Kids go down, some vets come up as 2015-16 B’s roster comes into focus

The Boston Bruins announced that forwards Austin Czarnik and Frank Vatrano, along with defensemen Linus Arnesson and Chris Casto, were sent to Providence on Tuesday.

Interestingly, the B’s brought some previously relegated players in fowards Brandon DeFazio and Ben Sexton, along with minor league defenseman Chris Breen.

This puts the current count of forwards on the roster at 20, defensemen at 11 and the B’s are carrying three goaltenders. Dennis Seidenberg is injured and won’t be available for about the first eight weeks of the season, so the D count is really at 10 right now, with Breen and Tommy Cross expected to go back down to Providence if the team opts to go with eight defensemen out of the chute (including the banged up Zdeno Chara).

The moves are not all that surprising- Czarnik, Vatrano and Arnesson all show intriguing promise, but they are all entering their first full pro season after all seeing limited action in the AHL last spring. I know that fans love their shiny new toys, but these guys need to be playing, and they weren’t going to be getting a lot of playing time in the NHL, even if they made the roster. And by the way- to keep a young forward on the big club means that the B’s would in most cases have to place another veteran on waivers. No big loss in Max Talbot you say? Well, he most likely would not be claimed, but the B’s value his experience and leadership more than a lot of the folks watching the games, so let’s just say that paying him nearly a million dollars to play in the AHL is not the best use of team resources, regardless of how he has looked in some limited preseason action.

As for the recalls, they’ll get a chance to play in the final couple of preseason contests and likely go back down.

The guys pushing for spots at forward need a strong push here at the end to make their case: Alex ‘Koko’ Khokhlachev has shown that he’s got some legitimate skills, but we’re still waiting on the production to take shape. Even when Ryan Spooner was trying to make the B’s in his previous two exhibition seasons, he was scoring goals and points in the preseason. Koko has done some good things, but the pucks haven’t been going in for him. At this rate, he’ll be one of the final cuts, but will go down to begin the year in Providence.

Tyler Randell is an interesting case. He’s a late-round pick from 2009 who never really stuck around in preseason much for fans to get a handle on, but has done the grunt work down in Providence as an enforcer. He’s a player with a good set of hands- he once scored 4 goals for the Kitchener Rangers during a 2012 OHL playoff game against the Plymouth Whalers (who featured Washington power forward Tom Wilson). Randell’s not much of a skater, but the guy can fight and he could find a spot for himself with his toughness. He wouldn’t be an every game player, but could slot in when the B’s needed to add some bite to their roster. I keep seeing Randell linked to Shawn Thornton as a comparable player and I won’t go there other than to say that they are two different players and fans have to understand that Thornton came to the B’s as an established NHL veteran who was added as much for his character as he was for the toughness he displayed. Randell’s not there yet, so temper the expectations- he’s still growing and learning as a player.

I’ve been impressed with Anton Blidh– he’s fast, gritty and energetic. He’s always moving his feet and qualifies as a grinding agitator type. It might be a situation where the B’s feel like he’s better served getting more minutes in Providence initially and then bringing him up when the inevitable injury happens up front, or he could very well make the Boston roster to start the season. These last couple of games will be critical for him, but because he can go down and not be subject to the waivers process, the team at least has options with Blidh. He’s on the bubble and close, but I predict he’ll start the year in Providence. Ditto Brian Ferlin, who has played well in preseason, but will find himself the odd man out on the right side with a chance to go back to the AHL and play top-two line minutes and in all situations.

Finally, I’m sold on Joonas Kemppainen to start the year as Boston’s fourth-line center. He’s mature, smart and does the little things for the position. I like his faceoff work and he does a nice job of making the right reads coming out of the zone and moving the puck to the open spaces on the ice. He’s not going to wow you in any one area, but I can see why the Bruins signed him out of Finland at age 27.

The final roster picture is coming into focus, but after the sluggish night against Detroit in the 3-1 loss Monday, that’s a harbinger of more nights to come. Loui Eriksson’s goal was too little, too late and the offense will have to overachieve to score regularly this season by the looks of it.

Would like to be proven wrong, but even in Boston’s victories, the cup of offense has not runneth over.

