B’s go to 3-0 in preseason; Chara leaves with UB injury while Morrow impresses

The Boston Bruins are undefeated in exhibition play with three wins, coming back from a 3-1 deficit tonight against the NY Rangers to score two third period goals including the tying tally from Ryan Spooner with 54 seconds left and Jeremy Smith out for the extra attacker. After a scoreless overtime including 4-on-3 power plays for each team, the B’s got shootout goals from Spooner, Frank Vatrano and Brad Marchand to pull out a 4-3 victory that doesn’t count in the standings.

The biggest news on the night was the loss of captain Zdeno Chara in the first period. He made contact with Rangers forward Ryan Bourque (youngest son of B’s legend Ray). The play did not look like much, but Chara left the ice after 1:57 in three shifts and did not return. The team announced him out with an “upper body injury” and did not have an update after the game.

It goes without saying that should the B’s lose Chara for any extended period of time after already being without veteran Dennis Seidenberg for the first two months of the regular season, they are in trouble deep. We’ll find out soon enough, I guess. But for now- the positives:

Ryan Spooner- Boston’s 23-year-old pivot scored the equalizer when the Rangers allowed him to walk in from the right half-wall to the top of the circle where he sent a low shot through several guys in front. The puck was on target at Rangers goalie Jeff Malcolm’s five-hole and gave the B’s a shot at OT with less than a minute remaining. Spooner followed that up in the shootout with a nice snipe after making a quick hip fake as he came in at an oblique angle before beating Malcolm far side over the blocker. If you like pure speed and skill, Spooner has plenty of both. He’s figuring out who he is as an NHL center and as long as he’s scoring and working hard, Claude Julien will be happy with him, even if he doesn’t always make the right decisions or plays in his own end.

Joe Morrow- The Pens first-rounder in 2011 had a good game, blasting a shot from the point that Tyler Randell tipped home to give the B’s a 1-0 lead while playing a good aggressive transition game and hustling back, blocking shots and playing hard on defense. He made a particularly good play to sacrifice his body late in regulation to block a shot that could have put the game out of reach just before Spooner tied it. He nearly won it in the final second when he jumped in from the point and fired a rebound on net, but the shot hit Bourque and did not go. He was solid in OT, poised when the B’s were down a man and then later working the point well with fellow D-man Colin Miller. If this was a statement game that Morrow wants to play in the NHL full-time this season, he made it.

Austin Czarnik- I said this on Twitter: he’s a player. I’m liking the Michigan native and former Miami University captain more and more each time I see him, and I had a lot of time for him when he was in the NCAA. He was instrumental on Boston’s second goal- anticipating that a Rangers clearing attempt would not get past the blue line and turning on the jets to zoom into the zone and get to the puck first. He then walked to the middle of the slot and fired a shot that hit the post. Jimmy Hayes had fallen down in front of the net and appeared to interfere with the goalie Malcolm, but the puck squirted out and defenseman Brandon Carlo buried it. In the regular season, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault would be able to mount a coach’s challenge on that play, and he probably would win, but not tonight. Back to Czarnik- he might be small, but he’s so fast, smart and creative with the puck. He’s always making something happen. I thought Julien should have put him out for the 4-on-3 Boston had at the end of OT. As it stood, he was finally put out in the last 11 seconds and the B’s mounted a furious assault on the Rangers net with him out there buzzing around…coincidence? I think not. I’m still surprised that the Bruins were able to beat out other suitors for this guy, but you can see why other teams were on Czarnik, at least.

Frank Vatrano- Providence fans watching these games have to be getting excited for the duo of Vatrano and Czarnik…they are making for a magical little pair of skilled offensive players. Vatrano played a solid game, but he scored a jaw-dropping goal in the shootout when he rifled a top shelf shot past Malcolm high to the glove side. On the reverse angle, you could see the puck just explode off Vatrano’s stick in a blur…that’s the vaunted release I’ve been oozing over. But the tiny little spot in the upper corner he then hit…with Malcolm in position to make the glove save…this is a kid who is a pure goal scorer with a move like that. The only thing better would have been if it came against Henrik Lundqvist.

