McAvoy, JFK in the Bruins’ fold…Bjork is on deck

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UPDATE: 14 April 2017

Editor’s note- The Anders Bjork watch continues more than a week after the Fighting Irish were eliminated by the eventual NCAA champion Denver University Pioneers. What can we say? Our optimistic outlook was based on a reliable source, but also illustrates the fluid situation and challenges involved in signing young players to NHL contracts. We’re not completely closing the door on Bjork reaching an agreement to turn pro and forego his senior season in South Bend, but each day that passes without an agreement looks less favorable to an ELC. We’ll see, but once again- we learn an important lesson about information and perhaps value in sitting on things to let them percolate before we contribute to hopes being built up. The information we received was accurate, but things changed, beginning with  the Irish overachieving and going far deeper in the NCAA tourney than expected, not to mention the bad luck of the NHL’s regular season ending so soon after Notre Dame was eliminated. We have no further updates, so we’ll have to see how it all plays out. We’re leaving the original post as is- we stand by our source and will chalk this one up to an evolving situation that perhaps changed due to other factors that intervened in what was believed to be a solid course of action for player to turn pro.

The one-and-done 80’s alt-pop band Timbuk3 sang about the future being so bright- they had to wear shades. Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney might be having similar sentiments after he got ink to paper for two of his club’s top prospects this past week in a pair of Boston University studs- defenseman Charlie McAvoy and center Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson or “JFK” as he is more popularly known.

Now, with the University of Notre Dame preparing to take on Denver University on Thursday night in one of two NCAA Frozen Four semifinal games, junior winger Anders Bjork is expected to be the third and final domino to fall in terms of new blood coming to the Bruins. Reliable sources (some of the same ones who told TSP several weeks ago that JFK was leaning towards coming out/turning pro) have told us that Bjork essentially has a deal with Boston in place pending his NCAA team’s status. Obviously, if the Irish beat the Pioneers- he’ll keep playing. The college championship/big enchilada is on Saturday night, the same day Boston would play their final regular season game, so whether Bjork is seen this season or makes his NHL debut in the 2017 playoffs (B’s still have work to do on that front) or next season remains to be seen. But, for those fans who watched the Jimmy Vesey saga last spring, it would appear that the B’s don’t have to worry about that, as arguably one of the best NCAA players in the country in Bjork- will leave school a year early to turn pro with the team that drafted him in the fifth round three years ago.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the signings and what each player might do for the Black and Gold:

Charlie McAvoy, RD

As reported a week ago Sunday by your TSP founder, McAvoy was the first of the dominoes to fall- he signed an amateur tryout (ATO) to turn pro with the Providence Bruins, and has already made a positive impression in two AHL games, registering an assist in each contest.

Amidst speculation that there might have been a wink-and-handshake NHL option included in the offer to get McAvoy to come out after two years at BU, the feeling on this blog all along was that the 19-year-old and 14th overall pick in last June’s NHL draft is ready for the show right now. There is always a segment of folks who believe that minor league seasoning is the smart play, and there is probably higher than average concern about losing a year off of the entry-level contracts of any one of the three NCAA prospects featured in this post. While you can’t dismiss that business-centric aspect of the signings, there’s probably more concern than warranted. Sure, a player like McAvoy incurs some risk by being one year closer to restricted free agency as a result of playing one or two games at the end of a season, but if the B’s were to make the postseason and McAvoy were to play or at least be around the team to practice with the veterans and work out with the NHL club while being subjected to the higher-intensity atmosphere of the postseason, that would in itself carry enough of a benefit to at least make a worthy case to “burn” the year off the ELC. For some, it won’t matter, but at the end of the day- fans sitting behind computers aren’t going to impact the decision process- Bruins management will ultimately weigh the cost/benefits and make that decision.

In McAvoy, the B’s are getting a skilled right-shot defender who can play with pace and move the puck better than just about anyone on the team right now not named Torey Krug. He’s an aggressive offense-minded player who still has a good bit to learn defensively, but the B’s have enough vanilla shutdown guys that can protect him when he goes into riverboat gambler mode and is deep in the offensive zone trying to force the play. He’s a fun kid who has a magnetic personality and will likely add to the dressing room dynamic with his good nature and ability to keep things loose. His U.S. National Team coach, Don Granato, told us at the draft last June that other players tend to gravitate to C-Mac- they want to be a part of his circle and he’s a guy who knows when to dial it in and get down to business. He has the potential to come into the Boston room and thrive under some of the veteran players on defense and up front.

