The undrafted free agents: Noel Acciari

The Boston Bruins undrafted free agents series rolls on with a closer look at Rhode Islander Noel Acciari. He’s a personal fave but I can’t really claim it because I had a chance to sing his praises publicly but didn’t. More on that later, but read on…

No(el) sure thing: Acciari

Noel Acciari was no sure thing.

And after the Boston Bruins signed him in June of 2015, some would say that he still isn’t, even with a promising NHL debut under his belt.

The former captain at Bishop Hendricken, Kent School and Providence College would probably be the first to tell you that even though he played 19 NHL games with the B’s in March and early April to close out a highly disappointing 2015-16 campaign, he has not yet arrived in the big show. However, when you consider the many obstacles that Acciari climbed from his minor hockey days as a Johnston, R.I. native who played with fellow NHLer Kevin Hayes on the South Shore Kings, reaching the highest level in his rookie pro season was a pretty special accomplishment.

The early returns are encouraging, and it shouldn’t be all that surprising if you go back and look at Acciari’s track record. Although he hasn’t ever truly projected as a major league scoring presence, the key cog in the Providence College Friars’ 2015 national championship machine has always brought tenacity, smarts and an ability to elevate his play in key situations.

He showed some of that panache in Boston, when he immediately found a way to make an impact by establishing effective pressure on the puck carrier and finishing his checks at every opportunity. Acciari reads and reacts to the play well and excels when play is in the defensive and neutral zones because of his quickness and anticipation.

“I think Noel is doing a great job in our D-zone as far as really being reliable, closing quickly,” Bruins head coach Claude Julien told the Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa back in March. “On the offensive side, those other two guys (Landon Ferraro and Brett Connolly) are skating and creating some opportunities there, so I think we’ve got a good combination so far.”

Acciari won’t just walk in and grab the fourth-line center job in Boston, but there aren’t many players better positioned to go out and earn it coming out of training camp and exhibition play than the 24-year-old is. After all, he’s no stranger to hard work and has seen his share of setbacks, so at this stage, having already achieved his dream of playing in the NHL has provided him with the proper grounding to go out and carve a niche for himself.

Growing up in the Ocean State, Acciari bounced between top hockey programs in Massachusetts (SSK) and Connecticut (Kent) to round out his development as a Rhode Island product. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for him, though. Never possessing an abundance of size or standout skill, Acciari often had to bring an off-the-charts work ethic and desire to the ice, along with a physical style. Coaches and scouts have always noted that he is the classic forward who plays “bigger than his size” and much of that comes from his natural head and heart.

Veteran Providence Journal assistant sports editor/hockey scribe Mark Divver probably has the best handle on Acciari of anyone in print (he’s watched him for years), and last March, he wrote the following:

If Acciari hadn’t missed a month after fracturing his jaw when he was hit by a slap shot on Dec. 4 — he expects to shed the protective guard on his helmet after the weekend — he might have been recalled sooner. His play in Providence has improved steadily from the start of the season.

Known for his hitting, Acciari said postgame that lining up NHLers is harder than hitting AHL or college players.

 “Every guy out here is very shifty. I can’t just throw my body — then I’ll be out of position. It has to be timed pretty perfectly. I’ll definitely throw my body around when I can. Hopefully, I’ll get some turnovers with that,’’ he said.

“For me, it’s just when I get my chance, be hard to play against. Throw my body around. Get to the net when I can,’’ he said.

Academics also posed a challenge for Acciari as he progressed up through the ranks. Several schools he was interested in were out of reach, and even when he arrived to the Friars, he had to sit out his first year for classroom-related reasons.

Matt Metcalf, writing in the Johnston Sunrise, told of Acciari returning to Bishop Hendricken to talk to student athletes about his hockey journey, and the story took an interesting turn when chronicling his final two years of high school, as he prepared to transition from prep hockey to the NCAA:

Providence, too, was a bit hesitant to take him in because of grades, but Acciari worked hard in his final stages at Kent to prove to the Friars that he could handle the academic load in addition to playing hockey.

Ultimately, Providence and its coaching staff believed in him and Acciari enrolled at PC for his freshman year.

But that freshman season couldn’t have gone any worse. Acciari found himself academically ineligible. Not only could he not play the whole season, but he couldn’t practice or work out with the team either.

