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


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.

Bruins prospects in their draft years 2010-2012

As a companion post to what I put up yesterday in going back to look at the Boston Bruins’ roster players and how they were projected in the annual Red Line Report June draft guide issues going back to 1999 (Chris Kelly) through 2014 (David Pastrnak), I thought we could also take a quick peek at the team’s prospects…the good, the bad & the ugly and see what is perhaps in store.

My conclusions from yesterday’s exercise- not enough production from the Bruins with their draft picks. Their best players (not including Zdeno Chara-I didn’t have a RLR 1996 draft year ranking for him, or guys like Tuukka Rask who were drafted by other teams) were all beyond the top-50 as ranked by Red Line, which goes to show you that hitting on first-rounders isn’t the be-all, end-all of developing players. However, there is clearly a dearth of high-end talent: All three of Phil Kessel (2), Tyler Seguin (2) and Dougie Hamilton (5) are gone. Boston had a chance to move up to grab Noah Hanifin (3- 2015) but it didn’t pan out, so they went with three picks in the middle of the round instead.

This gets to the heart of some of the concerns and criticisms fans and observers have voiced in recent years. It’s legitimate, but the B’s have also netted some value selections along the way as well.

So, let’s get onto the prospects, shall we? This post will cover most prospects/players still in the system (and in at least one case- on the way out) from 2010-12.


Zane McIntyre (formerly Gothberg), G Drafted: 165 (6th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 154    Key comment: “Has all the technique of a gerbil on roller-skates.”

Observations: RLR nailed the pre-draft projection, and it is true- McIntyre (who changed his last name in 2014) had some technique issues coming out of Minnesota HS. He had a setback last season, as he struggled to adjust to the tempo and skill level in the AHL, but here’s betting that the soon-to-be 24-year-old will bounce back. The 2015 Mike Richter Award winner as the NCAA’s best goaltender has plus character and hockey smarts, but probably needs to settle down and simplify his approach. The shine is off his star a bit compared to where it was a year ago (and it had to hurt watching North Dakota win the 2016 collegiate title without him), but don’t count him out. McIntyre has shown a penchant for mental toughness, and he’s motivated to prove his worth. Watch for something from him this offseason here on the blog.


Alexander Khokhlachev, C Drafted: 40 (2nd round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 13        Key comment: “Little Russian offensive whiz is vastly underrated.”

Observations: ‘Koko’ slipped to the second round amidst concerns about his average size and relative skating for his diminutive stature, though for several years, he looked to be near the top of Boston’s prospects depth chart. On the plus side, he’s got high-end creativity and to his credit, evolved his game in Providence, going from a bumpy start in 2013 to becoming (now Boston assistant) Bruce Cassidy’s go-to guy up front with two consecutive productive AHL years. Unfortunately, in albeit limited chances in Boston, Koko could never get it going to stick. The debates are endless over whether he was given a real opportunity, but at some point- you have to look past the coaches and focus on the player. For whatever reason, he made barely ripple despite ample preseason ice time and team sources told TSP that Koko did not respond very well to what the coaches wanted him to do. His goose is essentially cooked in Boston, as he has reportedly signed with St. Petersburg SKA of the KHL and will return home to Russia unless the B’s can figure out a way to deal him elsewhere for anything they can get. It’s an unfortunate story for Boston, but the reality is- there is plenty of blame to go around for his inability to make it work here.

Brian Ferlin, RW Drafted: 121 (4th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 245

Observations: As a previously passed-up player in 2010, RLR wasn’t keen on Ferlin despite his highly productive 2010-11 campaign with the Indiana Ice. Despite an awkward-looking skating stride, the Jacksonville native did some impressive work at Cornell in three seasons before turning pro in 2014. He made gradual but steady progress in the AHL as a rookie in 2014-15, earning a late-season recall to Boston, where he played a solid, grinding game on the B’s fourth line. Unfortunately for Ferlin, he suffered a concussion in the 2014 AHL playoffs, and one game into this past season, took another high hit that aggravated that injury, costing him much of his second pro campaign. His challenge is to work himself back into the mix with so many other similar bottom-six forwards in the system.


Sean Kuraly, C Drafted: 133 (5th round- San Jose)

Red Line ranking: 263

Observations: Acquired from San Jose as part of the return for Martin Jones, the Ohio native joins Austin Czarnik as consecutive Miami Redhawks captains in the B’s system. Red Line was not all that keen on Kuraly in his draft year, ranking him significantly lower than where he ended up going. With a big frame and decent skating in a straight line, he isn’t naturally skilled or all that creative offensively. He looks and acts the part of a solid grinder who will likely transition to the wing at the pro level. A solid middle tier player, don’t expect any kind of extraordinary return on investment, and he’ll likely spend at least one full season in Providence, maybe two before he’s ready to seriously challenge for a full-time NHL position.


Rob O’Gara, D Drafted: 151 (5th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 73

Observations: This Red Line favorite went way beyond where that service projected him, but so far- the Yale grad has lived up to the promise he showed as a Milton Academy junior. A big and mobile shutdown defender, his offensive numbers dropped off in his senior season after a surprising junior year. He’s always been a fine skater with agility and fluid footwork even when a gangly teen, so now that he’s filled out to a solid 6-4, 225 pounds- he has the physical attributes to make a run at the pro level. The Long Island native looked real good in late-season work with Providence in the spring, scoring his first pro goal and demonstrating that he belongs. Watch for him to begin the year in the AHL, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could make the big club with a strong camp and preseason or earn a call up at some point during the season. There isn’t a high offensive ceiling, but with his smarts and skating, O’Gara could stabilize the middle pairing one day.


Austin Czarnik, C Drafted: Undrafted (Free agent- Boston 2015

Red Line ranking: 142      Key comment:  “Yet another skilled, entertaining, feisty little dwarf.”

Observations: RLR was ahead of the curve on Czarnik in 2011, when he was ranked in the top-150, but despite being a talented scorer out of Green Bay of the USHL and later Miami University, no one took a flyer on him. Boston surprisingly won the free agent sweeps after he completed his senior season a year ago, and he immediately formed chemistry with fellow free agent Frank Vatrano in Providence and again in their first pro training camp together last September. Although just 5-7, Czarnik has blazing wheels, superior vision and a gritty, energetic game. All he needs is an NHL chance, and he doesn’t appear to be too far away from getting one.


Noel Acciari, C Drafted: Undrafted (Free agent- Boston 2015)

Red Line ranking: NR

Observations: Though not ranked by RLR in the 2011 draft guide, the service was onto him, listing him in the January issue as a player who played a very heavy and physical, but clean game. Four years later, Acciari parlayed that into the captaincy at Providence College and a national championship before signing with his childhood favorite Bruins. Undaunted by the prospect of being an undrafted free agent in a sea of like players, Acciari played hard for Providence and if not for taking a slap shot to the face that broke his jaw, would have made his NHL debut even sooner than he did. Acciari played 19 big league games (1 assist) but impressed with his adept faceoff skills, ability to hit hard but clean (ask Brooks Orpik about that) and ruggedness and mature character as a rookie. He did a fine job as Boston’s fourth line center, and he’ll never be one to put up much in the way of points at the NHL level, but more production would be welcome.


Seth Griffith, RW Drafted: 131 (5th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 52       Key comment: “Average size, skating…all he does is light the lamp.”

Observations: Ranked later in the 2011 draft guide, Griffith was even more impressive  the following year, and like Jimmy Vesey, parlayed a superb 18-19-year-old season into a draft ticket in Pittsburgh after being snubbed. Griffith has a smallish frame and is not a dynamic skater, but boy- can he ever score! He finished near the top of the AHL in scoring last season and has an uncanny creativity and knack for generating offense. The biggest issue holding him back is the fact that he might be a classic ‘tweener: a highly effective AHL performer, but simply not fast or strong enough to be a top-six winger in the NHL, while lacking the ideal tools to be an effective bottom-six forward. He’s a heck of a talent, but might not be the right kind of fit to thrive in Boston. The key question is if that is in fact the case- can Don Sweeney leverage him into a helpful return, or will he be lost to another club for little to nothing?