Simply put- while he’s a still a bit of a wild young colt, you don’t want to clamp the reins on him- McAvoy’s pure skill and big play ability (check out his overtime goal vs. North Dakota or highlights from the gold medal WJC game vs. Canada) have a better chance at helping the Bruins now than hurting them. Sure- keeping him in Providence is the safe play, but I don’t know if playing it safe makes the most sense with a potential high-ender like this guy. We’ve seen a lot of talk about him being “ruined” or his confidence “damaged” by getting a shot at the NHL, but enough with the coddling- if you know even a little about McAvoy, he’s the type of guy who will benefit from the experience, even if there are some rocky moments for him.

We think he’s ready and that he’ll make his Boston debut soon.

JFK

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson aka “JFK”

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, RC

When the B’s announced that he signed and would join the big club for the 2016-17 on Sunday evening, it ended the “will he/won’t he” drama that had been circulating around Boston since BU’s season ended a week ago Saturday at the hands of Minnesota-Duluth.

JFK could just as easily have gone back to BU for his junior year, where there’s a good chance he would have been the captain and could have taken his production to another level. We’re sure Coach Quinn and the BU Terriers wish that were the case- he’s a serious student and we hear that his family wanted him to get a little closer to his degree with another year in school.

Ultimately, however, the Bruins felt that the slick Swede’s time was now and made a final, aggressive push to sign him on Friday, meeting with him and obviously convincing the 45th overall selection in 2015 to make the pro plunge. We had reported several weeks ago that he was leaning towards turning pro, but like many youngsters, that sentiment had gone back and forth, with it looking more and more in recent days that he would stay in school- give credit to the Bruins for getting their guy, and fans will get a good lesson in the idea that if you feel strongly enough about a player, then close the deal. Anything could happen if JFK had gone back to school for another year, so the signing makes a lot of sense.

He’s been repeatedly compared to Patrice Bergeron, and like Boston’s star and longest-tenured player, he’s not a dynamic type who is going to pull you out of your seat. However, if you love the game of hockey, you will be drawn to the details in his game- the smart stick and vision; the ability to change gears and match the tempo of play; the ability to play effectively in all zones. He’s not zooming up the ice with his hair on fire, but if you stop and look closely at what he’s doing, he’s disrupting opposition breakouts by being in the right place and getting his stick into passing lanes; in the faceoff dot, he’s winning far more draws than not and in key situations both offensively and defensively; he’s aiding clean zone entries with on-target passes or gaining the blue line himself with shifty, but controlled movements with the puck to evade defenders and force opponents off their spots with his agility. JFK is also known for popping in big goals or making money passes for scores when his team needs it most. Yes, he didn’t put up dominant scoring totals at BU, but then again, neither did Bergeron when he was with the Bathurst Titan of the QMJHL.

Questioning whether JFK is ready to come in and make more positive plays than negative ones in the NHL is a fair one, and there is always an element of risk to putting in younger players in pressure-packed situations, but at the same time- if there is one player who has the mature, refined game and temperament to do it, then this centerman is it. His Omaha (USHL) coach told us at a team dinner last night as the news of JFK’s signing broke that his pulse/emotions are always in the green- he’s as cool as ice and that shouldn’t be mistaken for being laid back or having no pulse, but that he brings a relentless kind of steady state to his performance in that you’re getting the same level of execution and production, regardless of the situation. Earlier in his junior career, some questioned his sense of urgency, but JFK has answered that in definitive fashion with his two years at BU.

Now, the fun begins- we’ll have to wait for him to get his work visa stuff straightened out and see where Coach Bruce Cassidy (note to reader- this is a more formal way of saying, don’t ask us when he’s going to play or where he’ll slot into the Bosotn lineup) has him on the lines at practice, but getting JFK signed and in the fold was a major step- the payoff might not be that far behind.

Again, don’t fixate on the numbers- there’s not always a direct correlation between scoring at the lower level and to the NHL. There’s a good chance JFK isn’t going to be a big point-getter at the NHL level, but it’s not always about the pure production. If he’s value-added with his versatility and ability to play any role in key situations, that in itself is a big reward.

Anders Bjork, RW/LW

When it comes to prospects, few have generated both the buzz and concern than Boston’s fifth-round pick in 2014.

The buzz stems from his third consecutive season of improved offensive output for the Fighting Irish after an impressive freshman debut in 2014-15. Since the 7-15-22 line in 41 games that first NCAA year, Bjork jumped to 12-23-35 in 35 games before taking it to another level this season with 21-31-52 totals in 38 games with one or two more left depending on what happens this week in the Frozen Four.

Pigeonholed in a defensive forward role with the U.S. National Team, Bjork slipped down to the middle of the draft, but one team source in Boston told TSP that several of the scouts high on him during the 2013-14 season felt that he was miscast and could have been more effective as a top-6 winger with Team USA.

