Notes from around the NHL on opening night

The NHL’s 2015-16 campaign officially opened on Wednesday night with the 2015 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks hosting the New York Rangers and raising their third big banner since 2010 after going 49 years between their previous title in 1961. The Chicago Cubs are hoping to capture some of that magic, and in case you forgot- the last time they won a World Series was 1908.

The Rangers-Hawks game was what hockey is about- it was a fast-paced game that saw the visitors take a 3-2 victory after a late Patrick Kane goal was waved off (due to the referee losing sight of the puck while behind net and blowing the whistle before Kane could poke it through Henrik Lundqvist’s pads). Hank was very good- surrendering a pair of goals to Chicago Euro young guns Artem Panarin and Teuvo Teravainen after his defense broke down on both occasions. Beyond that, he was his usual stellar self and at age 33, shows no signs of slowing.

Jonathan Toews is such a fine player. Granted- I finally landed him in an ESPN fantasy hockey league I participate in after that league did away with keepers for the first time in 4 years, but Toews is such a cerebral guy out there- less is more with him. On one play, he was hooked by Mats Zuccarello, but calmly pivoted and threaded a pass over to Teravainen, who got a good shot off and forced Lundqvist to make a key save. That play won’t show up in Toews’ stats, nor will it make the highlight reel, but stack enough of those up together over the course of the season and you’re going to win a lot more games than you lose.

I really like Kevin Hayes as an NHL player. His raw potential was so evident way back in 2009-10 when he was a star at Nobles prep, but we knew back then that he was going to require a lot of patience and seasoning. The B’s reportedly came close to getting him in the summer of 2014, but he opted for Broadway instead and watch for him to emerge as one of that team’s more consistent forwards in the next season or two. He and older brother Jimmy are different- Kevin is more of a finesse, skilled scorer who can beat you in a variety of ways, whereas Jimmy is more of a straight-ahead, north-south winger who generates his offense through hard work and parking his gigantic frame in front of the net where very few in the NHL have the size/strength to move him.

Hayes, who was drafted by the Blackhawks, used the system to his advantage to choose his destination and as mentioned last night, we could see a similar scenario play out with Harvard’s own Jimmy Vesey, who was snubbed in the 2011 draft, but picked up by Nashville in the third round a year later and will have the same option for free agency available to him after his senior season in Cambridge if he does not sign with the Predators. Just a guess, but I bet the folks in Smashville will work very hard to get the lethal scorer into the fold…I’ve spoken to Nashville scouting director Jeff Kealty (a Massachusetts guy  and former 1st round pick in 1994 out of CM back in the day) and it’s no secret that the team loves him (as did the Bruins except for the fact that they didn’t have a second-rounder in 2012 to use on Vesey).

Out West, the Kings took an early lead at home, jumping on the San Jose Sharks and former L.A. (and Boston for a few days) goalie Martin Jones when Nick Shore deflected a shot just 1:42 into the game. However, San Jose stormed back, including a wicked shot from Joe Thornton on a 2-on-1 when the entire building including Jonathan Quick figured he would pass it. That shot reminded me a lot of the 38-goal Jumbo Joe we saw in Boston during Mike Keenan’s one and only season behind the Bruins bench in 2000-01.

After that the rout was on and the Sharks closed out the Kings by a 4-1 score. Milan Lucic went after Logan Couture in the final frame after he took exception to a hit. This is the Lucic on-the-edge guy whose emotions don’t always work for the team…I didn’t have a problem with Lucic going after Couture as I do with the fact that in the grand scheme it was not that big of a deal and was just as easily something he could have taken a number on and then crushed Couture with a big but legal hit the next time they went into a corner together. All Couture did was turtle (and that’s not an insult to him- he’d be foolish to try and fight in that situation) Lucic once again looked like a bully and a bad guy, which many believe he is.

In any case- for those thinking that the Sharks are going to tank this season, this one game is reason for pause. They played well on the road against a fired-up Kings team that along with the Bruins and Blackhawks, has won every Stanley Cup for the last six years.

The Calgary Flames dropped their season opener to Vancouver. I didn’t watch the game live but will catch the replay today and see how Mr. Dougie Hamilton looked. I am intrigued to see if Sean Monahan can make that next big step in his development after a fine season a year ago.

All in all- it’s been a long offseason and it’s great to have games that count once again.

The Bruins open up their season tonight at home against the game and dangerous Winnipeg Jets, who are my pick to reach a Stanley Cup final series here in the not-too-distant future with the pieces they continue to stockpile. The Jets are a young team, but they’ve got a nice balance of skill, grit and character. These are not your daddy’s Atlanta Thrashers, that’s for sure!

The wait is over, Bruins fans- the 92nd season  begins tonight.

