Revisiting Austin Czarnik

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With the unfortunate setback of Boston Bruins center Ryan Spooner’s concussion this week, another door of opportunity has opened for Austin Czarnik.

The undrafted free agent and former Miami University Redhawks captain had spent most of the season with the big club after a standout rookie pro campaign a year ago with the Providence Bruins. The Michigan native made the big club out of camp before taking a cheap hit late in the preseason that caused him to miss a little time up front.

“I know what he’s going through,” Czarnik said of Spooner’s situation after the Boston morning skate prior to their Wednesday night game against the flailing Detroit Red Wings. “He said it’s a mild one, but still- it’s a concussion, so you just gotta be careful with it. I felt good when I came back, but I felt like I was 100 percent, but maybe my cognitive (ability) wasn’t all there. Just moving back and forth, but it felt great. But when I got on the ice, it was a little bit different, so I think I may have rushed it just a little but it just takes time.”

Czarnik has always been a high-end skill player with the hockey sense and creativity to be an offensive force, but his lack of size resulted in a lot of disappointments throughout his progression up the developmental ladder.

“For me, it was hard growing up because I was cut from every triple-A team pretty much because I was too small,” said Czarnik. “It was a hard process for me, but I always had at least one person who believed in me throughout my whole career pretty much. They believe in me right now, and I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to show what I have again in Boston.”

Czarnik hinted at maybe being a little too conservative in his approach, which may be a reflection of his reticence to try higher-risk plays as a rookie. Or, it could have been a veiled reference to his only NHL coach to date (at least until Bruce Cassidy takes his place behind the Boston bench tonight), Claude Julien, and his reputation for a lower-risk, team defense system.

“I’ve been simple so much this year- I think I can start trying to make plays,” he said. “Realize what plays I have on the ice to make and not just try to get the puck in, things like that. So, that’s what I’m going to try and focus on and just try to create space out there for my linemates.”

As a productive player at the USHL and NCAA levels, it seems more than a little surprising in hindsight that not one of the 30 NHL clubs took a late-round flyer on Czarnik. However, what happened in the past is of little consequence, as these days, with the Second Chance Saloon open for business in terms of the annual NCAA free agent derby that occurs each spring as college hockey seasons come to an end, he was able to parlay his talent and production into an opportunity with the Bruins, much like another Michigander in Boston teammate Torey Krug, was able to do.

“Obviously, it’s every kid’s dream to get drafted, so I was a little hurt when I didn’t,” he said. “The second year, I didn’t even get picked up either out of college, so I was kind of hurt by that time, but I realized I just had to prove them wrong again, so that was the main thing and I’m happy it happened because I had options to pick from and things like that. So- any kid that doesn’t get drafted, it’s probably the best thing that can happen to you because you’ll have teams that want you if you work hard. That’s the biggest thing- you can just pick from your hand, so it was a cool feeling.”

Czarnik credited a former college teammate, since departed from the Bruins organization in forward Reilly Smith, with helping him to decide on Boston over the other suitors he had in the spring of 2015. He said that the tradition surrounding the B’s and the chance to play in a city like this one were major factors in his decision, one that seems to have paid off for the time being, as he is living his NHL dream with another opportunity to stick after being returned to Providence late last month.

“I think we’re just going to try and stay on the same page in terms of what they’ve been on,” Czarnik said of his slotting onto the third line in hopes of recapturing some of the magical chemistry he had with left wing Frank Vatrano in Providence last year as rookies. “Obviously, Spooner’s a really good player; I’m going to try and fill some of his shoes, but it’s going to be hard because he always makes plays. We just want to keep the train rolling and go from there.”

After an NHL stint on IR, Czarnik was sent down to Providence where he played five AHL games before being summoned to take Spooner’s place in the lineup. He talked about the importance of getting his conditioning back under control after missing three weeks and knocking the rust off of his timing and overall game with a lot of minutes at even strength, on the power play and killing penalties. He’s glad he had the chance to get some games in rather that have to regain his timing in NHL action.

Czarnik’s familiarity with former Providence head coach Cassidy will certainly help with the transition in his first game with the latter in charge of the Boston roster.

“When he’s playing his game, he’s got good energy; he’s on the puck, he’s creating turnovers with his foot speed, his stick, his hockey IQ and he’s making plays- him and Vatrano certainly have some chemistry,” Cassidy told assembled media during his post-skate presser. “He’s been good in situational hockey for us. He’s PK work’s been pretty solid. The power play…we’re going to move him around…he was up high before and I think he’s ideally better suited to be making plays around the net so he’s going to get to play in all situations and hopefully, he’s ready to respond. He’s had some experience up here; he should know what to expect in that regard, and he’s healthy.”

