t believe everything you read, and there are worse players to bring in than Moore. He provides some experienced depth, but if you were a fan who didn’t appreciate the additions of Simon Gagne and Max Talbot to the Boston roster in recent seasons, then there’s likely nothing else that can be said here that will alter your feelings on Moore right now.

But regardless of how you feel about the move from a hockey perspective, it shouldn’t be difficult to get behind the man. Somewhere, Katie Moore is pulling on a Bruins jersey and getting ready to cheer him on for one more season.

 

 

 

The undrafted free agents: the next ones?

Wrapping up the undrafted free agents series with a Boston Bruins focus, going with four players who were in the AHL last year with the Providence Bruins. We could see one or two of them get some NHL games in with Boston this season depending on how things go.

Before we get to the four prospects, though- a little housekeeping first:

As reported in the Boston Globe, Gretzky to the Oilers as assistant GM is done, with Don Sweeney wishing his former chief scout well, lamenting the timing of the hire as an issue. Not one to stand in the way of letting their employee advance in a key managerial position even with a rival club (rival for obvious reasons I don’t need to go into), the B’s did the right thing by letting Gretzky go. This is one of those “if you love someone set them free” kind of things; the team could have played hardball, but that usually comes back to bite you. At this stage, the B’s don’t get anything for releasing Gretzky except maybe some goodwill and the hopes that they can build bridges with their former GM now in Edmonton rather than burn them. I saw someone (I don’t remember where it was) mention the other day that a Dougie Hamilton to the Oilers for Taylor Hall might have been something worth doing if relations between the teams hadn’t been so strained. I don’t know if that was even realistic to consider a year ago, and the world will never know, but cordial relations across the league are better than adversarial ones.

Now, former director of amateur scouting Scott Bradley, who held the post with Boston for more than 10 years before Wayne Smith was named to the position in 2008, will wear two hats as assistant GM and chief scout until Sweeney can find a replacement. Bradley is a good man who has spent nearly three decades in the Bruins organization. His watershed draft as scouting director was 2006 when the team landed Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand with three of their first four picks. Bradley was the guy most responsible for Lucic and a decade later, it was a hell of a find. He’s a man of integrity and a cancer survivor whose decency and dedication to the profession has earned him a great deal of respect around the league.

The Bruins are in good hands until a longer-term solution is found.

Now, onto the main topic at hand…

 

This is the last in a series of articles on undrafted free agents who have made an impact with the B’s: Torey Krug, Frank Vatrano, Noel Acciari, Tim Schaller and Kevan Miller. It’s pretty rare to have four UDFAs on one roster, and the skeptics would probably tell you that it might begin to answer why the B’s have DNQ’d for the NHL playoffs in each of the past two years.

Having said that, Krug has become an integral member of the Boston defense, while Vatrano shows a great deal of promise as someone who could net 25-30 goals or more down the road with a natural scoring knack that can’t be taught. Miller is a trusted if at times miscast defensive defenseman, while Schaller and Acciari are Providence College products who look like above average bottom-six players at the NHL level if they can keep progressing. If nothing else, they’re key cogs at the AHL level.

Now, we look at four players who have yet to reach the NHL, but show enough promise to get there. It won’t be easy for any of them, as with the exception of Czarnik, none display any real higher-end potential. However, as we have learned over the years- sometimes all it takes is an opportunity. This group is likely ticketed for Providence, but stranger things have happened and injury woes or exceptional play could see one or more of these guys get a shot at the big time.

Austin Czarnik, C- Often overshadowed by Vatrano’s scoring eruption last season, Czarnik had an outstanding rookie pro season in the AHL, posting 61 points in 68 games and impressing everyone from the get-go with his speed, smarts and hustle.

The former captain of the Miami University RedHawks was snubbed in the NHL draft because of his lack of size, but he’s always had pro-caliber wheels and brings creativity and moxie to the mix as well. He was recalled to Boston late in the season on an emergency basis but didn’t get into the lineup. While not an ideal fit on the third or fourth lines given the B’s current personnel, if anything changes, the team won’t hesitate to put him in there.

One play in the preseason last year really stood out as typical of what the little Michigan buzzsaw has always been about: on what looked to be a routine dump-in to the offensive end, Czarnik could have made a line change, but he recognized his opponents were making a change and a sloppy one at that. In an instant, he turned on the jets, and blew past a defender who was on the way to the bench but couldn’t adjust his trajectory in time. Czarnik got to the puck first and then made an on-target pass for a Boston goal. Those are the kinds of plays that earn trust and respect from the coaches because of the skill and intelligence behind them. At the NHL level, nanoseconds can mean the difference between making a play and coming up short, so Czarnik seems to understand already what is at stake.

Now, exhibition play isn’t the regular season, but it spoke volumes that one so young and inexperienced at the pro level came in and clicked right away, performing at a near point-per-game pace in the minors. Watch for Czarnik to make his NHL debut this season. He’s probably not going to begin the year in Boston, but he’s a solid bet to get some games in because he’s got scoring chops but is also working on improving his all-around play and is not a defensive liability.

Here’s his first career pro hat trick from December:

Chris Casto, D- The B’s signed Casto out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2013 and at one time, he was shaping up to be a top Minnesota high school draft prospect. With good size and skating, Casto won’t win on many style points, but he can really fire the puck and he put up the best offensive totals of his three-year professional career in 2016.

Casto is a smart and solid positional D. He plays a similar style to that of Tommy Cross, but without the second-round pedigree (and as-of-yet unfulfilled expectations) hanging over him. Casto keeps things simple: he doesn’t show off much in the way of flash, but is steady and moves the puck to the right areas. Like anyone who logs a lot of minutes, there are times when he’ll make a mistake that leads to a goal, but at the AHL level at least, he’s developed into a top-four presence who first-year Providence head coach Kevin Dean will likely lean on heavily in the new campaign.

Here’s a slow-mo video of a Casto goal from last season:

Colby Cave, C- It was a bit of a surprise that the B’s successfully signed Cave after they grabbed Czarnik and Vatrano in the spring of 2015 because Cave was viewed as one of the top undrafted free agents coming out of the WHL a year ago.

The former captain of the Swift Current Broncos saw time in 2014-15 with Boston first-rounder Jake DeBrusk, and had a solid if unspectacular first pro season in Providence last year.

Cave is a fine skater who is effective on the fore check and at forcing turnovers and plays a smart, capable two-way game. What you see is what you get with him- he’s going to take pucks to the net and make an honest 200-foot effort to compensate from a pretty average skill set. He plays the game bigger than his size, playing a rugged but clean style and his leadership no doubt appealed to Boston in their aggressive pursuit of him.

Watch for Cave to put up 20 or more goals in the AHL this year if he can stay healthy, and he could line up behind Czarnik in Providence’s top-two forward lines with the departure of Alexander Khokhlachev to the KHL. Players like Cave aren’t all that sexy or exciting, but they’ll get a shot sometimes ahead of the flashy but one-dimensional types who can only play on half of the ice surface.

Cave’s biggest problem is that he’s got Acciari and Schaller to contend with, and I don’t see him beating either guy out for a spot in Boston, so he’ll probably have to bide his time and try to elevate his play on the farm to make a case.

Cave’s first AHL goal is at about 1:02 of this highlight vid:

Justin Hickman, RW- Another WHL captain- the Bruins outbid several other NHL clubs for the Seattle Thunderbirds overager in January 2015 when he suffered a shoulder injury and had to shut it down for surgery.

He gets a pass for a mediocre rookie pro season because of the physical, rugged style of play Hickman brings and he looked a bit tentative at times as he adjusted to the pro pace after missing about 10 months of playing action by the time he started skating in the AHL.

He’s got good size and toughness- Hickman isn’t a heavyweight who can go toe-to-toe with the biggest, baddest fighters (admittedly- there aren’t many of those left), but he will actively drop the gloves to defend himself and teammates and loves to initiate contact and do the heavy lifting along the walls and in front of the net. Here you go:

Hickman doesn’t have an abundance of skill and best case for him would be to eventually land on an NHL third line somewhere as a middle-of-the-road option; he’s more likely a solid fourth-liner similar to Nate Thompson (who was coincidentally a Seattle product as well).

Stats don’t tell the whole story- Hickman was eased in and didn’t have much in the way of opportunity, but the B’s are quietly high on him and he’ll get a chance to elevate his stock as a sophomore. He’s not ready to make an NHL roster push, but a strong second pro season would go a long way for his confidence and give the team some options.

Austin Czarnik's 2013-14 Miami University Redhawks captain sweater (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Austin Czarnik’s 2013-14 Miami University Redhawks captain sweater (Kirk Luedeke photo)

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

Boston Bruins post-development camp prospect check- the Pros

Heinen

The purpose of this two-post series is to make a quick snapshot of where one analyst sees the Boston Bruins’ professional prospect depth chart stacking up after the 2016 NHL Entry Draft and this past week’s development camp. We’ll start with he professional players who are expected to be in Providence or in the North American and European pro ranks this season. On Monday, we’ll hit the amateur (NCAA and junior players).

