Danton Heinen leaves Denver U, signs 3-year ELC

Heinen

As reported here about a month ago, forward Danton Heinen has given up his remaining two years of NCAA eligibility to sign a three-year entry-level contract with the Boston Bruins after they drafted him in the fourth round in 2014.

Several sources told the Scouting Post that Heinen would not be going back school for his junior season back on March 12, citing an eagerness for him to get started on a pro career. He had reportedly told several of his teammates that he would not be back, and so it was just a matter of Boston waiting for his season to end. With the recent news of 2016 Hobey Baker Award winner Jimmy Vesey declining to sign with the Nashville Predators, it’s a reasonable assumption that if Boston was entertaining the thoughts of talking Heinen into remaining an amateur for one more season, they were all about bringing Heinen into their organization immediately.

The ability for college players to choose their own destinations after four years and choices by Kevin Hayes and now Vesey to not sign with the teams that drafted them means that NHL clubs will not hesitate to bring players out of the NCAA sooner now, and if a kid is not altogether thrilled to be a part of that organization, don’t be surprised to see their advisors (read: player agents) leverage tools like burning a year off the ELC in order to get them to come out on the NHL team’s timeline. The Winnipeg Jets also signed Kyle Connor yesterday after just one year at Michigan and taking the hockey world by storm. Connor is the lightning rod that Bruins fans are using to criticize Boston’s first round choices in 2015. It looks like we’ll soon find out how much the team missed out on by passing on the USHL and NCAA’s top scorer in consecutive seasons. Connor’s signing is one more reminder that the old days of guys spending four years in school is getting increasingly rare (though the B’s duo of college defenders- Rob O’Gara and Matt Grzelcyk– did just that)

Getting back to Heinen- the 20-year-old British Columbia native had a slow offensive start to the season, but erupted over the second half, tallying about two points per game to lead the Pioneers to the Frozen Four before ultimately coming up short against the eventual 2016 champion University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks (PC or not they’ll always be the Fighting Sioux to me).

In two NCAA seasons in the Rocky Mountains, Heinen tallied 36 goals and 93 points in just 81 games. Playing on the Pacific Rim line or “Pac Rim” this season from January on, Heinen simply caught fire. After being at well under a point-per-game just as the calendar switched to 2016, he teamed up with fellow left coasters Dylan Gambrell (eligible for 2016 draft) and Trevor Moore (could leave school as a free agent or return- reportedly weighing his options right now) to finish atop the Pioneers with 20 goals and 48 points, adding to his 16 goals and 45 points from a season ago.

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Heinen is about 6-foot-1 and a solid 185 pounds. As a 1995-born player he was passed over in 2013 because he was small and extremely light, but he’s hit an impressive growth spurt since and dedicated himself in the weight room, adding strength and mass to his frame.

A good skater, what makes Heinen arguably Boston’s top prospect along with Zach Senyshyn for the offensive potential both possess, is that he has exceptional vision and hockey sense, to go with one sick set of mitts. He was a center in junior but has been developed as a winger in college under head coach Jim Montgomery, first playing on the left side as a freshman before shifting over to the right (his off-wing) and settling in with the Pac Rim unit. He uses his high IQ to anticipate/read/react and after hitting a lot of posts and not getting much in the way of puck luck in the early going, his talent took over as he racked up the points down the stretch. He’s heavy on the puck and has the intelligence to take on the various responsibilities required of him in Boston’s system.

Heinen is not a flashy or dynamic player who is going to wow you by exploding to top speed in a few strides and putting defenses into near-constant back pedal mode, but what he will do is slow down the play or speed it up depending on the situation. When he gets down below the circles and in between the hashmarks, he’s deadly- either hounding the puck and hitting linemates with accurate passes to set up quality chances or burying goals with a quick release and little hesitation to shoot the puck when the lane is open for him to do so.