2012 NHL Draft Flashback: Matt Grzelcyk

A knee injury and surgery in May will likely prevent Boston University Terriers captain and Bruins prospect Matt Grzelcyk from beginning the 2015-16 season on time, but the Townie is still expected to be a major contributor to BU’s fortunes when he returns.

I spoke briefly to Terriers coach David Quinn in passing at the NHL draft a few months ago shortly after A.J. Greer was selected, and I brought up Grzelcyk. The surgery didn’t come up, but Quinn was more than happy to heap praise on his defenseman. Many of us didn’t know it at the time, but when BU played in the Hockey East and NCAA tournament, “Grizzy” had already suffered his ACL injury, and was not 100 percent. That’s why some observers may have noticed he wasn’t playing his best hockey in those final games, but he was there for his team and if not for a 3rd period comeback by Providence College in the championship match…woulda, coulda, shoulda.

I first saw Grzelcyk when he skated for Belmont Hill in 2009, before he left for the U.S. National Team Development Program for the 2010-11 campaign. He was such a high-end offensive defenseman at the prep level, but I wondered how he would fare with his lack of size out in Ann Arbor. Well, he certainly made the most of it, even overcoming a pretty lackluster ranking by Central Scouting and other public lists to be a third-round selection of his home town Bruins.

Here’s a profile I wrote on him for New England Hockey Journal about a month before the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. It tells his story as a “little engine that could” defenseman. At the time, the B’s had just signed Torey Krug, but he had yet to make his mark. The two have a lot in common in terms of style and substance- both are undersized, but play with a lot of offensive flair and passion. Grzelcyk is the better skater between the two, but Krug’s shot has allowed him to score 26 goals in his first two full NHL campaigns in Boston.

Some will say you can’t have two smaller defenders on the same blue line, but I contend that when it comes to these two, don’t dismiss the notion out of hand. Grzelcyk will turn pro after this season and likely spend at least one or more years in the AHL. By then, who knows what the makeup of the Bruins defense will look like, but with his speed, vision and offensive upside- I wouldn’t count him out.

***

Matt Grzelcyk profile

New England Hockey Journal; May, 2012

Matt Grzelcyk is one of the best 2012 NHL Entry Draft prospects no one is talking about.

The 5-foot-9, 171-pound speedy, offensive defenseman from Charlestown, Mass. recently returned home to the Bay State after two years in Ann Arbor, Mich. with the U.S. National Team Development Program. Grzelcyk admitted that it was tough to leave the comfort zone of home surrounded by friends and family, but looking back on it, there is no question that he made the right choice.

“My whole mindset has changed with everything from the training to all the roadies we went on,” Grzelcyk told New England Hockey Journal recently. “I’ve become more mature as a person and the program not only developed us as hockey players, but also developed us as men. I never really thought I’d be the person I am today, but I couldn’t be happier in terms of the confidence I’ve gained and all the great experiences I had.

“It’s sad that it’s all come to an end, but I’m excited about being back home and getting ready for my next big challenge.”

The luggage that brought him back to Boston was a little heavier, as he carried numerous awards and accolades from his myriad international experiences, including the gold medal he won as a member of Team USA’s fourth consecutive championship squad at the World Under-18 Championship.

“The first year (in the NTDP) was a grind, but the second year brought us all together and was just amazing,” he said of his time in the program, capped by achieving the team’s ultimate goal of an U18 title. “I think—it’s just we obviously knew people kind of doubted us. We had an attitude that it was us against the world—everyone wanted us to lose. It felt so satisfying to play those games and come out on top in the end. I can’t even begin to describe it.”

Yet, even though he has that winning pedigree, a blazing set of wheels and is one of the smartest two-way defenders available in the 2012 draft class, he’s only rated the 177th-best North American skater by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service and is almost an afterthought when it comes to discussing a defense-rich group of prospects.

“I guess it is motivation,” Grzelcyk said. “I’ve heard it ever since a young age and people telling you that you’re too small to play. I like it, actually. I have nothing to lose and I just take the attitude that if I work as hard as I can, I can block the doubters out.”

The player more commonly known to his friends and hockey observers as “Grizzy” is one of three former players with the Middlesex Islanders minor program available in the 2012 NHL draft.

The team was coached by former Merrimack College star and NHL forward with the Blues and Bruins, Jim Vesey (Charlestown, Mass.). Grzelcyk, along with Vesey’s own son, Harvard-bound Jimmy and close friend and fellow Townie Brendan Collier formed a trio that proved to be inseparable in those early hockey years when the boys were aged 7 to 12. All three later skated with the New England Nordiques AAA summer hockey program as well, helping to form a lasting bond between them.

“Hockey helped us stay out of trouble,” Grzelcyk said. “Coach Vesey—we never really noticed at the time what he was doing for us—we just thought they (Vesey and the assistant coaches) were old guys yelling at us, but he built a strong foundation for us early on. We all realize now how important it was for us to stick together and to apply the fundamentals and skills we learned from them.”