Versatility and speed/pace are Bjork’s calling cards: he can play any of the forward positions and while playing more on the right side in his last two campaigns under head coach Jeff Jackson, he started out as a left wing in South Bend and could potentially slot in alongside David Krejci sometime soon given his style and smarts. Bjork played some center in Ann Arbor with the NTDP, so that Swiss Army Knife flavor is something that the B’s (and every team for that matter) look for in their forwards. He’s an explosive skater- getting up to speed in just a few slashing strides, and he is dangerously creative, able to thread the needle with pinpoint passes or take pucks to the net himself. He can dangle or snap off shots in tight spaces. Like JFK- he’s a three-zone player, and with his wheels and head- we’re sold. Bjork is the real deal and the B’s were ahead of the curve on him- it’s about time to be rewarded for that foresight.

Fans (and the team) can breathe a little easier for now, in that it appears that Bjork is ready to begin his pro career. The Fighting Irish’s run to the Frozen Four has put that on hold, in large part- thanks to his heroics especially against the University of Minnesota, when he assisted on the tying goal, then scored the game-winner, figuring in all three of his team’s scores. For good measure, Bjork set up the OT-winner against UMass-Lowell to secure the trip to Chicago, which is where he grew up.

The B’s will have to wait a little longer, and the details and timeline are TBD- but it looks like all signals are green (no pun intended) and that whether the NCAA season ends for Bjork on Thursday or Saturday night, we’ll be seeing him in Boston soon.

 

More McAvoy…what’s in a series of pictures?

Here are three pictures of Bruins top pick Charlie McAvoy on Friday. Two of them have Montreal first selection and fellow D-man Mikhail Sergachev in them.

What do you think is going on here? What conclusion do you think we can draw from it? I got some interesting insights from both BU head coach David Quinn and Wisconsin assistant Don Granato.

I’ll provide my answer in the next “3 Amigos” podcast featuring Dom Tiano and Reed Duthie. We’re recording it on Thursday and it will go up later in the evening to beat the free agency day mad rush.

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McAvoy and Mikhail Sergachev (Kirk Luedeke photo)

McAvoy and Mikhail Sergachev (Kirk Luedeke photo)

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Getting to know Charlie McAvoy

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By the time the Boston Bruins and owner Charles Jacobs stepped up to the podium at First Niagara Center in Buffalo to announce the team’s first draft choice with the 14th overall selection last Friday, it was all but fait accompli that one of Boston University defenseman Charlie McAvoy or Boston University recruit defender Dante Fabbro out of Penticton was going to be the name called.

Both were available, both were right-shot defensemen, both represented not only what many would consider the top talent available at that spot, but were also filled a clear organizational need for the B’s.

He stumbled over the words, but the younger Jacobs, who was born in Buffalo as the son of Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs- CEO of the Western N.Y. Delaware North Corporation- called McAvoy’s name and after a season of frustration and an epic meltdown over the last 30 days of a year in which the B’s had largely overachieved before crashing to earth in March and early April, Boston had their man.

“Charlie’s one of those players who can do a little bit of everything,” one NHL scout for an Eastern Conference team told the Scouting Post in Buffalo before the draft. “Some are talking top-10 for him, and I could see that. He has the talent for it. More realistically, I see him going around 15-20, but that’s not a knock on him. He’s got that wide body and a natural knack for getting up in the play. With his skating he can push it at both ends, and that’s so important in the NHL these days. He’s also a bit of a character, too. He totally rocked our interview…we’re not in a position to get him, but we all kind of looked at each other when he left and thought, that’s a good kid right there.”

McAvoy is a nice fit in Boston with his blue collar roots. He grew up on Long Island the son of a plumber and fireman who was a natural at hockey but came from a large family, and finances did not permit him to continue playing the sport at the higher levels. A staunch NY Rangers fan, hockey remained his favorite after moving onto other sports like football and baseball, but he vowed to do what it took to allow his son to stay in hockey if that’s what Charlie desired.

That desire took McAvoy through the Long Island Gulls and New Jersey Rockets minor hockey programs before he landed a spot with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Team USA moved to Plymouth, Mich. before the start of the 2015-16 hockey season). While there, he emerged as a legitimate first-round NHL option, and carried that potential forward to fruition in his very own Empire State on June 24, 2016.

Born on December 21, 1997, the younger McAvoy missed the Rangers’ first and only Stanley Cup victory since 1940 by three-plus years. He was a Broadway Blueshirts fanatic whose first favorite player was Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch. To this day, Leetch remains the player he most tries to emulate in his playing style. At the rate he’s going, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that McAvoy could develop into a successful NHL star with similar attributes.