Malcolm Subban, G Drafted: 24 (1st round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 69                Key comment: “Catches pucks as though they are live grenades.”

Observations: The RLR staff were not fans, as evidenced by Subban’s third-round projection. Boston surprised by grabbing him in the top-25, which was an eyebrow-raiser at the time, mainly because the Bruins didn’t need a goalie and you could make a convincing case that he wasn’t the best player on the board. In fairness to Boston, the talent level in 2012 dropped off a steep cliff in the first around 20, so Subban wasn’t a terrible gamble to make, but he’s struggled to establish himself as the team’s future option in net. Last season, he suffered a lower body injury and then was pretty rotten in his first month of play as he worked through some movement issues. However, in early December through the end of January, it was  as if someone flipped a switch- he played the best hockey of his pro career to date. Then, during warmups against Portland, he took a shot to the throat, fractured his larynx, and was lost for the rest of the season. That’s simply how things have gone for Subban, but he might just get the opportunity to be Rask’s backup this season. The talent is there- even if the luck and playing experience hasn’t been. RLR’s low draft ranking reflected questions about his technique and overall long-term potential…he has yet to prove them wrong for the skepticism.


Matt Grzelcyk, D  Drafted: 85  (3rd round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 237

Observations: This Charlestown native is another lower-ranked player that the B’s took much earlier, though in the Boston University captain’s case, he looks a lot better than where he was projected. A standout at Belmont Hill Academy before leaving Massachusetts for the National Team Development Program in 2010, the small but speedy and smart offensive blue liner was not a big riser at the draft, and Grzelcyk originally didn’t even plan to go to Pittsburgh to attend in person until he caught wind that it would be well worth his time. After the Bruins selected Subban in the opening round, they didn’t have a pick again until the late third round, and that’s where they grabbed him. He’s had his injury challenges- losing significant time to shoulder and knee surgeries, but with his wheels and natural offensive instincts, he could contribute at the NHL level one day after an AHL apprenticeship first.


Matthew Benning, D Drafted: 175 (6th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

Observations: At the time, there were whispers of nepotism when the B’s drafted assistant GM Jim Benning’s nephew out of Spruce Grove of the AJHL, but to his credit, the younger Benning is legit and has worked his way into becoming one of Boston’s most underrated prospects. Although he has just average height, Benning is a punishing hitter who moves around the ice initiating contact.  He’s got the vision and a soft touch on the puck to be effective in the transition game, and he also showed some improved power on his point shot this season for the Huskies. He’s not a flashy or dynamic offensive presence, but he chips in with key production, as he did in helping the Dubuque Fighting Saints to the USHL’s 2013 league championship. Banning is positionally savvy with a willingness to do the dirty work and like his dad, Brian, might be one of those players who goes on to fashion a solid if unspectacular NHL career because of his versatility and smarts.


Colton Hargrove, LW  Drafted: 205 (7th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

Observations: The rugged, older Texas power forward was picked up late and had very low expectations headed to Western Michigan University, but he has improved his offense in each season since the B’s grabbed him in the final round. With his big frame and natural strength, Hargrove showed some unexpected offense this season, doing some grunt work out in front of the opposition net and getting rewarded for it. Sweeney said that Hargrove put in diligent work last summer to improve his conditioning for the AHL and it paid off for him. He’s still a work in progress and will likely top out as a grinding third-line wing (at best) if he makes it to the NHL, but has the makings of a capable power forward and depth player for Boston. He needs to take the next step in 2016-17 and not regress after the pleasant surprise that was his rookie pro campaign.


Justin Hickman, C Drafted: Undrafted (Free Agent- Boston 2015)

Red Line ranking: 153               Key comment: “Strong centre with big shot is not the sum of his parts.”

Observations: The Seattle T-Birds standout was on the radar back then, but wasn’t picked up. The B’s ended up winning a bidding war for his services as a free agent 18 months ago, when he had to shut down his final WHL season for shoulder surgery. His rookie pro year was a disappointment in Providence, but reflects being eased back in more than anything. He didn’t play all that much and the production was certainly nothing to write home about, but Hickman has a natural edge and perhaps an untapped scoring skill set that could manifest itself as early as next year. Having said that- he was an undrafted free agent, so temper the expectations. (Of course- the next guy on the list didn’t have much in the way of expectations and look how that turned out…)


Frank Vatrano, LW Drafted: Undrafted (Free Agent- Boston 2015)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

Observations: What a story- from the outhouse to the penthouse! Very few were on Vatrano in 2012 not because he didn’t have talent, but because he was overweight and didn’t show the requisite work ethic to give teams confidence in taking a draft flyer on him. Those clubs are all regretting that now, as he not only was a goal-per-game guy as a rookie AHLer (36) but even impressed in stints with the big club. Vatrano rededicated himself in the offseason and came to rookie camp in September about 20 pounds lighter, looking like a completely different player. He always had that laser wrister that struck fear into opposing goalies, but he didn’t always move his feet and without the right conditioning, took longer to recover in between shifts. Now, he plays with manic energy and uses his quickness to dart into skating lanes and get himself into scoring position. He was like a mini-Midas last season- practically everything the East Longmeadow native- we like to call him the Springfield Rifle- touched…turned to gold. He’ll have a lot of scrutiny on him in the new season- he won’t sneak up on people like he did this year, but some guys just have “it” when the puck is on their stick, and Vatrano is one. When you hit on an undrafted free agent like the Bruins did with him after just one full year at UMass, then it takes the pressure off of the lack of success the team has had at the draft.

Coming soon: Bruins prospects in their draft years, 2013-15.




Bruins roundup: Czarnik, Griffith up; Tanev to Jets

I’ve been focused on the Jimmy Vesey situation but some key events happened yesterday directly and indirectly related to the Bruins.

The news broke Wednesday morning that Providence College senior forward Brandon Tanev came to terms with the Winnipeg Jets on an entry-level contract that would pay him max money, and take him through the end of the season. Say what?  Great news for the player- he plays fewer than 10 NHL games for a non-playoff club and immediately becomes a restricted free agent (RFA) up for a second contract that will bump him up but put him that much closer to unrestricted status. Good for Tanev, who took the long road but scored the NCAA championship-winning goal a year ago and brings pure speed, grit and a mature two-way game to Winnipeg.

The Bruins wanted Tanev and were reportedly talking to him as late as Tuesday night, but with their playoff race so tight, they couldn’t afford to give him what Winnipeg could. Consider it turnabout from a year ago, when the Bruins successfully wooed Seattle Thunderbirds captain Justin Hickman away from Winnipeg. Like Tanev, Hickman was an undrafted player who had been to Jets development camp and because he was a major junior player, even went to their main camp in 2014. However, in January 2015, when he had to shut it down for season-ending shoulder surgery, the Bruins came calling and he turned down Winnipeg’s offer to sign with Boston. In Tanev, the Jets returned the favor- not that this was a driving force behind the decision, he was a prime target for them and a lot of credit goes to Winnipeg’s Mark White, former Brown University coach and now employed by them as a scout and someone to help that team develop more of a foothold in New England.

Tanev is a good player and would have been a nice add for Boston, but for that kind of a deal, I can understand why the B’s weren’t the ones he went with. The team is right to focus on the players whose rights it already controls- Matt Grzelcyk and Danton Heinen– and they can also turn their eyes to a much bigger prize in Vesey later this summer. DU winger (and Heinen’s Pacific Rim linemate) Trevor Moore could be a target, but I’ve heard major interest in him on the part of the Toronto Maple Leafs and they have more contract room to sign him plus the opportunity to slot in sooner to boot. Regardless of where Moore ends up, he’d be a good get for Boston, but he’s not in Vesey’s class, and it’s likely a situation similar to that of Tanev where they try but won’t be able to win what could be a bidding war for the small but skilled Californian’s services. We’ll see.