Jeremy Smith- If you looked at the box score, you might think Smitty had a tough night. Not so. Yes, he was beaten for a couple of goals that he wanted back, especially the one he got a piece of but knocked into his own net. However, with the game on the line, he dug in and got the job done. I like his talent and mental toughness…I have little doubt that Smith can be an effective backup, but as a player who’s never seen a second of regular season NHL action, there’s some risk associated with him. However- the more you watch him, the more you realize that he’s a competitor and can probably play at this level. Whether the B’s are willing to accept that risk or go with the safer bet in Jonas Gustavsson…that’s what we’ll find out in the remaining preseason contests.

Colin Miller- He had another strong preseason game, showing off the big-time shot, passing and skating skills he was noted for. I saw someone say on Twitter at some point that the Kings hitching their wagon to Slava Voynov over Miller might have been a huge mistake. I guess we shall soon see, but he has that instinctive, aggressive and attacking mindset when he gets the puck. He was dropping bombs from the point in OT and with Morrow, the two did a nice job of keeping the puck away from the Rangers PKers. If Miller can translate his solid preseason play and production in the NHL going forward, this will have been one of those trades that benefits both teams. Milan Lucic is very likely going to go off in Tinseltown in a contract year and new setting back on the West Coast where he is happiest, so Miller’s success will be a big win for Boston if it comes together for him.

Tyler Randell- One tough motha…he got things going with a deflection of Morrow’s point shot in the first period. Then followed it with a spirited fight with Brett Bellemore that was pretty one-sided with Randell scoring some big blows before the takedown. Randell did not complete the Gordie Howe hat trick, but it was a solid showing from the 2009 sixth-rounder, whose skating has held him back, but has a nice set of hands for scoring the odd goal on occasion and fighting.

Brandon Carlo- When the B’s made some cuts today, the 18-year-old Tri-City Americans defender was not one of them, a nice vote of confidence. He had a solid outing, scoring a goal by stepping up from the blue line in the third period to pull his team to within one.  He’s got a long reach and does a good job of keeping opponents to the outside. He’s still pretty raw and will get a lot better, but this has been a nice camp experience for him so far.

Brad Marchand- It was nice to see him back together with Patrice Bergeron again. Marchand used his speed and shiftiness all night, but came through at the end when he put an off-speed shot through Malcolm’s leg in the shootout to secure the win. He was wearing an ‘A’ tonight.

Zac Rinaldo- Another game, another standout performance in terms of energy and getting under the opposition skin. He was running around drilling Rangers in the third period, and drew the attention of New York tough guy Tanner Glass. Rinaldo declined Glass’ offer to dance, but then nailed Tommy Hughes with a clean but big-time hit that sent the Ranger flying. Glass went right after Rinaldo and got assessed the roughing minor. Rinaldo is a punk…but he’s Boston’s punk. You shouldn’t play the game like you have eggs in your pockets, but at the same time, Rinaldo has to watch the line and not skate over it. Some people will always have problems with the way he plays, but in two preseason matches, he’s been effective at doing his thing. Time will tell if he can prevent the meltdowns that have contributed to his negative perception around the league, and he came mighty close to penalized for contact with a linesman, who was escorting him to the Boston bench.

The B’s sent Zach Senyshyn back to Sault Ste Marie of the OHL today, along with defenseman Jeremy Lauzon, who returned to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL but was not in their opening night roster against the Quebec Remparts. Goalie Daniel Vladar (Chicago-USHL) and Prince George (WHL) forward Jesse Gabrielle were also returned to their junior clubs.

Colby Cave and Colton Hargrove were sent to Providence, along with AHL contract guys Andrew Cherniwchan, Eric Neiley, Frankie Simonelli, Max Everson, Max Iafrate and Matt Ginn.

Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview : Wingers

This is the last installment of the position-by-position look at the Boston Bruins as we enter the new NHL season- training camps are less than a month away. Thanks for reading and passing the links to the other pieces on the goalies, defensemen and centers. There is more to come on the blog as the season goes on, but here’s a breakdown of the team’s situation on the left and right wings.