Caveat up front- I did not personally attend development cam this year, so am basing my assessment on feedback from members of the Bruins organization, media and fans who were there in person to see the players. I have seen every prospect on the list, either on film or live, so the bulk of this assessment comes not from four days of on-ice drills and a 3-on-3 scrimmage, but from a season and in several cases, multiple years worth of evaluation. Note- I am only covering players aged 25 or under, so that takes Tommy Cross out of the mix on this list for those who might be wondering. Noel Acciari  and Chris Casto just make the cut as December 1991-born players.

Here we go, and I’ve done an audio file to supplement the limited write-ups below, so for all you Bruins hockey junkies, there’s more content in this post than ever…tell your friends!

The Pros (AHL, ECHL or Europe)

  1. Frank Vatrano, LW (East Longmeadow, Mass.) Plus: Put up mind-boggling numbers with 36 goals (55 points) in as many AHL games, while adding another eight goals in 39 NHL games with the big Bruins. The undrafted free agent turned himself into a sleek scoring machine as a rookie pro and is primed for a bigger Boston role this year. Minus: Without ideal NHL height, Frank the Tank will have to maintain a high-energy pace and work in all three zones to maximize his potential.
  2. Danton Heinen, RW Plus: After two high-end scoring years as a collegian, he put up a pair of assists in his second AHL game last spring; with his genius-level hockey IQ and slick hands, the 2014 fourth-rounder could earn an NHL job right away. Minus: He’s about 6-foot and not even 200 pounds, so he’s going to have his hands full with the increased speed and physicality of the pro game.
  3. Brandon Carlo, RD Plus: Like Heinen, Carlo’s on a positive trajectory at making the Bruins right away- he’s 6-5 and can really skate and move, already a beast in his own end, something Boston lacked down the stretch a year ago. Minus: Not all that instinctive in the offensive end; could stand to play a lot of minutes in more of a top role and on the power play to try and tease more offensive production and build confidence.
  4. Rob O’Gara, LD Plus: At 6-4 and north of 220 pounds, this premier shutdown/defensive mind can also skate extremely well for one so big- his speed and footwork has always been advanced, and the rest of his game has come along quite well in the five years since he was drafted in the fifth round. Minus: More of a “safe” prospect than one you would assign talk of high “upside” or “ceiling” to, O’Gara isn’t quite the physical specimen Carlo is (they’re close), but he may be a more complete defender when all is said and done.
  5. Colin Miller, RD Plus: “Chiller” has top-shelf skating, passing, shooting skills; showed off some offensive flair in his first NHL campaign, putting up a respectable 16 points in 42 games despite not having an overabundance of ice time/becoming a spare part in the season’s second half. Minus: The former LA Kings farmhand has a lot of work to do on the defensive side in terms of processing/making better decisions and improving his three-zone play.
  6. Austin Czarnik, C Plus: Dazzling offensive center impressed in his first rookie pro year with 50+ points to back up his tremendous speed, lightning-quick hands and ubermensch-worthy vision/hockey sense. Minus: At barely 5-8 (and that’s probably being charitable) the former Miami RedHawks captain wasn’t drafted, and will have to overcome size concerns at a position the Bruins are pretty deep at.
  7. Malcolm Subban, G Plus: The progress has been slower than expected, but there is no doubt that he’s one of the more dazzling athletic talents at the position and when healthy, has shown some major league promise. Minus: The fractured larynx was a significant setback, and if it hasn’t been one thing for Subban, it’s been another (    outplaying him in 2014-15)- this is the year that he proves his worth to Boston and justifies his selection in the 2012 first-round once and for all.
  8. Noel Acciari, C (Johnston, R.I.) Plus: Ace two-way center earned his way to Boston for a 19-game stint at the end of the year after being an undrafted free agent less than a year earlier; a good skater, superb faceoff man and intelligent, charismatic 24-year-old who plays the game hard, but clean- he’s got a lot in common with Patrice Bergeron, without the scoring. Minus: With just one NHL assist- there isn’t a whole lot of scoring in the well for the one-time captain of Providence College’s 2015 championship squad; as he turns 25 in Dec., there probably isn’t a whole lot of development left- he’s a solid, if unspectacular grinding bottom-line pivot.
  9. Matt Grzelcyk, LD (Charlestown, Mass.) Plus: When it comes to speed, sense, and spirit/heart- they aren’t built much better than the Townie, whose veins probably bleed black and gold; the former BU captain is an ultra-slick puck-moving defender who can push the pace and get the puck out of his own end with ease. Minus: At about 5-foot-10, Grzelcyk is going to have his hands full forcing his way into Boston’s top-six D rotation and might have to benefit from some luck and minors time to get there.
  10. Peter Cehlarik, RW Plus: Big-bodied Slovak plays the off-wing and signed with Boston after spending four years playing pro hockey in Sweden; he’s got a nice 6-foot-2 frame plus some offensive chops as a late third-round pick in 2013. Minus: He’s just an okay skater- he’s gotten better and can move pretty well in a straight line, but his first few steps and acceleration are clunky; he’s not great at the quick stops/starts/direction change and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to the smaller North American ice surface.
  11. Zane McIntyre, G Plus: When it comes to drive and character, they don’t come much better than the native of Thief River Falls, Minn. who once earned top goalie honors in that state- named for former Bruins great Frank Brimsek; whenever tested, the 2010 sixth-rounder has always responded with dramatic improvement and maturity beyond his years. Minus: It was a tough transition to pro hockey for the NCAA’s best goalie; he’s got technique issues to work through and will have to fend off fellow pro Daniel Vladar for internal crease competition.
  12. Seth Griffith, RW Plus: Despite the odds working against a smallish forward without dynamic wheels, the 2012 fifth-rounder has seen NHL action in each of the past two seasons; he’s a highly creative scoring mind with the superb puck skills to set up plays or finish them off. Minus: We so want to have Griffith higher on the list, but what is he at the NHL level? Scorer? Checking forward? We probably know the answer to the second question, so he’ll have to make it in the top-two lines- good luck.
  13. Daniel Vladar, G Plus: Huge (6-5), athletic and learning- he put up pretty nice numbers with the Chicago Steel of the USHL in his first North American season; very tough to beat on the first shot and improving his technique. Minus: After the B’s signed him to a 3-year ELC in the spring, where is the still quite raw Czech native going to play next year? ECHL? AHL? Europe? Clock is now ticking on his timeline.
  14. Linus Arnesson, D Plus: A bit of a forgotten man and 2013 second-rounder didn’t forget how to play- he’s got good size, can skate, make a clean first pass and is a smart, savvy defensive player even if he’s very much on the vanilla side of the red line. Minus: Nagging injuries kept Arnesson from getting out of second gear, and questions about his vision and ability to process the game well in the offensive aspects mean that at best, he’s probably a 4/5 at the NHL level assuming he ever gets there.
  15. Brian Ferlin, RW Plus: Looking for someone who can play the right side effectively and has enough size to drive through traffic and skill to make things happen around the net? Ferlin’s your guy. Minus: After a promising rookie pro season in 2014-15 that saw him see seven NHL games near the end, a concussion forced him out of most of this year- he’s got a lot of work ahead to put himself back to the fore.
  16. Sean Kuraly, C Plus: With his pro-style body (6-2, 210) and wide skating base, the Ohioan gets around the ice pretty well and has shown the potential to be a solid if unspectacular bottom-six option, either at center or more likely on the wing somewhere. Minus: There’s just not a whole lot to get excited about when it comes to Kuraly’s hands and creativity- when forced to carry more of an offensive load for Miami U. as a senior, he flamed out.
  17. Anton Blidh, LW Plus: You gotta love this energetic, abrasive little cuss of a Swedish forward who plays bigger than his size and stands out with his pure hustle and physical style. Minus: Unless you’re fine with him on Boston’s fourth line (which is A-OK) there’s simply not enough pure talent/ability in our view for much of an impact at the NHL level.
  18. Colby Cave, C Plus: Fine skater with a fine two-way hockey IQ and the raw leadership skills that will be an asset in any room. Minus: We just don’t see much in terms of high-level skill, so he’ll have to win a spot on the bottom lines while swimming in a pretty deep pool.
  19. Chris Casto, RD Plus: With his thick build and pretty quick feet to go with a bomb of a shot, Casto is a bit like Arnesson in that he’s not suited to ride around near the top of Boston’s prospect lists; he just spent three years in Providence after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota-Duluth and was qualified, so that speaks to the fact that the B’s saw something in him worth keeping around. Minus: Every team needs solid, safe, unspectacular players to feed their minor league farm teams and Casto might be that guy- unless the B’s get into a real pickle with injuries this season, it’s hard to envision him being seriously in the mix as a regular.
  20. Colton Hargrove, LW Plus: Put up surprising numbers in his first full AHL campaign; big, gritty power winger is heavy on the puck and finds ways to get dirty goals- one tough nut. Minus: There’s a lot of competition for bottom-six jobs and Hargrove  needs to improve his foot speed and maintain his focus/drive. He’s getting there.
  21. Emil Johansson, LD Plus: Another Swede in the Boston system- he impressed at development camp after a real strong finish to the Swedish pro season with HV71; he skates well and moves the puck with gusto- something the B’s desperately need. Minus: Excelling at drills against amateurs when you’re playing pro hockey overseas is one thing, being able to process, read and react in the NHL is another- still not sold on the 2014 seventh-rounder’s ultimate big league potential.
  22. Justin Hickman, F Plus: Coming off shoulder surgery, it was a frustrating year for the Seattle Thunderbirds captain and power forward who was slow out of the gate and never recovered. Minus: Undrafted free agent just another physical forward in a sea of them, but could rebound and improve his stock with better health and more confidence after playing through a challenging rookie season.
  23. Oskar Steen, F Plus: Energetic and gritty; excellent skater who has a low center of gravity and powers through would-be checkers while taking pucks tot he net. Minus: He probably deserves a better fate than to be at the bottom of the list, but someone has to bring up the rear- reports said he showed quite nicely in drills at development camp but was not as noticeable in the scrimmage/replicated game situations. A 5-9 forward has to be better at that.

