Vatrano shines in debut

I had very limited viewing of the Bruins rookies’ victory over the Devils’ futures last night in Buffalo, but former U.S. NTDP and UMass Minuteman Frank Vatrano had a pretty good outing, scoring a pair of goals including the OT winner just 12 seconds in during 3-on-3 play.

He wore an ‘A’ in the contest last night and is someone who seems to have come a long way from the doughy teen whose shot struck fear into goalies at the NTDP, but had some issues that prevented him from playing at his original NCAA commitment- Boston College- before getting his development back on track in Amherst.

Providence Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy had this to say after the game:

“Frankie spent a little time with us [in Providence] last year, so he’s around the pro game — I think it helped him out,” said P-Bruins Head Coach Bruce Cassidy. “Even though he didn’t play a ton of games, just being around it can really help in your development the next year.

“I think once the puck drops, like everyone else, we all like good hockey players, whether they’re picked in the first round or walk-ons, for lack of better term. I think you’re going to appreciate what they do.”

You can read the entire article by Jess Isner over at the B’s main site here.

The East Longmeadow native is a natural scorer who is more quick than open-ice fast, but as his goals demonstrated last night, he has a knack for slipping through seams in defenses and getting pucks to the net. The OT goal happened so quickly because Austin Czarnik used his speed to close quickly on a New Jersey defender after the B’s dumped it on off the center ice draw. The Devil d-man appeared to lose an edge, and Czarnik was able to come away with the puck and throw it back out high in the offensive zone. The resulting shot was tipped into the net by Vatrano, sending the B’s rooks back to their hotel happy.
Vatrano is one of those guys who doesn’t get much fanfare because he wasn’t drafted, but he can flat-out score. Watch him do his thing from last season courtesy of Minutemen Athletics:

In net, Daniel Vladar stopped 37 of 40 Devils shots. He’s got some developing to do, but the early returns are good on the third-rounder, who is huge in net and moves with a fluidity that belies his 6-5 height. Watch for him to be a top ‘tender in the USHL this year with the Chicago Steel.

Noel Acciari and Jakub Zboril had the other Boston goals.

They finish the prospect game action tonight with their match against the host team Buffalo Sabres, who feature former BU mates Jack Eichel and Evan Rodrigues. With the amount of early draft picks Buffalo has been amassing since 2013, the host club has a significant advantage on paper, at least.

Zane McIntyre will get the call in game 2.

NHL 2015 rookie camps preview/player watch list- Eastern Conference

With rookies reporting to their NHL clubs for the annual rite of passage before the veterans show up next week to begin the real work of building towards that opening night roster next month, it’s time to take a look at some of the kids who will be competing in prospect tournaments this weekend and may one day contribute to the fortunes of their NHL clubs. Some of them might be doing that as early as this season.

I’m breaking the preview up into 2 parts- each by conference, starting in the East. There is no particular method to my madness other than to focus on players I have more personal and professional familiarity with. That might mean that certain highly-touted rookies don’t get a mention- that will be by design. I can’t cover every single prospect and some that are not highlighted might come off as snubs to some readers- that is not my intent.

This blog attempts to give you my insights based on what I observe and know, not what someone else writes about or observes unless I cite that particular source. If there is a particular player you want to see covered, let me know and I’ll hit up NHL guys I know who will have the firsthand knowledge of those individuals. Unlike other analysts out there who try to cover every player, league and geographic region in hockey, I simply don’t do that.

Thanks for reading- watch for the Western Conference watch list later this weekend.

Boston Bruins

Austin Czarnik, F- Small but speedy and offensively gifted forward was a nice free agent get for Boston last spring after captaining Miami University the previous two seasons and earning Hobey Baker finalist honors as a junior. The Michigander is not going to break on through to the NHL right away, but he could be an instant impact player offensively for Providence in the AHL.

Justin Hickman, F- Rugged power center was another undrafted pickup a year ago in January after shoulder surgery forced him out of his overage WHL campaign as captain of the Seattle Thunderbirds. He had a quietly solid development camp in July, but was not cleared to participate in the scrimmage to further protect that shoulder. A Boston team source expressed optimism that Hickman will surprise at his first Boston NHL camp (he previously attended Winnipeg Jets training camp) and with his heavy game and underrated scoring potential, watch for him to be another Providence youngster who is in line for an immediate role.