Brad Marchand raised his arms 24 times last season, a team best (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Brad Marchand raised his arms 24 times last season, a team best (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

In retrospect: Scoring was down across the board, as Milan Lucic and Reilly Smith combined for just 31 goals between them after posting 44 the season before. Both players have new zip codes for the new year, as the Bruins and GM Don Sweeney have attempted to generate some flexibility with the salary cap in sending them to Los Angeles and Florida respectively.

Brad Marchand and Loui Eriksson are the only Boston wingers who surpassed the 20-goal mark last season, as Marchand led the club with 24. Eriksson, who has been much-maligned after being the central return piece in the Tyler Seguin trade on July 4, 2013, bounced back with a solid 22-goal year after dealing with two concussions and just 10 goals in his first full Boston campaign.

Rookie David Pastrnak was a bright spot, electrifying the fan base in his second NHL call-up in January when he posted back-to-back 2-goal games and earned a job with the big club the rest of the way, finishing with 10 goals and 27 points, while leading the team in scoring over the final quarter season stretch. Fellow Providence kiddo Seth Griffith showed some flashes of offense when called up earlier in the year, but a lack of speed and experience saw him returned to the farm for more seasoning.

Former top-10 selection Brett Connolly was brought in at the deadline and suffered a freak finger injury in his very first Bruins practice, causing him to miss all but the final five games. One can only wonder if his presence might have helped the team eke out a win somewhere along the line before he got back into the lineup at admittedly less than 100 percent.

The Simon Gagne veteran redemption experiment did not work, and Daniel Paille 6 goals in 71 games was his worst output since coming to the B’s early in the 2009-10 season. Gagne retired and Paille is still looking for a new team after not being re-signed.

The view from here: Marchand is the team’s most consistent finisher, having tallied at least 20 goals in each of his five full NHL seasons with the exception of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 year, but even then he scored 18 in just 45 games. The small but fleet-of-foot agitator can be his own worst enemy, and he will go long stretches without scoring, only to get hot and carry the team for extended periods. Streaky play aside, Marchand has the bona fides as an important contributor who will continue to get the ice time and could hit 30 goals this year.

Pastrnak is the player the Bruins have been waiting for. The 25th overall pick in 2014 dazzled in development camp immediately after the draft in Philly, the first indication that Boston had a steal. You can never really account for why players like him drop, but the B’s were major beneficiaries, as they had him projected in the mid-teens but after being unable to move up to get him (sensing a trend here? Trading up is much more easier said than done- takes two to tango) they stood pat and got him at their regular spot anyway. He’s not only highly skilled, but extremely hard working and energetic. Cynical Boston fans will grumble about waiting for the inevitable trade that is coming to unload the young star as was the case with Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, but Pastrnak is not going anywhere. In him, Boston has their next Patrice Bergeron in terms of a player who not only has the talent to be a front line guy, but who embodies the team-first, competitive values the organization treasures.

Boston signed free agent Matt Beleskey away from Anaheim in the off-season, getting him at five years and an AAV of $3.8M- not a cheap contract, but less than what prognosticators thought he might receive on the open market heading into July. At 27, he’s in his prime and coming off of a career-best 22 goals for the Ducks in 65 games, but does not have an established body of work as a scorer at the NHL level and has dealt with injuries consistently in his pro career. He’s done and said all the right things since signing with Boston and the Bruins are banking on him getting another 20+ markers while bringing an energy and physicality despite not being an overly big, classic power forward.

Another new addition who does fit the mold of the modern big wing with scoring potential is Dorchester’s Jimmy Hayes, who comes home to play for the team he dreamed of skating for as a kid. Although not your snarly, intimidating presence, the former Boston College star tallied 19 goals the old fashioned way- in front of the net where he parks his 6-5 body and uses his quick hands and offensive instincts to finish off scoring chances. The 25-year-old signed a three-year extension with the B’s after being acquired for Reilly Smith with an AAV of $2.3 million, a bargain if he maintains his production or better yet, ups his numbers into the 20’s. He has talent enough to do it, though he doesn’t have the skill and upside of his younger brother and Rangers forward Kevin.