Bruins prospects in their draft years 2010-2012

As a companion post to what I put up yesterday in going back to look at the Boston Bruins’ roster players and how they were projected in the annual Red Line Report June draft guide issues going back to 1999 (Chris Kelly) through 2014 (David Pastrnak), I thought we could also take a quick peek at the team’s prospects…the good, the bad & the ugly and see what is perhaps in store.

My conclusions from yesterday’s exercise- not enough production from the Bruins with their draft picks. Their best players (not including Zdeno Chara-I didn’t have a RLR 1996 draft year ranking for him, or guys like Tuukka Rask who were drafted by other teams) were all beyond the top-50 as ranked by Red Line, which goes to show you that hitting on first-rounders isn’t the be-all, end-all of developing players. However, there is clearly a dearth of high-end talent: All three of Phil Kessel (2), Tyler Seguin (2) and Dougie Hamilton (5) are gone. Boston had a chance to move up to grab Noah Hanifin (3- 2015) but it didn’t pan out, so they went with three picks in the middle of the round instead.

This gets to the heart of some of the concerns and criticisms fans and observers have voiced in recent years. It’s legitimate, but the B’s have also netted some value selections along the way as well.

So, let’s get onto the prospects, shall we? This post will cover most prospects/players still in the system (and in at least one case- on the way out) from 2010-12.

2010

Zane McIntyre (formerly Gothberg), G Drafted: 165 (6th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 154    Key comment: “Has all the technique of a gerbil on roller-skates.”

Observations: RLR nailed the pre-draft projection, and it is true- McIntyre (who changed his last name in 2014) had some technique issues coming out of Minnesota HS. He had a setback last season, as he struggled to adjust to the tempo and skill level in the AHL, but here’s betting that the soon-to-be 24-year-old will bounce back. The 2015 Mike Richter Award winner as the NCAA’s best goaltender has plus character and hockey smarts, but probably needs to settle down and simplify his approach. The shine is off his star a bit compared to where it was a year ago (and it had to hurt watching North Dakota win the 2016 collegiate title without him), but don’t count him out. McIntyre has shown a penchant for mental toughness, and he’s motivated to prove his worth. Watch for something from him this offseason here on the blog.

2011

Alexander Khokhlachev, C Drafted: 40 (2nd round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 13        Key comment: “Little Russian offensive whiz is vastly underrated.”

Observations: ‘Koko’ slipped to the second round amidst concerns about his average size and relative skating for his diminutive stature, though for several years, he looked to be near the top of Boston’s prospects depth chart. On the plus side, he’s got high-end creativity and to his credit, evolved his game in Providence, going from a bumpy start in 2013 to becoming (now Boston assistant) Bruce Cassidy’s go-to guy up front with two consecutive productive AHL years. Unfortunately, in albeit limited chances in Boston, Koko could never get it going to stick. The debates are endless over whether he was given a real opportunity, but at some point- you have to look past the coaches and focus on the player. For whatever reason, he made barely ripple despite ample preseason ice time and team sources told TSP that Koko did not respond very well to what the coaches wanted him to do. His goose is essentially cooked in Boston, as he has reportedly signed with St. Petersburg SKA of the KHL and will return home to Russia unless the B’s can figure out a way to deal him elsewhere for anything they can get. It’s an unfortunate story for Boston, but the reality is- there is plenty of blame to go around for his inability to make it work here.

Brian Ferlin, RW Drafted: 121 (4th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 245

Observations: As a previously passed-up player in 2010, RLR wasn’t keen on Ferlin despite his highly productive 2010-11 campaign with the Indiana Ice. Despite an awkward-looking skating stride, the Jacksonville native did some impressive work at Cornell in three seasons before turning pro in 2014. He made gradual but steady progress in the AHL as a rookie in 2014-15, earning a late-season recall to Boston, where he played a solid, grinding game on the B’s fourth line. Unfortunately for Ferlin, he suffered a concussion in the 2014 AHL playoffs, and one game into this past season, took another high hit that aggravated that injury, costing him much of his second pro campaign. His challenge is to work himself back into the mix with so many other similar bottom-six forwards in the system.

 

Sean Kuraly, C Drafted: 133 (5th round- San Jose)

Red Line ranking: 263

Observations: Acquired from San Jose as part of the return for Martin Jones, the Ohio native joins Austin Czarnik as consecutive Miami Redhawks captains in the B’s system. Red Line was not all that keen on Kuraly in his draft year, ranking him significantly lower than where he ended up going. With a big frame and decent skating in a straight line, he isn’t naturally skilled or all that creative offensively. He looks and acts the part of a solid grinder who will likely transition to the wing at the pro level. A solid middle tier player, don’t expect any kind of extraordinary return on investment, and he’ll likely spend at least one full season in Providence, maybe two before he’s ready to seriously challenge for a full-time NHL position.

 

Rob O’Gara, D Drafted: 151 (5th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 73

Observations: This Red Line favorite went way beyond where that service projected him, but so far- the Yale grad has lived up to the promise he showed as a Milton Academy junior. A big and mobile shutdown defender, his offensive numbers dropped off in his senior season after a surprising junior year. He’s always been a fine skater with agility and fluid footwork even when a gangly teen, so now that he’s filled out to a solid 6-4, 225 pounds- he has the physical attributes to make a run at the pro level. The Long Island native looked real good in late-season work with Providence in the spring, scoring his first pro goal and demonstrating that he belongs. Watch for him to begin the year in the AHL, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could make the big club with a strong camp and preseason or earn a call up at some point during the season. There isn’t a high offensive ceiling, but with his smarts and skating, O’Gara could stabilize the middle pairing one day.

 

Austin Czarnik, C Drafted: Undrafted (Free agent- Boston 2015

Red Line ranking: 142      Key comment:  “Yet another skilled, entertaining, feisty little dwarf.”

Observations: RLR was ahead of the curve on Czarnik in 2011, when he was ranked in the top-150, but despite being a talented scorer out of Green Bay of the USHL and later Miami University, no one took a flyer on him. Boston surprisingly won the free agent sweeps after he completed his senior season a year ago, and he immediately formed chemistry with fellow free agent Frank Vatrano in Providence and again in their first pro training camp together last September. Although just 5-7, Czarnik has blazing wheels, superior vision and a gritty, energetic game. All he needs is an NHL chance, and he doesn’t appear to be too far away from getting one.

 

Noel Acciari, C Drafted: Undrafted (Free agent- Boston 2015)

Red Line ranking: NR

Observations: Though not ranked by RLR in the 2011 draft guide, the service was onto him, listing him in the January issue as a player who played a very heavy and physical, but clean game. Four years later, Acciari parlayed that into the captaincy at Providence College and a national championship before signing with his childhood favorite Bruins. Undaunted by the prospect of being an undrafted free agent in a sea of like players, Acciari played hard for Providence and if not for taking a slap shot to the face that broke his jaw, would have made his NHL debut even sooner than he did. Acciari played 19 big league games (1 assist) but impressed with his adept faceoff skills, ability to hit hard but clean (ask Brooks Orpik about that) and ruggedness and mature character as a rookie. He did a fine job as Boston’s fourth line center, and he’ll never be one to put up much in the way of points at the NHL level, but more production would be welcome.

2012

Seth Griffith, RW Drafted: 131 (5th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 52       Key comment: “Average size, skating…all he does is light the lamp.”

