Hockey is back!
Just a couple of days after the NHL opened up main training camps around the league, the exhibition games started, with the Boston Bruins taking on the New Jersey Devils in a home game at Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence R.I. Sunday evening.
The Black and Gold got a pair of power play goals from free agent addition Matt Irwin on defense, as he and fellow blue liner Colin Miller made strong cases for themselves in the first real glimpse fans got of them. Goaltenders Jonas Gustavsson and Jeremy Smith split the game down the middle and combined to pitch the shutout, with Gustavsson making 18 saves and keeping the Devils from taking advantage of a quicker start.
It was just one preseason game, but Boston’s biggest area of concern going into the season is on defense- and the performances of Irwin and Miller might be bringing that picture into focus more.
And here are the player notes (not quite covering everyone):
Jonas Gustavsson- The Monster did not let anything by him on his watch, though he did knock the puck into his own net after Adam Henrique gloved down a drive inside the crease. Referee Chris Rooney was on hand to waive the goal off, however. The veteran Swedish netminder did a good job of staying square to the shooter and tracking the puck during his 30 minutes of action last night. As is the case with him on occasion, he got overly aggressive and came out of his net, nearly getting caught for what would have been an open net goal during one sequence in the second period, but his defense bailed him out. This was the kind of performance Gustavsson was looking for as a player in camp on a PTO- he has NHL experience and the ability/mentality to be the right kind of backup for Tuukka Rask.
Jeremy Smith- Came in halfway through the second period and picked up where Gustavsson left off, doing a nice job of smothering rebounds and using his glove to good effect. People forget, but Smith was once a second-round pick of the Nashville Predators in 2007, so he entered the pro ranks with some promise that he appears to be on the verge of putting together in terms of reaching the NHL. He came into the B’s organization a year ago with hopes of providing a veteran presence in the AHL while Malcolm Subban took on a bigger role for Providence, but “Smitty” played so well that he ended up with a lot more starts than originally planned. He could win the backup job coming out of camp in a few weeks, but he would still represent risk for Boston given his lack of NHL experience.
Matt Irwin- The former UMass rearguard from British Columbia could not have asked for a better first look in a Boston uniform. Though not a speedster, he moves well laterally and has some impressive offensive instincts. The first goal he scored happened in the second period when he slipped in from the point, took a perfect pass from Ryan Spooner, and put a shot past former Union goalie Keith Kinkaid. His second goal was a point blast after his D partner Miller put a pass right into his wheelhouse, and Irwin didn’t miss. He had eight shots on goal and could have had at least a hat trick if not 4 goals- that’s how involved he was in the play. Don Sweeney talked about how Irwin impressed the team with his power play work on the San Jose Sharks, so credit the pro scouts who recommended him- he did not look out of place. Granted- it’s just one preseason game, but Irwin looks like a player.
Colin Miller- When the B’s traded Milan Lucic to the Kings, Miller was the one piece coming back (not counting Martin Jones– Marty, we hardly knew ye!) that could pay immediate dividends and based on last night, we’ll be seeing Miller in Boston. The first thing that jumps out at you is his skating- he can really scoot, and is capable of pushing the pace when he has the puck. In the offensive zone, he shows a lot of poise and handles the puck with confidence, using his vision and offensive IQ to make the right passes and find open space. He and Irwin were highly effective on the power play all night, as the B’s not only tallied twice, but did a pretty good job of maintaining possession and generating scoring chances, even the ones that didn’t go in. Miller even made a highlight hip check that would have made old school and Hall of Fame B’s defenseman Leo “Billy Boy” Boivin proud.
Miller is still learning the defensive aspect of the game, but Miller brings something the B’s are in desperate need of- speed/mobility and puck skills from the blue line to go with a big, powerful shot. He no doubt impressed Claude Julien, Doug Houda and the Boston coaches last night. He’s a right shot, which makes him even more appealing when it comes to balancing the defense pairs and available talent. Miller delivered the goods last night as advertised with assists on both Irwin goals.
Zach Trotman- It was a solid night for Trotman, who showed off his NHL experience with an effective game in his own end, not allowing much to get by him and using his size/mobility combo to keep the Devils away from the front of his net. It was more of a case of what you see is what you get from Trotman, and while he was not impactful to the degree that Irwin and Miller were, he didn’t hurt himself last night. Being a right shot helps, and he’s been projected as Zdeno Chara’s opening night defense partner. We’ll see how that goes, but for now he’s still tracking.