“It was the worst feeling in the world,” Acciari said of that freshman year. “There’s nothing worse than seeing your friends playing while you’re just sitting around waiting.”

But Acciari took that time to work harder than he’s ever worked – not only in the classroom, but on his own in the weight room.

And by the time the following winter rolled around, he became an integral part of the team, playing in 33 games and posting 11 points.

However, none of that would’ve happened without working hard in the classroom. Acciari wanted the kids to know that it doesn’t matter how good of an athlete you are because, if you don’t perform well in the classroom, you won’t even get a chance to perform on the field or on the ice.

“I’m glad I could come back to talk to these guys,” Acciari said. “Just to know that I was in their shoes just five or six years ago, I wanted to get the message across that it’s not just all athletics, it’s academics. I wouldn’t be able to be where I am today with just hockey, I needed academics too. I wanted to get that across – that academics is a big part in getting to where you need to be in life.”

Some things in life come more readily to some than others, and in Acciari’s case, he found success in the classroom at PC, earning enough credits to graduate with a marketing degree in the spring of 2015. Even though he had a year of college hockey eligibility left by virtue of redshirting that freshman year of 2011-12, winning a national title and even more- pulling down a bachelor’s in the process- made the decision to sign with the Bruins that much easier.

Once again- credit Boston scouts like Ryan Nadeau, Scott Fitzgerald and ultimately- GM Don Sweeney, who made the final decision on offering a two-year deal to the PC captain- for finding another undrafted gem in Acciari.

He’s not going to put up a great deal of offense at the NHL level, but he’s a proven winner. With the wheels, physicality, faceoff prowess and character/poise to get you big time points when the game is on the line, Acciari is a strong bet to establish himself as Boston’s fourth-line pivot this season and beyond.

Here’s one last personal perspective to share on No. 55 for the Bruins:

Back in March of 2011, while watching the NEPSIHA Elite 8 prep tourney, Acciari far outshined other bigger “sexier” names on the Lions roster, such as manchild D Mike McKee (not drafted) and 2012 NY Rangers second-rounder Boo Nieves.

I kept looking at Acciari in those playoff games (his team lost a 2-1 heartbreaker to Rob O’Gara’s Milton Mustangs in the championship contest) and asking myself what was I missing? He was not overly big, but so physical- and it was an effective physicality. He demonstrated superior closing speed and instincts- he would often read and react so quickly that the puck carrier was on his butt and sans biscuit before he could even process what had hit him (Acciari). He wasn’t getting whistled for his play, either. Even then, he played the game hard, but clean. When it came time to key goals, he had a knack for scoring them or making the important plays to set them up.

I lacked the courage of my convictions to stand up for Acciari and take the time to write about him on my Bruins 2011 Draft Watch blog (to my eternal shame). The fact is- after watching Acciari in prep and since, there was nothing I was missing- he’s a player. The Bruins stand to benefit from his contributions provided he’s used in the right bottom-six role and more is not expected of him than he is suited for.

Acciari reinforces the importance of recognizing that there is always something new you can learn in the business of evaluating hockey talent. Sometimes, the gut feeling is the right one. Four years after watching him rock the competition as a prep but not having the guts the float his name out there as having legitimate pro potential, even as a lower-end checking player, it just goes to show that you don’t have to be a highly-touted teen who lands early in the first round to be an NHL player.

Not every prospect projects to be a top-end guy, but to build winning teams, you need players like him. He’s got a nice NCAA championship ring in the collection- perhaps some more hardware and jewelry could be in Acciari’s future.

 

Noel Acciari 2012-14 Providence College away frontNoel Acciari 2012-14 Providence College away back

Rob O’Gara: On the verge of making the NHL

Rob O'GaraBruins

Five years ago, the Boston Bruins had just won the Stanley Cup and made six selections 10 days after raising hockey’s silver chalice in Vancouver. Just two picks from the 2011 Bruins draft class remain: fourth-round choice Brian Ferlin reached the NHL in 2014-15 season, playing seven big league games (1 assist) before his development was derailed by concussion issues stemming from a hit he took in the 2015 AHL playoffs. (Editor’s note- Alexander Khokhlachev- taken 40th overall that year- is still technically Boston property after getting a qualifying offer to retain his rights as a RFA, but he signed with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL and if he ever makes it back to the NHL, it won’t likely be with the Bruins.)