Observations: Ranked later in the 2011 draft guide, Griffith was even more impressive  the following year, and like Jimmy Vesey, parlayed a superb 18-19-year-old season into a draft ticket in Pittsburgh after being snubbed. Griffith has a smallish frame and is not a dynamic skater, but boy- can he ever score! He finished near the top of the AHL in scoring last season and has an uncanny creativity and knack for generating offense. The biggest issue holding him back is the fact that he might be a classic ‘tweener: a highly effective AHL performer, but simply not fast or strong enough to be a top-six winger in the NHL, while lacking the ideal tools to be an effective bottom-six forward. He’s a heck of a talent, but might not be the right kind of fit to thrive in Boston. The key question is if that is in fact the case- can Don Sweeney leverage him into a helpful return, or will he be lost to another club for little to nothing?

 

Malcolm Subban, G Drafted: 24 (1st round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 69                Key comment: “Catches pucks as though they are live grenades.”

Observations: The RLR staff were not fans, as evidenced by Subban’s third-round projection. Boston surprised by grabbing him in the top-25, which was an eyebrow-raiser at the time, mainly because the Bruins didn’t need a goalie and you could make a convincing case that he wasn’t the best player on the board. In fairness to Boston, the talent level in 2012 dropped off a steep cliff in the first around 20, so Subban wasn’t a terrible gamble to make, but he’s struggled to establish himself as the team’s future option in net. Last season, he suffered a lower body injury and then was pretty rotten in his first month of play as he worked through some movement issues. However, in early December through the end of January, it was  as if someone flipped a switch- he played the best hockey of his pro career to date. Then, during warmups against Portland, he took a shot to the throat, fractured his larynx, and was lost for the rest of the season. That’s simply how things have gone for Subban, but he might just get the opportunity to be Rask’s backup this season. The talent is there- even if the luck and playing experience hasn’t been. RLR’s low draft ranking reflected questions about his technique and overall long-term potential…he has yet to prove them wrong for the skepticism.

 

Matt Grzelcyk, D  Drafted: 85  (3rd round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 237

Observations: This Charlestown native is another lower-ranked player that the B’s took much earlier, though in the Boston University captain’s case, he looks a lot better than where he was projected. A standout at Belmont Hill Academy before leaving Massachusetts for the National Team Development Program in 2010, the small but speedy and smart offensive blue liner was not a big riser at the draft, and Grzelcyk originally didn’t even plan to go to Pittsburgh to attend in person until he caught wind that it would be well worth his time. After the Bruins selected Subban in the opening round, they didn’t have a pick again until the late third round, and that’s where they grabbed him. He’s had his injury challenges- losing significant time to shoulder and knee surgeries, but with his wheels and natural offensive instincts, he could contribute at the NHL level one day after an AHL apprenticeship first.

 

Matthew Benning, D Drafted: 175 (6th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

Observations: At the time, there were whispers of nepotism when the B’s drafted assistant GM Jim Benning’s nephew out of Spruce Grove of the AJHL, but to his credit, the younger Benning is legit and has worked his way into becoming one of Boston’s most underrated prospects. Although he has just average height, Benning is a punishing hitter who moves around the ice initiating contact.  He’s got the vision and a soft touch on the puck to be effective in the transition game, and he also showed some improved power on his point shot this season for the Huskies. He’s not a flashy or dynamic offensive presence, but he chips in with key production, as he did in helping the Dubuque Fighting Saints to the USHL’s 2013 league championship. Banning is positionally savvy with a willingness to do the dirty work and like his dad, Brian, might be one of those players who goes on to fashion a solid if unspectacular NHL career because of his versatility and smarts.

 

Colton Hargrove, LW  Drafted: 205 (7th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

Observations: The rugged, older Texas power forward was picked up late and had very low expectations headed to Western Michigan University, but he has improved his offense in each season since the B’s grabbed him in the final round. With his big frame and natural strength, Hargrove showed some unexpected offense this season, doing some grunt work out in front of the opposition net and getting rewarded for it. Sweeney said that Hargrove put in diligent work last summer to improve his conditioning for the AHL and it paid off for him. He’s still a work in progress and will likely top out as a grinding third-line wing (at best) if he makes it to the NHL, but has the makings of a capable power forward and depth player for Boston. He needs to take the next step in 2016-17 and not regress after the pleasant surprise that was his rookie pro campaign.

 

Justin Hickman, C Drafted: Undrafted (Free Agent- Boston 2015)

Red Line ranking: 153               Key comment: “Strong centre with big shot is not the sum of his parts.”

Observations: The Seattle T-Birds standout was on the radar back then, but wasn’t picked up. The B’s ended up winning a bidding war for his services as a free agent 18 months ago, when he had to shut down his final WHL season for shoulder surgery. His rookie pro year was a disappointment in Providence, but reflects being eased back in more than anything. He didn’t play all that much and the production was certainly nothing to write home about, but Hickman has a natural edge and perhaps an untapped scoring skill set that could manifest itself as early as next year. Having said that- he was an undrafted free agent, so temper the expectations. (Of course- the next guy on the list didn’t have much in the way of expectations and look how that turned out…)

 

Frank Vatrano, LW Drafted: Undrafted (Free Agent- Boston 2015)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

Observations: What a story- from the outhouse to the penthouse! Very few were on Vatrano in 2012 not because he didn’t have talent, but because he was overweight and didn’t show the requisite work ethic to give teams confidence in taking a draft flyer on him. Those clubs are all regretting that now, as he not only was a goal-per-game guy as a rookie AHLer (36) but even impressed in stints with the big club. Vatrano rededicated himself in the offseason and came to rookie camp in September about 20 pounds lighter, looking like a completely different player. He always had that laser wrister that struck fear into opposing goalies, but he didn’t always move his feet and without the right conditioning, took longer to recover in between shifts. Now, he plays with manic energy and uses his quickness to dart into skating lanes and get himself into scoring position. He was like a mini-Midas last season- practically everything the East Longmeadow native- we like to call him the Springfield Rifle- touched…turned to gold. He’ll have a lot of scrutiny on him in the new season- he won’t sneak up on people like he did this year, but some guys just have “it” when the puck is on their stick, and Vatrano is one. When you hit on an undrafted free agent like the Bruins did with him after just one full year at UMass, then it takes the pressure off of the lack of success the team has had at the draft.

Coming soon: Bruins prospects in their draft years, 2013-15.

 

 

 

Bruins prospect updates- the Pros

Most of the Boston Bruins’ are in offseason mode. Note, I said most- not all.

Jake DeBrusk’s Red Deer Rebels were eliminated from WHL championship play by the Brandon Wheat Kings, but by virtue of being the Memorial Cup host city, they’ll be playing May hockey once the three CHL champions are decided.

Jeremy Lauzon, who dodged a major scare after taking a skate blade to the neck a few weeks back missed Rouyn-Noranda’s third-round playoff series win over the Moncton Wildcats. He may or may not be back for the President’s Cup series against the Shawinigan Cataractes. The deeper the Huskies go, the better the chance that the B’s may see one of their three second-round picks back in action, but that will depend on medical clearance and the player’s long-term health takes precedence over the desire to have him in the lineup today.

For everyone else, it’s about preparing for the 2016-17 season. I’m breaking up the prospects list into pro and amateur sections, and sliding all of the recent NCAA signings and players who are projected to be playing in the AHL season next year onto the pro side.

B’s pro prospects

Noel Acciari, C (undrafted free agent- 2015): The former Providence College captain finished the season with the big club, playing 19 NHL games down the stretch and impressing with his skating, smarts and effort. The single assist with the B’s is  an indicator that offense will not be Acciai’s strong suit, but given more time to center the bottom line as he gains experience, more production will come. He’s an overachiever who is strong on draws, hits everything forcefully but cleanly, and immediately earned the respect and trust of coaches. He broke his jaw when he took a Chris Casto shot to the face earlier to the season or else, as reported by Providence Journal veteran reporter Mark Divver, Acciari would have made his Boston debut even earlier. He’s signed through next season (pending RFA) at a $792.5k cap hit.

Linus Arnesson, D (2013 draft, 2nd round): The Swedish defender had tougher first full North American season than projected, dealing with nagging injuries for most of the year. Never a player who was thought of as having a high offensive ceiling, he’s mobile and savvy, but more was expected of him. With a year under his belt, Arnesson is a player who could see a Boston opportunity via recall at some point next season if there are injury issues on the B’s blue line, but if he can stay healthy, the focus will be on continued development. Arnesson is under contract through 2017 (pending RFA) at a $817.5k hit.

Anton Blidh, LW (2013 draft, 6th round): Gritty, abrasive forward doesn’t bring much in the way of points potential, but if you’re looking for a grinding energy winger who forces turnovers and plays a heavy game, Blidh’s your guy. Having said that, the B’s have no shortage of forwards who fit in this category, so there’s not a big buzz factor here. He’s got two more years on his ELC (2018) with about a $784k cap hit.