When asked by your TSP founder about Czarnik’s progression from rookie pro to where he is now, Cassidy opened up with more thoughtful and detailed commentary:

“His understanding of the game is better- he’s playing against men. The American League is certainly big guys, energetic guys, but they’re not men yet and as a smaller guy, he’s had to learn what he can get away with and what he can’t. This time around, we’re going to find out what he’s learned in that area. Like a lot of players, it’s the reps- getting to play with and against top-end, world-class talent, and he’s a smart guy; he’s got good hockey IQ. He thinks the game well, so it has to be one of his best assets. That, and a high motor- we’ve talked about that. If he’s not playing with a high motor, his effectiveness will decrease. And so those are the things we’re looking for in him. We expect an energy guy, using his speed…He’s got to use it and he’s got to use it all the time. I think that’s how he stays in this league.”

Cassidy declined to confirm whether Czarnik will need to make his bones at center or wing to remain in the NHL, saying that he thinks the youngster is better at center but has the versatility to play all three forward positions and has been moved around to find the best matchups.

“The jury is still out,” Cassidy said to close out his comments on Czarnik’s fit up the middle in the NHL going forward, but the by the gist of his comments, the interim head coach will give him every opportunity to try and establish himself there.

Austin Czarnik 13-14 Miami home front

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

 

 

Bruins add veteran Drew Stafford for conditional (late) pick

A largely uneventful NHL trade deadline day (the more meaningful adds happened before the Wednesday afternoon cutoff) ended with the Boston Bruins acquiring former 2004 13th overall draft selection and RW Drew Stafford from the Winnipeg Jets for a reported conditional (B’s making the playoffs? unconfirmed) 6th-round pick.

(Here are some YouTube highlights from a Buffalo fan “Topshot Elite 19):

After a year ago, when GM Don Sweeney added a pair of veterans in John-Michael Liles and Lee Stempniak for a total of four draft picks, only to see the team crater down the stretch and miss the playoffs for a second consecutive spring, this move is a bit more well-received because it represents a low cost/risk to add a solid veteran forward with size and scoring ability, albeit one who’s been hampered by injuries and a poor season.

Some of the rumored trades involving Gabriel Landeskog and Dmitri Kulikov never materialized for Boston, but in all honesty- anything more than Stafford would have likely required a cost that Sweeney and Co. were not willing to take on. The current Bruins team is 7-1 under interim head coach Bruce Cassidy, and adding him gives the new bench boss more flexibility at the forward position with a player who starred at the University of North Dakota and was a member of the USA’s first-ever gold medal-winning squad at the World Jr. Championship in 2004.

Here’s a quick look at what Stafford brings to the table for the B’s in the final make-or-break stretch of the season, one that has ended in the final weekend in each of the last two campaigns.

Upside: Four goals in 40 games with the Jets is a stark contrast to the 21 in 78 he scored a year ago (Stafford’s best season was in 2011 when he tallied 31 goals in just 62 games- a 40-goal pace). He’s likely to replace Jimmy Hayes on Boston’s third line and assuming Ryan Spooner stays at the center position, the two are a good fit, with Frank Vatrano over on the left side. Stafford is more of a north-south, crash-the-net kind of player, while Vatrano drifts through layers in defenses to find space to unleash his lethal shot. Spooner is your classic slasher who jitterbugs in and out of traffic to set up plays…if he and Vatrano can get pucks to the net, then Stafford has a better than average chance of banging some of them in. Stafford is a good fit for the way that the Bruins like to play. With more than 700 games of NHL experience and 31 years old, he’s been around enough but is not so long in the tooth that he can’t give the B’s offense a modest jolt.

Downside: The unrestricted free agent to be is having his poorest season to date, so to expect anything but a minimal upgrade to what Hayes gave the B’s this year is probably setting the bar too high. The knock on Stafford has always been a lack of consistency- he can go through long periods where he simply doesn’t accomplish much. That’s near criminal, when you look at the highlights of some of his better scoring plays, where he drives with power into traffic and through would-be checkers to crash the net and score with a quick and sneaky release.