Eric Neiley, F- This Pennsylvania native and Dartmouth College product may have just average size and skating ability, but he once put up 40 points in just 10 games (due to injury) as a senior prep player at Phillips-Exeter. He’s a dangerous and creative player with the puck on his stick in the offensive zone. If he can do enough to impress, there might be an NHL contract in the offing down the line.

Frank Vatrano, F- The former Boston Jr. Bruins standout missed out on some D1 hockey while working a transfer to UMass, but the wait was worth it as he fired home 18 goals in his only full season with the Minutemen before turning pro. Although short in stature and of stocky build, he worked hard to come to camp with a leaner frame. The end result: he’s quicker, more agile and still has a lethal stick, especially between the hash marks. He’s got 20-goal NHL upside in time if he can stay driven and develop his all-around game.

Linus Arnesson, D- The Swede came over late last season to finish out the year with Providence of the AHL, where he was solid if unspectacular. He’s got fine size and mobility, but isn’t going to wow you in any particular aspect of his game. He’s more of a defensively savvy blue liner who can move the puck out of trouble and does well in puck retrieval, but don’t expect him to join the rush much or put up many points. You win with guys like him, but he’ll benefit from time in the AHL before he’s ready for full-time NHL duty.

Zane McIntyre, G- McIntyre has won top goalie awards at every level from high school (Frank Brimsek- Minnesota), junior (USHL) and the NCAA (Mike Richter). Now, he is entering the pro ranks and it will be interesting to see what the Bruins will do with him in his first year. To maximize his playing time, the ECHL might be the best fit for him, but an excellent camp and exhibition season will make it tough on the brain trust. Depending on what happens with Jonas Gustavsson and his PTO, there probably isn’t enough net for all three of Malcolm Subban, Jeremy Smith and McIntyre, so this rookie tourney will be key to the 23-year-old making a good first impression.

(Good UND-produced video and segment on McIntyre at the 7:00 mark.)

Buffalo Sabres

Jack Eichel, F- The excitement is palpable, as the 2015 Hobey Baker winner and second overall pick left BU after just one year to turn pro. Unless something unforeseen occurs, Eichel is expected to play the season in Buffalo and will energize the town and team with his superb speed, hands and all-around game. Eichel is both skilled and mature enough to earn new coach Dan Bylsma’s trust, and although the vast majority of Sabres Nation was hoping for Connor McDavid, if there ever was a year to have the second pick in a draft, 2015 was it.

Justin Bailey, F- I’ve been tracking with interest this Buffalo native’s since his draft year (2013) when he impressed with his pure potential even if he was (and still is) a raw, developing prospect. The son of a former NFL player, Bailey was raised by his mother, Karen, who infused old school values into his upbringing. Bailey also benefited from being around members of the Sabres like Matthew Barnaby and Daniel Briere, who got to know the family and helped stoke his passion for hockey at a young age. Like Boston’s Ryan Donato, Bailey is living the dream of being a prospect for the team he grew up cheering for and having a personal connection to. With his 6-3 frame, and NHL-caliber tools, he has the makings of an eventual NHL power forward.

Carolina Hurricanes

Noah Hanifin, D- Carolina fans unfortunately will have to wait a little longer on Hanifin, who is not participating in the team’s annual venture to the Traverse City, Mich. Rookie tournament due to injury. Like Eichel, Hanifin left the Hockey East after just one season but several NHL scouts tell me they think he can play in the big show right away. We’ll see if he can put his nagging injury behind him in time to have a strong camp and preseason, but everything about Hanifin to date in his young career indicates he will do just that.

Brett Pesce, D- Former UNH standout and 2013 third-rounder is a rangy defender from New York who didn’t quite elevate his offense as expected, but was a solid contributor to the Wildcats in his three seasons at Durham. He’s a hard-nosed defender with size and underrated puck-moving skills who doesn’t give up real estate willingly and will likely become an effective shutdown presence in the NHL after some minor league apprenticing.