Eriksson once scored 30 goals in a season, but that’s not who he is. The Bruins got a glimpse more in line with the real forward this past season, and if he brings more of the same, the team will take it. His lack of open-ice speed is the biggest drawback to the veteran Swede, who is a quiet professional and uses his smarts to slip through seams and generate stealthy scoring chances that won’t bring you out of your seat, but count just as much as a highlight reel goal if it goes in. His 18:24 average time on ice led all Boston forwards and speaks to his ability to compete on both special teams and at even strength. Because he’s always going to be compared to Seguin, Eriksson is an easy target for frustrated fans, but he did his job last season and will be counted on again. Given his impending status as a UFA, however, if the team looks out of it as the trade deadline looms, he’s a prime candidate to be moved.

Connolly is an intriguing x-factor as a right wing who just couldn’t find his niche in Tampa Bay after GM Steve Yzerman made him his first ever draft pick, sixth overall, in 2010. At the time, Connolly had been dealing with a major hip injury and was seen as an injury risk that early in the draft despite being a gifted scorer coming out of Prince George of the WHL. Ironically enough, Connolly’s hip has held up since then, but the expected offense has not materialized to the degree indicative of his high pre-draft standing and subsequent projections. He scored 12 goals in 50 games for Tampa Bay in a bottom-six line role, so the potential is there, and the B’s feel that giving up a pair of 2nd round picks- in 2015 and 2016- is worth the risk.

Veterans Chris Kelly and Max Talbot are back to vie for playing time on the lower lines and Claude Julien will value their experience and leadership. Both are in the final years of their contracts and may not be back in Boston for the 2016-17 season, so the team will see what they can get from them this year and take it from there.

If he is unable to win a job at center, the Bruins would be well-served to see if they can get Alexander Khokhlachev out on the wing and try him in a top-9 role. Spots are getting more and more crowded, but the team does not have many more forwards with the pure talent and scoring potential Koko does. A lot of fans fell in love with him without realizing how much work the rest of his game needed, so the appetite to have him in the lineup has been pretty constant since 2011. Now, though, is really time to see what they have in him. The B’s struggled to score last year and that’s what this kid does best. Unlike Spooner, he doesn’t have the speed to be an ideal center, so why not see if he can make the adjustment to wing? It’s worth a shot.

Youngsters Brian Ferlin and Seth Griffith will also hope to get more playing time in Boston during the new campaign. Griffith shined at times, including scoring several memorable goals, and has always been a dangerous offensive player going back to his OHL days with London, even if he does not have ideal size or game-breaking wheels. Ferlin is a big-bodied forward who did not look out of place in a seven-game NHL audition (1 assist), but may have to start the year in Providence if there are no injuries to open up spots up front to begin the year.

In what really amounts to Sweeney’s most curious and criticized move, he dealt a 2017 third-round pick for Zac Rinaldo, one of the most polarizing players for the way he plays on the edge and has received suspensions for illegal hits and putting opponents at risk for injury. Rinaldo is undersized, but plays a kamikaze style that opens him up to injury and also leaves the penalty box door ajar as well given his 102 penalty minutes a year ago. On the positive side, he’ll hit anything and plays with an energy most players can’t hope to match, but a perceived lack of respect for his fellow NHLers, not to mention just 1 goal in 58 games has a lot of Boston fans not seeing the sense in trading a top-90 pick for a player like Rinaldo. We’ll have to see whether he can reign in his emotions and be more than he’s been in his NHL career to date with the Flyers or if this will go down as a step backwards for Sweeney in his early tenure.

David Pastrnak is the player the Boston Bruins have been waiting for. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

David Pastrnak is the player the Boston Bruins have been waiting for. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

On the farm: The B’s signed 2013 late-rounder Anton Blidh, and he’ll turn some heads in Providence with his gritty, in-your-face style. Although I try to avoid comparisons, he plays a style reminiscent of old Boston farm hand (and part-time Bruin until his trade to St. Louis) Vladimir Sobotka. What Blidh lacks in skill, he makes up for in “want to” so watch for him to become a fan favorite with the skill set to come up and provide help in a pinch.

Big winger Colton Hargrove will provide some toughness with Tyler Randell after turning pro out of Western Michigan. The Texan showed offensive improvement every year with the Broncos, and he was a nasty fighter in the USHL with Fargo before the NCAA. He’ll likely embrace a policeman’s role similar to Randell, but don’t expect much in the way of production as he adjusts to the pace and demands of the pro game and schedule.