Verdict: For a conditional sixth-round pick, this is a low-risk move that expresses faith in the current roster and lets them try and make the postseason with what they have. Fans sometimes forget that no team wants to have a bad year and tank, and 2017 is certainly not the season to do that- no disrespect intended to top prospects like Nolan Patrick, Nico Hischier, etc.- it’s just that we’ve been spoiled in recent years with top-2 selections like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine– this year, the bottom feeders aren’t likely to get players with that kind of elite franchise cornerstone cachet.  The benefit of making the playoffs, even if the Bruins aren’t considered by just about everyone to be legitimate championship contenders, is that the younger players get a taste of the intensity of playoff hockey and that helps to develop them. The B’s are not a team that needs to blow everything up, so Stafford is a solid if unspectacular add.

For years, Boston fans saw him score some big goals against the Black and Gold. Now, they’ll get a chance to see if he can help propel the spoked B into the NHL postseason. In a division where every other team added pieces to improve, it might be moot, but Stafford gives his new team a fighting chance at least. And that’s really all most people want.

 

 

3 Amigos Podcast Ep. 8: Everything Claude Julien & Bruins trade rumors

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The 3 Amigos ride again!

Reed Duthie, Dominic Tiano and your TSP founder have reunited for another podcast. It’s been a time of transition, and we’re not a professional outfit, so we appreciate the patience over the time elapsed from our last offering. We’ll do these when we can, but for now- we’re focusing on the dismissal of Claude Julien, new B’s interim bench boss Bruce Cassidy and trade rumors swirling around the team and one name in particular out West.

Enjoy the podcast, and we’ll follow up tomorrow with the debut of our 45- minute supplementary podcast “Ask the Amigos” where we take questions our listeners and TSP readers submitted on Twitter.

Cheers.

 

Deconstructing the Claude Julien firing

About 24 hours ago, the Boston Bruins and GM Don Sweeney officially swung the Sword of Damocles that had been hanging over the organization and coach Claude Julien’s head for weeks (some would even say years), dismissing the franchise’s all-time wins leader and Stanley Cup champion behind the bench, setting off a firestorm of criticism online and in the media for the timing and way it was handled.

This post will attempt to analyze the move and the subsequent naming of assistant coach Bruce Cassidy as the B’s interim bench boss. It is by no means the first and last word on the matter, nor will it hit every bucket that the firing impacts. Whether you were someone who felt it was time to go and are angered that the team elected to do it on the morning of the New England Patriots’ victory parade, are someone who felt he was not the problem and are even more irate at the timing, or are someone who feels like the move had to be made and have no issue with it (and everyone in between), this piece will try to raise multiple perspectives and shed light on some of the other factors that led to where we are on Wednesday, February 8, 2017- nearly a decade after Julien was brought in on the heels of the failed Dave Lewis experiment.

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Breaking: Julien out, Cassidy in

The Boston Bruins announced this morning that the franchise’s all-time wins leader and 2011 Stanley Cup-winning head coach Claude Julien has been relieved of his duties after nearly a decade in the position and more than 400 victories. B’s assistant and former Providence Bruins bench boss Bruce Cassidy will serve as interim head coach in Boston. Cassidy, who previously held the head coaching job with the Washington Capitals, inherits a team that most recently lost critical points to the division rival Toronto Maple Leafs in a crushing 6-5 defeat and is fighting for its playoff lives.

With the New England Patriots victory happening today, GM Don Sweeney will hold a press conference to officially announce the move and discuss the way ahead. The timing of Julien’s dismissal is curious, to say the least, but given his pedigree- he is sure to land on his feet and won’t be unemployed for long.

More analysis on Julien’s legacy and expanded context on Cassidy and the organization to follow on the blog later tonight or in next 24 hours.

EDITOR’s note- The conference is over, with GM and new coach meeting the press, plus revelation that Joe Sacco will cover down on D and Jay Pandolfo will move to the bench during games. A lot to unpack and not sure the first/hottest take is going to cut it.

 

 

Breaking (it down on) Bad Brandon Carlo

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Brandon Carlo- 2nd-round, 37th overall in 2015 (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Don’t be misled by the title- Boston Bruins rookie defenseman Brandon Carlo has been anything but “bad” in the first quarter of his introduction to the NHL. We use the word “bad” in the best sense to describe Carlo as a player who has rapidly carved a niche for himself with the B’s, infusing the blue line with the kind of shutdown consistency that was so lacking a year ago.

The Colorado Springs-area  native and 37th overall selection in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft is the youngest defenseman to break into the NHL full-time alongside a future Hall of Fame partner since 19-year-old Dougie Hamilton arrived at the start of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign.

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Bruins news: Cassidy, Pandolfo join Boston coaching staff; Kevan Miller inks 4-year, $10 million extension

Tuesday brought some news out of the Boston Bruins’ camp with a pair of announcements.