Brandon Carlo, D (2015 draft, 2nd round): One of Boston’s more eagerly anticipated prospects after being the 37th selection in June 2015, the late ’96-born Colorado native is eligible to spend the 2016-17 season in the AHL if he doesn’t make the Boston roster out of camp. At 6-foot-5, he’s highly mobile and a premium shutdown type defender. The jury is still out on his offensive instincts/vision to develop into a higher-end two-way threat at the NHL level, but make no mistake- this guy will play. Last fall, Carlo signed a three-year ELC that will keep him under contract through the 2019 season (RFA) at a rate of $820k per.

Chris Casto, D (undrafted free agent- 2013): Casto posted his best pro season to date, but has the look of a journeyman pro at the AHL level and it’s hard to see him beating out those higher on the depth chart to make a go of it His ELC is up and there’s a good chance that the B’s will allow the former University of Minnesota-Duluth star to hook on with another team.

Colby Cave, C (undrafted free agent- 2015): After signing with the Bruins a year ago, Cave showed some promise in Providence as an effective two-way forward with speed. He’s not a top-six project, but could in time establish himself on the lower lines. With two more seasons left (2018) on his ELC before Cave becomes a RFA ($655k), the former WHL captain is in the fold at a nice rate.

Austin Czarnik, C (undrafted free agent- 2015): The AHL’s leading rookie scorer with 61 points had opened eyes this season. Despite his small stature, he’s a plus-skater with superb puck skills and the hockey IQ to provide offense. He nearly willed Providence to a victory in Game 3 of their sweep at the hands of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and is a solid bet to see NHL time with the Bruins next season. He’s signed through 2017 at a rate of $817,500 (RFA).

Brian Ferlin, RW (2011 draft, 4th round): He was greatly impacted with concussion woes this season, his second pro campaign after a promising 2014-15 year that saw him earn a late stint in Boston. A bottom-six winger who can skate and excel in puck possession, Ferlin needs a bounce-back campaign in 2016-17. His ELC ($875k) is up and he is a restricted free agent.

Seth Griffith, RW (2012 draft, 5th round): Providence’s top scorer (23 goals, 77 points in 57 games) saw some very limited time in Boston this season and is still on the bubble in terms of proving whether he can break into a top-six forward role or might be a ‘tweener as someone who puts up points in the AHL, but has trouble establishing himself in the NHL. He’s got the hands and head to score, but the lack of size and speed make it a challenge for him. Griffith’s ELC ($759k) is finished and he’ll likely be tendered a qualifying offer, but whether the B’s dangle him as part of a trade package at some point remains to be seen.

Matt Grzelcyk, D (2012 draft, 3rd round): The Boston University captain signed a two-year (thru 2018) NHL contract worth a reported $858,750 per season (RFA) at the conclusion of his NCAA season. It was a tougher year for the Townie, as he dealt with starting the season late after knee surgery, only to injure his other knee shortly after coming back. His excellent speed and puck-moving ability will make him one of Providence’s top threats in all situations if he doesn’t win an NHL job out of camp next fall.

Colton Hargrove, LW (2012 draft, 7th round): A pleasant surprise, finishing sixth on the team in scoring with 14 goals and 30 points in 66 games. A big, rugged forward- Hargrove’s improved conditioning helped him to have success, but after a productive and impressive middle stretch of the season, he cooled off at the end. There is one more season left on his ELC, which pays him a $737,500 rate (RFA)

Danton Heinen, RW/LW (2014 draft, 4th round): After a tough start offensively, the British Columbia native erupted in the second half of the year for Denver University, finishing as the team’s top scorer and helping DU reach the Frozen Four. He’s a slick, playmaking wing who posted a pair of assists in his pro hockey debut with Providence and is a darkhorse to break camp with the NHL Bruins on the opening night roster come October. He’s signed through 2019 at a $872.5k cap hit.

Justin Hickman, LW (undrafted free agent- 2015): The Seattle Thunderbirds captain did not have the anticipated impact after missing the rest of 2015 to shoulder surgery and signing with Boston. He’s a hard-nosed winger with underrated scoring ability, but took a while to adjust and adapt to the demands of the AHL. Heavy on the puck and willing to play a physical, grinding game- watch for him to take on more of a consistent role next season, with about 15-20 goals at the AHL level a reasonable target to aim for. Hickman is on an ELC that keeps him a Bruin through 2018 at an (unconfirmed per General Fanager) $700k hit.

Alexander Khokhlachev, C (2011 draft, 2nd round): Despite making a difference in the AHL for much of the season, the 40th overall selection was not able to do much with the limited ice time he was given in Boston. There’s not much else can be said that hasn’t been already at TSP- he’s talented enough to be an NHL forward but hasn’t translated being an impact performer on the farm to the big show. Koko’s ELC has expired and he is expected to either be traded to another organization or pursue his Europe options with St. Petersburg, which owns his KHL rights.

Sean Kuraly, C (trade with SJS- 2015): The Miami University RedHawks captain signed for two years (thru 2018 at a $809k cap rate) after finishing a disappointing senior year. Acquired from the San Jose Sharks last June as part of the return for goaltender Martin Jones, Kuraly has good size and skating ability to be more of a two-way center or wing who is heavy on the puck and does the grinding work on the bottom-six.

Zane McIntyre, G (2010 draft, 6th round): A TSP favorite since before he was drafted in 2010, it was a season of ups and downs for the rookie pro. The former star at University of North Dakota has some work to do on technique and mechanics after being exposed at times during the regular season. His performance in Game 3 was a particular disappointment, but he has the drive to roll up the sleeves and get to work, so it will be interesting to see how he responds to the adversity next year. He’s signed through 2017 at a $975k cap hit (RFA).

Colin Miller, D (trade with LAK- 2015): The NHL tools are clearly there for the one-time Kings prospect picked up last draft day as part of the Milan Lucic trade. Although not tall, Miller has a thick build and has the skating and puck skills to be a solid NHL defender, but he also has to show he can think the game enough to log bigger minutes and take care of his own end. Miller’s ELC ($602,500) expired and he is RFA. Expect the B’s to extend him a qualifying offer and we’ll see what happens next.

Rob O’Gara, D (2011 draft, 5th round): Four-year starter and NCAA champion at Yale University finished up his eligibility this past March and signed a two-year ELC worth $925,00 per through 2018.A big (6-4), mobile defender who is sound positionally and can move the puck effectively, O’Gara may need developmental time in the AHL, but could one day join Boston’s blue line to form a pretty good shutdown presence with Carlo.

Malcolm Subban, G (2012 draft, 1st round): After a rough beginning due to a lower body injury, Subban was playing the best hockey of his pro career over a two-month stretch in the AHL when he took a shot to the throat in warmups. A fractured larynx cost Subban the rest of his season and means he has to hit the reset button, so to speak. He’s talented enough to win the Boston backup job this fall, but experience and an extended run as an AHL starter have continued to elude the 24th overall pick. His ELC runs  for one more season at about $863k before he becomes RFA.

Frank Vatrano, LW (undrafted free agent- 2015): The crown jewel of undrafted free agents last year tore apart the AHL (36 goals, 55 points) in 36 games with Providence, and still found time to make an impressive showing in Boston, where he finished the NHL season. The Springfield Rifle (no, I’m not calling him the “East Longmeadow Rifle”- that doesn’t have anywhere near the ring) added eight more goals in 39 games while exhibiting the speed and gusto that is sure to produce more offense at the highest level. Vatrano’s transformation and sheer impact this season earned him AHL co-Rookie of the Year honors (with Colorado prospect Mikko Rantanen) and set him up as a potential key contributor in Boston going forward.

Daniel Vladar, G (2015 draft, 3rd round): After finishing a solid USHL season with the Chicago Steel, the 75th selection last June is a giant (6-foot-6) project with impressive athletic ability. On the flip side, Vladar needs work with his technique and is still pretty raw- it remains to be seen whether he will be in the AHL, ECHL or possibly Europe next season. While not impossible, NHL is about as long a shot as it gets for Vladar at this stage of his development. Signed a three-year contract in late April worth $742,500 annually.

(Source for contract updates: http://www.generalfanager.com/teams/boston-bruins)

Update:

Maxim Chudinov, D (2010 draft, 7th round): After reports that the small, speedy and feisty defender wanted to sign and come over to North America, his St. Petersburg SKA team in the KHL just announced that he agreed to another two-year contract extension. Though it does have several reported provisions to give him an out if he gets an NHL offer or if his salary isn’t paid on time, the Bruins lose his exclusive negotiating rights on July 1. It looks like Chudinov won’t justify Boston’s decision to draft him six years ago, though the door isn’t completely closed. His agent is former NHL defenseman Petr Svoboda. If you can read Russian, here’s the extension announcement: http://www.ska.ru/news/view/ska-prodlil-kontrakt-s-maksimom-chudinovym

(h/t to Dominic Tiano for the update)

 

 

Bruins roundup: Czarnik, Griffith up; Tanev to Jets

I’ve been focused on the Jimmy Vesey situation but some key events happened yesterday directly and indirectly related to the Bruins.