The Bruins made emergency recalls yesterday to Seth Griffith and Austin Czarnik.

As mentioned previously on TSP, David Krejci is obviously banged up, but Ryan Spooner did not make the trip to New Jersey. Spooner’s injury is not major, but the team is being cautious with him, so Czarnik appears to be the center fill-in and may become the third NCAA undrafted free agent to play for the Bruins this season (Frank Vatrano and Noel Acciari being the others). Talk about getting bang for your buck! Czarnik was Miami’s captain (interestingly enough- his RedHawks successor Sean Kuraly just signed his ELC with the Bruins this week- let’s hear it for the Brotherhood)

UPDATE: Czarnik returned to Providence as of Thursday afternoon, so it looks like his NHL debut is turned off. For now.

You really have to hand it to the Bruins scouting staff- namely Scott Fitzgerald and Ryan Nadeau– for being so instrumental in finding these gems a year ago. Vatrano (did you know that he’s another player the Jets had interest in- they invited him to a development camp in summer 2014 but he was injured and did not attend) has had a jaw-dropping rookie pro season to say the least. Acciari came in at the beginning of the month and stabilized the bottom line with his speed, savvy and ability to play a clean physical game even if there’s not much in the way of offense. Czarnik, who showed off tremendous chemistry with Vatrano in the rookie tournament and NHL exhibition before continuing the magic in Providence, is a small but ultra-skilled and fast center with high-end hockey sense. He’s a forward version of Torey Krug in terms of his character and dedication to the sport, so it will be interesting to see how he looks with the big club- if not for his size, he would have been drafted and a known commodity coming out of the NCAA.

More to the point- he’s earned this chance to come up and see his first taste of the NHL by traveling and practicing with the big club. We’ll have to see if he makes it into the lineup against St. Louis on Friday, but it’s no doubt an exciting time for Czarnik and his family, and validates his decision to sign with the B’s last year when other teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs were reportedly wooing him as well. It is also telling that Boston did not bring Alex Khokhlachev up in lieu of Czarnik. That should pretty much signal the end of Koko’s tenure with the Bruins- right, wrong or indifferent- he just never quite did enough to stick. We’ve gone over it and whether you feel like he wasn’t given enough of a chance is really moot at this point. One can only hope that the organization can get some kind of asset back in return, but if he bolts for Russia that might prove problematic. In the meantime, Czarnik deserves the audition and he’ll infuse speed, skill and energy into the Boston lineup assuming he plays.

You can question Boston’s draft record in spots, but when the team can plumb the undrafted free agent ranks for players like this trio, it elevates the organization and underscores that it is a team effort and the foundational building blocks and resources are being spent wisely. We’ll see what lies ahead for these youngsters, but the early returns are encouraging.

Griffith is back for the second time this season and it would be good for the former London Knight to give the flagging Boston offense a jolt.

The 2012 fifth-rounder is still looking to carve a niche for himself and there’s no doubting his natural knack for scoring and impressive stick. If ever there was a time for a player vying for a role in the NHL and opportunity was there for the taking, it is now for Griffith.

The Blues are on a major roll and Boston’s chances on paper aren’t good. However, with some new blood and a great game from Tuukka Rask, anything is possible.

B’s-Caps game notes: Pasta night at TD Garden

The Boston Bruins played their second preseason game of the exhibition schedule, getting both goals compliments of David Pastrnak in a 2-1 OT win against the visiting Washington Capitals.

We got our first game look at new Bruin Matt Beleskey, who skated on a line with Czech Davids- Krejci (with both helpers on the goals) and Pastrnak.

There wasn’t a great deal of flow to this one, and the game was scoreless in the first 40 minutes before getting some offense in the final frame. Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre combined to make 26 stops and secure the win, making the B’s 2-0 in exhibition play.

Here are some notes on the players who caught my attention:


Malcolm Subban- Solid outing for the 21-year-old, as he stopped all 17 of the shots he faced in 29:43 of action. He seemed to be a little hopped up at first, but settled in nicely and made one memorable shorthanded stop on Jay Beagle, showcasing his natural blend of quickness and power. Subban has come a long way from when he first turned pro and was all over the place technique-wise. He still plays deep in his net, but when you’re as fluid and fast as he is, it isn’t as much of a glaring deficiency as some would have you believe. Even with the 100 percent save percentage- there are still plenty of things to work on, and there’s no better way to do that than down in the AHL as opposed to sitting at the end of the Boston bench.

Zane McIntyre- He was beaten on what appeared to be a screen by Nate Schmidt’s seeing eye shot during a Caps PP but other than that, the first year pro handled business, stopping 9 of 10 shots he faced. He’s a lot more together stylistically than he used to be, employing better economy of motion in his game and letting the puck hit him more than he did earlier in his junior and college careers. The NCAA’s top goalie has not looked out of place so far, but it’s pretty evident that he’s not ready to be an NHL backup and will benefit from the playing time and seasoning in the minors.


Linus Arnesson- He looked very good in both rookie games and had another effective, unspectacular outing tonight. He’s a smooth skater who plays with a maturity and poise beyond his years when it comes to his own end. He understands positioning and can get the puck out quickly. I don’t see much in the way of an attacking defender who will put up a lot of points, but he can get up the ice well enough and will be able to evolve into an effective penalty killer because of his feet and defensive awareness. He is what he is, I think- just a solid defenseman who will give you a good effort and consistent, steady play. He doesn’t need to be rushed into the NHL lineup, nor should he be viewed as a real difference maker when he eventually arrives in Boston. Put simply- you win with guys like Arnesson, but fans should avoid making him into something he is not: a top-level two-way D.

Torey Krug- The Michigander was wearing an ‘A’ on his sweater and that will soon become a permanent accessory on his game attire. He’s skating with a lot of confidence and bringing that edge that is important for him even if he doesn’t possess ideal NHL size. With Krug it’s about smarts and effort- he’s getting better with his reads and making the right decisions under pressure, and nobody will outwork him for a puck, even if they might be able to win a physical battle. I could go on and on, but won’t- he’s going to keep improving and for those who haven’t figured it out yet- be a core contributor to Boston’s fortunes for a long time. He led all blue liners in ice time tonight with nearly 24 minutes and his regular season time will surely increase as he eases into that top-four role he’s earning each day with his work on and off the ice.

Kevan Miller- If people are looking for excuses to write off this free agent find and former captain at the University of Vermont, Miller isn’t giving much room there. He played his brand of physical hockey, keeping things simple and preventing the Caps from getting much going offensively with some hits and good breakups. The Californian is a no-frills, bottom-pairing kind of guy, but he’s tough and cheap. He’s back after missing the second half of the year with shoulder surgery.

Joe Morrow- I liked his game tonight. Morrow is at his best when using his piston-like stride to vault up the ice and push the offensive pace from the back end. He’s got to do a better job of hitting the net with that big point drive of his, but you can see the way he can make tough passes with relative ease and Morrow brings the much needed mobility and puckhandling skills to the defense if he can make the big club and stick.


David Pastrnak- Scored Boston’s regulation goal with a flourish after taking a Krejci pass and beating Philipp Grubauer with a nifty backhand. He followed that up by scoring the OT goal in 3-on-3 play just 12 seconds in, securing the win. He’s tracking to be a special player- he’s got that rare blend of natural talent plus the attitude, work ethic and charisma to be a franchise presence in Boston. We saw it in flashes last year as a rookie. This time around, as long as he can stay healthy, he’ll score with more regularity, but the big breakout is on the short horizon. It’s hard not to get caught up in the hype with this kid (and he is a kid- just turned 19 in May), but if you’ve been around him for just 30 seconds, you can see why the B’s treasure him (and why, in 2017- they’ll be opening up the checkbook- big time).

Anton Blidh- What is Claude Julien to do? This guy looks like the real deal for your bottom line right wing position, even with the veterans under contract. The Swedish sixth-rounder in 2013 brings a lot of speed, tenacity and relentless forechecking to the mix, even if he may lack the offensive toolbox to be a top-six forward at this level. He was grinding it out early, drawing penalties and attracting notice for his verve and finishing of checks when there wasn’t a lot of flow to this game. Because he can be sent down without being placed on waivers, chances are- Blidh (pronounced “bleed”) will begin the year in Providence. However, if he keeps playing like this, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make the team as a 13th forward.

