Reed Duthie: Bruins are out…What’s next? (Part 2)

Editor’s note- Reed Duthie debuts at the Scouting Post with his thoughts on what could be on the horizon for the Boston Bruins personnel-wise. Reed is not only one of the 3 Amigos, but he is the accomplished play-by-play announcer for the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs. With the hockey season over, we hope to see more of Reed’s contributions here in the offseason as a longtime follower of the Bruins and astute analyst.

You have to crawl before you can walk, and you have to walk before you can run. If this season was any indication, the Boston Bruins as a group are certainly finding their way, maybe not running just yet but certainly getting up to a brisk jog.

Although the end of season / early playoff injuries put the Bruins a hole they couldn’t recover from we learned a lot about this team in terms of heart and soul. The additions of traditional blue collar players like Noel Acciari & Sean Kuraly gave the Bruins an energy boost, while Charlie McAvoy made Bruins fans begin to dream in optimistic terms once again.

But after a hard fought loss where do the Bruins go from here?

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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.

 

 

Boston Bruins Prospects Update 1/24/17: Cehlarik heating up…recall to Boston coming?

One of the more unheralded Bruins prospects this season is Slovak (by way of Sweden) winger Peter Cehlarik. The AHL rookie (note- we don’t say rookie pro because he’s been playing pro hockey at Sweden’s highest level against men since he was 17) is having himself a year- he potted four goals and six points over three games last week to move to the top of Providence’s scoring list.

The 90th overall pick in 2013 has a good NHL body with the hands and hockey sense to score goals. His skating has been a work in progress since the B’s drafted him, but he’s fine in the open ice. Where Cehlarik gets exposed a bit is in his short-area game and burst, where he doesn’t possess above average acceleration and agility- it takes him a bit to get going, and he’s susceptible to getting behind the play when there are quick changes of direction in the common possession style that more and more pro teams are employing in the AHL and NHL.

TSP spoke to Bruins player development director Jamie Langenbrunner recently and he had some intriguing perspectives to share about Cehlarik’s success to date, and perhaps why he has not as yet gotten a chance to make an appearance with the big club in Boston despite his 18 goals and 30 points in 36 AHL contests.

“I think the first thing that stands out is his ability to make a play,” Langenbrunner said. “It started with what he did at rookie camp in Buffalo and that was the first time I’d seen him. He’s NHL-sized; he’s a good-sized kid- he’s pretty strong, pretty well-built. I think you’ll continue to see him make plays because he’s got really good vision and hands.”

Cehlarik’s natural skill set has earned him high marks to date as a player who developed in the larger ice surface in Sweden with Lulea of the Swedish Hockey League. However, even with the production both overseas and here under Kevin Dean at Providence, there are some adjustments the 21-year-old is still working through in his first North American season.

“For Peter, the one adjustment where you play on the bigger sheet (of ice in Europe), although there’s more room, I find that the game is slower there,” said Langenbrunner. “With that added space, you keep everything to the outside, so adjusting to the North American rink where everything happens a little quicker and you want to those first few steps- you want to get that speed- it is what it is and you either have that or not. But just those first few steps to get those areas a little quicker and a little bit harder on pucks- the short-area burst is such a big part of hockey, and to be able to translate that at the National Hockey League level and getting into those areas is important because if you don’t have the time, then you’re not able to jump into those areas.”

This is not to say that Cehlarik isn’t capable of coming in and helping out the B’s in an area that has been their biggest concern this year- generating consistent scoring- it’s just that as hard as it can be for outside observers to recognize at times, there are things that happen behind the scenes that sometimes drive outcomes as they pertain to personnel decisions. In other words- it isn’t just about the goals, and when there are identified areas of improvement, those can delay the arrival of a player to the NHL who appears to have what is needed on paper.

“I think for him, the biggest adjustment he’s struggled with or has so far is the pace of play,” Langenbrunner said. “He’s going to have to get his level up just a little bit to play at the NHL level. He’s been very good in Providence so far, putting up points, but at times, when you’re talking about playing in back-to-back games and whatnot, it will get to him a little bit. For him, it’s an adjustment coming from over to North America and he’s put up nearly a point per game in the AHL, which is pretty darn good, so he’s been a nice surprise. I know for the coaches and for us beyond the production, it’s going to be that consistency and bringing that pace to another level to be able to create a little more.”

As was the case last year with Frank Vatrano, at some point- a player’s ability to put the puck in the net at a high level will often force a team’s hand. With Boston struggling to mount any kind of consistency on offense and having their backs against the proverbial wall, it is probably time to see what the young Eastern European forward can do. He just might provide a spark that is so needed in Boston right now, and unlike other young pros who come straight out of major junior- he has a leg up in terms of the competition he faced prior to arriving to the AHL. Langenbrunner, himself a graduate of the Peterborough Petes of the OHL in major junior, understands that players like Cehlarik and even Vatrano, who came out of the U.S. NTDP and the collegiate ranks, have a built-in advantage in terms of their experience right out of the gate.

“Sometimes the difference between a college kid and a major junior kid is that a lot of those college kids are playing against 24 or 25-year-old men,” he said. “Whereas the junior kids are 19 or 20-year-olds, which is a big difference in size, strength and consistency that you will see go in and out of 17 or 18-year-old kids’ games, whereas the older you get the more mature you are in your game.”

At this stage of a third consecutive up-and-down season in danger of missing the NHL playoffs, Cehlarik will only likely help. Perhaps instead of trading for a proven scorer, part of the answer could come from within the Bruins organization.