Defenseman Rob O’Gara, who was drafted one round after Ferlin, has taken a longer, more gradual developmental path to pro hockey, but is finally beginning his first full season after completing a four-year degree at Yale University. The 23-year-old (he celebrated his birthday last week), who spent another year in prep hockey with the Milton Academy Mustangs after the Bruins made him the final selection of the fifth round (151st overall) five years ago, won a NCAA title as a freshman and earned ECAC defensive defenseman of the year as a junior. Although he has just five pro hockey games under his belt (he did score his 1st pro goal in the process) with a late-season appearance in the AHL with Providence, O’Gara is a dark horse candidate to see playing time in Boston at some point this season if everything breaks right for him.

This post will peel back the onion so to speak on one of Boston’s more unheralded prospects- a guy who has been as consistent and effective a player since bursting onto the prep hockey scene six years ago and forcing NHL teams to take notice of him en route to Milton’s 2011 championship. O’Gara isn’t flashy, but with his size, skating and potential, he could be a solid contributor to the organization’s fortunes sooner rather than later.

Prep hockey 2010-12

O’Gara was an unknown commodity when he left his home in Nesconset and the Long Island Royals 16U minor hockey program for Massachusetts and prep school at Milton Academy.

At about 6-3 at the time (and very thin/lanky), he caught the eye of scouts immediately because he moved pretty well and didn’t show a lot of that gangly awkwardness that is so prevalent with players at that size/age. What also stood out was the contrast O’Gara provided to his Milton defense partner Pat McNally, another New York guy who had been drafted in 2010 by the Vancouver Canucks (now with the San Jose Sharks organization). McNally was an attacking, push-the-pace and often get caught up the ice defender, so O’Gara stood out for his more measured style and for the fact that McNally’s gambles at times meant that his partner was back to defend odd-man rushes on his own. O’Gara showed off a natural poise and smarts right away to go with an active stick- he landed on NHL radars and was identified as one of the top New York talents available in the 2011 draft.

O’Gara reached his zenith in March, when in the championship game against a Kent Lions team that featured current Boston Bruin Noel Acciari (the captain) along with 2012 NHL second-rounder Cristoval “Boo” Nieves, he made a critical play along the blue line to keep the puck inside the offensive zone during a 2-2 game late in regulation. He then made an on-target pass to teammate Sean Okita, who buried the puck for the winning goal. O’Gara only had seven assists (along with two goals) that year, but one of those helpers was as big as it gets, which gets to the heart of where his big league potential might truly lie: he’s always been big time in the clutch (more on that later).

O’Gara told TSP about the game and play just a few short weeks later, when yours truly maintained the 2011 Bruins Draft Watch blog:

“That was just amazing; I have trouble putting it into words sometimes just how awesome it was to be part of such a great team here,” O’Gara said recently from his Milton Academy dorm room, where he is finishing up the semester and playing lacrosse to keep his body in peak form. “We went back and watched the DVD of that game (3-2 win over Kent School) and the tempo was unbelievable- the fast pace of that game and how everything was up-and-down the whole time. We went into that third period with the score 2-2 and knowing that we had 18 minutes. It was do or die time and we pulled it off.”

Although not invited to the NHL’s annual draft combine because he was not ranked inside the top-50 among North American skaters, O’Gara interviewed with at least five NHL clubs during the spring and more clubs expressed interest before the draft. He and his family opted to stay home rather than travel to Minneapolis/St. Paul and he followed the selections along with his father, Brian (and mom Christine). Although the family grew up staunch NY Islanders fans and supporters, that all changed when the Bruins called Rob’s name at the end of the fifth round.

Soon afterwards, he attended his first Bruins development camp, arriving on July 6, 2011- his 18th birthday- and O’Gara was no doubt raw, but game- his skating and fluid footwork stood out in positive fashion even then. Current Bruins GM Don Sweeney was the assistant GM back then and long recognized as Boston’s player development chief. He had this to say about O’Gara after the first day of that camp:

“Robby [O’Gara]’s a piece of clay right now, albeit it’s a big piece. At 6’4” it can change. Things have come at him here a little quicker in the last, I’d say, eight months. But we got a chance, I did in particular and other people got a chance, to see him a lot…The good thing is there’s no timetable for him. He’s not going to get any smaller. He’s only going to fill out and continue to get better. And he’s going to be right in our backyard for another year then on to a real good program in Yale. So I think that he’ll learn a lot. He’ll be one of those kids that walks out of here, hopefully, and learns an awful lot and takes some of this stuff going forward.”– Sweeney