Jakub Zboril- You can certainly see the skill and potential on display with Boston’s top draft choice in 2015, but he’ll go back to the QMJHL this season with plenty to work on. The first thing that catches your eye is the skating- he powers into top speed with an impressive first few steps and generates enough momentum that he can beat opponents with his glide in open ice before churning up more speed to gain the opposition blue line. He wants the puck and handles it with confidence. I thought there were a few times when he got to running around as a result of missed opportunities to make the simple play, but he’ll get there.
Brandon Carlo- I saw some people singling him out for a strong performance last night, and honestly didn’t really see it. It’s not to say he played poorly- he didn’t, but again- I guess I don’t get the urge to go out of the way to heap praise on a solid player with promise, but who isn’t in any position to win an NHL job this season. This is not a knock on him at all as Carlo’s size and mobility are very good- he has NHL tools and he played a pretty mistake-free game. An old saw says that if you don’t really notice a defenseman then it means he did his job pretty well. He’s got a real active stick, controls his gaps well and is not afraid to throw his body around. He’s looking like a very good value at 37th overall, but no need to rush him- the payoff will come in due time.
Tommy Cross- It was a gritty, energetic performance from the Connecticut native and former high second-round pick of the Bruins in 2007. The Boston College captain has one of the best characters and personalities of anyone, but he hasn’t lived up to his draft position. Even if he makes the NHL (which is a tall order at this stage of his development), it’s hard to envision him doing it as more than a bottom pairing guy , and with the surplus of similar type defenders ahead of him in the pecking order, it’s hard to see it happening for him in Boston. That said, he made good reads, was involved all night and even got into several scraps, including one fight at the end with Seth Helgeson. If his goal was to send a message to the B’s brass that he’s still here and willing to work for it, he certainly succeeded.
Ryan Spooner- It was a good game for the projected third-line pivot to begin the season. His primary assist on the winning goal was vintage Spooner- he took the puck over at the right half-wall and used his puck skill and shifty elusiveness to create space for himself while his teammates helped collapse the Devils PK in front of the net. Then, spotting Irwin leaking in from the blue line, got the puck cleanly to him through traffic so he could make a play on it and put the B’s in front. That’s what Boston most needs from Spooner, and he had his speed game going all night, working well with Jimmy Hayes. He solidified his case as a roster regular last night with his overall play, especially with the man advantage.
Alex Khokhlachev- He raised some eyebrows this weekend with his comments about wanting more of a chance to play in Boston. While his sentiments understandable, he didn’t exactly help his case last night. While his supporters and the folks whose answer to any attempt at meaningful debate when it comes to Koko these days seems to be “SKILL!” are no doubt pointing to the flashes of ability he showed last night. I thought that he looked mighty good at not accomplishing a whole heck of a lot against New Jersey, however. Koko is a very good offensive talent…but he’s not as elite as some make him out to be in my mind at least, and he’s got room for improvement…at the tender age of 22. If he (or his agent) is trying to force Boston’s hands for a better situation where he doesn’t have as many impediments to playing center and getting to the NHL is therefore easier, you can get where he’s coming from, but it isn’t like the B’s have buried him. He should be willing to stick it out and continue to work. An injury here or there and he’ll get his chance. But if you’re pointing to last night as proof positive that he’s earned that chance right now, don’t really see it. He’s shown his offensive skill in flashes, but this is a results-oriented business and he didn’t get them last night.
Jimmy Hayes- It was a nice first game for Hayes who went up and down the wing as advertised and helped on Irwin’s second goal by setting up in front of Scott Wedgewood as the point shot came in. He’s not a snarly, physical presence, but Hayes uses his big frame effectively. Spooner nearly hit him with a nifty behind the back pass on a third-period rush that if, on target, likely would have found the back of the net. The Dorchester native certainly looked the part of a Boston Bruin last night.
Brett Connolly- If Hayes played well on Spooner’s left wing, then Connolly did not have a very good showing over on the right. He did not show much in the way of the skating and speed that he’s known to possess and seemed to have a hard time handling the puck cleanly or getting to open spaces. Let’s face it- when you’re the sixth overall pick, and a team gave up two second-round picks for you, a lot more is expected. We can chalk it up to rust and it being the first action of the new season, but Connolly did not send any kind of message that he’s ready to supplant David Pastrnak or Loui Eriksson on the top-two lines. Where’s the beef?