***

Amateur Prospects as of 01/24/17

Name/Team League GP G A PTS PIM
Zach Senyshyn, SSM OHL 37 28 12 40 23
Jesse Gabrielle, Prince George WHL 39 22 18 40 58
Anders Bjork, Notre Dame HE-NCAA 25 15 21 36 8
Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, BU HE- NCAA 23 10 14 24 16
Jakub Zboril, Saint John QMJHL 28 6 16 22 26
Ryan Donato, Harvard ECAC- NCAA 19 10 9 19 12
Ryan Fitzgerald, BC HE-NCAA 20 5 13 18 28
Trent Frederic, Wisconsin Big10- NCAA 14 7 10 17 16
Cameron Hughes, Wisconsin Big10- NCAA 20 4 13 17 8
Jack Becker, Sioux Falls USHL 31 9 6 15 30
Charlie McAvoy, BU HE-NCAA 22 3 11 14 20
Jeremy Lauzon, Rouyn-Noranda QMJHL 18 2 11 13 10
Cameron Clarke, Ferris St. WCHA- NCAA 24 1 5 6 24
Wiley Sherman, Harvard ECAC-NCAA 19 0 5 5 12
Ryan Lindgren, Minnesota Big10- NCAA 19 1 3 4 51

Pro and European Prospects

Name/Team League GP G A PTS PIM
Peter Cehlarik, Providence AHL 36 18 12 30 12
Joona Koppanen, Ilves Jr.* U20- Finland 19 9 17 26 2
Danton Heinen, Providence AHL 30 8 15 23 4
Jake DeBrusk, Providence AHL 42 11 12 23 13
Colby Cave, Providence AHL 42 10 13 23 26
Matt Grzelcyk, Providence AHL 36 2 16 18 12
Sean Kuraly, Providence AHL 32 8 8 16 17
Emil Johansson, Djurgarden IF Sweden- Elite 32 5 7 12 16
Colton Hargrove, Providence AHL 34 4 8 12 37
Anton Blidh, Providence AHL 22 6 4 10 22
Chris Casto, Providence AHL 34 1 7 8 28
Rob O’Gara, Providence* AHL 26 2 3 5 4
Noel Acciari, Providence AHL 10 0 4 4 7
Austin Czarnik, Providence# AHL 2 1 2 3 0
Justin Hickman, Providence AHL 17 2 1 3 15
Oskar Steen, Farjestad Sweden- Elite 33 1 1 2 6
Linus Arnesson, Providence* AHL 18 0 1 1 4
Brian Ferlin, Providence* AHL 2 0 0 0 0
Zane McIntyre, Providence#

Atlanta

AHL

ECHL

12

2

10

0

0

1(1)

1.41

1.99

.951

.931

Dan Vladar, Providence

Atlanta

AHL

ECHL

6

5

3

2

0 (3)

2 (1)

2.84

3.58

.914

.889

Malcolm Subban, Providence AHL 19 5 9 (1) 2.96 .909

# Czarnik, McIntyre recalled to Boston

*O’Gara, Arnesson, Ferlin all Injured

Tyler Randell, Tommy Cross, Alex Grant > age 25- not listed

Krug train is rolling

Boston Bruins v New York Rangers - Game Four

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 23: Torey Krug #47 of the Boston Bruins looks on against the New York Rangers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 23, 2013 in New York City. The Rangers won 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

We admit it.

This hockey blog is unabashed in its support of Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug. That’s not going to change. Ever.

Maybe it’s because while working for Red Line Report in 2011-12, we recommended the Michigan State captain as the best undrafted NCAA free agent value in the country. Not one of the best values, mind you…THE best. Almost five years later, we’ll take that bow.

Maybe it’s because we got to know Krug off the ice, before he ever really made it as an NHL regular for the Boston Bruins and realized in those moments that he not only had exceptional talent, but exceptional character as well. If a player wants it badly enough, they’ll likely get there. To this day, watching Friday Night Lights reruns on Netflix with Krug, Jared Knight and Ryan Spooner in their Providence, R.I. rookie pro bachelor pad on a December night in 2012 and hearing Krug repeat the “Clear eyes, full hearts…can’t lose” mantra with the conviction of someone absolutely confident of his NHL future stands out as one of the more surreal moments in a life spent covering past, present and future pro hockey players for the past 17 years.

Maybe it’s because ever since he broke into the big league big time during the 2013 playoffs, there has always seemed to be this segment of Bruins fandom who just can’t get past his lack of size and what we can only guess is a sexy draft pedigree that would make them feel good and clean about rooting for him, the way he deserves to be respected.

Whatever the reason, Krug has overcome an understandably slow start to become one of the NHL’s top two-way performers as the 2016-17 campaign wends its way past the halfway mark. We have always been all-aboard the Krug hype train so to speak, and if you can’t at least grudgingly recognize that he’s delivering value for his 4-year, $5.25M extension signed last summer, then you’re not welcome on the train anyway.

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Time to go- Bruins raise curtains on 93rd season with new faces, youth movement

New Englanders tend to be realistic (pessimistic?) by nature, so while the focus has been on the defense and the potential for gaping lanes that skill teams will find available to them, as the 2016-17 NHL season begins for the Boston Bruins tonight in Columbus, Ohio, there’s some excitement swirling around the big league debuts of four players in the lineup.

Injuries to Patrice Bergeron, Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller have opened the door for a pair of forwards in Austin Czarnik and Danton Heinen, and a defense duo of Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara to get their first taste of NHL action against the Blue Jackets. Bergeron is expected back in the lineup for the weekend action versus Toronto and rookie sensation Auston Matthews, who last night became the only player ever to score four goals in his first NHL game. McQuaid and Miller will be out a little (in the former’s case, a lot for the latter) longer, so we temper the eagerness with which we greet the young rookies with the belief that perhaps half of them have a realistic chance of staying on Boston’s roster for the duration of the season.