“I’m at a loss for words; it’s an unbelievable feeling and I’m so happy to be a part of this,” McAvoy said after the selection and he made his way into the bowels of the arena to meet the press for the first time as a member of the Boston Bruins. “I’ve gotten close with (the Bruins) this year and I’m sure my friends at home are happy, but I’m kind of cutting the ties with New York sports. Boston’s an unbelievable city and it’s a great place with great people and I’m happy to be staying there.”

Although not tall, McAvoy has a thick, strong build. His BU coach, David Quinn, spoke to the Scouting Post (TSP) after the selection briefly and credited the newest Boston first-rounder with putting in a lot of weight room work to get himself into better game shape after arriving, and said that the 18-year-old made significant progress as a player in all facets from the beginning of the 2015-16 season until the end. He also talked of Charlie’s “magnetic personality” and that players want to spend time with him.

“That was something that I worked on a lot- the defensive side of the puck,” McAvoy said. “It was something I needed to grow in and get better in and I feel like I made great strides throughout the year.”

McAvoy is a natural offensive talent. In his own words, he sees himself as a threat to be effective at both ends.

“I’m a two-way defenseman,” said McAvoy. “I can play the offensive side of the puck and that’s something I like to do, but I’ve grown a lot on the defensive side of the game.”

During a pre-draft podcast, TSP likened McAvoy to one of the pirates of old who liked to set his hair on fire before plundering a hapless vessel. He’s a classic push-the-pace, aggressive defender who likes to lead the rush and has the skating and puck skills to carry the puck out of his end on his own and can make all of the key outlet passing and long leads. There are times where his riverboat gambler mentality will get him out of position, but McAvoy has the natural hockey sense to learn from that and with continued strong coaching at BU by Quinn, Albie O’Connell and Scott Young– he’s sure to get better with his reads and decisions.

His defense partner, former BU captain and future Bruin Matt Grzelcyk, had left-seat ride with McAvoy all year, watching the 17-year-old arrive on campus last summer to complete his academic requirements so he could play in the NCAA while other peers remained in high school. That maturity and self-discipline to see it through impressed Grzelcyk enough, but it was McAvoy’s poise and ability that elevated him as the season went on.

EDIT- I managed to exchange texts with Grzelcyk and this is what he has to say about his former teammate and fellow Bruins prospect:

“Playing with Charlie was an awesome experience,” Grzelcyk, who just concluded an outstanding four-year career at BU (two years as captain) after being a third-round pick by his hometown B’s in 2012, said. “Even though he was the youngest player in college hockey last year he was mature both on and off the ice as soon as he stepped foot on campus.

“He’s a great skater who’s tough to knock of the puck and was able to add a bit of an edge to his game; in my opinion, it made his impact on the game even greater. Over the course of the year, I believe he was best when he was able to simplify his game and allow his skill to take over. He was an unbelievable D partner to have, and an even better teammate. I could not be happier to see him picked by the Bruins.”

Now, with his first collegiate season under his belt (he scored three goals, but added an impressive 22 assists in 37 games, which was more than Noah Hanifin had a year ago), he’s looking to kick things up a notch on Commonwealth Ave, after the Terriers took a disappointing step back last year.

“I was joking with (Don) Sweeney, I said- Grizzy and JFK- they can’t get rid of me now,” he said. “They’re unbelievable players and great people. It’s going to be exciting to go through all this stuff with them.”

McAvoy’s national team coach, Don Granato, who left the NTDP to join his brother Tony as an assistant with the University of Wisconsin, talked to TSP about his former defenseman and said that McAvoy has one of those even-keeled yet outgoing personalities- teammates just gravitate to him because of who he is and how he conducts himself. He’s a 1st-round talent and a 1st-round person, he said, citing that McAvoy is one of the most loyal players of any he has coached in his career. “Anything we told him, he soaked up like a sponge,” said Granato. “He wanted to get better, and that kind of loyalty and dedication in a player is something that helps you go the extra mile as a coach.”

That loyalty might have been part of a small theater of the absurd that cropped up Friday night when someone got ahold of a tweet that McAvoy sent in May, 2013 at age 15. For those who might have been under a rock at that time, the Bruins were in the second round of the playoffs against McAvoy’s Rangers and had just taken a 3-0 series lead (they would win it in five games on their way to the Stanley Cup final against Chicago). The die-hard Broadway Blueshirts-supporting teen sent out a tweet expressing his hatred for all things Bruins. It’s a sad commentary when people are so thin-skinned and petty that more than three years later, some were actually holding that against him. If you’re one of those people- do yourself a favor- look in the mirror and give your head a shake. You need some perspective in life, and shame on TSN and any other media outlets who picked up on a teenager’s tweet and made it a circus sideshow on the biggest night of his young life.