Sergey Tolchinsky, F- Speedy little Russian waterbug was passed over in the 2013 NHL entry draft despite putting up a fine season at Sault Ste. Marie with the Greyhounds, only to earn a free agent contact. He’s so skilled and dangerous, reminding of another little Russian named Sergei- Samsonov- who should have been a bigger NHL star than he was, but never really fully recovered his magical hands after wrist surgery. Filthy move at this summer’s development camp…

 

Columbus Blue Jackets

Sonny Milano, F- The Long Island product switched NCAA commitments from Notre Dame to Boston College, then jumped to the OHL with Plymouth last summer. After a solid first campaign there, he’s shown that his offensive ability is among the best in his peer group, but his overall game still might give his coaches fits at times. He’s a dynamic scorer, but must be more careful not to turn the puck over and guard against taking bad penalties.

Mike Paliotta, D- Chicago’s third-round selection in 2011 went on to captain the University of Vermont, which pulled an upset in the Hockey East quarterfinals last March over favored BC. Sent to the Buckeye State as part of the Brandon Saad trade this summer, Paliotta is a smart defender who isn’t all that flashy but makes good decisions with and away from the puck. He’ll boost the transition game after some time in the minors.

Detroit Red Wings

Dylan Larkin, F- The Wings’ top pick in 2014 left the Wolverines to turn pro and could very well be skating for the big club in October. Skilled and creative, Larkin can do a bit of everything as a plus-skater who is defensively responsible. Given how active and difficult he is to contain on the rush, he has the makings of a perennial All-Star and local that the Motown fans will really get behind.

Florida Panthers

Mike Matheson, D- When it comes to defensemen who are absolute naturals at moving the puck up the ice, Matheson is right up there with the best. The former Boston College star is a tremendous skater who generates top speed but also masters his edges for effortless lateral glide and shiftiness to avoid the forecheck. He can make the crisp outlet and loves to join the rush. He’s not a finished product by any means, but has improved his overall defensive play coming out of college. He was not a major point producer, but does those things for the transition game that the top teams use to great effect.

Colin Stevens, G- After backstopping Union to the 2014 NCAA championship this season was a step back for the New Yorker and former Boston Jr. Bruin. He signed with Florida last spring and with his live, athletic 6-2 frame, he’ll have time to grow into his body and develop at the minor league level. He’s a winner who can steal games for his team and will be a fine netminder in the AHL soon.

Montreal Canadiens

Nikita Scherbak, F- The Habs got excellent value with the big Russian horse out in Saskatoon (since traded to Everett) of the WHL last year. He’s added solid mass to his 6-2 frame, topping out at around 200 pounds entering the season but he’s a very good skater and talented forward who competes hard and brings with him many North American attributes. Like the Bruins with David Pastrnak in 2014, the Canadiens somehow ended up with a promising power forward who should not have been available to them that late in the opening round. Bruins fans will soon know this kid’s name and not in a good way.

New Jersey Devils

Pavel Zacha, F- The stats this last season with Sarnia weren’t much to write home about, but the Devils wasted no time in jumping on the uber-skilled Czech who will likely mature into a more productive player at the highest level. One NHL scout based in Ontario told me that he just oozed talent and potential every time he saw him but for some reason, it wasn’t clicking for him. The Devils desperately need a marketable, exciting young star and they appear to have it in Zacha. He seems to have the tools and right stuff to make the jump to the NHL right away.

New York Islanders

Mathew Barzal, F- I’ll admit it was a surprise to stand there in Sunrise and watch the Bruins make three consecutive picks at 13, 14 and 15 and not once call the undersized but electric Seattle forward’s name. When peeling back the onion a bit with team sources and those outside Boston familiar with him, we’ll chalk it up to concerns about some of the injuries he’s dealt with in the WHL and questions about the kind of fit. However, given how quickly the Isles traded (twice I would add) into the first round to grab Barzal at 16, this is going to be someone Bruins fans who follow the draft and prospects closer than the rank and file do, lament for years to come if he develops into a Claude Giroux-type star in Brooklyn.

Michael Dal Colle, F- He was a treat to watch in leading the Oshawa Generals to the 2015 Memorial Cup championship this season. The playmaking winger is so smart and productive- he’s got a great release and stealthily attacks defenses, getting into prime scoring areas or setting the table with effortless ease. He’s a major part of a dangerous group of forwards that will be coming up to take advantage of the presence of John Tavares in his prime (Speaking of Tavares, didn’t he used to skate for the Gennies? Sho ’nuff he did).