In Czarnik, the B’s have a fast and skilled little (emphasis needed) center who was snubbed in the NHL draft, but looks like a pretty savvy pickup after four years at Miami University, the last two of which he wore the captain’s ‘C’. He took a high hit from behind that targeted the head in the final preseason game by Philadelphia defenseman Radko Gudas (he got a six-game layoff from the NHL’s department of player safety) but cleared the concussion protocol in time to play in his first big league game. Czarnik is a classic little engine that could as a player who always had to overcome size bias to work harder than just about everyone else to hone his skills and three zone game. After a 61-point first year in the AHL, he’s made the initial cut to stick in Boston, and that’s the stuff NHL dreams are truly made of. Czarnik is an exciting buzzsaw of a forward- he zips in and out of lanes and can put the shake n’ bake on less-agile defenders. When the puck is on his stick, he brings a similar kind of playing style to that of Brad Marchand. Note- we’re not saying he is the next Marchand, but you can see it in the way he uses his speed, vision and hands to create and give opponents fits. He’s not the abrasive agitator Marchand is, but Czarnik is a big man trapped in a little man’s body who plays the game with heart and energy. Fans love an underdog, and when coupled with Czarnik’s electrifying offensive element, it’s not hard to understand why so many are jumping on the AC Train.

More was expected of Heinen and he entered training camp as a prohibitive favorite to win a spot with the big club, but he is also a feel-good story. Passed over in his first year of NHL draft eligibility in 2013, the British Columbia native hit a significant growth spurt and then opened eyes as captain of the BCHL’s Surrey Eagles. The Bruins liked Heinen enough to snatch him in the 2014 draft’s fourth round despite his being an almost complete unknown in NHL draft pubs. The rumor at the time was that several other teams were hoping to steal Heinen later on, not the least of which was none other than the Montreal Canadiens. That story isn’t verified, but damn- it feels good to B’s fans to hear it. Heinen is a thinking fan’s hockey player- he’s not especially fast or dazzling in the way he handles the puck, but he goes to the right spots, moves it to the correct spaces and plays a quietly effective and productive three-zone game. He’s the quintessential Claude Julien-style forward because he’s both intelligent and efficient. If you’re expecting to be entertained by Heinen, you’ll probably wonder what the hype is about, but if you watch the wall work, the way he slices through layers of defenses and puts himself in position to make plays at both ends of the ice, you’ll gain an appreciation for him.

On the defensive side of things, Carlo is a favorite of those B’s fans who religiously follow the NHL draft and Boston’s prospect development system. Picked 37th overall in 2015, he looks like a brilliant pick in hindsight as his natural 6-foot-5-inch size, mobility and reach instantly jump out at you. Back in 1997, a young Hal Gill caught the eye of fans because he was 6-7, and was the biggest cat in the NHL before some guy named Zdeno Chara showed up on Long Island about a year later. The thing about Carlo is that while he’s not quite as tall as Gill, he’s a better skater and has long arms, therefore brings a similar reach. Fans are excited about Carlo because he’s big and fluid and does a real good job of keeping opposing forwards from walking straight to the net…a turnstile he is not. The jury is out on how much offensive hockey sense/creativity Carlo has, but he’s certainly not limited in terms of being able to handle the puck and join the rush. Having said all that, there will be natural growing pains as is with the case with any 19-year-old defenseman, but to the Coloradan’s credit, he impressed a year ago in his first NHL training camp and exhibition season and then carried that forward to make the Boston Bruins before age 20. He’s not a snarly, intimidating beast on the physical side, but he will rub guys out and is sure to be well-liked in the dressing room because he’s got an even-keeled personality.

Last but not least is O’Gara- a TSP personal favorite going back to 2010-11 when he left the Long Island Royals AAA midget program to win a prep championship with the Milton Academy Mustangs. The B’s drafted him with the final selection of the fifth round, and he was described by then-assistant GM Don Sweeney as a “big piece of clay” that required a great deal of molding and shaping. Five years later, the 23-year-old Yale grad might not be a finished product, but he’s close enough and tonight will earn a status no one can take away from him- NHL player. O’Gara is a good skater- it’s less about speed and stride with him than it is fluid and agile footwork, which allows him to pivot and change direction quickly and efficiently. He’s got size and reach…and he can make an effective outlet pass to aid in the transition game. Like Carlo, there are sure to be mistakes and mishaps, but O’Gara is smart and motivated- he’s a quick study and character guy who has been around long enough that he understands the system and is ready to prove himself. It might mean more of an apprenticeship in Providence when other players return, but for now, O’Gara has earned the opportunity and will begin on the second pairing with Torey Krug on the right side (ROG shoots left, so it speaks volumes about the level of trust he’s earned that the Boston coaching staff is fine with him playing his “off” side).

David Backes will skate on a line tonight with Marchand and David Pastrnak if nothing changes between now and puck drop, and with Bergeron out (albeit temporarily), maybe bringing in an experienced veteran center wasn’t such a bad idea after all. David Krejci has a great deal to prove, and with Heinen and Ryan Spooner flanking him, there’s no shortage of offensive creativity on that unit. Spooner’s speed is a welcome addition to the lessened pace of Krejci and Heinen, but the trio provide quite an intriguing matchup on paper. All three of them are or have been centers before, so that’s a line that gives Julien a lot of flexibility and versatility.

Czarnik will likely test his NHL mettle with Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes. Beleskey doesn’t have the high-end skill to put up big numbers (and he’d be on the top two lines in any event if that were the case) but he’s gritty and should develop some chemistry with Czarnik. Hayes is the wild card- the B’s desperately need a revival from him this season much like Reilly Smith had with Florida a year ago. It would be foolish to think that Hayes doesn’t want to make it work in Boston, but he’ll have to shrug off the external pressures and get down to the basics by just doing what he does best. He doesn’t have either of his linemates’ wheels, so it will be interesting to see if they have some set plays to leverage Hayes as a trailer into the zone with his soft hands and big shot.