Anthony Camara has been a disappointment in two pro seasons after being a third-round pick in 2011. As much a victim of internet hype without context, he’s a gritty player who likes to hit, but who does not have the requisite hockey sense to be a front line player and needs more talented linemates to produce. This is probably his last chance to get it going in the Boston system.

Brandon DeFazio and Frank Vatrano provide the ability to score goals on the wings for Providence as neither figure to be favorites to earn spots in Boston out of camp. Vatrano, who hails from East Longmeadow, Mass., has a wicked shot and made a lot of strides in improving his conditioning. He’s someone to keep an eye out as a player who played just one full season at UMass before deciding to make a run with the hometown team.

Free agent Colby Cave could see time at center in Providence, but a move to the wing might suit the gritty, smart and underrated scorer nicely. He can push the pace with his skating and he brings a tenacious style that coaches love. Watch for him to earn Bruce Cassidy’s trust early and often, even if he doesn’t project as a high-end player in the NHL.

The future: Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn were the team’s top two draft selections, but left wing Danton Heinen is the player to watch in the nearer term. The 2014 fourth-rounder out of the Surrey Eagles of the BCHL made an immediate impact at Denver University, finishing with the third-best freshman point totals in the nation. He’s a smart, creative playmaking wing, who showed a consistent ability to make plays around the net even without elite skating ability. He’s shifty and quick, but his mature game and a knack for setting up plays and making it look easy could see him turn pro as soon as this spring if he takes another step forward in his development with the Pioneers.

DeBrusk scored 42 goals with Swift Current and will likely need time to physically mature back in the Dub, but he brings a sniper’s mindset and an eagerness to be a Bruin that makes it none too surprising that the club jumped on him early in the draft at 14th. Like DeBrusk, Senyshyn has a natural ability to find the back of the net- he’s under pressure to justify his high draft standing but has the demeanor to see it through. Time will tell if the Bruins have it right with this duo, but there is no rush to figure it out this season.

Jesse Gabrielle, the club’s fourth-round selection in 2015, grew up in Western Canada cheering for the Bruins and Marchand. Now with Prince George of the WHL, he’s got some Marchand in him. He’ll have to prove that he can maintain his production and consistency while remaining dedicated to working towards an eventual job in Boston.

Rising Notre Dame sophomore Anders Bjork looked good in this month’s Team USA WJC national evaluation camp in Lake Placid. Watch for the 2014 fifth-round pick to make that squad as a versatile, effective two-way forward who brings speed and penalty killing chops to any team he’s on.

Slovak winger Peter Cehlarik will give one more year in the Swedish Hockey League a try before he’s expected to come over and compete for an NHL roster spot. The tall, lanky third rounder two years ago has a good release and offensive ability, but is not all that heavy a player nor does he play with much attention to detail for a 200-foot game. He’s skilled, but leaves you wanting more at times when it comes to his energy and hustle.

The verdict: It’s a middle tier collection of wingers, with not a single player coming off a year of 25 or more goals.

There is some promise with this group, and the Bruins will need it as major steps back by key contributors means that there isn’t much depth to pick it up behind them.

The Beleskey and Hayes additions were solid roster moves, but losing Lucic is going to hurt more than Bruins fans realize until they start watching the games. It’s kind of like that old Cinderella song- “Don’t Know What Ya Got Til It’s Gone”- and fans will have to decide on their own if the contract/UFA debate was worth losing him. Given the return, it probably was, but it’s going to take some getting used to when he’s skating around in a Kings sweater this season, likely playing some of his best hockey in years. It’s only human nature, after all.

Pastrnak is the key- the Bruins need to put him in situations where he can thrive while preserving his health. Don’t expect All-Star caliber numbers, but 20+ goals and north of 50 points as a sophomore would be a win and show that he is well on his way.

Still, there are more lingering questions about this group than answers- the only way to settle the debate is by playing the games.

It’s almost time.