 New York Rangers

Brady Skjei, D- A major offensive threat he is not, but the big and fluid Minnesotan is going to be one of those dependable minute-munching 3-4 d-men who skate in the NHL for years. Coming out of the NTDP there was thought that he might develop more of a scoring punch, but the lack of that element should not sell him short as a premiere defensive player and character leader type who can move the puck and will be someone his coaches trust to send out and protect a lead late in the game. Those players are valuable, even if they don’t always get the respect they deserve.

Ottawa Senators

Matt O’Connor, G- Even with the breakthrough of Andrew “the Hamburglar” Hammond this past winter in Canada’s capital, the Sens went out and signed the best free agent goaltender available on the market. O’Connor’s misfortune in the third period of the NCAA title game loss to Providence aside, he’s got the size, athletic ability and maturity to rebound from BU coming up just short and develop into a solid pro. He doesn’t give shooters much net, and is a competitive gamer.

Philadelphia Flyers

Ivan Provorov, D- The Flyers got their man by standing pat and letting the Russian come to them last June. An interesting story as a kid who left Russia a few years ago and played minor hockey in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before jumping to the USHL and then north to the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL, Provorov was seen as the best defenseman available in the 2015 draft, ranked by some ahead of Hanifin. With his mobility, smarts and puck skills, he’s a prime candidate to shine in his first pro camp and make a tough decision on the Flyers brass to keep him or return him to junior- he’s poised, mature and polished for one so young.

Travis Konecny, F- Along with Barzal, the Ottawa 67’s captain was one that Bruins fans who follow the draft were hoping the team might jump on with one of three first-round picks. Although undersized and didn’t get off to a great start last season, the Flyers made a move to go and get him. If he gets his development back on track to where it was entering 2014-15, Philly fans will have a lot to cheer about with his speed, offensive upside and energy.

Travis Sanheim, D- Another WHL standout defender who rode the wave a year ago of a superb performance in the Under-18 championship tournament to a top-20 selection in 2014. The Calgary Hitman has all of the key tools NHL clubs want in a defender including a fearsome point drive. He parlayed his success into a spot on Canada’s gold medal WJC squad last winter and along with Provorov and Samuel Morin, might turn the defense position from an area of concern in Philly to one of strength if all three pan out as expected.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Daniel Sprong, F- Arguably one of the 2015 draft’s most pure talents on offense, Sprong’s 200-foot game was lacking and a big reason he fell into the second round. However, put a kid like him on the Penguins and you have the potential for it not to matter a whit because of how dangerous he is when the puck’s on his stick. I didn’t think he was a good fit for what Boston is doing, but he makes total sense in the Steel City. They don’t come much more flashy and slick than this Netherlands product.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Tony DeAngelo, D- The tremendously skilled yet undersized offensive defenseman has gotten into trouble for his mouth in the past, but his 25 goals and 89 points in just 55 OHL games speak for themselves. The Philly-area native is a sublime skater with the vision and elite hockey IQ to push the offensive pace. Tampa rolled the dice a bit by grabbing him 20th overall a year ago, but he’s on the verge of paying that decision back in spades.

Adam Erne, F- 2013 second-rounder and Connecticut native was injured when his Quebec Remparts needed him most last spring, but when healthy, Erne has the offensive talent and big body to excel in puck possession. He plays a rugged style but needs to cut down on undisciplined penalties. When at his best, he’s dropping his shoulder and driving hard to the net- he’s a load to contain and is built for the modern NHL. Erne is the kind of player that will make an already difficult team to play against that much tougher.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Mitch Marner, F- This skilled and gritty gamer had a monster season in the OHL with the London Knights, leading the new-look Leafs front office to go with him fourth overall. There is a lot of pressure on him to get the Blue and White back on the road to respectability, but he didn’t average 2 points per game by accident. He plays with the kind of intelligence and all-around savvy that should see him thrive in that organization and embrace the enormous expectations that come with a player of his draft pedigree and background. He’s got some physical maturing ahead, but there’s a lot to like about him- winner.

Washington Capitals

Madison Bowey, D- The latest graduate from the Kelowna defenseman factory out in the WHL, Bowey has it all- size, skating, skill, shot and sense. He’s a poised puck mover who plays the game with some jam and has enough confidence to keep things simple. In hindsight, given how much Bowey’s development has taken off since the 2013 NHL draft, it’s hard to figure how the Caps got him in the second round.

Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview: the Centers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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