Austin Czarnik- Carried over his strong showing at the rookie tournament in Buffalo in this one. Little waterbug is so fast, skilled with the puck but shows off the little things away from the puck as well that should endear him to the Boston and Providence coaches. As a player who was skipped over in the draft because of his size, he’s going to have to put in twice the effort, but if the early signs are any indication, Czarnik will be an immediate impact performer for Butch Cassidy and might even play his well into an appearance or two with Boston sooner than anyone thinks. With the team so deep with centers, his time might have to be down the road, but plenty to like here.

Zach Senyshyn- He didn’t have any points tonight, but I continue to like with the big, eager winger brings to the table. With his long, loping stride- he’s rangy and gets up and down the ice so well that he can catch defenders flat-footed if they don’t watch their gaps with him. The Soo Greyhound just needs to keep things simple- take pucks to the net and do the things he’s known for and that got him 26 goals playing on the lower lines in the OHL. The more people who see him play, the less we hear about what a “reach” he was because you can’t teach his size or willingness.

Alex Khokhlachev- It was a mixed bag for him. I thought he looked pretty poor on Boston’s first power play opportunity but he seemed to relax as the game went on and showed his talent off in flashes. Again- flashes aren’t enough, here- he’s got to find ways to produce and pointing to the linemates is just making excuses at some point. If you want to beat out the guys ahead of you on the depth chart, you have to leave the coaches with little choice but to keep you- has he really done that in the two games thus far? Not enough to the degree needed, in my view.

David Krejci- If the B’s get this healthy version of their longtime top-2 center, then they’re on the right track this year. You figured he would come back hungry and motivated after last year essentially being a wash and he was on it tonight, with two primary assists on the only goals his team produced. Now, we’ve seen just 4 goals in two exhibition wins for the B’s, but in this one, you wanted to see some offense from the club’s top unit and they delivered. It’s pretty cool to think that when a young David Pastrnak was looking up at his room’s wall in Havirov and seeing a photo of Krejci pinned up there, he probably never imagined he would one day be getting the puck direct from his hockey hero. That one is just entering his prime and the other has a world of talent to take full advantage is an exciting thought for Boston fans.

Justin Hickman- Dropped the gloves in the second period against Tyler Lewington and scored the takedown after some punches exchanged, but that’s the toughness and presence that the former Seattle Thunderbirds captain was expected to bring. His skill is a work in progress, and he’ll likely not be a major factor down in Providence this season as he’ll gravitate towards the grunt work as he gets acclimated to that level, but he skates well enough and brings the kind of physicality that the B’s value. Watch for him to develop into a Providence fan fave pretty quickly, and he’ll score some nice goals down there, even if they don’t come in bunches.

Frank Vatrano- He came close to scoring in the first when the B’s were on the PP with that shot of his…ooh la la. What can you say? The kid’s release and heavy, accurate drive is just sublime. He’s getting quicker and will round out the rest of his game as he’s allowed to develop in the minors. B’s just might have a real homegrown diamond-in-the-rough here.

Matt Beleskey- Oof. He’ll get better, but it looked like he was trying a little too hard. He did win kudos early in going to Krejci’s defense in a scrum- he’s not afraid to stick his nose in and defend teammates even if he doesn’t have Milan Lucic’s size or toughness. Needs to go have fun, loosen up on the stick and cut down on the turnovers/forcing of the play. You see the chemistry that Krejci and Pastrnak already have- he’ll benefit from it too, if he just lets the play come to him a bit and doesn’t overthink it. This is why we have a preseason schedule…

Encouraging signs for B’s rookies in Buffalo

The Boston Bruins rookies went 1-0-1 at the 2015 prospects tournament hosted by the Buffalo Sabres, giving up a 2-0 lead to drop a 3-2 contest in OT against the host club after beating the New Jersey Devils in sudden death the night before.

Was able to catch a bit of both games (albeit limited viewing) so you’ll have to take the observations with a grain of salt, as I was not in attendance at either contest.

Overall, the B’s youngsters handled themselves pretty well- for a group that didn’t bring a lot to the table in terms of high draft pedigree, the feeling surrounding the Boston prospects is that they are a game bunch that doesn’t have a lot in the way of elite (at least through the NHL draft) pedigree, but has made some good picks in recent years and did a particularly nice job last spring at plucking some key free agents out of the NCAA, major junior and European pro ranks.

Here’s a quick look at some of the players that stood out- not going to give a recap of everyone mind you- just some players that caught my eye for various reasons:

Noel Acciari, C- The Johnston, R.I. native played so well that he earned his own post on the blog last night, but he stood out in both games in a good way, scoring a goal on the first night and nearly potting another one on a breakaway that Sabres goalie C.J. Motte barely got his left pad on. He doesn’t have top-six NHL forward upside, but Acciari has the right stuff to eventually develop into a bottom-line staple with his physicality, intelligence and grit.

Linus Arnesson, D- The Swede was featured in the camp preview last week and he showed off his trademark poise and smoothness, even getting a rare goal when he pinched in from the point and wired a pass home through a scree to give the B’s a 2-0 lead last night. He’s going to play in the NHL- it’s just a matter of when. Given Boston’s current situation on the NHL blue line, there is zero need- none- to rush him. Better to let Arnesson play prime minutes in the AHL first and if injuries create problems, don’t be surprised to see him in limited fashion, because he’ll earn a look. Come next year, he’ll be in the hunt for a more established position, but it might not be until 2017-18 that he’s most ready for regular NHL duty.

Anton Blidh, RW- Agitating Swede plays a North American-style game already and skates up and down the wing hard, forcing turnovers with a strong forecheck and finishing hits all over the ice. He didn’t translate his efforts into offense, but he’s not an overly skilled scoring prospect- just a smart, physical, opportunistic player who reminds me a bit of a young Vladimir Sobotka. He took a big hit from Jake McCabe in the second period of the Buffalo game that seemed to turn the tide of the contest.

Austin Czarnik, C- Was mildly surprised that the B’s landed the Miami University captain last spring after he finished an outstanding Red Hawks career at Oxford, but not because I didn’t think he could play but due to the fact that I thought other clubs would beat them out for his services. Although barely 5-7, Czarnik has jets on his skates and plays with that slippery waterbug elusiveness that is important for undersized guys in pro hockey. He’s a character player who grabbed attention with his energy, hustle and ability to make plays in both games. His forecheck was the difference on Frankie Vatrano’s OT winner against the Devils, and Czarnik also assisted on both Boston goals against the Sabres. He’s always going to have to fight to be given the credit he’s due, but players like Johnny Gaudreau have proven there is a place for small but talented and driven guys in the NHL- Czarnik could get there.

Jake DeBrusk, LW- The 14th overall pick in 2015’s spot here is not meant to be a slam on the kid, or to justify the opinions of those who were against the selection- he just appears not ready to seriously compete for an NHL job at this stage of his development. There is a lot to like about DeBrusk- you can see that he senses the offensive flow of a game and can get himself in position to generate scoring chances, but whereas Vatrano cashed in and brought a more polished approach to his game in the o-zone, DeBrusk seemed to be pressing. DeBrusk is not yet 19, and he’s done some nice things in the WHL- I’ll see how he develops this season and performs going forward, but this player is going to take time. If we were all being honest with ourselves on draft night, we knew that he would be a project player.

Jesse Gabrielle, LW- The 2015 fourth-rounder didn’t have a terrible showing, but I didn’t see much of the offensive ability advertised of him in his draft year. I did see some undisciplined stuff that he’s equally noted for, and if you like the Brad Marchand-type guys, Gabrielle carries promise. However, more was expected, and a good bounce back season in the WHL with Prince George (his third club since the start of 2014-15) is a solid place to start.