The first was that Providence Bruins head coach (in his fifth season as bench boss) Bruce Cassidy and Jay Pandolfo, the B’s Director of Player Development, were both hired to replace Boston assistant coaches Doug Houda and Doug Jarvis to round out Claude Julien’s NHL coaching staff with Medford native Joe Sacco.

Cassidy is a polarizing figure among those fans who follow the development of prospects because there have been conflicts with certain players, while others have gone on to have success in Boston. Regardless of what you might think about Cassidy as Providence head coach, he’s got one of the sharpest hockey minds and I’ve always found his willingness to talk in detail about players…both the good and the bad…to be refreshing. In a hockey culture where many coaches either spout endless but empty platitudes about players or put out a word salad that tells you essentially nothing about how they feel about a particular individual, Cassidy is a guy who gives it to you straight and doesn’t mince words.

That doesn’t tell you how effective he’ll be as an NHL assistant coach, though I suspect he’ll do a fine job working with the defensemen (given his background I’m making that assumption). It is curious to me that Cassidy is one of two assistants (along with Sacco) with NHL head coaching experience and should the B’s move on from Julien at any point in the near future, he seems like a ready-made interim replacement. That’s probably putting the cart before the horse, but it’s interesting to note.

Pandolfo is getting his first NHL coaching job after hanging them up as a Bruin following multiple Stanley Cups with the Devils followed by a short stint with the Islanders. The BU product from Burlington was one of the best defensive forwards in his prime and he’s done good work with the prospects. He’s a solid add to the staff and I wish him well.

If this announcement was met with barely a ripple, the second release, which followed news broken by colleague D.J. Bean, had a decidedly different impact.

Bean tweeted out by around noontime that per agent Peter Fish, Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller had agreed to terms on a four-year, $10 million extension to avoid unrestricted free agency and remain with Boston- a $2.5M cap hit to retain the bottom-pairing defensive defender. (Cue the Jaws theme music please and voila!)

Mills

(Photoshop compliments of Greg Ezell aka Pez-DOY on Twitter- one of the voices of the most excellent Days of Y’Orr Bruins blog. I gave him the idea, but he did the nice work on bringing the concept to life.)

If you thought Cassidy was a polarizing figure… The former University of Vermont captain, who also played prep hockey with Berkshire School, was a fan fave as a whipping boy this past season. The Bruins also put in the Miller release that they brought back Seth Griffith on a one-year, two-way contract. (More on him in a future post)

Here are some quick thoughts on the Miller re-signing, with an attempt to be balanced, even though it is sure to draw criticism from both sides. In a vacuum, this signing does not look good. At age 29, he’s  coming off a year that was a nightmare collectively for the B’s blue line. Miller was one of the faces of a team D that was a known Achilles heel entering the year and a group that eventually came apart at the seams in the final weeks of an up-and-down 2015-16 season.

The one caveat I will throw out here is that this appears to be a transaction that is setting something else up. As long as this initiates the transformation of the B’s defense, there is no reason to be on the ledge over this. If not…well, uh…I got nothing.

Kevan Miller

The Good- As a bottom-pairing defender, Miller was a find as an undrafted free agent. He skates well and plays a physical, throwback style. His sudden emergence during the 2013-14 season as an injury replacement prompted Peter Chiarelli to sign him to a two-year extension at around $850k per, which was a bargain for a hard-nosed but limited player. In 2014-15, he missed much of the year to a major shoulder injury. This past year, he missed time for various injuries but did see enough action to post a career season in terms of production (he posted a respectable 5 goals and 18 points in 71 games- good for third on the Bruins in scoring among D). When asked to play the right role, Miller has proven to be effective. He’s tough to play against, will drop the gloves to defend teammates (and is a guy many NHL opponents have learned to steer clear of) and has better foot speed than Adam McQuaid (though he’s not as big with as long a reach). Like any player who is asked to play with more responsibilities than they are capable of, he struggles when going up against the top lines and with increased minutes and time on special teams. However, when you break him down purely as a third-pair, No. 5/6 defender, Miller is not the gongshow some would have you believe. He’s a game and gritty player who is always willing to take one for the team, and when you look at his injury history- he’s backed that up.