More cuts on Sunday as 4-0 preseason Bruins roster takes shape

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)

The Boston Bruins and GM Don Sweeney announced today that eight players under NHL contract have been sent down to Providence of the AHL. Defenseman Chris Breen and forward Brandon DeFazio were put on waivers yesterday and designated for assignment- they both cleared today and will participate in the Baby B’s camp. Defenseman Ben Youds, on an AHL deal, was released from Boston camp (PTO) and sent to Providence. You can read the transaction announcement here.

Additionally, the B’s returned their remaining junior players to their respective teams, with Jakub Zboril (Saint John- QMJHL), Jake DeBrusk (Swift Current- WHL) and Brandon Carlo (Tri-City- WHL) all going back to the CHL. The B’s released Zach Senyshyn (Sault Ste. Marie- OHL) and Jeremy Lauzon (Rouyn-Noranda- QMJHL) prior to the weekend’s slate of games.

In the spirit of and with a nod to the always outstanding Mike Reiss and his Patriots blog at ESPN Boston throughout the NFL training camp leading up to the final cuts day before the start of the 2015 NFL season, here’s the remaining players- locks and bubble guys along with a little analysis on what it all means going forward.

Centers

Locks: Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Ryan Spooner, Chris Kelly, Max Talbot (5)

On the bubble: Joonas Kemppainen

AHL-bound: Alex Khokhlachev, Austin Czarnik, Zack Phillips

Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci…Krejci and Bergeron…Boston’s 1-1A center punch is well entrenched, and I won’t fool around with the argument I see some people engage in over who is the B’s 1 and 2…it’s a pretty meaningless debate, because without one or the other, the team’s in deep trouble. Ryan Spooner hasn’t had a great deal of time to establish himself with new linemates, but he’s been an opportunistic scorer with the man advantage and is clearly the No. 3 man in the center pecking order. Even if the B’s might opt not to use Chris Kelly and/or Max Talbot at center, expect the team to retain both as veteran options for the bottom line with the ability to play the wings- they’ve done it before. Joonas Kemppainen has been a solid if unspectacular presence in the exhibition games he’s suited up for, and he’s effective on the draws, plays a mature two-way game, and has the size and strength to start the year as the team’s fourth-line center if that’s the plan. Austin Czarnik has been a revelation in his first pro camp after signing with the B’s last spring, using his speed, smarts and quick hands to make an impact in all three zones, but he’s better off playing on Providence’s first or second line and on both PK and PP units. If injuries take a toll on the B’s depth, don’t be surprised to see him get a chance at some point this season. If not, he’ll make it tough to cut him next year with a full season under his belt. Alex Khokhlachev, for all his talent, just hasn’t been able to find the production in his game. He’s without a doubt more talented than Kelly, Talbot or Kemppainen, but building an NHL roster isn’t just about plugging in the most skilled guys on the bottom line and expecting them to thrive. He’s improved his overall game, but if Koko had found a way to actually…you know…score some goals, then you might have more of an argument than the simple “SKILL!” that I have people hit me with onTwitter quite a bit. The B’s need to figure out how to best use him or trade him, but just because he said he doesn’t want to play in Providence forever does not mean he’s ready for primetime now. He’ll have  a few more chances before the final cuts come in, so if ever there was a time for him to impress the brass with a breakout individual performance, it’s now. Zack Phillips was waived yesterday (and cleared) but is still with the team, where he is rehabbing an injury.  Even if he had played in any of the preseason games, it’s hard to see Phillips being in the mix for a center job given how deep the team is at that position right now.