Tim Schaller is back up with Boston with Bergeron out and may get a chance to skate with Noel Acciari and Dominic Moore, but the guess here is that Riley Nash will round out the fourth line. It’s not a nasty unit in terms of abundant physicality, but they’ll all grind it out and bring some veteran smarts to go with Acciari’s exuberance.

Defensively, the Bruins need their veterans- Chara, Krug and John-Michael Liles– to provide some glue for the younger guys- Carlo (Chara), O’Gara (Krug) and Colin Miller (Liles) as they shake out the butterflies and deal with the immense difference in speed, skill and pace from what they are used to. Chiller got enough action in last year, and Joe Morrow is also around to step in should anyone get hurt or falter, but this is an untested bunch and the biggest source of consternation with the 2016-17 Bruins.

Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin were the tandem in Boston’s net the last time the B’s went to the Stanley Cup final series in 2013, so there are no concerns with the talent or experience. They can’t carry a team on their backs, though- so everyone will have to row hard in the same direction. If the talent gap becomes too great, then Sweeney will have to act at some point.

That’s all going to have to wait for the time being, because this is what the B’s are going with to begin the new season.

As the Dropkick Murphys so aptly like to belt out- drop the puck…it’s time to go. (Thanks BruinsBabe176)

Austin Czarnik will make the final roster

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

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

It’s the classic hockey saw: Small guys must prove they can play, while big players need only prove they can’t.

NHL teams were scared off by Austin Czarnik’s size, so they didn’t draft him.

The Michigan native was a scoring whiz at every level, displaying speed, creativity, puck skills and a willingness to battle and make a difference. But in the end, when it came to the NHL draft, no joy.

So, he went to Miami University, ended up being the captain and was even a Hobey Baker finalist. He dazzled with some serious scoring mojo while he was at Oxford and the Bruins managed to beat out other suitors to get him on April 1, 2015.

It was no fool’s joke- the kid can just flat-out play. He showed it a year ago as he provided consistent offense and nearly scored at a point-per-game clip for Providence as a rookie pro in the AHL. That after impressing with the Bruins during the exhibition season, where he showed some instant chemistry with Frank Vatrano.

Czarnik played so well that he was a late-season emergency callup to go into the Boston lineup if a banged-up David Krejci was waved off. That didn’t happen, but if not for that, Czarnik would have made his NHL debut already.

He’s generously listed at 5-foot-9, but has pure speed in open ice that makes him so fun to watch. Witness tonight, as he burned past Andrei Markov in the Habs’ zone to get to a loose puck and rifle it over Al Montoya’s shoulder.

TSP has seen all we need to- the guy is skilled enough to play in the NHL…right now. He’s a winner. He’s worked hard to improve in the offseason and he’s putting that effort into practice with consistent offense during exhibition play. Of course, offense alone isn’t a guarantee that Czarnik will make the big club out of camp, but it certainly helps. Working against him is his natural center position and the depth the Bruins currently have there. We suspect he’s versatile enough to play out of position and still make things happen, and he’d probably do manual labor if the team asked him to- he’s that kind of guy.

In other words- Czarnik is earning a job with the Boston Bruins the right way. He’s not a big-time draft pedigree guy, but he’s showing that Ryan Nadeau and the rest of the staff that scouted him and helped to close the deal in 2015 deserve a lot of credit for seeing this kind of potential in him.

Let’s not ruin the party by talking about projections and ceilings just yet- all in good time. For now, let’s enjoy the excellent play and results Czarnik is getting. He’s proving he might be small, but he has big talent and a bigger heart.

That’s a fact we suspect is not lost on Don Sweeney, Claude Julien and the Boston coaches.

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

 

 

Vatrano out three months…Patriots mantra in effect: Next man up!

Frank Vatrano, UMass Minutemen (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Frank Vatrano, UMass Minutemen (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Got a tip after the first day of camp- fitness testing (closed to the media) was in the books- that the Boston Bruins were going to be without a player for quite some time due to injury. I had to scrap a bit to get a name, but by the next morning- I was hearing it was Frank Vatrano, and the worst of the fears started to come true after he was a no-show in both on-ice training camp sessions Fridayh at the Warrior Ice Arena.

Now, on Saturday, Don Sweeney and the Bruins have announced that Vatrano tore ligaments in his foot and will have surgery on Monday, Sep. 26 with a three-month recovery window. That’s a major setback for the Springfield Rifle, who was coming into the new season to make the case that he’s the B’s second LW behind Brad Marchand. That’s all on hold now.

Here’s the release.

The details are a little foggy- one player source tells me that Vatrano injured himself “weeks ago” but that the severity wasn’t determined (and player and team hoped that rest would heal it) until he engaged in the fitness testing and the cat got out of the bag that it was far worse than anyone thought.

It also answers the “how full of (bleep) are the Bruins” question that some fans were directing their way when Peter Mueller was announced as a PTO/invite to camp. Given that they had to know Vatrano might suffer such a setback, bringing in the veteran forward makes a lot more sense now. Of course- if he’s not up to the task, the vacancy up front will be filled by someone else, but at age 28 and as a former top-10 draft pick, why the heck not?

Danton Heinen is my choice to step up and grab a spot coming out of camp…he was already a dark horse favorite, but now- I think a spot is his to lose because he’s so talented and brings that high-end hockey IQ to the table. We’ll see, but I like Heinen as someone who understands the opportunity that just knocked for him- I expect the 2014 fourth-rounder to open the door and walk in.