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)

Boston Bruins prospects update- July 2015

With the final session of the Boston Bruins development camp in the books, it’s time to take a quick snapshot of where things are shaping up with about 60 days before the organization’s young players (minus those in the NCAA) will return to Boston for rookie and main training camps.

Given my admittedly limited online viewing of the development camp on-ice sessions available, here are some notes and observations of the players in attendance at Ristuccia Memorial Arena, supplemented by my own previous viewings of many of these players live and via streaming. More seasoned veterans like Malcolm Subban, Alexander Khokhlachev, Joe Morrow and Brian Ferlin to name a few were not present, while other players such as BU and Harvard defensemen Matt Grzelcyk (Charlestown, Mass.) and Wiley Sherman (Greenwich, Conn.) were injured.

Overall, there is some promising potential in Boston’s system, but fans were not treated to a dynamic breakout performance like they were a year ago when David Pastrnak introduced himself in memorable fashion. It’s a solid if unspectacular group, with several players such as Denver sophomore Danton Heinen, WHL defender Brandon Carlo and Harvard-bound center Ryan Donato (Scituate, Mass.) opening some eyes with consistent performances all week. Goaltender Zane McIntyre won the 2015 Mike Richter Award as the NCAA’s best goaltender, and did not take advantage of the loophole to maximize his coin by declaring himself a free agent, instead signing with the Bruins. He is in his sixth and final development camp with the team, breaking the unofficial mark of five, set by Tommy Cross (Simsbury, Conn.).

The B’s trifecta of first-round picks showed off their talents in flashes, but underscored the conventional thinking on draft night that none appear to be ready to grab an NHL job out of the gate. Things could change for them between now and October, but realistically, this is going to be a deliberate process for each one of Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk and Zachary Senyshyn. All three show promise but anyone hoping for a repeat of David Pastrnak from a year ago should temper their expectations for a longer timeline.

In part 1 of this 2-part series, we’ll look at Boston’s pro prospects, likely ticketed for Providence, and those playing overseas in the 2015-16 season. Part 2 will focus on the bulk of the camp attendees, still in the amateur ranks playing junior in Canada and the U.S. and college hockey.

Providence/pro prospects player capsules

Noel Acciari, RW (Johnston, R.I.); 6-0, 200

Acquired: Free agent, 2015

So, what do you do for an encore when you win a national title with Providence College? Why, you sign with the NHL team you always dreamed of playing for in the Bruins, of course! Perhaps one of the most unnoticed but key free agent signings of the past several months, the former Kent Lions and Friars captain plays a throwback, hard-nosed style, leveling opponents with clean hits but not engaging in unnecessary fisticuffs. The Hockey East’s top defensive forward is a crafty shooter who doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to finish, especially in clutch situations. However, where the Rhode Island native truly excels is in making life tough on opponents whenever they’re looking for space and can’t shake loose from this relentless forechecker who generates turnovers. He’s a player you go to war with.

Anton Blidh, LW; 6-1, 190

Acquired: 6th round, 2013 NHL Entry Draft

This gritty, agitating Swede is more of a bottom-six, in-your-face disruptive force on the ice. Blidh opened some eyes last winter with an impressive performance at the World Jr. (U20) tournament, and despite a lack of ideal size, his playing style is tailor-made for the Bruins and what he will face in the AHL next season. He’s not the most skilled forward, but he’ll force opponents to keep their heads on a swivel and he’s proven he has an opportunistic scoring touch when he generates turnovers. Blidh came out of the same Swedish team and system- the Frolunda Indians- as long-time fan favorite and current Boston scout P.J. Axelsson. He’s an industrious, abrasive player who catches your attention because he’s constantly in motion, and he has the makings of a solid bottom-six forward who will see time on the penalty kill.

Peter Cehlarik, LW; 6-2, 200

Acquired: 3rd round, 2013 NHL Entry Draft

The skilled scoring winger from Slovakia has spent the last three seasons playing pro hockey in Sweden is on the verge of being ready to try his hand in North America but is expected to spend one more year overseas with Lulea. He does not play a physical style, but uses his large frame to navigate traffic and establish a net-front presence when on top of his game. With an accurate shot and quick release, he has 20-30 goal potential in the NHL, but must show more dedication to a three-zone approach and improve his consistency and intensity.