Right Wings

Locks: David Pastrnak, Loui Eriksson, Brett Connolly

On the bubble: Anton Blidh, Tyler Randell

AHL-bound: Brian Ferlin, Seth Griffith

David Pastrnak is not only a sure thing, he’s the most exciting combination of pure speed/scoring talent *and* character since…well…quite a long time. He’s similar to Bergeron in terms of the kind of impact he could have on this franchise, but he’s a higher-end scoring winger and will eventually put together some impressive numbers. I don’t know if he’s quite ready to bust out with the All-Star production this year, but he’ll give it his all. Loui Eriksson plays the off-wing and will go about his business being the smart, stealthy scoring presence he was a year ago when he finished second on the team in goals. However, if the B’s are going south in the standings, don’t be surprised to see Sweeney try and move Eriksson to a contender- his current contract is up next summer and it’s doubtful he’ll be back. Brett Connolly has not had a great preseason thus far, but the team gave up a pair of second-round picks for him and has high hopes. Unlike impatient fans who expect instant near-perfection, the B’s will give Connolly a chance to see if the 2010 draft hype was real or not. Listed as a left wing but shifting over on the right  side thus far, Swedish pest Anton Blidh has impressed with his speed, energy and grit. He’s the kind of guy who could start the season right away on the bottom line, but as a young player on the first year of his ELC, he can be sent down to Providence without being placed on waivers, whereas other players can’t, so he might need to bide his time in the AHL as a third-liner who can grind it out. Tyler Randell has yet to even come close to making the NHL roster since the B’s drafted him late in 2009, but he’s in the mix because of his sheer toughness and ability to make the odd offensive play. Randell’s feet are an issue and he’ll have to be waived to get sent down, so the B’s might carry him as an extra forward to spot play when facing the more rugged teams (which admittedly are decreasing rapidly in number). Brian Ferlin scored a nice backhand goal off a turnover against Detroit and impressed in a small sample size call up a year ago, but like Blidh, he can go down without waivers, so the B’s would rather have him playing a lot than the limited time he’ll get on the bottom line. He’ll be among the first to be recalled if injuries hit. Seth Griffith’s sprained MCL suffered in a preseason game essentially means he’ll rehab the injury but likely go down to start the year and work his way into shape and consideration to be brought up when that time comes.

Left Wings

Locks: Brad Marchand, Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes, Zac Rinaldo

AHL-bound: Frank Vatrano

Brad Marchand led the team in scoring a year ago and he’s going nowhere- will keep riding shotgun with Bergeron to consistent effect over the past several seasons. Boston’s big-ticket free agent Matt Beleskey hasn’t set the world on fire in his first couple of preseason outings, but he’s done and said the right things. Working with Krejci and Pastrnak means that he’ll have plenty of chances to find the back of the net, but expectations need to be tempered- the B’s need him to stay healthy more than anything else right now. Local boy makes good in the case of Jimmy Hayes, who has used his enormous 6-foot-6 frame to good effect and done pretty well skating with Spooner. He’s going to grunt it out in the trenches, but he looks like an ideal fit in Boston’s top-9, playing over on the left side after being a right wing in Florida. Zac Rinaldo was acquired with a third-round pick, so even the most ardent critics will have to grudgingly admit that he’s here to stay for now at least, and we’ll see how much of a role he’ll have on the team going forward. If the B’s opt to use Kelly on the left wing of the fourth line, then Rinaldo will have to move around. Thus far, he’s drawn more penalties than he’s taken and played his patented physical style.  Frank Vatrano, along with liney Czarnik, has been a revelation, but he’s not ready to take on a full-time NHL role. He’s better off playing a lot of minutes in all situations and building his confidence by unleashing that killer shot down in the AHL for now, but watch for him to get some looks if he’s productive and keeps playing hard in all zones.

Defense

Locks: Zdeno Chara (inj.), Torey Krug, Adam McQuaid, Zach Trotman, Colin Miller, Joe Morrow, Matt Irwin, Kevan Miller *Dennis Seidenberg (inj.)– 8-week timetable for return (mid-to-late November)

On the bubble: Linus Arnesson

AHL-bound: Tommy Cross, Chris Casto

The Bruins are hoping Zdeno Chara is ready to begin the season after taking a hit the other night in action against the NY Rangers and leaving the game in the first period. Torey Krug has stepped up in his absence, scoring the OT-winning goal against Detroit and playing with the confidence and heart of a much bigger man. Adam McQuaid is safely entrenched on the Boston roster, and Zach Trotman is also a solid bet for now as a known entity, even if he does not possess the uptempo game and sexy upside that Colin Miller and Joe Morrow bring. Both offense-minded blueliners have impressed in the preseason and the injury situation means they will both likely make the cut. Matt Irwin and Kevan Miller bring veteran ability and know-how to the mix, and if Claude Julien was serious about carrying eight defenders to begin the year (he said that even before Chara got banged up) then these are your guys. Linus Arnesson has played very well- his ice time against Detroit was notable early for how much of the first 20 minutes was played on special teams and he did well in all situations. However, with more experienced options in play, the expected move is for him to go down to the AHL where he can develop and thrive in a top role. Experienced farmhands Tommy Cross and Chris Casto will help Arnesson form a nucleus of a relatively young but game defense corps in Providence.