At least one hockey parent with those Islanders teams recently recalled how Grzelcyk and Collier would play roller hockey for a large portion of the day, then skate to the rink on their rollerblades for ice hockey practice. Even then, the duo displayed a passion for the game that was palpable.

“Yeah, we couldn’t get enough of it,” Grzelcyk said with a laugh. “I think Brendo’s probably my first friend and he was really my only friend for awhile. We’re still very close. Growing up, it was nice playing with someone from the same town with the same passion for the game. We’re both not the biggest guys, but when you look at what we’ve been able to do, I think it’s something we’re both proud of—that even when we were told that we could play at certain levels because of our size—we were able to rise above that.”

Collier, who will join his buddy Grizzy at Boston Unversity in 2013, is coming off a second-consecutive Massachusetts high school championship. In 2011, he scored the winning goal in overtime. This past spring, with his team dedicating the season to cancer-stricken coach Chris Serino (Saugus, Mass.), he tallied an important goal in the title match against BC High.

“He was my first friend and when we we’re together we’re inseparable,” Collier said after a recent workout. “You won’t find any pictures of one of us when we were little without the other. Whenever I would go anywhere, I would always ask my mother if Grizzy could come too, and vice versa.

“In all the time we played together he was the best defenseman I ever skated with.”

The two remain close to this day as workout partners in renowned strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle’s local program. With smaller frames under 6-feet, both players understand that they must maximize their core strength to be able to better handle the bigger, stronger and more physical players at the higher levels.

Working in Grzelcyk’s favor, however, is the fact that he skates extremely well, with an explosive first few steps and smooth footwork. If he lacks natural size and strength, he offsets those shortcomings with a brilliant mind for the game, a deft passing touch and the heart and character to bring his best effort to the ice on every shift.

“The first thing is that I try to establish myself as a two-way ‘D’,” Grzelcyk said. “When you look at my size, it has to be about offense., Hockey IQ and smarts. I’m not going to be a physical guy, so I have to be able to move the puck out of my end smartly and help my team transition to offense smoothly.”

The future BU Terrier added that the biggest improvement to his game this season had to do with his timing in terms of jumping up on the rush and pinching in from the point. He’s also worked on adding power and accuracy to his shot.

Having grown up in the shadow of the TD Garden, where his father, John, has been a member of the bull gang for more than 40 years dating back to the historic Boston Garden, it isn’t difficult to see where he got his passion for hockey. John and Kathleen Grzelcyk raised their family of hockey players and Bruins fans in Charlestown, with two older brothers in John and Andrew, plus older sister Julie, who all embraced the game.

Skill. Passion. Character. They are all hallmarks of Grzelcyk’s game, and the NHL is rife with examples of other undersized skaters who have overcome doubts to thrive in the league.

“Grzelcyk is a good player, and it’s so important in today’s game to get the puck out of the zone—he does that quickly and moves the puck well. He’s smart, and smarts can outweigh size,” said an NHL scout for an Eastern Conference team. “You’d never ask him to go up against an Evgeni Malkin or Jordan Staal, but there’s a place in the NHL for a player like him.”

After years of being told he is too small to effectively play defense, Grzelcyk has an international gold medal on display at home to symbolically thumb his nose at the critics. As he embarks on an NCAA career and hopes to one day achieve his dream of playing in the NHL, don’t count against him adding more hardware to the family trophy case.

Matt Grzelcyk was Boston's third-round selection at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He enters his final season at Boston University in 2015. (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Matt Grzelcyk was Boston’s third-round selection at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. He enters his final season at Boston University in 2015. (Kirk Luedeke photo)

***

Postscript: I was riding a cab into Pittsburgh from the airport just before the 2012 NHL draft and my cellphone buzzed…it was Grzelcyk calling me to say he was headed to the Steel City.

We had talked a few weeks before, and he had told me he planned on staying home for the draft as he was an “at risk for selection” player- no kid wants to go to the NHL draft and sit in the stands for a night and entire day and not hear their name called.

“What changed?” I asked him.

“My family adviser got some information and said we should come,” he replied.

After the first round concluded on Friday, I was walking into the Consol Energy Center for Saturday’s rounds 2-7 and there was Grzelcyk, so we chatted a bit. He admitted to being nervous…I remember saying something like- “Well, who knows Grizzy- maybe you won’t ever have to leave Charlestown and Boston?” He laughed and said what a dream it would be if the Bruins picked him.

A couple of hours later, that dream came true in the third round- 85th overall- some 90 selections before Central projected him.

Grizzy has come a long way since, but he knows the biggest task lies ahead- cracking that NHL roster he grew up bleeding black and gold for.

No sweat.