The news broke Wednesday morning that Providence College senior forward Brandon Tanev came to terms with the Winnipeg Jets on an entry-level contract that would pay him max money, and take him through the end of the season. Say what?  Great news for the player- he plays fewer than 10 NHL games for a non-playoff club and immediately becomes a restricted free agent (RFA) up for a second contract that will bump him up but put him that much closer to unrestricted status. Good for Tanev, who took the long road but scored the NCAA championship-winning goal a year ago and brings pure speed, grit and a mature two-way game to Winnipeg.

The Bruins wanted Tanev and were reportedly talking to him as late as Tuesday night, but with their playoff race so tight, they couldn’t afford to give him what Winnipeg could. Consider it turnabout from a year ago, when the Bruins successfully wooed Seattle Thunderbirds captain Justin Hickman away from Winnipeg. Like Tanev, Hickman was an undrafted player who had been to Jets development camp and because he was a major junior player, even went to their main camp in 2014. However, in January 2015, when he had to shut it down for season-ending shoulder surgery, the Bruins came calling and he turned down Winnipeg’s offer to sign with Boston. In Tanev, the Jets returned the favor- not that this was a driving force behind the decision, he was a prime target for them and a lot of credit goes to Winnipeg’s Mark White, former Brown University coach and now employed by them as a scout and someone to help that team develop more of a foothold in New England.

Tanev is a good player and would have been a nice add for Boston, but for that kind of a deal, I can understand why the B’s weren’t the ones he went with. The team is right to focus on the players whose rights it already controls- Matt Grzelcyk and Danton Heinen– and they can also turn their eyes to a much bigger prize in Vesey later this summer. DU winger (and Heinen’s Pacific Rim linemate) Trevor Moore could be a target, but I’ve heard major interest in him on the part of the Toronto Maple Leafs and they have more contract room to sign him plus the opportunity to slot in sooner to boot. Regardless of where Moore ends up, he’d be a good get for Boston, but he’s not in Vesey’s class, and it’s likely a situation similar to that of Tanev where they try but won’t be able to win what could be a bidding war for the small but skilled Californian’s services. We’ll see.

The Bruins made emergency recalls yesterday to Seth Griffith and Austin Czarnik.

As mentioned previously on TSP, David Krejci is obviously banged up, but Ryan Spooner did not make the trip to New Jersey. Spooner’s injury is not major, but the team is being cautious with him, so Czarnik appears to be the center fill-in and may become the third NCAA undrafted free agent to play for the Bruins this season (Frank Vatrano and Noel Acciari being the others). Talk about getting bang for your buck! Czarnik was Miami’s captain (interestingly enough- his RedHawks successor Sean Kuraly just signed his ELC with the Bruins this week- let’s hear it for the Brotherhood)

UPDATE: Czarnik returned to Providence as of Thursday afternoon, so it looks like his NHL debut is turned off. For now.

You really have to hand it to the Bruins scouting staff- namely Scott Fitzgerald and Ryan Nadeau– for being so instrumental in finding these gems a year ago. Vatrano (did you know that he’s another player the Jets had interest in- they invited him to a development camp in summer 2014 but he was injured and did not attend) has had a jaw-dropping rookie pro season to say the least. Acciari came in at the beginning of the month and stabilized the bottom line with his speed, savvy and ability to play a clean physical game even if there’s not much in the way of offense. Czarnik, who showed off tremendous chemistry with Vatrano in the rookie tournament and NHL exhibition before continuing the magic in Providence, is a small but ultra-skilled and fast center with high-end hockey sense. He’s a forward version of Torey Krug in terms of his character and dedication to the sport, so it will be interesting to see how he looks with the big club- if not for his size, he would have been drafted and a known commodity coming out of the NCAA.

More to the point- he’s earned this chance to come up and see his first taste of the NHL by traveling and practicing with the big club. We’ll have to see if he makes it into the lineup against St. Louis on Friday, but it’s no doubt an exciting time for Czarnik and his family, and validates his decision to sign with the B’s last year when other teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs were reportedly wooing him as well. It is also telling that Boston did not bring Alex Khokhlachev up in lieu of Czarnik. That should pretty much signal the end of Koko’s tenure with the Bruins- right, wrong or indifferent- he just never quite did enough to stick. We’ve gone over it and whether you feel like he wasn’t given enough of a chance is really moot at this point. One can only hope that the organization can get some kind of asset back in return, but if he bolts for Russia that might prove problematic. In the meantime, Czarnik deserves the audition and he’ll infuse speed, skill and energy into the Boston lineup assuming he plays.

You can question Boston’s draft record in spots, but when the team can plumb the undrafted free agent ranks for players like this trio, it elevates the organization and underscores that it is a team effort and the foundational building blocks and resources are being spent wisely. We’ll see what lies ahead for these youngsters, but the early returns are encouraging.

Griffith is back for the second time this season and it would be good for the former London Knight to give the flagging Boston offense a jolt.

The 2012 fifth-rounder is still looking to carve a niche for himself and there’s no doubting his natural knack for scoring and impressive stick. If ever there was a time for a player vying for a role in the NHL and opportunity was there for the taking, it is now for Griffith.

The Blues are on a major roll and Boston’s chances on paper aren’t good. However, with some new blood and a great game from Tuukka Rask, anything is possible.

Update: final stats Benning, Bjork, Donato, Sherman plus Tanev watch

The 2015-16 hockey season came to an end in the first round of games at the NCAA D1 championship tournament Friday for a trio of Bruins prospects, plus a fourth who was injured and didn’t suit up for Harvard’s 4-1 loss to Boston College.

Northeastern University had a killer draw, facing the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks, who didn’t win the NCHC (St. Cloud State captured that honor), but were at or near the top of the NCAA poll all season. The Huskies took the early lead but UND scored five unanswered goals in what was an eventual 6-2 victory for the Hawks. B’s prospect Matt Benning scored NU’s final goal of the season, his sixth tally overall.

Anders Bjork was the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s top scorer yesterday, ripping a laser beam past University of Michigan goalie Steve Racine to tie the game at 1 in the first. He then assisted on Thomas DiPauli’s second period goal with a highlight reel move through three Wolverines players to gain the offensive zone, then one-hand a drop pass to the goal scorer. Unfortunately for Bjork and his mates, the game went to overtime and the famed ‘CCM line’ of J.T. Compher, Kyle Connor and Tyler Motte ended Notre Dame’s season with Motte’s sudden death strike.

The Harvard Crimson played hard, but a tough start and 0-3 hole was too tough to overcome against the BC Eagles. Ryan Donato showed some impressive flashes of what could be to come for the talented pivot, but was held off the score sheet. His linemate, Seb Lloyd, tallied Harvard’s only goal. On the other side of things, Ryan Fitzgerald was on the winning club, and assisted on Alex Tuch’s somewhat controversial goal to give the Eagles a 1-0 lead. Tuch appeared to drive Harvard goalie Merrick Madsen into the net before the puck ended up over the goal line, but after a lengthy delay on two reviews, the goal call was upheld.

Providence College’s double-overtime loss not only means that the Friars’ defense of their 2015 NCAA championship title is finished, but also began the Brandon Tanev free agent watch, and the Bruins along with another usual suspect in the NHL are rumored to be in on the speedy forward from Toronto.

Matt Benning, D Northeastern University (HEA)

2015-16 regular season stats:

Games Played: 41  Goals: 6  Assists: 13  Points: 19  Penalty Minutes: 37  +/-:  0

Differentials from 2014-15 stats:

Games played: +5  Goals: +6  Assists: -11 Points: -5 Penalty Minutes: +1  +/-: -6

Season in review: One year after scoring nary a goal in a 24-assist sophomore season, the former Spruce Grove Saint (AJHL) and Dubuque Fighting Saint (USHL) found the net six times and finished with 19 points from the blue line, good for second place on the Huskies among defensemen (Garrett Cockerill-22 points). Benning played a career-high 41 games as a junior. He was as solid and dependable a defensive presence as they come; Benning is not a big point getter, but he played a lot of minutes at even strength and special teams for NU coaches Jim Madigan and Jerry Keefe as one of the Huskies’ alternate captains.

Outlook: In a more recent update, TSP (this blog for those who might be wondering) talked about Benning being one of the more underrated prospects in the Boston organization. He’s not flashy or dynamic- he skates well and uses his natural hockey savvy to be in the right place to make plays in his own end. He’s not big by NHL standards, but like a defense version of Noel Acciari hits hard and clean. The son of former NHL rearguard Brian Benning isn’t an in-your-face intimidator, but he’ll step into players in the open ice with his ability to come across the grain smoothly with effective lateral glide and footwork. He’s just a smart player who motors along while other more hyped players get the lion’s share of the attention, but his goal yesterday was a statement and reminder that after being an unheralded sixth-round pick in 2012, he’s still progressing and growing. Don’t sleep on Benning as a solid eventual middle tier contributor in the NHL who just might have the same kind of stealthy upside his dad brought as a legit No. 2-3 two-way defender in his prime.