Goaltender

Lock: Tuukka Rask

On the bubble: Jeremy Smith, Jonas Gustavsson

And then there were three…with both of Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre being optioned to Providence today, this leaves it between Jonas Gustavsson and Jeremy Smith to be Tuukka Rask’s backup. Gustavsson just returned to the team after dealing with a personal matter, so he hasn’t had much playing time outside of an 18-shot, 18-save half of work in Boston’s first preseason contest against the New Jersey Devils. Smith has been a little up and down, struggling to find his game against the Rangers, but digging in and making some key stops at crunch time to preserve a 4-3 shootout win after letting in some softies to fall behind 3-1. In Gustavsson (who is on a PTO and would still need to be signed if the B’s like what they see), the team gets an NHL-experienced backup who has proven he has the tools to be a capable starter should something happen to Rask (knock on wood, please). On the downside, ‘the Monster’ has had injury issues, so even if the B’s go with him this year, there is a chance he’ll end up on IR at some point, meaning the team has to go deeper into the bullpen. As for Smith, he’s a one-time second-round pick from 2007, so at one point, he was seen as an impressive pro prospect, but he has zero NHL experience, so the B’s are going right back where they were a year ago when they went with the unproven Niklas Svedberg, who could not win Julien’s confidence to spell Rask more than once in a blue moon. It would be one thing if Smith had completely shut everyone down thus far in exhibition play, but he hasn’t done that. He also hasn’t been as bad as some folks have shared with me online, either. At the same time, Gustavsson’s effort was in a very small sample size…but then again- you know he can stop pucks at the NHL level, at least. My guess: Gustavsson stays, Smith goes down to the AHL, and at that point, the B’s will probably need to either option McIntyre to the ECHL or figure out another AHL team for Smith- three goalies in Providence is not the kind of situation Boston wants.

Scouting Dispatches: Twitter mailbag #4

Frank Vatrano, UMass Minutemen (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Frank Vatrano, UMass Minutemen (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Boston Bruins training camp is in full swing after the rookies had their day in Buffalo over the weekend, going 1-0-1 in 2 exhibition games against the Devils and Sabres. Frank Vatrano certainly turned heads with his performance, but now, all eyes are on the B’s veterans who are back and looking to build on last year’s disappointing non-playoff finish.

With that in mind, let’s get to your questions. As always- thanks for sending them along. I try to answer one per person, so if I didn’t get one because you sent multiple entries, try again next time.

If you had to pick one dark horse that’d surprise all and force his way onto roster (now or later in year), who would it be?– Jason Silva @JasonSilva67

Honestly, I’m not sure there are many “dark horses” who are in line for a big opportunity this year unless the bottom falls out of things injury-wise.

We’re getting a closer look at the three first-round picks from 2015 and they all look like they need to go back to junior.

Based purely on the rookie camp, my dark horse is Frank Vatrano– the former UMass standout scored three goals in two games including the OT-winner against the New Jersey rookies when he helped to force a turnover deep in the Devils’ end, then cut right to the net where linemate Austin Czarnik found him with a shot he tipped home. If the B’s suffered an unusual rash of injuries or just wanted a shakeup up front for game or two, Vantrano would be an interesting player up front because of his hands and energy. I cannot say enough how impressive he’s been over the last couple of seasons after playing just one NCAA game in 2013-14.

Realistically speaking, though- we’re probably not going to get a David Pastrnak-like breakthrough this year. Free agent Joonas Kemppainen was signed last spring on the heels of his Finnish league championship run. He’ll turn 28 this year and so I wouldn’t really call him a surprise- the B’s brought him on board I believe with every intention of getting him some time with the big club as a natural center who plays a strong three-zone game. If he makes the roster out of camp, it will be more by design than overachieving on his part.