“Not necessarily,” was McAvoy’s attempt at diplomacy when a reporter asked him point blank if he “hated” all Boston sports teams growing up (he even chuckled before responding). “You grow up- kinda- I guess you’re taught not to like them (Boston sports) because of the rivalry but I’ve got a Red Sox hat now, so that’s the first step and I’ve got this Bruins jersey, so that’s pretty cool. I’ll just keep growing.”

He then demonstrated what his coaches and teammates talk about when they say what a good, fun guy he is to have in the room, showing one last bastion of loyalty to his New York Giants:

“I don’t know if I can be a Pats fan,” he quipped with perfect comedic timing, drawing an instant reaction from the Boston media (pro tip- we thought it was funny). “But we’ll see. Give it a little a time.”

The Bruins, for their part, could have opted for the more defensively-polished and serious Fabbro. TSP was not shy in saying that Fabbro was the higher-rated option, but at the same time- the margin between the two was razor thin. The British Columbia-bred Fabbro went 17th overall to the Nashville Predators, and will join McAvoy at BU next season. We said it all along- if the Bruins had a choice between the two, it was win-win either way. McAvoy has a higher offensive upside, but Fabbro was a little better defensively. Both are winners, so if you felt like you were sold on Fabbro over McAvoy, just consider that perhaps playing in Boston’s back yard tipped the scales.

With four first-round picks either at BU or headed there next year (Clayton Keller, McAvoy, Fabbro and Kieffer Bellows), McAvoy said that they all got together for lunch on Friday before the draft and that he can’t wait to get going again. Assuming everyone arrives on schedule (there is talk of Keller perhaps playing in the OHL, as the Windsor Spitfires own his major junior rights), the Terriers are poised to be the beasts of the Hockey East.

“I’m excited to be Charlie’s teammate and excited about joining that BU tradition,” Fabbro told TSP before the draft. “Coach Quinn and Albie and everyone has built something special and I’m just looking forward to being a part of it and doing what I can to help the Terriers win.”

As for the Bruins, they admitted to having a tough choice between the two players, and in hindsight- it might have been easier had one or the other come off the board before 14. In the end, they simply liked McAvoy a little more, and Bruins chief scout Keith Gretzky made mention that playing well against guys as much as six years older than McAvoy was one of many factors that tilted the B’s towards him.

“We’re excited with the skill set and the upside he has as as player with and without the puck,” Sweeney told assembled reporters Friday night. “He’s a multi-tool player; we feel like he has offensive upside that will continue to get better. You know, he steps into the college game and you can track where he was in the first half of the season, second half and understand that he got acclimated.

“People had spoken about him maybe to try to do a little too much at times, and he’s playing against guys that are four or five years older in some cases and really handled himself very well. He’s a very physical player at times- we’d actually need to back him off, but it’s another very good quality he has. He can puck-separate; he finds the middle of the ice and as a matter of fact, ‘JFK’ spoke highly of that in terms of a centerman wants the puck, and he wants it in motion when he’s going up ice and I think today, it’s paramount for defensemen to be able to establish more than one option; be able to recognize it, be able to execute it and I think Charlie does it well.”

In the end, McAvoy’s selection infused some excitement at a time the team needed it. He’s headed back to BU for at least one more season, but with his advanced strength and physical maturity, don’t be surprised to see the Bruins bring him out as early as next spring when his season ends. It wouldn’t constitute the impossible to see him turn pro sooner than that depending on how he looks at the B’s development camp the week of July 11, but having him return to school for one more NCAA campaign looks more realistic at this stage. If he takes the anticipated step forward, Boston won’t wait long to get him into their system and see if he can contribute to the NHL roster sooner rather than later.

Even with the optimistic outlook, however, McAvoy knows that the work is only beginning and that he can’t afford to take anything for granted. He’s got some work to do conditioning-wise and one can only imagine that noted Boston strength coach John Whitesides is eagerly awaiting the chance to sink his teeth into McAvoy and tease even more performance out of the youngster’s impressive natural physical package.

“You can’t get caught up in it because this is one day,” he said of the excitement of being a first-round NHL draft pick. “I’m going to enjoy this with my family and my friends but I’ll be at school Monday and I’ll be working out in the morning and I’ll be back in class and that’s really where it all starts: growing and continuing to grow, and getting ready to play in the NHL every single day.”

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