More on Vatrano later- this is a tough setback for a kid who seemed on the verge of taking a next big step in the NHL after a dazzling pro hockey debut a year ago.He’ll be back, but it will be a path he’s likely got to earn every step of the way. We saw Seth Griffith deal with a similar situation when he was injured in the preseason last year and barely saw a sniff. For the record- I think Vatrano will get more of an opportunity to get back into the Boston lineup than Griffith received, but even when he’s cleared to return, the B’s will likely rehab him down in Providence and take their time. At least, that plan makes sense today on September 24, 2016. If the B’s scoring well runs dry in late December, we might see Frankie Vats faster than anticipated.

 

 

2016-17 Boston Bruins preview series part 3: the Left Wings

Brad Marchand is the team's top LW period. End of story. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Brad Marchand is the team’s top LW period. End of story. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Scouting Post is back with another attempt to break down what we might see unfold during the 2016-17 NHL campaign as it pertains to the Boston Bruins.

This time, we’re hitting the left wingers, and it all starts with Brad Marchand– the lil’ ball of hate & straw that stirs the goal-scoring drink for the B’s. He’s entering a contract year after coming off a career season, and I’ll break him down in detail for you in the accompanying podcast, so no real need to say more.

Frank Vatrano is the player we have high hopes for in making it as the second-line LW in Boston this year. The Springfield Rifle is talented enough to do it, but it will entail accepting risk on the part of Claude Julien and Co. Can the East Longmeadow native be trusted to shoulder the load- TSP is confident he can. His impressive AHL rookie season was just the tip of the iceberg- Vatrano has the skill and moxie to make it work as a top-6 NHL forward.

On the third line, Matt Beleskey is the guy, though I do go into more about his value contract-wise and what he means to the B’s. I’m sold on Beleskey for the myriad little things he does on and off the ice, but I won’t argue with those who feel that the team isn’t getting enough bang for the buck on his deal. Ultimately, they could do much worse, but if he can improve on his 15 goals and 37 points from a year ago, that would be welcome news indeed.

The fourth line is pretty wide open, and my guess is that Tim Schaller has the inside track. The Merrimack, N.H. native has the size and enough big league ability to be a capable bookend along with Riley Nash over on the right side. He’s listed as a center, but if he’s not going to play in the middle, LW makes a lot of sense for the former undrafted free agent out of Buffalo.

Zac Rinaldo…we hardly knew ye! Well, he’s still hanging around, but my guess is not for much longer.

That leaves a host of other aspiring young players vying for spots on this Boston Bruins club, and I run through just about all of them- from the young pros like Colton Hargrove and Anton Blidh, to new blood AHL options like Jake DeBrusk and Peter Cehlarik. Jesse Gabrielle will be fighting (literally?) to make an impression, and he looked jacked (in a good way) when I saw him in Buffalo for draft weekend. When he’s playing like someone possessed, opponents need to keep their heads on a swivel…he can wreck it on the scoreboard and on the physical side. He’ll have his hands full trying to win a spot on this NHL team given the lack of options the B’s have, but watch for Gabrielle to open up some eyes this month- he took a major step forward last year.

Ryan Fitzgerald isn’t there because he’s entering his senior year at Boston College, but he’s a Swiss Army Knife kind of pro projected player, and he’s going to do some impressive scoring work up on Chestnut Hill this season after breaking out as a junior.

Let’s not forget a couple of undrafted camp invites in Matt Mistele (I pronounce it for you on the podcast)- a 6th-round pick of the Kings in 2014 who didn’t sign and has been a pretty major disappointment since potting 34 goals in the OHL as a 16-17-year-old prior to his draft year. He’s big and talented, but doesn’t use his size and brings inconsistent effort- sounds like he might just fit right in. Simon Stransky is the other as a WHL player this past season who put up a point-per-game with the Prince Albert Raiders and distinguished himself as a playmaking winger with top hockey sense, yet never got a draft call. Both will get an opportunity to show their potential and earn an NHL contract, but in the podcast- we’ll explain why just signing one or both is not as simple as declaring it a must on Twitter and Bruins internet message boards. There are other undrafted/unsigned/ forwards and rookie defensemen in Boston on an invitational basis for the rookie camp portion, but not going to cover them here.

Thanks for reading and listening…keeping this one short and pithy because the pod comes in at around 50 minutes. Enjoy the Winger intro and the Primus outro.

Jesse Gabrielle has added some mass since draft day and is ready for his 2nd NHL training camp

Jesse Gabrielle has added some mass since draft day and is ready for his 2nd NHL training camp

 

The undrafted free agents: the next ones?

Wrapping up the undrafted free agents series with a Boston Bruins focus, going with four players who were in the AHL last year with the Providence Bruins. We could see one or two of them get some NHL games in with Boston this season depending on how things go.

Before we get to the four prospects, though- a little housekeeping first:

As reported in the Boston Globe, Gretzky to the Oilers as assistant GM is done, with Don Sweeney wishing his former chief scout well, lamenting the timing of the hire as an issue. Not one to stand in the way of letting their employee advance in a key managerial position even with a rival club (rival for obvious reasons I don’t need to go into), the B’s did the right thing by letting Gretzky go. This is one of those “if you love someone set them free” kind of things; the team could have played hardball, but that usually comes back to bite you. At this stage, the B’s don’t get anything for releasing Gretzky except maybe some goodwill and the hopes that they can build bridges with their former GM now in Edmonton rather than burn them. I saw someone (I don’t remember where it was) mention the other day that a Dougie Hamilton to the Oilers for Taylor Hall might have been something worth doing if relations between the teams hadn’t been so strained. I don’t know if that was even realistic to consider a year ago, and the world will never know, but cordial relations across the league are better than adversarial ones.