David Pastrnak, Emil Johansson and Zane McIntyre take a break during 2014 Bruins development camp (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

David Pastrnak, Emil Johansson and Zane McIntyre take a break during 2014 Bruins development camp (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Where do Pasta, Hayes and Connolly play?- Matt Kalin @katomck1981

David Pastrnak is firmly entrenched on David Krejci’s right side for now, and I think the Bruins will try to capitalize on the potential those two have together, not just as fellow Czech Republic natives but because they both bring elite creativity and offensive vision to the mix and Pastrnak’s speed and tenacity is a perfect match for what Krejci brings when on top of his game. Matt Beleskey on that left side filling the spot vacated by Milan Lucic is a good call- he’s not as big as Lucic, but will bring the physicality to help address the loss of time and space ML17 used to bring.

I’ve seen that Jimmy Hayes (normally a RW) is over on the left side flanking Ryan Spooner and Brett Connolly in early B’s camp sessions, and I think that is an intriguing trio for sure. I thought that perhaps the B’s would move Loui Eriksson over to the left side on third line to allow one of Connolly and Hayes to move up to the second line behind Pastrnak (if you slot the Krejci line at the top, that is). However, it looks like Claude Julien and Co. want to keep Eriksson with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, and Eriksson (a left shot) playing on his off-wing.

What’s interesting to me about a Hayes-Spooner-Connolly third line is that this has the potential to be a model example of the new trend towards NHL clubs icing more of a top-9 attack, with three balanced and skilled scoring lines to aggressively attack opposing defenses as opposed to the older top-six/bottom-six design. Connolly was drafted 5 years ago to be a scoring wing, while Hayes is coming off a career-best 19 goals for Florida. Spooner was taken in the same draft as Connolly, and believe me- it wasn’t to be a grinder. If the B’s can figure out how to get enough ice for all three forward units, that third line could give other teams fits, allowing a clamp-down line of Chris Kelly and Max Talbot (and Joonas Kemppainen?) to grind it out and spell the top-9 forwards.

Jared Knight – any NHL upside at all at this point ? Thanks- @pprohaska

If Knight makes the NHL, it will be as a bottom-six, grinding forward in all likelihood.

It’s been a tough road for him over the past three seasons, so the team did him a big favor by getting him out of there and providing a change of scenery. I thought he played with more confidence in the AHL when he went out West, and so I would not rule him out of eventually earning an NHL job. The issue with him is- will he ever justify his draft position as the 32nd overall selection? That might be a bridge too far, as he’s a rugged, hard-working winger but does not appear to have the natural scoring ability to be an NHL-caliber top two line guy.

The deal appeared to be one of those “my bust for your bust” things- where neither Knight nor Zack Phillips, who was quite the hot shot going into the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, sneaking into the late first round, got off on the right foot and things seemed to compound for them. Phillips is more skilled than Knight is, but his lack of pure foot speed works against him. I expect Phillips to be a key cog in Providence’s machine this year, and who knows? If he’s productive enough, he might get a brief look at some point. Realistically, though, like Knight- Phillips is an unenviable position right now as a high draft pick who still needs to prove he can play at the AHL level before we even start talking about the NHL.

I’ve known Knight since the B’s drafted him and he’s a quality person with a great attitude. If anyone can reinvent himself to be that gritty lower-line forward who skates up and down the wing and chips in some modest offense while playing a strong 200-foot game, it is him. I wish him the best.

What do you think about (Joonas) Kemppainen and his potential fit on the team?– davrion @davrion

I think the signing made sense from a pragmatic standpoint- the B’s have an opening for a bottom-line center and the 27-year-old Finn has spent nearly a decade in the pro hockey circuit there, meaning that instead of taking an NHL-inexperienced skill player who is probably ill-suited to play the fourth-line center role as Alexander Khokhlachev is, they’re hedging their bets with an older, more mature player who is more refined and has the intelligence, size and pro hockey experience to come right in and not look too out of place.

I don’t know how effective Kemppainen will be…the B’s have had mixed results when they have brought over older European forwards in the past, but I don’t buy the Carl Soderberg comparisons I’ve seen cropping up on the internet, either. Soderberg was talented, and a lot more was expected of him offensively, but he ultimately played too passive a game and his personality was not a great fit in the room. Kemppainen is quiet and perhaps shy, but I’m told by people who know him that he’ll earn respect because he’s willing to do whatever is asked of him. Plus, having Tuukka Rask around will help him adjust to North America and the B’s dressing room culture.