Like many young players these days- I caution fans not to jump squarely on the hype train just yet. Heinen is good enough of a player to challenge for NHL duty right away next fall, but that doesn’t mean that the right answer is that he will play in Boston. Frank Vatrano showed that a rookie pro with the right blend of skill and want to can make it with the big club, but we have an extended offseason ahead of us. Before we start projecting what line he’ll be on, how many goals/points he’ll score and whether he should be paired with Vesey (who as of right now until Aug. 15 or unless his rights are traded between now and then is still property of the Predators), let’s take a moment to see how he looks in Providence first. He’s there this week on at ATO (amateur tryout) and his 3-year contract won’t kick in until 2016-17. Let’s see how he looks in his first taste of pro hockey, and then keep in mind that there will be some personnel changes between now and when training camp opens up in mid-September.

I know, I know- what fun is being patient when we can entertain ourselves with endless speculation and line permutations?

For now, Heinen being in the fold is an intriguing step. He’s unproven, but the potential is higher than average and he was a super find by the Boston scouts. For more on him, check out my blog post from before the season began titled “The Curious Case of Danton Heinen” and I walk you down the path of how, as a little known commodity in the BCHL that more than a few teams were quietly tracking, the Bruins appear to have struck gold.

Time will tell…and we won’t know how successful the find was for a little while yet.

Update: final stats Benning, Bjork, Donato, Sherman plus Tanev watch

The 2015-16 hockey season came to an end in the first round of games at the NCAA D1 championship tournament Friday for a trio of Bruins prospects, plus a fourth who was injured and didn’t suit up for Harvard’s 4-1 loss to Boston College.

Northeastern University had a killer draw, facing the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks, who didn’t win the NCHC (St. Cloud State captured that honor), but were at or near the top of the NCAA poll all season. The Huskies took the early lead but UND scored five unanswered goals in what was an eventual 6-2 victory for the Hawks. B’s prospect Matt Benning scored NU’s final goal of the season, his sixth tally overall.

Anders Bjork was the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s top scorer yesterday, ripping a laser beam past University of Michigan goalie Steve Racine to tie the game at 1 in the first. He then assisted on Thomas DiPauli’s second period goal with a highlight reel move through three Wolverines players to gain the offensive zone, then one-hand a drop pass to the goal scorer. Unfortunately for Bjork and his mates, the game went to overtime and the famed ‘CCM line’ of J.T. Compher, Kyle Connor and Tyler Motte ended Notre Dame’s season with Motte’s sudden death strike.

The Harvard Crimson played hard, but a tough start and 0-3 hole was too tough to overcome against the BC Eagles. Ryan Donato showed some impressive flashes of what could be to come for the talented pivot, but was held off the score sheet. His linemate, Seb Lloyd, tallied Harvard’s only goal. On the other side of things, Ryan Fitzgerald was on the winning club, and assisted on Alex Tuch’s somewhat controversial goal to give the Eagles a 1-0 lead. Tuch appeared to drive Harvard goalie Merrick Madsen into the net before the puck ended up over the goal line, but after a lengthy delay on two reviews, the goal call was upheld.

Providence College’s double-overtime loss not only means that the Friars’ defense of their 2015 NCAA championship title is finished, but also began the Brandon Tanev free agent watch, and the Bruins along with another usual suspect in the NHL are rumored to be in on the speedy forward from Toronto.

Matt Benning, D Northeastern University (HEA)

2015-16 regular season stats:

Games Played: 41  Goals: 6  Assists: 13  Points: 19  Penalty Minutes: 37  +/-:  0

Differentials from 2014-15 stats:

Games played: +5  Goals: +6  Assists: -11 Points: -5 Penalty Minutes: +1  +/-: -6

Season in review: One year after scoring nary a goal in a 24-assist sophomore season, the former Spruce Grove Saint (AJHL) and Dubuque Fighting Saint (USHL) found the net six times and finished with 19 points from the blue line, good for second place on the Huskies among defensemen (Garrett Cockerill-22 points). Benning played a career-high 41 games as a junior. He was as solid and dependable a defensive presence as they come; Benning is not a big point getter, but he played a lot of minutes at even strength and special teams for NU coaches Jim Madigan and Jerry Keefe as one of the Huskies’ alternate captains.