 

Anders Bjork, RW  University of Notre Dame (HEA)

2015-16 regular season stats:

Games Played: 35  Goals: 12  Assists: 23  Points: 35  Penalty Minutes: 8  +/-:  28

Differentials from 2014-15 stats:

Games played: -6  Goals: +5  Assists: +8 Points: +13 Penalty Minutes: -6  +/-: +31

Season in review: One word for Bjork’s sophomore campaign in South Bend: impressive! The 2014 fifth-rounder doesn’t have much in the way of size with a 6-foot frame that isn’t going to put on a lot of mass beyond his already 187 pounds. However, he used it to max advantage this year, leading the Fighting Irish in scoring despite being the third-youngest player on the roster behind fellow 1996-born skaters Dennis Gilbert (October vs. August) and Dylan Malmqvist (another Aug. ’96 who is younger by just a couple of weeks). Bjork consistently found his way on the scoring ledger all year and demonstrated an impressive ability to set the play from the off-wing.  He plays a heavy game despite not having an abundance of size and against Michigan in the NCAA tourney he was dangerous and pushing the pace well until it appeared he took an awkward spill that might have affected him. He was not as effective the rest of the way, but still was a noticeable presence as Notre Dame put a scare into the Wolverines.

Outlook: As a sophomore, the Bruins will likely leave Bjork in school for at least one more season, maybe two. He’s not what you would consider an elite scoring forward but there are no flaws in his game. The Wisconsin native is smart, hard-working and opportunistic. He’s shown a penchant for scoring the highlight reel variety of goal, particularly in the USA bronze medal-clinching game last winter at the World Jr. Championship. While I’m not one to throw the words “draft steal” around all the time, Bjork looks like superb value at 146th overall. He’s got the speed, smarts and tough mental makeup of a higher-end third-liner if he continues to develop and progress. The Bruins are thrilled with what Bjork has done since they drafted him.

Ryan Donato, C  Harvard Crimson (ECAC)

2015-16 regular season stats:

Games Played: 32 Goals: 13 Assists: 8 Points: 21 Penalty Minutes: 26 +/-: 4

Differentials from 2014-15 stats: (combined from USHL, USPHL, prep- Dexter)

Games played: -20 Goals: -15 Assists: -37 Points: -52 Penalty Minutes: -6 +/-: +1

Season in review: Don’t be alarmed at the statistical differentials, as the biggest disparity comes from Donato’s senior prep season- he scored 53 points in 31 high school games. His NCAA freshman season production compares more favorably to his stints in the USPHL with South Shore and USHL at Omaha. As a center playing for his father, Donato showed promise and validated his standing as a late second-round draft pick in 2014. He took a backseat to Jimmy Vesey, Alexander Kerfoot and Kyle Criscuolo when it came to scoring, but he flashed his impressive offensive talent throughout his first ECAC season. Last night, he made one memorable play in the first period when he came out of the corner and took the puck to the net, evading one BC defender before cutting back against the grain and nearly tucked a shot inside the left post. He was denied by Thatcher Demko, who made a great athletic play, but that kind of display of stick handling and hockey sense is a reminder of why Donato was such a dominant prep forward at Dexter School. Donato also looked good with Team USA at the World Jr. Championship, scoring a pair of goals in the bronze medal game but also showing a willingness to bear down and play a more limited/checking role for the American squad.

Outlook: Steady as she goes for Donato, who has the hockey bloodlines and passion to be a real good one in time. The Bruins aren’t in any immediate need to have him develop on a rapid timeline, so they can afford to be patient and take their time- expect him to play at least two more seasons in Cambridge, possibly three. However, he’s got to get stronger and keep improving his three-zone game. Watch for the production to jump as he will soon be one of Harvard’s most skilled forwards with the departure of Vesey and other upperclassmen.

Wiley Sherman, D Harvard Crimson (ECAC)

2015-16 regular season stats:

Games Played: 31 Goals: 4 Assists: 6 Points: 10 Penalty Minutes: 10 +/-: 9

Differentials from 2014-15 stats: 

Games played: -6 Goals: +4 Assists: +3 Points: +7 Penalty Minutes: +6 +/-: +9

Season in review: A solid sophomore year ended in disappointment with Sherman injured and out of the last couple of games. He finished second in scoring on the Crimson blue line with 10 points, scoring his first goal after going without hitting twine in 37 games as a freshman. With his mobility and reach, he showed improved play in his defensive end and his confidence is growing. Not having him against BC made a tough slog that much more difficult for Harvard, so it will be interesting to see how he performs in his next couple of seasons and if he can become a dominant shutdown presence in the ECAC.

Outlook: The 2013 fifth-rounder out of the Hotchkiss Bearcats is 6-foot-6 and skates fluidly for a guy so tall. He’s still lanky and has a lot of filling out to do. He’s more of a gentle giant than a tough, intimidating baggage-masher, however. When afforded time and space, Sherman moves the puck quickly and effectively. However, when the game speeds up and closes in on him, he can be forced into turnovers and questionable decisions. Extremely raw when the Bruins drafted him, even then-GM Peter Chiarelli said that Sherman was going to be a project player. He’s coming along well, but it’s far too early to project him with a crowded organization of middle-to-lower tier defense types. It will be another two years before the B’s are forced to make a decision on him, so watch for them to take the maximum time and assess how he performs as an upperclassman when he’s given a larger role as the anchor of the Crimson blue line corps.

The Brandon Tanev watch is on:

Brandon Tanev is officially on the market

Born on on the last day of 1991, the 24-year-old undrafted free agent out just finished his fourth and final NCAA season at Providence College.

The brother of Vancouver Canucks D-man Chris Tanev has blazing wheels and can put defenders on their heels with his pure open ice speed. More of a defensive/energy forward than a high-upside scoring winger (Tanev can play either side), he’s one of the better free agent options this spring,  but should not be expected as an immediate impact guy in the NHL.

He’s smart and tenacious- and make no mistake- if you come out of Nate Leaman’s demanding system, you’re well-coached and know what it takes to succeed as a pro. Here’s his 2014-15 highlights package courtesy of the Providence College Friars (and he did score the NCAA championship-winning goal btw):

The Bruins brought Tanev to their development camp last summer, but that is no guarantee in itself that they can successfully convince him to sign with them. The familiarity no doubt helps, and the B’s have done a good job of keeping tabs on him and making their faith in him known. Whether it is enough to convince him to come to Boston or he opts for a team that can provide him a better opportunity to come in and play sooner/with less potential competition could be the deciding factor. Of course, if he’s looking at Frank Vatrano, PC pal Noel Acciari and even how well Austin Czarnik has done this season in the AHL, Tanev is already well aware of the opportunity that exists in Boston.

There’s also this- a solid source mentioned today that the Chicago Blackhawks like Tanev as well. It’s amazing what a winning organization can accomplish- the ‘Hawks know they can unload draft picks every spring, but when they can attract the better free agent options, losing picks in favor or more developed and mature players on a faster timeline to the NHL is the way a top team stays in the elite. We saw it with Artemi Panarin a year ago, and while Tanev might not presently project as a top-six NHL forward, with his speed and smarts, he’s one of those guys you win with. If Chicago wins the bidding for him, then it’s one more shot across the bow to the rest of the league that at times to be playing checkers while Stan Bowman is playing chess.

Of course, Boston and Chicago are just two teams after Tanev…there are others. You can bet on it.

We shall see where Tanev ends up, but as of now, the B’s are in on him, so we’ll just have to see where it all leads.

B’s prospects deep dive 6: Griffith, Khokhlachev, Ferlin & Czarnik

After a few days of hiatus (and a solid B’s home win Saturday afternoon against the New York Islanders) TSP is back with another update on the Boston prospects. This post’s focus area is on the upstart Providence Bruins, who are a solid third place in the AHL’s Atlantic Division with a 30-19-9-3 record. What could have been a devastating loss when Malcolm Subban was hit with a puck during warmups nearly two months ago was mitigated by depth- Jeremy Smith and Zane McIntyre have ably filled in since then. The Springfield Rifle- Frank Vatrano– (profiled earlier in the series) has done much of the heavy lifting offensively, with a remarkable 31 goals in 31 AHL games this season, his first as a professional after signing with Boston out of UMass a year ago.