The Bad- As mentioned previously, the B’s and coaches gave Miller much more than just a bottom-pairing role on the B’s and he was exposed more often than not as a guy over his head at this level. He’s a pretty mobile skater, but he lacks the vision and instincts to be anything more than he’s shown thus far, and he often gets into trouble when he’s got the puck on his stick, in his own end and the F1 or F2 pressure get in his face. Like most players, Miller can make the requisite passes and plays with time and space, but with the faster, more skilled NHL- he was often under pressure and looked more a deer caught in the headlights. He was victimized on multiple memorable highlight reels goals for the other team. The one word you’re left with as an analyst when it comes to the decision by the Bruins to extend him is this: Why?

As an unrestricted free agent, Miller was in a similar position to Matt Bartkowski a year ago as someone who played a serviceable role at their lower-end cap hit, but once the contract was done, essentially priced himself out of Boston, allowing Vancouver and former B’s assistant GM Jim Benning, who’d had a hand in acquiring Bart from Florida in 2010, to step in. With Miller, I’m left wondering- what was the sense of urgency to re-up the UFA-to-be now? Don Sweeney and Bruins took some heat for offering a similar extension to McQuaid last year, announced over draft weekend in June. Now, you have an essentially redundant kind of player, and one who isn’t going to develop into something much more than he already is, under contract for another four seasons, but now at about triple his previous rate. Miller was more a part of the problem than the solution last year and now he’s back.

The Ugly-

The B’s have no shortage of lower-end defensemen who provide what Miller does. Now that he’s signed, what does that do for the openings on the blue line? Again- as it stands today- you expect another trade to happen to shed a veteran or three and their salary, because between three of the team’s least productive defenders, the Bruins currently have north of $9M invested. Dennis Seidenberg’s two more years at $4 million a pop is the obvious choice to jettison, and the B’s should be able to find a taker in a team that is looking to stay above the NHL’s cap floor. Of course, that any team that takes on Seidenberg and his surgically-repaired knees isn’t going to  pay much if anything at all for him.

McQuaid is another player who could be the object of a trade. He’s one of the best guys I’ve covered on the B’s in my 16 years of doing it for New England Hockey Journal, and I have the utmost respect for “Quaider” but he’s going to turn 30 in October (how is that even possible?) and the next time he plays 73 or more games in an NHL season (he’s been a regular for six) will be his first. Might McQuaid’s former GM in Chiarelli be willing to pay his $2.75M salary for three more years to bring him out to Edmonton? The Oilers need to get heavier, and he would certainly fit the bill for the Oil. If the B’s move Seidenberg and McQuaid, then Miller on the bottom pair for $2.5M isn’t a great cap figure, but it does become a little easier to swallow.

Of course- there’s still the matter of other players that need signed. Torey Krug is a big one, and what kind of new deal will he command after leading the Boston blue liners in scoring last season? Granted, the goals didn’t come for him like in previous years, but with a hit of $3.25M, he’ll get a significant boost on that if the B’s commit to retaining him. And he’s not the only one.

In conclusion, I’ll hold off on my judgment until I see what happens next and ultimately, where we are going into September. The negativity is understandable, but there won’t be a knee-jerk reaction here until the transformation takes place and we see how Sweeney builds the defense. That’s a leap of faith some have a hard time with, but here at the TSP- there’s time enough at last for patience.

 

Providence captain Cross brought up, Koko still in the mix

There is some good stuff posted yesterday in the Providence Journal by friend and colleague Mark Divver on Tommy Cross and Alex Khokhlachev. The piece has analysis and quotes from Cross on his playing style and development since turning pro so I won’t go into that.

Cross, 26, was recalled by the Boston Bruins yesterday after Joe Morrow went on the IR in the wake of Matt Irwin’s demotion to the AHL. Irwin was not claimed on waivers by any of the other 29 teams (And why would they? His two-game stint in Boston was one of the more distressing performances in recent history), but he’ll be a valuable contributor in Providence, as his NHL experience and skill set will serve him well at the lower level.

On the other hand, Cross to Boston is a positive story for the team. He’s the last remnant of one of the worst draft classes in Bruins history- 2007- when the B’s held the eighth and 38th overall selections after Peter Chiarelli’s first full season as GM. The B’s drafted WHL leading scorer Zach Hamill with their top pick, then traded their 38th and third-round picks to move up three spots to 35 to grab Cross, the Westminster prep captain who brought good size, skating ability and a cannon shot to the mix.