Colby Cave, LW/C; 6-1, 200

Acquired: Free agent, 2015

The Swift Current Broncos captain is a versatile, underrated forward who can skate at center or the wing and brings a tenacious disposition to the ice with him on every shift. The B’s have looked to the WHL both in the draft and via free agency this season and the undrafted Cave was a solid get who is a two-way player with the intelligence and character to be more than the sum of his parts. Cave isn’t going to wow you with his skill level or earn a lot of “top player” honors in a development camp setting, but he’s fast off the mark and will give you a consistent effort and a heavy, effective 200-foot game that is so important in the NHL these days.

Colton Hargrove, LW; 6-2, 215

Acquired: 7th round, 2012 NHL Entry Draft

This rugged Texan does not bring much pro scoring upside to the table, but with his toughness and ability to finish around the net, he’s worth keeping an eye on. After improving offensively in each of his three seasons at Western Michigan he’ll likely see a limited role in Providence, where he’ll need to make the most of ice time and practice opportunities to pick up a step or two. With Tyler Randell already on hand to provide nastiness and occasional offense, Hargrove is going to have to put in the work, something that has been said he’ll need to improve as a pro.

Justin Hickman, RW; 6-3, 215

Acquired: Free agent, 2015

Multiple teams were in on the Seattle Thunderbirds’ captain (picking up on a trend here, Bruins fans?) who chose Boston in January after he had to shut it down for the rest of last season for shoulder surgery. The undrafted Hickman is back and ready to go for the 2015-16 campaign as a big-bodied power forward who needs to improve his first couple of steps but is tough to play against. He creates space for his linemates and does the grunt work along the walls and in front of the net, though will need time to work his way to the NHL. He’s a fierce competitor who isn’t flashy but will drop the gloves to defend teammates and is going to make his money in the greasy areas of the ice by paying the physical price to open things up.
Emil Johansson, D; 6-1, 195

Acquired: 7th round, 2014 NHL Entry Draft

The two-way defenseman who plays for HV71 has a pretty good skill level for being a seventh-round selection but often leaves you wanting more from his play. He’s a fine skater in a straight line and backwards, but his footwork is not the smoothest, and he struggles to move as well laterally. He can fire the puck well from the point and makes the first pass effectively enough. Johansson’s overall hockey sense and awareness is questionable, as he struggles with making decisions under pressure and can get to running around in his own end.

Joonas Kemppainen, C; 6-2, 200
Acquired: Free agent, 2015

Finnish pro league standout and champion had a fine playoff run and World Championship performance, earning a Boston contract this spring. Tall and thick-bodied, the 27-year-old is more of a defensive (though not all that physical) type who chips in key goals and timely offense than a consistent scoring center, but he might be an ideal bottom-line pivot. He’s accomplished at winning draws and a recognized penalty killer for his smarts and strong defensive awareness. Unfortunately, he injured his hamstring in Finland shortly before development camp started, so fans were unable to get much of a look at him.

Zane McIntyre, G; 6-2, 200

Acquired: 6th round, 2010 NHL Entry Draft

The NCAA’s best goaltender and Hobey Baker finalist in 2014-15 added another stellar season to his resume, and is finally ready to embark on his pro career five years after the B’s drafted him. McIntyre has done tremendous work to improve his technique and fundamentals over the past half decade, but his promise continues to lend itself to his battler’s mentality and emotional toughness that allow him to shake off bad goals and make key saves at crunch time. He’s still improving his skills, but there is so much to like about McIntyre, who has made a career of playing well in any situation, whether serving as a backup or playing every game as he did for the Sioux last year.

Frank Vatrano, LW (East Longmeadow, Mass.); 5-10, 205

Acquired: Free agent, 2015

The B’s may have leveraged the hometown advantage in landing the UMass Minuteman who tallied 18 goals (36 games) in his first and only full season in the NCAA before deciding to turn pro. A natural scorer with a wicked release and nose for the net, Vatrano came to development camp on a mission and in outstanding shape- having shed a few extra pounds for added quickness. The former U.S. National Team standout appears ready to make an honest run at a primetime role in Providence and perhaps something more next season and beyond.