Now, former director of amateur scouting Scott Bradley, who held the post with Boston for more than 10 years before Wayne Smith was named to the position in 2008, will wear two hats as assistant GM and chief scout until Sweeney can find a replacement. Bradley is a good man who has spent nearly three decades in the Bruins organization. His watershed draft as scouting director was 2006 when the team landed Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand with three of their first four picks. Bradley was the guy most responsible for Lucic and a decade later, it was a hell of a find. He’s a man of integrity and a cancer survivor whose decency and dedication to the profession has earned him a great deal of respect around the league.

The Bruins are in good hands until a longer-term solution is found.

Now, onto the main topic at hand…

 

This is the last in a series of articles on undrafted free agents who have made an impact with the B’s: Torey Krug, Frank Vatrano, Noel Acciari, Tim Schaller and Kevan Miller. It’s pretty rare to have four UDFAs on one roster, and the skeptics would probably tell you that it might begin to answer why the B’s have DNQ’d for the NHL playoffs in each of the past two years.

Having said that, Krug has become an integral member of the Boston defense, while Vatrano shows a great deal of promise as someone who could net 25-30 goals or more down the road with a natural scoring knack that can’t be taught. Miller is a trusted if at times miscast defensive defenseman, while Schaller and Acciari are Providence College products who look like above average bottom-six players at the NHL level if they can keep progressing. If nothing else, they’re key cogs at the AHL level.

Now, we look at four players who have yet to reach the NHL, but show enough promise to get there. It won’t be easy for any of them, as with the exception of Czarnik, none display any real higher-end potential. However, as we have learned over the years- sometimes all it takes is an opportunity. This group is likely ticketed for Providence, but stranger things have happened and injury woes or exceptional play could see one or more of these guys get a shot at the big time.

Austin Czarnik, C- Often overshadowed by Vatrano’s scoring eruption last season, Czarnik had an outstanding rookie pro season in the AHL, posting 61 points in 68 games and impressing everyone from the get-go with his speed, smarts and hustle.

The former captain of the Miami University RedHawks was snubbed in the NHL draft because of his lack of size, but he’s always had pro-caliber wheels and brings creativity and moxie to the mix as well. He was recalled to Boston late in the season on an emergency basis but didn’t get into the lineup. While not an ideal fit on the third or fourth lines given the B’s current personnel, if anything changes, the team won’t hesitate to put him in there.

One play in the preseason last year really stood out as typical of what the little Michigan buzzsaw has always been about: on what looked to be a routine dump-in to the offensive end, Czarnik could have made a line change, but he recognized his opponents were making a change and a sloppy one at that. In an instant, he turned on the jets, and blew past a defender who was on the way to the bench but couldn’t adjust his trajectory in time. Czarnik got to the puck first and then made an on-target pass for a Boston goal. Those are the kinds of plays that earn trust and respect from the coaches because of the skill and intelligence behind them. At the NHL level, nanoseconds can mean the difference between making a play and coming up short, so Czarnik seems to understand already what is at stake.

Now, exhibition play isn’t the regular season, but it spoke volumes that one so young and inexperienced at the pro level came in and clicked right away, performing at a near point-per-game pace in the minors. Watch for Czarnik to make his NHL debut this season. He’s probably not going to begin the year in Boston, but he’s a solid bet to get some games in because he’s got scoring chops but is also working on improving his all-around play and is not a defensive liability.

Here’s his first career pro hat trick from December:

Chris Casto, D- The B’s signed Casto out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2013 and at one time, he was shaping up to be a top Minnesota high school draft prospect. With good size and skating, Casto won’t win on many style points, but he can really fire the puck and he put up the best offensive totals of his three-year professional career in 2016.

Casto is a smart and solid positional D. He plays a similar style to that of Tommy Cross, but without the second-round pedigree (and as-of-yet unfulfilled expectations) hanging over him. Casto keeps things simple: he doesn’t show off much in the way of flash, but is steady and moves the puck to the right areas. Like anyone who logs a lot of minutes, there are times when he’ll make a mistake that leads to a goal, but at the AHL level at least, he’s developed into a top-four presence who first-year Providence head coach Kevin Dean will likely lean on heavily in the new campaign.

Here’s a slow-mo video of a Casto goal from last season:

Colby Cave, C- It was a bit of a surprise that the B’s successfully signed Cave after they grabbed Czarnik and Vatrano in the spring of 2015 because Cave was viewed as one of the top undrafted free agents coming out of the WHL a year ago.

The former captain of the Swift Current Broncos saw time in 2014-15 with Boston first-rounder Jake DeBrusk, and had a solid if unspectacular first pro season in Providence last year.

Cave is a fine skater who is effective on the fore check and at forcing turnovers and plays a smart, capable two-way game. What you see is what you get with him- he’s going to take pucks to the net and make an honest 200-foot effort to compensate from a pretty average skill set. He plays the game bigger than his size, playing a rugged but clean style and his leadership no doubt appealed to Boston in their aggressive pursuit of him.

Watch for Cave to put up 20 or more goals in the AHL this year if he can stay healthy, and he could line up behind Czarnik in Providence’s top-two forward lines with the departure of Alexander Khokhlachev to the KHL. Players like Cave aren’t all that sexy or exciting, but they’ll get a shot sometimes ahead of the flashy but one-dimensional types who can only play on half of the ice surface.

Cave’s biggest problem is that he’s got Acciari and Schaller to contend with, and I don’t see him beating either guy out for a spot in Boston, so he’ll probably have to bide his time and try to elevate his play on the farm to make a case.

Cave’s first AHL goal is at about 1:02 of this highlight vid:

Justin Hickman, RW- Another WHL captain- the Bruins outbid several other NHL clubs for the Seattle Thunderbirds overager in January 2015 when he suffered a shoulder injury and had to shut it down for surgery.

He gets a pass for a mediocre rookie pro season because of the physical, rugged style of play Hickman brings and he looked a bit tentative at times as he adjusted to the pro pace after missing about 10 months of playing action by the time he started skating in the AHL.