Here’s my own assessment of him from that very first on-ice session at development camp five years ago:

Turned 18 just yesterday and his skating really came to the fore today. He’s tall, but a stringbean. But, have to keep going back to the fluid stride and quick, agile footwork. Had he spent two years at Milton Academy before the draft instead of just the one, I’m convinced that he would have been as high as a third-round pick, but solid at least a solid fourth-rounder. I don’t think enough NHL teams knew about this kid going in, but Boston did because he plays in their backyard. Long-term project, but O’Gara could be a steal. Size + mobility + intelligence + character almost always = player.

He returned to Milton for his senior season in 2011-12, wearing the captain’s ‘C’ and while the team did not enjoy the success of the previous year with so many veteran departures, O’Gara produced at nearly a point per game pace (25 in 24 games after 9 in 29 as a junior) and was widely recognized as the top defenseman in prep hockey that season, earning All-New England recognition.

With that, he completed his prep career and moved on to the next challenge in New Haven, Conn. with Yale.

Yale University: 2012-16

O’Gara wasted little time demonstrating to head coach Keith Allain and ECAC hockey watchers that he was a worthy NHL prospect, quickly establishing himself in a lineup that would go on to win it all in the span of about five months once the 2012-13 campaign got underway.

As was the case in prep, O’Gara was relied upon to be a defense-first, stay-at-home guy as a freshman with the Elis, and he carried it off well, despite not finding the back of the net at all- posting seven assists in 37 games. Never one to dwell on the numbers, the real pride O’Gara had was in showing off the kind of ability and poise to earn a regular shift in Allain’s rotation throughout the year. His team allowed just two total goals in its two-game Frozen Four appearance that year in capturing Yale’s first (and only) NCAA title.

In Yale’s 4-0 championship game over Quinnipiac University, as the clock ticked down to zero, O’Gara was on the ice playing a tenacious defense and making sure that he did his part to preserve the shutout.

“I’ll sit alone at home and I’ll see the watch we were given for winning on my desk, and I still can’t believe it. It’s just an incredible feeling,” O’Gara told veteran reporter Mike Loftus of the Patriot-Ledger at the 2013 Bruins development camp, a few months after winning it all.

cropped-ogara-national-champ.jpg

Rob O’Gara in 2013 after Yale won the NCAA championship (Photo courtesy of Rob O’Gara)

In the span of just two years, O’Gara had claimed the rarest of feats- championships at the high school and college level. While his Yale team was not able to repeat their national title in his remaining three NCAA seasons, O’Gara went on to earn numerous accolades under Allain and the Yale staff:

  • In 2013-14, O’Gara earned the team’s John Poinier Award as Yale’s top defender. He also earned Second All-Ivy and ECAC All-Academic honors.
  • In 2014-15, he was named the ECAC’s top defensive defenseman, which is impressive because he also posted his career-best in offense with six goals and 21 points, leading the Yale blue line in scoring. He was First Team ACA/CCM All-American (East), First-Team All-ECAC and First-Team All-Ivy among several other distinctions to include another Poinier Award as team defensive MVP.
  • 2015-16 was disappointing statistically compared to his breakout in 2015, but O’Gara finished his college career strong, nominated for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player, named a semifinalist for the Walter Brown Award (New England’s top college player) and a second consecutive All-Ivy League First Team selection.

TSP featured O’Gara last October, as he prepared to embark on his senior year. For those who missed it, you can read it here.

A season of ups and downs (including a two-game suspension in February after he retaliated with a slash against Harvard’s Sean Malone, who drove him into the boards) was overall a positive growth experience for O’Gara, who continued to add muscle mass to his big frame and got an enormous amount of playing time, as chronicled in this piece worth reading by Chip Malafronte in the New Haven Register.

After O’Gara signed a two-year ELC with Boston in late March, Allain spoke to Newsday (New York) about his former player, summarizing what he brings to the table:

“He really epitomizes what we want our hockey players to be,” said Yale coach Keith Allain, who also worked in the NHL for 15 years as an assistant coach, goalie coach and scout.