Outlook: In a more recent update, TSP (this blog for those who might be wondering) talked about Benning being one of the more underrated prospects in the Boston organization. He’s not flashy or dynamic- he skates well and uses his natural hockey savvy to be in the right place to make plays in his own end. He’s not big by NHL standards, but like a defense version of Noel Acciari hits hard and clean. The son of former NHL rearguard Brian Benning isn’t an in-your-face intimidator, but he’ll step into players in the open ice with his ability to come across the grain smoothly with effective lateral glide and footwork. He’s just a smart player who motors along while other more hyped players get the lion’s share of the attention, but his goal yesterday was a statement and reminder that after being an unheralded sixth-round pick in 2012, he’s still progressing and growing. Don’t sleep on Benning as a solid eventual middle tier contributor in the NHL who just might have the same kind of stealthy upside his dad brought as a legit No. 2-3 two-way defender in his prime.

 

Anders Bjork, RW  University of Notre Dame (HEA)

2015-16 regular season stats:

Games Played: 35  Goals: 12  Assists: 23  Points: 35  Penalty Minutes: 8  +/-:  28

Differentials from 2014-15 stats:

Games played: -6  Goals: +5  Assists: +8 Points: +13 Penalty Minutes: -6  +/-: +31

Season in review: One word for Bjork’s sophomore campaign in South Bend: impressive! The 2014 fifth-rounder doesn’t have much in the way of size with a 6-foot frame that isn’t going to put on a lot of mass beyond his already 187 pounds. However, he used it to max advantage this year, leading the Fighting Irish in scoring despite being the third-youngest player on the roster behind fellow 1996-born skaters Dennis Gilbert (October vs. August) and Dylan Malmqvist (another Aug. ’96 who is younger by just a couple of weeks). Bjork consistently found his way on the scoring ledger all year and demonstrated an impressive ability to set the play from the off-wing.  He plays a heavy game despite not having an abundance of size and against Michigan in the NCAA tourney he was dangerous and pushing the pace well until it appeared he took an awkward spill that might have affected him. He was not as effective the rest of the way, but still was a noticeable presence as Notre Dame put a scare into the Wolverines.

Outlook: As a sophomore, the Bruins will likely leave Bjork in school for at least one more season, maybe two. He’s not what you would consider an elite scoring forward but there are no flaws in his game. The Wisconsin native is smart, hard-working and opportunistic. He’s shown a penchant for scoring the highlight reel variety of goal, particularly in the USA bronze medal-clinching game last winter at the World Jr. Championship. While I’m not one to throw the words “draft steal” around all the time, Bjork looks like superb value at 146th overall. He’s got the speed, smarts and tough mental makeup of a higher-end third-liner if he continues to develop and progress. The Bruins are thrilled with what Bjork has done since they drafted him.

Ryan Donato, C  Harvard Crimson (ECAC)

2015-16 regular season stats:

Games Played: 32 Goals: 13 Assists: 8 Points: 21 Penalty Minutes: 26 +/-: 4

Differentials from 2014-15 stats: (combined from USHL, USPHL, prep- Dexter)

Games played: -20 Goals: -15 Assists: -37 Points: -52 Penalty Minutes: -6 +/-: +1

Season in review: Don’t be alarmed at the statistical differentials, as the biggest disparity comes from Donato’s senior prep season- he scored 53 points in 31 high school games. His NCAA freshman season production compares more favorably to his stints in the USPHL with South Shore and USHL at Omaha. As a center playing for his father, Donato showed promise and validated his standing as a late second-round draft pick in 2014. He took a backseat to Jimmy Vesey, Alexander Kerfoot and Kyle Criscuolo when it came to scoring, but he flashed his impressive offensive talent throughout his first ECAC season. Last night, he made one memorable play in the first period when he came out of the corner and took the puck to the net, evading one BC defender before cutting back against the grain and nearly tucked a shot inside the left post. He was denied by Thatcher Demko, who made a great athletic play, but that kind of display of stick handling and hockey sense is a reminder of why Donato was such a dominant prep forward at Dexter School. Donato also looked good with Team USA at the World Jr. Championship, scoring a pair of goals in the bronze medal game but also showing a willingness to bear down and play a more limited/checking role for the American squad.