Justin Hickman, RW- Big-bodied, rugged power forward was another free agent pickup by the B’s last year and his surgically-repaired shoulder seems to be holding up well- he fought defender Brady Austin at the beginning of the third period vs Buffalo, giving a good amount away in terms of size and reach. He’s got to improve his first couple of steps, but this is a player who earned the respect of several NHL clubs that were in on his services, and his straight-line game and ability to create space for his linemates will translate well in Providence.

Zane McIntyre, G- He got tagged with the loss, but the Buffalo Sabres badly outplayed the B’s in the final 30 minutes and if not for the 2010 sixth-round pick, this one would have ended in regulation with a loss. His transformation from that raw, unrefined high school goalie at his first Boston development camp to a poised, unflappable goaltender who is impressive with his positioning and economy of movement in the crease has been remarkable. This is why teams need to be patient with goalie prospects- the payoff may take some time, but in McIntyre’s case, he could very well end up being worth the wait.

Zach Senyshyn, RW- Boston’s third first-round selection showed off his impressive skating and ability to get the puck up the ice quickly on the wing. He used his big body to protect the puck and showed promising offensive potential in flashes. On the downside, there were times when he seemed unsure of himself and his inability to make a play in his own end to clear the zone resulted in Buffalo’s first goal of the night. There is a tremendous amount of potential with this player, who like his fellow first-rounders, needs time to develop and will likely take some leaps forward (and a few steps backwards along the way) with the Soo Greyhounds as his role expands. He looked like a first-round pick out there, and while it would have been great for him to have more of an impact in the scoring (he did assist on Zboril’s goal along with DeBrusk), he was solid overall.

Frank Vatrano, LW- Like Acciari, Vatrano got his own post the other night and led all B’s rooks with 3 goals- unleashing his NHL-caliber shot last night from the right circle to open the scoring. You can’t teach what this kid has- he instinctively finds the seams in defenses and gets into prime scoring position. Then, as it is much easier said than done, when you put the puck on his stick, he finishes plays. You have to think that Butch Cassidy will keep Vatrano and Czarnik together at least to start things out in Providence, as the two showed excellent chemistry together at this tourney.

Daniel Vladar, G- The more I watch him, the more I am coming around to Boston’s third-round choice. He is legitimately huge, but his fluidity and quickness for one so big is eye-opening. He’s one of those guys who when dialed in is so tough to beat, and he showed it against the Devils by shaking off a couple of early goals to make key saves down the stretch and get the game to overtime, where Vatrano finished it off. “Darth Vladar” is worth stashing and letting progress on a gradual timeline much like the Bruins did with McIntyre. Seeing 2008 third-rounder Mike Hutchinson’s success with Winnipeg also serves as an important teaching point as well. Kladno native looks like a keeper.

Jakub Zboril, D- The NHL tools are clearly there for Boston’s top pick, and he showed off his good wheels and ability to make things happen offensively, finding the back of the net against New Jersey as a power play expired. I don’t think he’s ready for prime time, but it should not take long before he’s knocking on the door for a job in Boston. His biggest challenge will be to play with consistent urgency back in the QMJHL this season and not take nights off. Several scouts from other teams were a little turned off at the way he carried himself during the interview process, but the B’s seemed to love his swagger, so the onus will be on him to reward Boston’s faith by moving forward this year.



NHL 2015 rookie camps preview/player watch list- Eastern Conference

With rookies reporting to their NHL clubs for the annual rite of passage before the veterans show up next week to begin the real work of building towards that opening night roster next month, it’s time to take a look at some of the kids who will be competing in prospect tournaments this weekend and may one day contribute to the fortunes of their NHL clubs. Some of them might be doing that as early as this season.

I’m breaking the preview up into 2 parts- each by conference, starting in the East. There is no particular method to my madness other than to focus on players I have more personal and professional familiarity with. That might mean that certain highly-touted rookies don’t get a mention- that will be by design. I can’t cover every single prospect and some that are not highlighted might come off as snubs to some readers- that is not my intent.

This blog attempts to give you my insights based on what I observe and know, not what someone else writes about or observes unless I cite that particular source. If there is a particular player you want to see covered, let me know and I’ll hit up NHL guys I know who will have the firsthand knowledge of those individuals. Unlike other analysts out there who try to cover every player, league and geographic region in hockey, I simply don’t do that.

Thanks for reading- watch for the Western Conference watch list later this weekend.

Boston Bruins

Austin Czarnik, F- Small but speedy and offensively gifted forward was a nice free agent get for Boston last spring after captaining Miami University the previous two seasons and earning Hobey Baker finalist honors as a junior. The Michigander is not going to break on through to the NHL right away, but he could be an instant impact player offensively for Providence in the AHL.

Justin Hickman, F- Rugged power center was another undrafted pickup a year ago in January after shoulder surgery forced him out of his overage WHL campaign as captain of the Seattle Thunderbirds. He had a quietly solid development camp in July, but was not cleared to participate in the scrimmage to further protect that shoulder. A Boston team source expressed optimism that Hickman will surprise at his first Boston NHL camp (he previously attended Winnipeg Jets training camp) and with his heavy game and underrated scoring potential, watch for him to be another Providence youngster who is in line for an immediate role.

Eric Neiley, F- This Pennsylvania native and Dartmouth College product may have just average size and skating ability, but he once put up 40 points in just 10 games (due to injury) as a senior prep player at Phillips-Exeter. He’s a dangerous and creative player with the puck on his stick in the offensive zone. If he can do enough to impress, there might be an NHL contract in the offing down the line.

Frank Vatrano, F- The former Boston Jr. Bruins standout missed out on some D1 hockey while working a transfer to UMass, but the wait was worth it as he fired home 18 goals in his only full season with the Minutemen before turning pro. Although short in stature and of stocky build, he worked hard to come to camp with a leaner frame. The end result: he’s quicker, more agile and still has a lethal stick, especially between the hash marks. He’s got 20-goal NHL upside in time if he can stay driven and develop his all-around game.

Linus Arnesson, D- The Swede came over late last season to finish out the year with Providence of the AHL, where he was solid if unspectacular. He’s got fine size and mobility, but isn’t going to wow you in any particular aspect of his game. He’s more of a defensively savvy blue liner who can move the puck out of trouble and does well in puck retrieval, but don’t expect him to join the rush much or put up many points. You win with guys like him, but he’ll benefit from time in the AHL before he’s ready for full-time NHL duty.

Zane McIntyre, G- McIntyre has won top goalie awards at every level from high school (Frank Brimsek- Minnesota), junior (USHL) and the NCAA (Mike Richter). Now, he is entering the pro ranks and it will be interesting to see what the Bruins will do with him in his first year. To maximize his playing time, the ECHL might be the best fit for him, but an excellent camp and exhibition season will make it tough on the brain trust. Depending on what happens with Jonas Gustavsson and his PTO, there probably isn’t enough net for all three of Malcolm Subban, Jeremy Smith and McIntyre, so this rookie tourney will be key to the 23-year-old making a good first impression.

(Good UND-produced video and segment on McIntyre at the 7:00 mark.)

Buffalo Sabres

Jack Eichel, F- The excitement is palpable, as the 2015 Hobey Baker winner and second overall pick left BU after just one year to turn pro. Unless something unforeseen occurs, Eichel is expected to play the season in Buffalo and will energize the town and team with his superb speed, hands and all-around game. Eichel is both skilled and mature enough to earn new coach Dan Bylsma’s trust, and although the vast majority of Sabres Nation was hoping for Connor McDavid, if there ever was a year to have the second pick in a draft, 2015 was it.

Justin Bailey, F- I’ve been tracking with interest this Buffalo native’s since his draft year (2013) when he impressed with his pure potential even if he was (and still is) a raw, developing prospect. The son of a former NFL player, Bailey was raised by his mother, Karen, who infused old school values into his upbringing. Bailey also benefited from being around members of the Sabres like Matthew Barnaby and Daniel Briere, who got to know the family and helped stoke his passion for hockey at a young age. Like Boston’s Ryan Donato, Bailey is living the dream of being a prospect for the team he grew up cheering for and having a personal connection to. With his 6-3 frame, and NHL-caliber tools, he has the makings of an eventual NHL power forward.