“He’s got great size and reach. He’s extremely mobile, particularly for a big guy. He has great defensive awareness, can make a pass and he’s got the ability to jump up into the play on offense. I see him as an all-around defenseman. I expect him to one day be a regular defenseman in the National Hockey League.”

O’Gara joined the Providence Bruins late in the season, commuting between Rhode Island and Connecticut so that he could complete his course work and graduate with the degree in Economics he worked four years to achieve. Scoring his first professional goal for the P-Bruins was an added thrill for a player who won’t likely be known for his contributions on the offensive side of the ledger, but who is built for the modern NHL with his sturdy 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame- the body sculpting having taken quite some time to build.

With nine defensemen in Wilmington this week, O’Gara is not required to join in the development camp fun, having benefited enough (in the team’s eyes) from his 2011-15 experiences. With his first full NHL training camp ahead in September, O’Gara will keep working out to prepare for that new challenge.

Outlook

If you’re into flashy, “upside” players then O’Gara won’t be at the top of the list, but when it comes to the big-bodied, mobile and smart defenders that have become critical components to winning in the modern NHL, Boston’s investment over time appears to be inching closer to paying off.

He’s always been a smooth skater for his size- able to stay contain speed and prevent forwards from getting around him wide. While not an intimidating hitter and snarly type, O’Gara uses his body effectively and has made substantial gains in strength and quickness in the five years since the B’s chose him. With his long reach and positional savvy, he’s difficult to beat 1-on-1, but probably doesn’t get enough respect for his ability to skate with his head up and advance the puck quickly with a crisp outlet. This is not to say that he’ll be a classic two-way threat on defense, but he has enough in the feet, hands and head department that he can chip in with timely offense when needed. The guy is a winner- he always has been- and there is a great deal to be said for that. He made a critical play that resulted in a high school-level championship and then was put out in the final minute of a collegiate title as a freshman (full disclosure- his team was up by four goals)- that tells you all you need to know about what kind of performer O’Gara is when the game is on the line.

As Jack Nicholson aka Marine Colonel Nathan R. Jessup once said- “You want me on that wall…you need me on that wall!”

 

Why O’Gara will play in the NHL this season: You can’t teach his size or physical attributes, and his steady development means that he’s mentally and physically ready to come in and play a lower pairing role right away (or in a pinch if the team is hit with injuries). He’s a likable guy who can walk into any room and fit right in because he’s always had the people skills and carried with him a measure of respect- he’ll sit down and listen/process everything around him and isn’t one to spend a lot of talking. When it comes to doing his job, O’Gara is the consummate quiet professional who gets after it without fanfare and is just as happy being a cog in the bigger machine- he doesn’t have a thirst for attention.

Why O’Gara won’t play in the NHL this season: Right now, the B’s have some pretty well-established veteran players on the blue-line who like O’Gara, are left-shooting players. There is no need to rush him to the big show when he can take another year to play prime minutes in the AHL in just about every situation and shoot for making the Boston lineup when he has more pro experience under his belt.

Whether he plays NHL minutes this season or doesn’t is not the question, but rather- that he continues to move forward and progress in his developmental trajectory. There will be ups and downs at the pro level, like many young players there are times when he will get caught puck watching or won’t make the physical play on defense when it is there for him. If you watch enough hockey, no matter how accomplished, every defenseman will be part of a goal scored against, it’s just a matter of learning from mistakes and not repeating them.

When it comes to Rob O’Gara, the promise he showed as a mature and capable prep school defender more than a half decade ago is coming sharply into focus. Dougie Hamilton, who was taken 142 spots earlier than O’Gara was, is a Boston footnote who now plays in Calgary. As we all know from the old tortoise and hare parable, the race is not always to the swift…it appears that Boston will benefit from the faith and patience they showed in this player.

Because of his playing style, O’Gara has never really occupied space near the top of the various Boston prospect lists nor has he been at the tip of everyone’s tongue when it comes to projecting who will meet or exceed expectations, but there aren’t many who have performed with more consistency or promise.

He’s on the verge of achieving that goal that others selected well before him have not yet come close to. Don’t call him a tortoise, but he’s been steady as she goes all along.

***

Weekend at Bergy’s has his first pro goal- a rocket from the point (wearing his old No. 15 from Milton Academy days):