Outlook: Steady as she goes for Donato, who has the hockey bloodlines and passion to be a real good one in time. The Bruins aren’t in any immediate need to have him develop on a rapid timeline, so they can afford to be patient and take their time- expect him to play at least two more seasons in Cambridge, possibly three. However, he’s got to get stronger and keep improving his three-zone game. Watch for the production to jump as he will soon be one of Harvard’s most skilled forwards with the departure of Vesey and other upperclassmen.

Wiley Sherman, D Harvard Crimson (ECAC)

2015-16 regular season stats:

Games Played: 31 Goals: 4 Assists: 6 Points: 10 Penalty Minutes: 10 +/-: 9

Differentials from 2014-15 stats: 

Games played: -6 Goals: +4 Assists: +3 Points: +7 Penalty Minutes: +6 +/-: +9

Season in review: A solid sophomore year ended in disappointment with Sherman injured and out of the last couple of games. He finished second in scoring on the Crimson blue line with 10 points, scoring his first goal after going without hitting twine in 37 games as a freshman. With his mobility and reach, he showed improved play in his defensive end and his confidence is growing. Not having him against BC made a tough slog that much more difficult for Harvard, so it will be interesting to see how he performs in his next couple of seasons and if he can become a dominant shutdown presence in the ECAC.

Outlook: The 2013 fifth-rounder out of the Hotchkiss Bearcats is 6-foot-6 and skates fluidly for a guy so tall. He’s still lanky and has a lot of filling out to do. He’s more of a gentle giant than a tough, intimidating baggage-masher, however. When afforded time and space, Sherman moves the puck quickly and effectively. However, when the game speeds up and closes in on him, he can be forced into turnovers and questionable decisions. Extremely raw when the Bruins drafted him, even then-GM Peter Chiarelli said that Sherman was going to be a project player. He’s coming along well, but it’s far too early to project him with a crowded organization of middle-to-lower tier defense types. It will be another two years before the B’s are forced to make a decision on him, so watch for them to take the maximum time and assess how he performs as an upperclassman when he’s given a larger role as the anchor of the Crimson blue line corps.

The Brandon Tanev watch is on:

Brandon Tanev is officially on the market

Born on on the last day of 1991, the 24-year-old undrafted free agent out just finished his fourth and final NCAA season at Providence College.

The brother of Vancouver Canucks D-man Chris Tanev has blazing wheels and can put defenders on their heels with his pure open ice speed. More of a defensive/energy forward than a high-upside scoring winger (Tanev can play either side), he’s one of the better free agent options this spring,  but should not be expected as an immediate impact guy in the NHL.

He’s smart and tenacious- and make no mistake- if you come out of Nate Leaman’s demanding system, you’re well-coached and know what it takes to succeed as a pro. Here’s his 2014-15 highlights package courtesy of the Providence College Friars (and he did score the NCAA championship-winning goal btw):

The Bruins brought Tanev to their development camp last summer, but that is no guarantee in itself that they can successfully convince him to sign with them. The familiarity no doubt helps, and the B’s have done a good job of keeping tabs on him and making their faith in him known. Whether it is enough to convince him to come to Boston or he opts for a team that can provide him a better opportunity to come in and play sooner/with less potential competition could be the deciding factor. Of course, if he’s looking at Frank Vatrano, PC pal Noel Acciari and even how well Austin Czarnik has done this season in the AHL, Tanev is already well aware of the opportunity that exists in Boston.

There’s also this- a solid source mentioned today that the Chicago Blackhawks like Tanev as well. It’s amazing what a winning organization can accomplish- the ‘Hawks know they can unload draft picks every spring, but when they can attract the better free agent options, losing picks in favor or more developed and mature players on a faster timeline to the NHL is the way a top team stays in the elite. We saw it with Artemi Panarin a year ago, and while Tanev might not presently project as a top-six NHL forward, with his speed and smarts, he’s one of those guys you win with. If Chicago wins the bidding for him, then it’s one more shot across the bow to the rest of the league that at times to be playing checkers while Stan Bowman is playing chess.