Carolina Hurricanes

Noah Hanifin, D- Carolina fans unfortunately will have to wait a little longer on Hanifin, who is not participating in the team’s annual venture to the Traverse City, Mich. Rookie tournament due to injury. Like Eichel, Hanifin left the Hockey East after just one season but several NHL scouts tell me they think he can play in the big show right away. We’ll see if he can put his nagging injury behind him in time to have a strong camp and preseason, but everything about Hanifin to date in his young career indicates he will do just that.

Brett Pesce, D- Former UNH standout and 2013 third-rounder is a rangy defender from New York who didn’t quite elevate his offense as expected, but was a solid contributor to the Wildcats in his three seasons at Durham. He’s a hard-nosed defender with size and underrated puck-moving skills who doesn’t give up real estate willingly and will likely become an effective shutdown presence in the NHL after some minor league apprenticing.

Sergey Tolchinsky, F- Speedy little Russian waterbug was passed over in the 2013 NHL entry draft despite putting up a fine season at Sault Ste. Marie with the Greyhounds, only to earn a free agent contact. He’s so skilled and dangerous, reminding of another little Russian named Sergei- Samsonov- who should have been a bigger NHL star than he was, but never really fully recovered his magical hands after wrist surgery. Filthy move at this summer’s development camp…


Columbus Blue Jackets

Sonny Milano, F- The Long Island product switched NCAA commitments from Notre Dame to Boston College, then jumped to the OHL with Plymouth last summer. After a solid first campaign there, he’s shown that his offensive ability is among the best in his peer group, but his overall game still might give his coaches fits at times. He’s a dynamic scorer, but must be more careful not to turn the puck over and guard against taking bad penalties.

Mike Paliotta, D- Chicago’s third-round selection in 2011 went on to captain the University of Vermont, which pulled an upset in the Hockey East quarterfinals last March over favored BC. Sent to the Buckeye State as part of the Brandon Saad trade this summer, Paliotta is a smart defender who isn’t all that flashy but makes good decisions with and away from the puck. He’ll boost the transition game after some time in the minors.

Detroit Red Wings

Dylan Larkin, F- The Wings’ top pick in 2014 left the Wolverines to turn pro and could very well be skating for the big club in October. Skilled and creative, Larkin can do a bit of everything as a plus-skater who is defensively responsible. Given how active and difficult he is to contain on the rush, he has the makings of a perennial All-Star and local that the Motown fans will really get behind.

Florida Panthers

Mike Matheson, D- When it comes to defensemen who are absolute naturals at moving the puck up the ice, Matheson is right up there with the best. The former Boston College star is a tremendous skater who generates top speed but also masters his edges for effortless lateral glide and shiftiness to avoid the forecheck. He can make the crisp outlet and loves to join the rush. He’s not a finished product by any means, but has improved his overall defensive play coming out of college. He was not a major point producer, but does those things for the transition game that the top teams use to great effect.

Colin Stevens, G- After backstopping Union to the 2014 NCAA championship this season was a step back for the New Yorker and former Boston Jr. Bruin. He signed with Florida last spring and with his live, athletic 6-2 frame, he’ll have time to grow into his body and develop at the minor league level. He’s a winner who can steal games for his team and will be a fine netminder in the AHL soon.

Montreal Canadiens

Nikita Scherbak, F- The Habs got excellent value with the big Russian horse out in Saskatoon (since traded to Everett) of the WHL last year. He’s added solid mass to his 6-2 frame, topping out at around 200 pounds entering the season but he’s a very good skater and talented forward who competes hard and brings with him many North American attributes. Like the Bruins with David Pastrnak in 2014, the Canadiens somehow ended up with a promising power forward who should not have been available to them that late in the opening round. Bruins fans will soon know this kid’s name and not in a good way.

New Jersey Devils

Pavel Zacha, F- The stats this last season with Sarnia weren’t much to write home about, but the Devils wasted no time in jumping on the uber-skilled Czech who will likely mature into a more productive player at the highest level. One NHL scout based in Ontario told me that he just oozed talent and potential every time he saw him but for some reason, it wasn’t clicking for him. The Devils desperately need a marketable, exciting young star and they appear to have it in Zacha. He seems to have the tools and right stuff to make the jump to the NHL right away.

New York Islanders

Mathew Barzal, F- I’ll admit it was a surprise to stand there in Sunrise and watch the Bruins make three consecutive picks at 13, 14 and 15 and not once call the undersized but electric Seattle forward’s name. When peeling back the onion a bit with team sources and those outside Boston familiar with him, we’ll chalk it up to concerns about some of the injuries he’s dealt with in the WHL and questions about the kind of fit. However, given how quickly the Isles traded (twice I would add) into the first round to grab Barzal at 16, this is going to be someone Bruins fans who follow the draft and prospects closer than the rank and file do, lament for years to come if he develops into a Claude Giroux-type star in Brooklyn.

Michael Dal Colle, F- He was a treat to watch in leading the Oshawa Generals to the 2015 Memorial Cup championship this season. The playmaking winger is so smart and productive- he’s got a great release and stealthily attacks defenses, getting into prime scoring areas or setting the table with effortless ease. He’s a major part of a dangerous group of forwards that will be coming up to take advantage of the presence of John Tavares in his prime (Speaking of Tavares, didn’t he used to skate for the Gennies? Sho ’nuff he did).

 New York Rangers

Brady Skjei, D- A major offensive threat he is not, but the big and fluid Minnesotan is going to be one of those dependable minute-munching 3-4 d-men who skate in the NHL for years. Coming out of the NTDP there was thought that he might develop more of a scoring punch, but the lack of that element should not sell him short as a premiere defensive player and character leader type who can move the puck and will be someone his coaches trust to send out and protect a lead late in the game. Those players are valuable, even if they don’t always get the respect they deserve.

Ottawa Senators

Matt O’Connor, G- Even with the breakthrough of Andrew “the Hamburglar” Hammond this past winter in Canada’s capital, the Sens went out and signed the best free agent goaltender available on the market. O’Connor’s misfortune in the third period of the NCAA title game loss to Providence aside, he’s got the size, athletic ability and maturity to rebound from BU coming up just short and develop into a solid pro. He doesn’t give shooters much net, and is a competitive gamer.

Philadelphia Flyers

Ivan Provorov, D- The Flyers got their man by standing pat and letting the Russian come to them last June. An interesting story as a kid who left Russia a few years ago and played minor hockey in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before jumping to the USHL and then north to the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL, Provorov was seen as the best defenseman available in the 2015 draft, ranked by some ahead of Hanifin. With his mobility, smarts and puck skills, he’s a prime candidate to shine in his first pro camp and make a tough decision on the Flyers brass to keep him or return him to junior- he’s poised, mature and polished for one so young.

Travis Konecny, F- Along with Barzal, the Ottawa 67’s captain was one that Bruins fans who follow the draft were hoping the team might jump on with one of three first-round picks. Although undersized and didn’t get off to a great start last season, the Flyers made a move to go and get him. If he gets his development back on track to where it was entering 2014-15, Philly fans will have a lot to cheer about with his speed, offensive upside and energy.

Travis Sanheim, D- Another WHL standout defender who rode the wave a year ago of a superb performance in the Under-18 championship tournament to a top-20 selection in 2014. The Calgary Hitman has all of the key tools NHL clubs want in a defender including a fearsome point drive. He parlayed his success into a spot on Canada’s gold medal WJC squad last winter and along with Provorov and Samuel Morin, might turn the defense position from an area of concern in Philly to one of strength if all three pan out as expected.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Daniel Sprong, F- Arguably one of the 2015 draft’s most pure talents on offense, Sprong’s 200-foot game was lacking and a big reason he fell into the second round. However, put a kid like him on the Penguins and you have the potential for it not to matter a whit because of how dangerous he is when the puck’s on his stick. I didn’t think he was a good fit for what Boston is doing, but he makes total sense in the Steel City. They don’t come much more flashy and slick than this Netherlands product.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Tony DeAngelo, D- The tremendously skilled yet undersized offensive defenseman has gotten into trouble for his mouth in the past, but his 25 goals and 89 points in just 55 OHL games speak for themselves. The Philly-area native is a sublime skater with the vision and elite hockey IQ to push the offensive pace. Tampa rolled the dice a bit by grabbing him 20th overall a year ago, but he’s on the verge of paying that decision back in spades.