He’s got good size and toughness- Hickman isn’t a heavyweight who can go toe-to-toe with the biggest, baddest fighters (admittedly- there aren’t many of those left), but he will actively drop the gloves to defend himself and teammates and loves to initiate contact and do the heavy lifting along the walls and in front of the net. Here you go:

Hickman doesn’t have an abundance of skill and best case for him would be to eventually land on an NHL third line somewhere as a middle-of-the-road option; he’s more likely a solid fourth-liner similar to Nate Thompson (who was coincidentally a Seattle product as well).

Stats don’t tell the whole story- Hickman was eased in and didn’t have much in the way of opportunity, but the B’s are quietly high on him and he’ll get a chance to elevate his stock as a sophomore. He’s not ready to make an NHL roster push, but a strong second pro season would go a long way for his confidence and give the team some options.

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

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

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

Boston Bruins post-development camp prospect check- the Pros

Heinen

The purpose of this two-post series is to make a quick snapshot of where one analyst sees the Boston Bruins’ professional prospect depth chart stacking up after the 2016 NHL Entry Draft and this past week’s development camp. We’ll start with he professional players who are expected to be in Providence or in the North American and European pro ranks this season. On Monday, we’ll hit the amateur (NCAA and junior players).

Caveat up front- I did not personally attend development cam this year, so am basing my assessment on feedback from members of the Bruins organization, media and fans who were there in person to see the players. I have seen every prospect on the list, either on film or live, so the bulk of this assessment comes not from four days of on-ice drills and a 3-on-3 scrimmage, but from a season and in several cases, multiple years worth of evaluation. Note- I am only covering players aged 25 or under, so that takes Tommy Cross out of the mix on this list for those who might be wondering. Noel Acciari  and Chris Casto just make the cut as December 1991-born players.

Here we go, and I’ve done an audio file to supplement the limited write-ups below, so for all you Bruins hockey junkies, there’s more content in this post than ever…tell your friends!

The Pros (AHL, ECHL or Europe)