Of course, Boston and Chicago are just two teams after Tanev…there are others. You can bet on it.

We shall see where Tanev ends up, but as of now, the B’s are in on him, so we’ll just have to see where it all leads.

Clearing the air on Jake DeBrusk

Editor’s note- I originally intended to include this post on Jake DeBrusk in the 2nd deep dive I did on B’s prospects, but went on several tangents and so as not to create so ponderous a single post on Frank Vatrano, Jakub Zboril, JFK and Malcolm Subban, pulled this entry out to make it a separate post.

I do this for several reasons- one, I want you to stay with it to understand my logic. I can say honestly that this year, the fact that the Bruins passed on Mathew Barzal and Kyle Connor, has been the single most polarizing issue I have had to deal with on Twitter. I realize that there are a lot of folks whose minds are already made up that the B’s blew it and I have to respect that. I hope that those who are in that boat will read this and perhaps at lease acknowledge the other side in this debate. If not, no sweat. For everyone else- this is intended as food for thought. Nothing more, nothing less. Thanks for reading.

Jake DeBrusk, LW

I’m going to say it- I fervently disagree with the criticisms of DeBrusk I see online and in various circles and will leave it at that. This entry will attempt to lay out what I’ve seen from DeBrusk this season and why I have no major problem with the B’s taking him at 14th overall last June.

Context is everything and it isn’t just about pure production when it comes to not only scouting players but making the decision to draft one player over the others. This is the fundamental disconnect that fans who simply read the pre-draft publications and scouting reports have when they approach me on Twitter often times demanding to know why the B’s didn’t draft Kyle Connor or Mathew Barzal.  What the fans don’t see are the interviews, nor are they privy to the discussions that the Boston scouts have with coaches or the discussions that take place behind the scenes that take organizational needs and how well  a player will fit into what the team is doing into account.

Having said that, and in the interest of full disclosure- Barzal and Connor are both having tremendous seasons after the B’s passed on them, so I understand the angst. I took Kyle Connor at 14 for Boston (back when they had just the one 1st-round pick) in a mock draft held by Allan Mitchell aka Lowetide of TSN 1260 in Edmonton, and had Connor not been there, I would have drafted Zboril for Boston, but all of that is beside the point- the Bruins took DeBrusk, so I’m not going to second-guess here. I’ll leave that to others.

In getting back to DeBrusk, a year ago, he scored 42 goals and was one of the big second-half risers in the 2015 draft. Because he was consistently ranked in the 20’s by most public scouting lists and services (at Red Line Report we had DeBrusk at 25th in our 2015 Draft Guide- for the record that was a couple of spots ahead of *both* Zboril AND Connor. Barzal was just inside the top-10 of the RLR final list.) Headed into the draft, the Bruins had finished with one of the worst team offenses in the NHL in 2014-15 and the lack of scoring punch was a major reason for the team missing the playoffs for the first time in Claude Julien’s tenure. However, we’ve learned an important lesson about the NHL and how a team’s strengths and shortcomings ebb and flow from year to year. This season, offense is not the issue but defense is the biggest stumbling block to the B’s securing a playoff spot and then doing anything of substance if they get in.   If the Bruins’ formula for their second of three picks last year was not as much the standard best player available (BPA) and took needs into account as well as fit and how the players came off in the interview process, then DeBrusk makes perfect sense there.