Adam Erne, F- 2013 second-rounder and Connecticut native was injured when his Quebec Remparts needed him most last spring, but when healthy, Erne has the offensive talent and big body to excel in puck possession. He plays a rugged style but needs to cut down on undisciplined penalties. When at his best, he’s dropping his shoulder and driving hard to the net- he’s a load to contain and is built for the modern NHL. Erne is the kind of player that will make an already difficult team to play against that much tougher.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Mitch Marner, F- This skilled and gritty gamer had a monster season in the OHL with the London Knights, leading the new-look Leafs front office to go with him fourth overall. There is a lot of pressure on him to get the Blue and White back on the road to respectability, but he didn’t average 2 points per game by accident. He plays with the kind of intelligence and all-around savvy that should see him thrive in that organization and embrace the enormous expectations that come with a player of his draft pedigree and background. He’s got some physical maturing ahead, but there’s a lot to like about him- winner.

Washington Capitals

Madison Bowey, D- The latest graduate from the Kelowna defenseman factory out in the WHL, Bowey has it all- size, skating, skill, shot and sense. He’s a poised puck mover who plays the game with some jam and has enough confidence to keep things simple. In hindsight, given how much Bowey’s development has taken off since the 2013 NHL draft, it’s hard to figure how the Caps got him in the second round.

Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview: the Centers

Patrice Bergeron is Boston's "Mr Everything" and the team will need him to be that and more at age 30. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Patrice Bergeron is Boston’s “Mr Everything” and the team will need him to be that and more at age 30. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

In retrospect: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…well, not really. The 2014-15 NHL campaign was a rough one for the Boston Bruins’ men up the middle.

Patrice Bergeron led the club in scoring with 22 goals and 55 points- the lowest for a non-lockout season since 2009-10 when he and David Krejci both finished with 52 points. It was a step back for Bergeron from his 30 goals and 62 points in 2014, but Krejci’s season was downright miserable.

The 29-year-old missed 35 games and finished with just 7 goals and 31 points in the 47 contests he played after signing a lucrative contract extension that will pay him $43.5 million ($7.25M AAV) for the next six years starting in 2015. This is not to indict the team or player for that deal, but if the Bruins are going to take steps forward, then Krejci is going to have to put the last 12 months behind him and take his game back up to the level he’s capable of.

The good news for the team is that young pivot Ryan Spooner finally broke through after several years of teasing with flashes of his pure speed and offensive skill. He made the club out of camp, but after five games on a very short leash, he was returned to Providence where he battled injuries and up-and-down play until late January when he rounded into form and established himself as a consistent scoring presence. When Krejci went down for another extended absence in late February, Spooner returned to Boston and stayed there, finishing the year with 8 goals (his 1st in the NHL in spot duty the previous two seasons) and 18 points in 29 games (24 if you throw out the first five where he barely played).

Gone is third-liner Carl Soderberg (traded to Colorado for the 2016 pick Boston sent to the Avs for Max Talbot) and fourth line staple Gregory Campbell. Soderberg flashed his big-time ability in spots, but whereas he thrived in his third-line role, he was ineffective when asked to center one of the team’s top-two lines when Krejci was out. Campbell was a good soldier whose declining production and being on the wrong side of 30 made him a free agent departure to Columbus.

Overall, Boston’s 22nd-ranked offense (all the way down from third in 2014) was reflected in the team’s low scoring totals by their centers and the club’s non-playoff finish. Bergeron was steady and dependable, especially when it comes to the other things like faceoffs and defensive zone play, but the lack of production from Krejci and Soderberg, due in part to a dropoff on the wings, all contributed to a down year.

The view from here: Patrice Bergeron, as veteran forward Chris Kelly has often said, is Boston’s “Mr. Everything”- he’s arguably the true face of the franchise. He also turned 30 in July, a remarkable turn of events considering it seems like only yesterday that he was a fresh-faced 18-year-old rookie who made the veteran-laden 2003-04 Bruins out of camp after being the 45th overall selection in Nashville (with a compensation pick the B’s got for losing Bill Guerin to free agency). Since then, Bergeron has won a Stanley Cup, two Olympic gold medals, both a men’s World and World Jr. championship and added three Frank Selke Trophies as the NHL’s top defensive forward. If you looked up “winning” in the Urban Dictionary, you’ll not find Charlie Sheen but Bergeron’s mug looking back at you.

He’s the team’s active points leader with 206 goals and 550 career points in 740 games, all with Boston. He currently sits 12th on the franchise’s all-time scoring list and is just 26 points from moving past Milt Schmidt. Assuming he stays healthy and posts another typical offensive year for him, he could move all the way up to eighth past Terry O’Reilly (606 points). Think of where Bergeron would be  on the scoring ledger had he not lost an entire 82-game season to the 04-05 lockout, another 72 games to the near career-ending hit from behind he took from Flyers defenseman Randy Jones (who?) and then another lockout-shortened half season in 2013.

What makes Bergeron so good is that he’s a complete player. Sure- he doesn’t have the open-ice speed, and to be honest- the Bruins are lucky he wasn’t quicker than he is now at age 17, or else there’s not much of a chance he would have been available for them to draft. Bergeron seriousness and dedication- evident from the very first time I sat down with him for an extended interview at our hotel in Nashville the day after the ’03 draft- is why he not only made the NHL just a few months after turning 18, and ahead of many of the more-heralded 44 picks in front of him, but is a big reason he’s thrived.

Any hopes the B’s have of getting back to being a playoff caliber club starts with him.

Krejci begins the year as the second-ranked active scorer with 409 points in 551 games. When healthy and on top of his game, he’s a cerebral centerman who compensates for his average size and speed with high-end playmaking skills like vision, soft hands and offensive creativity. The Czech product who was a steal at the 64th overall selection in 2004 is quiet off the ice but fiercely driven and competitive as evidenced by his 29 goals and 77 career playoff points, good for ninth all-time for the Bruins (and 11 more than Bergeron has in the postseason).

There isn’t much to add about the previous year’s performance other than to say that the Bruins must get more from him going forward or they’re going to be in trouble. His contract is paying him like a top-level producer, which he has shown he can be in the playoffs, but for a player who has never scored more than 23 goals or 73 points in an entire regular season, it was a generous increase, and for someone who will turn 30 in late April, the Bruins are counting on him taking his production to another level than what we have seen in his previous NHL seasons. Doable? Yes. Likely? That’s an entirely different debate.

Spooner is a speedy, skilled offensive forward who hit his stride after his second call-up late in the year, scoring his first NHL goal in sudden death against New Jersey and playing the best hockey of his young NHL career to finish out the season. At one time the youngest player in Peterborough Petes history to score 30 goals in a season, like Bergeron, he was the 45th overall pick (seven years after PB), slipping in the draft a bit due to a broken collarbone suffered right after the CHL Top Prospects Game in January 2010- dooming him to the “out of sight/out of mind” phenomenon that can occur in a player’s draft season. Although Spooner’s road to the NHL was more down than up, he earned a two-year contract extension and has the inside track to the third line center job when camp opens up in a few weeks. For a kid who appeared done and for whom trade rumors swirled in the first half of last season, he’s back to where the B’s thought he should be.