It’s easy to look back at those decisions and shake the head in 2015, as the B’s would almost certainly have drafted Logan Couture at 8 and P.K. Subban at 35 (heck- they could have had him at 38 if they had stood pat), but that’s life and the NHL draft, where projected 17-18-year-old kids is more art than science. The hardcore fans who follow the draft still dredge up the memories of the failures of Boston’s ’07 class (which included such luminaries as Dennis Reul, Alain Goulet, Radim Ostrcil and Jordan Knackstedt) and that’s fair. The team not only missed on its early picks, but it absolutely swung and whiffed everywhere else that year. Blowing an entire draft class has a delayed penalty that the B’s are feeling now, especially when you take into account that they had two picks in the top-35 that year. Poor showings at the draft table in 2008 and 2009 have added to the issues the team faces, but in getting back to 2007 and what the Cross callup means for a second…

First of all, Cross is a solid minor league defenseman who just might play his way into a supporting role at the NHL level if not with Boston then another club, perhaps. His development was stalled at the beginning because he suffered a knee injury playing baseball right before the draft. The B’s took him anyway, which shows how much they liked him, but he continued to have issues with it, having several more surgeries before seemingly putting it all behind him in his last two full seasons at Boston College. By then, it had become apparent that the player Boston projected at 17 in his draft year to be a potential top-3, big minutes, two-way defender with character, was more of a solid stay-at-home bottom pairing journeyman.

A coach’s son, Cross has always demonstrated a level of leadership and a top attitude that makes him easy to root for. He probably has a future in politics when his playing career is done, and you don’t ever want to take away from who Cross is as a person and valuable presence in the room as a guy who sets the right example and is a total pro. At the same time, because of the expectations that went with his draft standing and what the Bruins gave up to draft him, Cross has always been more of a symbol of that failed Bruins draft year than even Hamill was. The B’s moved on from Hamill relatively quickly, dealing him in 2012 to Washington for Chris Bourque, who at least played some games in Boston during the lockout-shortened season, but Hamill never got another sniff of the NHL after that.

In Cross’ case, he stayed in the organization, going to five development camps and getting quickly relegated to the minors each autumn he was vying for a spot in Boston. In his first pro season, he was optioned to the ECHL after not making enough of an impression at Providence’s camp. Although Cross played very well for the South Carolina Stingrays and was soon brought back up to the AHL where he’s stayed since then, it was one more reminder that the Connecticut kid who had looked so promising coming out of prep hockey (before the knee injuries) was not on track to have any impact in Boston let alone what the team had expected him to make.

That’s why the B’s bringing Cross up is a good news story. In the grand scheme of things, he’s not likely to have an inspirational awakening and significant effect on the team’s fortunes like Johnny Boychuk did during the 2009-10 season, but you never know. Like Cross, Boychuk was a second-round pick who took a long time to reach the NHL after showing such promising tools as a teenager, but he never gave up and when his chance came, he seized it.

This is not to say that we’re looking at the dawn of another age of JB55 in Boston, but the team could do worse than at least try Cross and see how he does. He stuck with the organization (and they him) when most other players would have looked at the B’s defense depth chart and wanted out. That gets to the heart of who Tommy Cross is and what he’s about. I don’t know if this move is anything more than bringing him up to be a seventh D to sit in the press box until Morrow is ready to return, or the team finally wants to give Cross a chance to taste the NHL and see what he is made of.

One thing is certain: he’s earned it.

***

Providence coach Bruce Cassidy’s cup was overflowing with praise for Koko in the same Divver piece. Check it out:

“He’s going to be one of our assistant captains for a reason. He plays hard. He produces. He’s well-liked by his teammates. He works hard. Koko’s a little frustrated that he hasn’t gotten a better look in Boston and hopefully he takes care of that here. You can only control your own environment so he needs to be our best forward here every night so that when there is a callup situation at his position, he’s the first guy,’’ he said.

“I love the guy. I love his compete. Every year in the playoffs he’s arguably been our best player. That says a lot about a person. He’s going to have to lead for us. A lot of these guys, we don’t know what we’re going to get out of them. He’s a guy that we expect will lead us offensively and hopefully it translates to an (NHL) opportunity. He’s worked hard down here and as a coach of these young guys, you hope they get their chance. Especially for him, the way he’s played for us.’’

Translation: He’s off to a fine start in the AHL with 4 assists in two games. Keep grinding and making a difference and that next shot in Boston will come a lot sooner rather than later. With the big club off to its worst start in 50 years, the coaches are going to be far more willing to try new things and no one can argue with Koko’s talent.  When it comes, he’s got to find a way to get some points on the board, however. All the hustle and energy is great, but when you have a skill player like that, it’s not good enough to just try hard.

Watch for the next appearance of Khokhlachev in Boston soon.

Koko at crossroads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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