Like Zboril, DeBrusk’s overall numbers are way down from a year ago (he’s at 19 goals and 57 points in 54 games between Swift Current and Red Deer). That admittedly adds fuel to the fire in the debate. DeBrusk missed extended time to a lower body injury (ouch) and wasn’t on his 40-goal pace when he was lost for several weeks. When he returned, he was not even invited to Team Canada’s WJC camp after being there over the summer. Then in late December, he was dealt to the Memorial Cup-host Red Deer Rebels where he started out like gangbusters (hat trick in his third game) only to see his goal scoring production fall off as he got moved around on different lines, away from the red-hot Adam Helewka. But, to point to just the numbers is to miss the larger context which is simple: DeBrusk’s overall game is improved from where it was last year when he was more of a one-dimensional presence.

He’s not a dynamic, explosive skater- which hurts him to a degree because DeBrusk doesn’t wow you the way others do. However, he is one of those players who will suddenly make a key play because he has such a high hockey IQ and has a quick-strike element to his game. I would submit that those who don’t see that in him choose not to see it. The Bruins, however, have recognized it all along. He’s improved his assist-to-60 ratio from what it was a year ago, which is good news even if the goal numbers have plummeted by half. If there is a niggling concern here- we saw a similar drop-off with Jared Knight after the B’s drafted him on the heels of a 36-goal performance only to see him never approach that mark again, even though Knight improved his assist totals and was a better all-around player for London after his draft season. In DeBrusk’s case- the goals drop-off is a valid concern, but it should not be the central driver in the analysis of his overall body of work.

On the other hand, DeBrusk brings the right attitude and effort with him at all times. It’s not difficult to understand why the B’s would have been impressed with him during the interview process. In recognizing the fact that he was trending upwards entering the draft, it’s not just about taking the kid who scores the most or looks the prettiest skating up and down the wing- sometimes the deciding factor is as simple as: do we like this person and can we see him being an ambassador for our organization more so than the other guy who has more bells and whistles? You don’t have to like it, but the game isn’t played by robots and teams are no different than anyone else in life: hard decisions are just that- difficult. Our teams don’t always make the correct ones or at least- the ones we happen to think are right at the time.

Eventually, we’ll know if DeBrusk was a swing and miss or if they were onto something from the get-go. But, as  hard as that seems to be for some to grasp- we don’t know that yet in March, 2016. We just don’t.

Current assessment: DeBrusk is progressing just fine as a more complete winger than he was a year ago. The down scoring is disappointing, but we know one thing for certain: at the end of May, he’ll be playing meaningful games. With the WHL playoffs rapidly approaching, don’t be surprised if DeBrusk takes his goal scoring up a notch and Brent Sutter finds a way to get him involved in the Rebels offense to a bigger degree than we’ve seen. It could be the ol’ rope-a-dope move and I wouldn’t put it past the crafty ol’ Sutter brother to do something like that.

At some point, DeBrusk is going to have to justify what the Bruins saw in him but that time is not now. As good as other players look in comparison, this is a marathon  and not a sprint. Nobody, regardless of how smart or respected they are, is going to settle the debate less than a year after the players were drafted. Jeff Skinner got a lot of buzz in 2010 for scoring 31 goals as a rookie and winning the Calder Trophy in 2011, when Tyler Seguin didn’t, but who would everyone rather have now in 2016?

In a fast food-mentality culture, everyone wants to declare immediate winners and losers. They want to point to an immediate trend and then trumpet that as an undisputed fact now and in the future just so they can say, “See? I told you so!” I get it- this is a product of the Internet and the many keyboard commandos out there who wouldn’t talk to people in person the way they do online. But in DeBrusk’s case, I do think he’s been treated unfairly- much like B’s fans treated Zach Senyshyn in the initial hours after the Bruins drafted him 15th and before he went out and scored 39 goals and counting. Senyshyn is now a prospect darling for a lot of B’s fans these days- but I’d wager a hefty sum that some of the people who are most excited about him now are some of the ones who flooded the internet with “outrage” over what a “reach” he was at 15. It’s the nature of the beast in the modern information age, of course. (wink, wink; nod, nod)

Maybe DeBrusk lives up to what Boston saw in him, maybe he doesn’t. But the jury’s still out. Assuming he plays in Providence full-time next year (and as a late ’96 he’s signed and eligible to do that), we’ll have a better idea of where’s going by this time in 2017.