A player who enters camp with expectations of winning the fourth-line center job is Finnish veteran pro and newcomer Joonas Kemppainen. A member of the SM-Liiga’s championship team Karpat this past spring, Kemppainen has a big, 6-2, 200-pound frame and at age 27 is a mature two-way center who can do all of the little things you need. Although not especially fast, he has a powerful stride and uses his body well along the walls and in front of the net. He doesn’t have high-end puck skills, but he works hard in the trenches and gets his points off of opportunism and hard work. He was brought to development camp in July, but pulled a hamstring while working out at home before the trip, so fans unfortunately weren’t able to see him. He should be fine for camp, but this will be something to monitor and watch going forward.

Alexander Khokhlachev and Zack Phillips will also be vying for NHL jobs this season going into camp, but may have their hands full trying to make a splash with Boston. Koko is ready for NHL duty, but he may need to make a positional switch to the wing in order to do it. He’s not as fast as Spooner is, so splitting him out wide may be a better fit for his style of game and gives the Bruins more of a dynamic option scoring-wise- he’s not an ideal candidate for the duties and responsibilities of a fourth-line pivot, and he’d have to beat out one of the 1-3 centers to make it there, which, given his current body of work to date, is not likely.

Phillips, who was drafted 12 spots ahead of Koko in 2011 by the Wild (and Koko’s pick ended up being Minnesota’s 2nd-round selection- acquired in a trade that sent Chuck Kobasew out west early in 2009-10). He’s a talented offensive player who tallied 95 points in a Memorial Cup-winning campaign his draft year, but has struggled since to live up to the billing of being taken in the top-30. He performed well enough for Providence after being acquired even-up for Jared Knight at the deadline, tallying 11 points in 16 games, but has yet to show that he’s someone who will vie for regular NHL duty, at least as far as this season is concerned. At age 22 (he turns 23 in late Oct.), he has time, so it behooves the Bruins to take a wait-and-see approach.

Ryan Spooner enters his fourth professional season for the first time as an expected NHL roster player (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Ryan Spooner enters his fourth professional season for the first time as an expected NHL roster player (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

On the farm: If neither one of Koko or Phillips makes the Boston roster, they’ll be the 1-2 punch in Providence this year (though it stands to reason that Boston’s skilled Russian prospect might balk at another demotion- we shall see, and I’ll cover him in the forthcoming post on the B’s options on the wings as well).

There isn’t a whole lot else to speak of down in the AHL. Providence College captain Noel Acciari is a blue collar prospect as a versatile if not high-end offensive player who plays a rugged two-way game and hits everything in sight. He’s not an NHL option at this point, but has steadily developed at every other level and is a winner, having been a key part of the Friars’ first-ever NCAA title this past spring. He was a solid free agent pickup for the B’s.

Rugged WHL center Justin Hickman, a free agent signed last January after shutting it down for shoulder surgery, may be a diamond-in-the-rough at Providence this year. The former Seattle Thunderbirds captain didn’t put up eye-popping numbers, but he was starting to get there in his final major junior season until he went under the knife. He skates well for his size, plays a fearless game, and will stick up for teammates. He was still limited (no scrimmage) at development camp, but is expected to be cleared by the start of the season and could become a fan favorite in short order. Fellow WHLer Colby Cave may be another center option in Providence or could be switched to wing. He’s not as physical as Hickman but plays a smart, underrated offensive game as evidenced by the chemistry he showed at Swift Current last season with Jake DeBrusk. We’ll give him more coverage in the wingers section.

Diminutive little buzzsaw Austin Czarnik has the speed and style of game to turn heads in camp as well. Like Acciari, he captained his club- Miami University- and was a nice free agent get last spring. Although tiny by NHL standards (5-9, about 160 pounds), he’s a superb playmaking center with the quick feet and stick to back defenses up and cause problems for would-be checkers. Don’t know what I mean? Check out this highlight vid from the playoffs a few months back:

He’s going to do some good work in Providence and if he can be a forward version of Torey Krug and overcome the size bias, he has the versatility to play on the lower lines and at wing as well (though he’s best in the middle).

Look to the future: The B’s have some intriguing talent in the pipeline, even if there isn’t an elite center among a solid group of players.

Harvard University is eagerly awaiting Ryan Donato, Boston’s second-round selection in 2014 and the son of head coach (and former Bruin) Ted Donato. After starring for four years at Dexter Southfield in Brookline, Donato took his game last spring to the USHL’s Omaha Lancers, where he put up more than a point per game and silenced some of the critics and doubters. Although not blazing fast like his dad, he’s bigger and plays a more dangerous offensive game. He’s a long-term project with a sizable potential payoff.

Not too far away from seeing duty in Boston is current Miami University captain and senior Sean Kuraly, who was acquired in late June along with San Jose’s first-round pick in 2016 for goaltender Martin Jones. Though he hasn’t been overly productive in his NCAA career to date, he has that kind of potential as he enters the new year coming off a 19-goal junior campaign. He’s a heavy player who uses his size and quickness to excel in puck possession and is at his best when creating space for his linemates and taking pucks straight to the net. Don’t be surprised to see the B’s explore bringing him straight to Boston in March or April when his season ends.

Ryan Fitzgerald is entering his junior year at Boston College and will face the team’s newest center prospect, Swedish two-way playmaker Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, who is a freshman at Boston University. The two are similar in that they can both score and play responsible defensive hockey. ‘JFK’ is a little bigger and has the better draft pedigree, but don’t count out the 2013 fourth-rounder who appears to be on the verge of breaking out with some big-time production at the Heights. I’m not sure how that will translate at the pro level, but Fitzgerald’s hockey sense and bloodlines will take him far.

2015 sixth-rounder Cameron Hughes has a lot of skill and grit if not the size- but he’s expected to play a bigger role at the University of Wisconisin this season and is definitely a player to watch as a value selection.

The verdict: Center is the strongest position in Boston currently, even if the position lacks the dynamic scoring and production other teams can boast.

In Krejci, Bergeron and Spooner- if all stay healthy and produce to their potential, you’re looking at a balanced attack that will at least put the wingers in position to finish off plays. This isn’t a sexy group by league-wide standards, but they don’t have to be. Bergeron’s leadership will continue to pay off in the room, while Krejci is the kind of guy motivated by the lost season a year ago. He took the team’s failure to make the playoffs personally, but talk is cheap- it will be interesting to see how he responds and if he can avoid the injury bug, a legitimate concern given his slight frame and the wear and tear on his body.

Kemppainen is the favorite for the bottom line coming out of camp but he’s not a lock. Should he struggle or Koko have a great outing, the coaching staff will be faced with some tough decisions. The standard play is usually to send the waiver-exempt players down and protect those who must be exposed, so we’ll see how things turn out. Chris Kelly has the versatility to play a fourth-line center role if the B’s want to use him there, but given his faceoff strengths, it makes sense to put him on the wing with Spooner on the third line until the youngster can earn more defensive zone faceoff trust from the coaches.

Ultimately, as long as the group stays healthy, the center position will be the least of Boston’s worries, but whether they can be good enough to make up for the rest of the team’s shortcomings remains to be seen.

I’ll be back with the preview on the wingers to include future options like Denver University’s LW Danton Heinen, who might be closer to the show than we realize.

Chris Kelly could be pressed into center duties if others fail (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Chris Kelly could be pressed into center duties if others fail (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Boston Bruins prospects update- July 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Providence/pro prospects player capsules

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

Acquired: Free agent, 2015

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

Anton Blidh, LW; 6-1, 190

Acquired: 6th round, 2013 NHL Entry Draft

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

Peter Cehlarik, LW; 6-2, 200

Acquired: 3rd round, 2013 NHL Entry Draft

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

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

Acquired: Free agent, 2015

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

Colton Hargrove, LW; 6-2, 215

Acquired: 7th round, 2012 NHL Entry Draft

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

Justin Hickman, RW; 6-3, 215

Acquired: Free agent, 2015

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

Acquired: 7th round, 2014 NHL Entry Draft

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

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

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

Zane McIntyre, G; 6-2, 200

Acquired: 6th round, 2010 NHL Entry Draft

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

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

Acquired: Free agent, 2015

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