  1. Frank Vatrano, LW (East Longmeadow, Mass.) Plus: Put up mind-boggling numbers with 36 goals (55 points) in as many AHL games, while adding another eight goals in 39 NHL games with the big Bruins. The undrafted free agent turned himself into a sleek scoring machine as a rookie pro and is primed for a bigger Boston role this year. Minus: Without ideal NHL height, Frank the Tank will have to maintain a high-energy pace and work in all three zones to maximize his potential.
  2. Danton Heinen, RW Plus: After two high-end scoring years as a collegian, he put up a pair of assists in his second AHL game last spring; with his genius-level hockey IQ and slick hands, the 2014 fourth-rounder could earn an NHL job right away. Minus: He’s about 6-foot and not even 200 pounds, so he’s going to have his hands full with the increased speed and physicality of the pro game.
  3. Brandon Carlo, RD Plus: Like Heinen, Carlo’s on a positive trajectory at making the Bruins right away- he’s 6-5 and can really skate and move, already a beast in his own end, something Boston lacked down the stretch a year ago. Minus: Not all that instinctive in the offensive end; could stand to play a lot of minutes in more of a top role and on the power play to try and tease more offensive production and build confidence.
  4. Rob O’Gara, LD Plus: At 6-4 and north of 220 pounds, this premier shutdown/defensive mind can also skate extremely well for one so big- his speed and footwork has always been advanced, and the rest of his game has come along quite well in the five years since he was drafted in the fifth round. Minus: More of a “safe” prospect than one you would assign talk of high “upside” or “ceiling” to, O’Gara isn’t quite the physical specimen Carlo is (they’re close), but he may be a more complete defender when all is said and done.
  5. Colin Miller, RD Plus: “Chiller” has top-shelf skating, passing, shooting skills; showed off some offensive flair in his first NHL campaign, putting up a respectable 16 points in 42 games despite not having an overabundance of ice time/becoming a spare part in the season’s second half. Minus: The former LA Kings farmhand has a lot of work to do on the defensive side in terms of processing/making better decisions and improving his three-zone play.
  6. Austin Czarnik, C Plus: Dazzling offensive center impressed in his first rookie pro year with 50+ points to back up his tremendous speed, lightning-quick hands and ubermensch-worthy vision/hockey sense. Minus: At barely 5-8 (and that’s probably being charitable) the former Miami RedHawks captain wasn’t drafted, and will have to overcome size concerns at a position the Bruins are pretty deep at.
  7. Malcolm Subban, G Plus: The progress has been slower than expected, but there is no doubt that he’s one of the more dazzling athletic talents at the position and when healthy, has shown some major league promise. Minus: The fractured larynx was a significant setback, and if it hasn’t been one thing for Subban, it’s been another (    outplaying him in 2014-15)- this is the year that he proves his worth to Boston and justifies his selection in the 2012 first-round once and for all.
  8. Noel Acciari, C (Johnston, R.I.) Plus: Ace two-way center earned his way to Boston for a 19-game stint at the end of the year after being an undrafted free agent less than a year earlier; a good skater, superb faceoff man and intelligent, charismatic 24-year-old who plays the game hard, but clean- he’s got a lot in common with Patrice Bergeron, without the scoring. Minus: With just one NHL assist- there isn’t a whole lot of scoring in the well for the one-time captain of Providence College’s 2015 championship squad; as he turns 25 in Dec., there probably isn’t a whole lot of development left- he’s a solid, if unspectacular grinding bottom-line pivot.
  9. Matt Grzelcyk, LD (Charlestown, Mass.) Plus: When it comes to speed, sense, and spirit/heart- they aren’t built much better than the Townie, whose veins probably bleed black and gold; the former BU captain is an ultra-slick puck-moving defender who can push the pace and get the puck out of his own end with ease. Minus: At about 5-foot-10, Grzelcyk is going to have his hands full forcing his way into Boston’s top-six D rotation and might have to benefit from some luck and minors time to get there.
  10. Peter Cehlarik, RW Plus: Big-bodied Slovak plays the off-wing and signed with Boston after spending four years playing pro hockey in Sweden; he’s got a nice 6-foot-2 frame plus some offensive chops as a late third-round pick in 2013. Minus: He’s just an okay skater- he’s gotten better and can move pretty well in a straight line, but his first few steps and acceleration are clunky; he’s not great at the quick stops/starts/direction change and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to the smaller North American ice surface.
  11. Zane McIntyre, G Plus: When it comes to drive and character, they don’t come much better than the native of Thief River Falls, Minn. who once earned top goalie honors in that state- named for former Bruins great Frank Brimsek; whenever tested, the 2010 sixth-rounder has always responded with dramatic improvement and maturity beyond his years. Minus: It was a tough transition to pro hockey for the NCAA’s best goalie; he’s got technique issues to work through and will have to fend off fellow pro Daniel Vladar for internal crease competition.
  12. Seth Griffith, RW Plus: Despite the odds working against a smallish forward without dynamic wheels, the 2012 fifth-rounder has seen NHL action in each of the past two seasons; he’s a highly creative scoring mind with the superb puck skills to set up plays or finish them off. Minus: We so want to have Griffith higher on the list, but what is he at the NHL level? Scorer? Checking forward? We probably know the answer to the second question, so he’ll have to make it in the top-two lines- good luck.
  13. Daniel Vladar, G Plus: Huge (6-5), athletic and learning- he put up pretty nice numbers with the Chicago Steel of the USHL in his first North American season; very tough to beat on the first shot and improving his technique. Minus: After the B’s signed him to a 3-year ELC in the spring, where is the still quite raw Czech native going to play next year? ECHL? AHL? Europe? Clock is now ticking on his timeline.
  14. Linus Arnesson, D Plus: A bit of a forgotten man and 2013 second-rounder didn’t forget how to play- he’s got good size, can skate, make a clean first pass and is a smart, savvy defensive player even if he’s very much on the vanilla side of the red line. Minus: Nagging injuries kept Arnesson from getting out of second gear, and questions about his vision and ability to process the game well in the offensive aspects mean that at best, he’s probably a 4/5 at the NHL level assuming he ever gets there.
  15. Brian Ferlin, RW Plus: Looking for someone who can play the right side effectively and has enough size to drive through traffic and skill to make things happen around the net? Ferlin’s your guy. Minus: After a promising rookie pro season in 2014-15 that saw him see seven NHL games near the end, a concussion forced him out of most of this year- he’s got a lot of work ahead to put himself back to the fore.
  16. Sean Kuraly, C Plus: With his pro-style body (6-2, 210) and wide skating base, the Ohioan gets around the ice pretty well and has shown the potential to be a solid if unspectacular bottom-six option, either at center or more likely on the wing somewhere. Minus: There’s just not a whole lot to get excited about when it comes to Kuraly’s hands and creativity- when forced to carry more of an offensive load for Miami U. as a senior, he flamed out.
  17. Anton Blidh, LW Plus: You gotta love this energetic, abrasive little cuss of a Swedish forward who plays bigger than his size and stands out with his pure hustle and physical style. Minus: Unless you’re fine with him on Boston’s fourth line (which is A-OK) there’s simply not enough pure talent/ability in our view for much of an impact at the NHL level.
  18. Colby Cave, C Plus: Fine skater with a fine two-way hockey IQ and the raw leadership skills that will be an asset in any room. Minus: We just don’t see much in terms of high-level skill, so he’ll have to win a spot on the bottom lines while swimming in a pretty deep pool.
  19. Chris Casto, RD Plus: With his thick build and pretty quick feet to go with a bomb of a shot, Casto is a bit like Arnesson in that he’s not suited to ride around near the top of Boston’s prospect lists; he just spent three years in Providence after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota-Duluth and was qualified, so that speaks to the fact that the B’s saw something in him worth keeping around. Minus: Every team needs solid, safe, unspectacular players to feed their minor league farm teams and Casto might be that guy- unless the B’s get into a real pickle with injuries this season, it’s hard to envision him being seriously in the mix as a regular.
  20. Colton Hargrove, LW Plus: Put up surprising numbers in his first full AHL campaign; big, gritty power winger is heavy on the puck and finds ways to get dirty goals- one tough nut. Minus: There’s a lot of competition for bottom-six jobs and Hargrove  needs to improve his foot speed and maintain his focus/drive. He’s getting there.
  21. Emil Johansson, LD Plus: Another Swede in the Boston system- he impressed at development camp after a real strong finish to the Swedish pro season with HV71; he skates well and moves the puck with gusto- something the B’s desperately need. Minus: Excelling at drills against amateurs when you’re playing pro hockey overseas is one thing, being able to process, read and react in the NHL is another- still not sold on the 2014 seventh-rounder’s ultimate big league potential.
  22. Justin Hickman, F Plus: Coming off shoulder surgery, it was a frustrating year for the Seattle Thunderbirds captain and power forward who was slow out of the gate and never recovered. Minus: Undrafted free agent just another physical forward in a sea of them, but could rebound and improve his stock with better health and more confidence after playing through a challenging rookie season.
  23. Oskar Steen, F Plus: Energetic and gritty; excellent skater who has a low center of gravity and powers through would-be checkers while taking pucks tot he net. Minus: He probably deserves a better fate than to be at the bottom of the list, but someone has to bring up the rear- reports said he showed quite nicely in drills at development camp but was not as noticeable in the scrimmage/replicated game situations. A 5-9 forward has to be better at that.