Here’s the deep dive on some of the key P-Bruins players making things happen this season:

Seth Griffith, RW

The AHL’s No. 2 scorer behind former Bruin Chris Bourque (but Griffith’s 63 points in 48 games have happened in 11 fewer contests than Bourque’s 66 points) has continued to roll in the Providence offense as he has done since starting the 2015-16 hockey season a little late due to a lower-body injury suffered in a preseason game with Boston. The former London Knights star and fifth-round pick in 2012 (acquired from Tampa Bay for Benoit Pouliot) has proven himself to be a dangerous scoring option at the AHL level but is still looking to carve a niche for himself in Boston.

Griffith has outstanding hockey sense and silky-smooth hands, which has allowed him to produce at every level to date, and he even invigorated the offense-starved B’s a season ago when he was called up and like Frank Vatrano flashed promising scoring chops before cooling off and being returned to the AHL (he scored 12 goals and 31 points in 39 AHL games in ’14-15).

Although Griffith lacks the pure speed and extra gear to separate in the open ice, he compensates with the natural instincts and feel for the flow of the game. He’s able to quickly dart into spaces in the offensive zone and use his excellent puck skills and lightning release to get pucks to the net and find teammates in scoring position.

At just 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, Griffith doesn’t have the size and ideal explosive element to his offensive repertoire but is smart and finds ways to make plays when the puck is on his stick. He must continue to develop and refine his game away from the puck, however. He’s smart enough to understand positioning and his responsibilities within Boston’s possession system, but without the size and strength to fight through defenders, he often times must outwit bigger, stronger opponents in puck battles along the walls. He does use his lacrosse background to good effect in terms of how he slips through seams in traffic and bounces off of would-be checkers to establish position in front of the net.

Current assessment: The dreaded “‘tweener” tag is still hanging around Griffith, but if the Bruins could figure out a way to get him into the mix for more of an extended look, it might prevent a mistake of letting him go only to see him blossom into a top-six NHL forward in another team’s colors.

Even without dynamic stopwatch speed, Griffith has shown in the past that he can still go end-to-end and score the highlight reel goal. To whit (and granted, the Devils D didn’t do their job and put Cory Schneider in a tough spot here but full marks to Griffith for making this play happen start to finish):

It’s high time to determine the way ahead for Griffith and the clock could be running out given out the situation at forward and the other options that GM Don Sweeney must choose from. Having said that- he’s a top scorer in the AHL and we’ve seen him demonstrate a real killer instinct around the net. If there isn’t a future in Boston, here’s hoping the Boston brain trust can figure out how to properly leverage Griffith for the kind of return the team can build around.

Alex Khokhlachev, C

This polarizing figure among the Boston fanbase is the organization’s biggest enigma. In Providence, he’s producing at a 1.13 points-per-game clip (18-33-51 in 45 gp), playing in all situations and proving himself as an exuberant player who finds ways to make a difference.

Contrast that version of “Koko” with the guy who comes up to Boston and has a hard time contributing and making an impact at the NHL level. To simply point at linemates and ice time, thereby blaming the Boston coaches as the root cause of his lack of success is a lazy argument that does not take into account that with his natural talent and ability, even the limited action does not square with the wholly lackluster impressions he’s made in the NHL. Greater opportunities are earned, not given- just ask Noel Acciari.

Koko is a player who on talent and skill alone should have enjoyed more big league success by now, but that production and impact has eluded him. It’s possible that he has put much pressure on himself during his various stints in Boston and that self-imposed stress accounts for his inability to demonstrate any kind of real effect. It is also possible, that he has been unable to take the coaching he’s been given and translate into his on-ice play in the NHL to date. Whatever it is- there is such a dichotomy between the Koko we see scoring big goals and making brilliant passes in the AHL- it’s hard to project what he is right now.

In similar fashion to Griffith, Khokhlachev doesn’t have the size and speed that NHL teams embrace, but he’s got enough ability with the puck that he has developed into one of the more consistent scoring threats at the AHL level. He’s creative and can push the offensive pace when on top of his game. He will go stretches where he is ineffective, but he can just as easily blow a game open with a shifty move at the blue line or a nifty slip of a check inside the zone to fool the goalie with his blurry-quick shot or find a linemate for a layup.

Current assessment: As is the case with Griffith, the Bruins will soon find themselves making a decision on Koko. In fairness to the kid, he just wants to be able to show what he has at the NHL level, but it isn’t like Boston has buried him, either. It’s not a simple matter of just taking the most skilled players and plugging them any old place on the roster- there is still a need for grit, hustle, determination and effort.

Khokhlachev’s lack of a consistent game away from the puck is what has held him from earlier NHL opportunities when his offense was more of a need. Now, with the majority of the forwards finding ways to contribute, there isn’t much for a player of his style and position to do other than to keep producing in Providence and be ready should the team determine he’s worthy of another chance and summon him once more up I-95.

If the Bruins could somehow tap into the AHL version of Koko and see that level of energy and…here’s the key now…production- then things might be different. As it stands, he’ll likely be moving on and one can only hope that if he does the team won’t rue the day he didn’t get more of a look in Boston. There’s certainly a segment of fans out there who won’t let them forget it.

Brian Ferlin, RW

It’s been a tough year for the 2011 fourth-rounder who parlayed a solid rookie pro season in ’14-15 into a spring cup of coffee with the Bruins, where he did not look at all out of place on Boston’s fourth line. Unfortunately, a concussion suffered in the 2015 AHL playoffs bled into this season, as he played one game at the beginning of the 2015-16 AHL campaign before being lost for much of the schedule. With just eight games played total (three goals), Ferlin is still getting his timing and all-around play down, though he’s putting in the effort to be the heavy player his Providence coach Bruce Cassidy went out of his way to praise last season. He even got into a fight (though some will cringe at what that does for a guy coming back from post-concussion syndrome as Ferlin has endured) yesterday in Providence’s loss to Utica.

A big-bodied power forward at 6-2 and about 215 pounds, Ferlin is a straight-ahead player who has surprising agility and a deft touch with the puck as an underrated passer from the right side. He’s not overly creative or dynamic- more of a stick-on-the-ice and drive the net kind of winger. A superb athlete- his father played NCAA baseball- Ferlin grew up in the Sunshine State and left home to play in the USHL for the Indiana Ice (with fellow B’s prospect Sean Kuraly) before spending three seasons with the Cornell Big Red. A ’92-born player who was passed over in his first year of eligibility, Ferlin has worked hard to improve his all-around play and understanding of the game after being a player who was often counted on to just go out and score in minor hockey.

Current assessment: The concussion setback may have prevented Ferlin from seeing some NHL games this season, as the fourth line in Boston has been a bit of a revolving door all season. Right now, the priority is getting him back into game shape and making sure he’s able to continue to play effectively without suffering any after effects of his extended layoff.

That might mean he doesn’t get a chance to see NHL action this season, but in the longer run that may pay off for Boston. In any case- he’s not a high-end scoring type, but showed effectiveness as a heavy on the puck/possession style forward who is able to cycle the play down low and establish a net-front presence. If he can develop his shot and goal-scoring touch, he could eventually challenge for third-line duty somewhere.

Austin Czarnik, C

The Michigan native and former Miami University Redhawks captain might be just 5-9 and maybe 170 pounds soaking wet, but man- can he ever motor!

In retrospect, no one who saw the right-shooting center in the NCAA should be surprised at the fact that the AHL rookie has produced at nearly a point-per-game pace with 15 goals and 46 points in 53 games this season. He skates up the ice at a blistering pace, revving a never-stop motor into the red with his fast feet and eternal energy source from within. When you talk about small players needing to be dynamic, Czarnik fits that prototype. He explodes to top speed in just a couple of rapid, slashing strides and is also able to jitterbug through open space, daring bigger defenders to stay with him.

When the puck is on Czarnik’s stick, it’s almost like an extension of his own arm- he can handle it at top speed and takes it in and out of traffic with the effortless balance and grace of motion. He’s not a prolific goal scorer, but he knows how to finish plays off around the net and isn’t afraid to shoot pucks when the lanes are there. A superb passer who can make on-target feeds from both sides of his stick blade, Czarnik makes those around him better.

Alas, with his size- he’s got to be a consistently special player in order to find success at the highest level. His work ethic and hockey IQ will go a long way towards helping him get there. Czarnik does not have the strength to assert himself in the o-zone, but he is willing to go into the dirty areas and pay the physical price to make a play.

Current assessment: Boston’s cup runneth over…at least right now when it comes to the center position. Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Ryan Spooner are pretty entrenched up the middle as things stand right now, and Acciari has certainly made a convincing case to remain in Boston for now as a stabilizing force on the fourth line (just look at the ice time and special teams work Claude Julien has already given him), so it is difficult to project where and when Czarnik will fit in up in Boston.

Given that he’s made a career out of proving the doubters wrong, I wouldn’t count against him. He may be small, but he’s fast and simply dynamic…the NHL has room for players like Czarnik in the right role and given time to develop his all-around game, which was already pretty strong coming into the pro ranks.

Here’s his first career pro hat trick, which came against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in December (video courtesy of the Providence Bruins):