Jake DeBrusk- Boston’s first forward choice showed some good things last night, but he’s clearly not ready for prime time and will go back to Swift Current soon. On the plus side, he’s active in the offensive end and instinctively reacts as the play develops by getting to the right spots on the ice to make something happen. He also played with some jam, as on one third period play, he fired a shot that Wedgewood made a good save on, then went right to Devils defender Eric Gelinas behind the net and got in his face after Gelinas gave him a little tap, with the two engaging in a quick scrum/wrestling match that the refs broke up before it escalated. I liked the feistiness from DeBrusk, because that’s not really his game. He’s a polarizing player because like Connolly, much is expected of him offensively, so he’ll have to translate the flashes of talent into production here soon.
Joonas Kemppainen- At 27, he had the look and feel of a mature, poised pro forward last night. He didn’t make any real eye-opening plays, but did the little things well like protecting the puck, going to the net and supporting his defense when the play went the other way. He’s not going to wow you, but the B’s could do much worse than entrusting a fourth-line spot to him. We’re still getting the book on him, but Kemppainen has the tools at least to compete- we’ll see where the rest of the exhibition season takes him.
Brandon DeFazio- I thought the free agent depth pickup played a real solid game- he was noticeable and played with energy and jam, showing a willingness to do the dirty work and stick up for teammates. Clearly acquired to be one of Providence’s veteran leaders this year, the former Clarkson Golden Knight who got two NHL games in last year with the Vancouver Canucks did not look out of place as a gritty grinder. He looked like he wanted to kill Tuomo Ruutu near the end of the game, which was good- Ruutu took out Seth Griffith with a knee-on-knee hit in the second period and Boston’s prospect did not return, a fact that was not lost on the Bruins. The refs kept DeFazio from engaging Ruutu, but he showed the willingness to battle- I liked what I saw.
Seth Griffith- Tough night for him, as he began the game playing with Koko and the two did combine to generate a couple of nice scoring chances early. Unfortunately, while on the power play in the second period, he took a knee-on-knee hit from Ruutu and that was the end of his night- hopefully, he did not suffer a serious injury on the play, but we’ll soon find out.
Max Talbot- The veteran did his thing, though it is pretty clear that he’ll make his bones on the bottom line and the team won’t get much in the way of offense from him. On the wrong side of 30, he’s lost a step, which means he has to work that much harder to generate scoring opportunities, but he’s still a feisty, savvy defensive player who understands his role and will be a good example for the younger players around him.
Zac Rinaldo- Well, what can you say about the most polarizing of all the new additions in the offseason? He had one memorable play when he took a Ben Sexton pass and blew by Devils defender Reece Scarlett before cranking a shot off the post. Had it gone in, it would have been a highlight reel goal, but even so, it demonstrated that even if Rinaldo lacks the pure skill and hockey sense to be a productive player, he can still put opponents on their heels. When on his game, he plays with energy, hustle and forces opponents to play with their heads on a swivel. That’s a good thing…so long as he does not cross the line. He drew several penalties which is what the Bruins were looking for. When he’s putting his club shorthanded with stupid, undisciplined plays, however- that’s when he’ll get in trouble.
It was the second loss to the Bruins in a week for New Jersey, who appears to be in for another tough season under new head coach John Hynes. Like Boston, they don’t have a great deal of high-end talent, so they have to out-work their opponents and depend on great goaltending from Cory Schneider to steal games for them. I thought both of Kinkaid and Wedgewood played well tonight- they made some stops that kept the score close and their team in the game.
Pavel Zacha was the sixth overall pick in last June’s draft and showed flashes of why that was the case even if he’s still pretty raw yet and didn’t have anything to show for it. He’s got size and skating but used his vision and anticipation nicely on a few plays where he got in behind the defense. With a little more patience, he might have been able to turn those flashes into goals. The Devils sure look like they got a player with him, and while there are sure to be ups and downs, he’s going to make that pick pay off for them.
I was also impressed with forward John Quenneville last night. The Brandon Wheat Kings star had some jump in his play and demonstrated a nice blend of creativity and skill. He was on Boston’s list in 2014, and had Pastrnak not been there, they might have gone with Quenneville at 25. He went to them with the final pick of the first round, 30th overall.
Damon Severson will build on a solid rookie year that saw him get off to a hot start offensively before injuries took a toll. He is mobile, smart and involved in the offensive flow. He was a real power play threat with the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL and will continue to see time with the man advantage in the NHL.