I like the move- it’s a no-risk attempt to infuse a winner who possesses the size and two-way game (and perhaps some underrated offensive ability) on the checking unit without taking a square peg and forcing it into a round hole. This is not an indictment of Koko, but if people are honest with themselves, they know that expecting him to thrive on the fourth line when he’s a player who is at his best in scoring role (just don’t ask me who he’s going to beat out to provide that in Boston as of today) is a tall order. You don’t call an electrician if your toilet needs fixing…the same principle applies here, so Kemppainen seems like a much better fit at least to start the year. Whether he has the ability to keep the job, however…we’ll find out soon enough.

Could you see Ryan Spooner having a 2008-09 Krejci-esque year (70 points) in his third line role w/ good line mates & PP time?– ETD51 @ETD51

I try not to set expectations on players today based on what others did in the past.

Spooner is to be lauded for seizing the opportunity presented him at the end of last year to establish himself as one of the few bright spots on the 2014-15 Boston Bruins.

Having said that, even though the two players’ (David Krejci and Spooner) numbers are similar at the same age and experience level, unless something happens to move Spooner up to the top two lines for a big chunk of the 2015-16 season, that 70 points is going to happen for him on the third line.

He’s a talented player and if he gets 50 points on that third unit, it will be a big win. Scoring is so down around the league- Jamie Benn won the NHL’s points title last year with 87- so thinking that a third-line player on any team, let alone one that struggled mightily to generate consistent offense a year ago is going to hit 70 points in this current environment (unless there is a major swing of the pendulum that is) isn’t very realistic.

Malcolm Subban (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Malcolm Subban (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Do you see Subban being traded or will he be the backup goalie all year?- Chris @FribbleLover

How about…neither?

I think the B’s would certainly entertain any offers they get for Malcolm Subban, but they aren’t just going to deal him for the sake of doing so.

I’m also not sure Subban wins the backup job in Boston this year after as yet not having established himself as an AHL starter.  I’m not a believer in young (and he’s not even 22 yet) goalies sitting and watching games as a backup during a critical development period in their careers, and I just don’t think the Bruins are going to put Subban in that situation when he could be starting and honing his technique/building confidence at the lower levels.

As for trading Subban, I’ve said this before- the value they would receive for him right now is not likely to justify the effort. Hold onto him and see how he performs in this important third season since he turned pro. If a team comes along and wants to give the B’s a good return for him, they’d be silly not to consider it, but while I’m sure more than a few teams would be happy to take him off of Boston’s hands for a song, that’s what I believe they want to give up. That doesn’t help Boston. Remember- the B’s once hoodwinked Toronto in getting Tuukka Rask even-Steven for Andrew Raycroft. How did that work out for the team that gave up an at-the-time unproven goalie talent for an established commodity?

Patience, young Grasshopper. Resist the urge to play fantasy hockey GM questing for shiny new toy returns and leave Subban where he is for now. The B’s used a top-30 pick on him for a reason.

I would like to know the upside/possibilities of Brandon Carlo?- Anthony Amico @anthonyamico

Carlo looks like the prototypical modern NHL defender: big at 6-foot-5, mobile, physical with a long reach and an ability to make a strong first pass.

I’m not sure that I buy into the over-the-moon excitement I’ve seen about him in some circles on the Internet, however.

Don’t misread that remark into believing I’m not high on the kid, but some fans have let the hype machine get out of control already, with some penciling him into the NHL lineup and I think we have to slow the roll on him. Given the other veteran and other pro defenders vying for spots, it would take a jaw-dropping camp and exhibition performance from the 18-year-old Colorado native to leapfrog some of the guys ahead of him on the depth chart. I fully expect he’ll be back in the WHL this year, but as a late ’96 birthdate, he’ll be eligible to play in Providence for the 2016-17 hockey season, at least.

As for Carlo’s upside, he has a big shot from the point, but I wonder about the vision and offensive creativity that is needed to emerge as a true-blue, top two-way threat at the NHL level. Instead, I see Carlo as more of a solid middle pair defenseman who can shut down opposition offenses because he moves well and uses his stick and physical strength to keep forwards to the outside. He’s also on the snarly side and will be his team’s captain this year at Tri-City, so there is a lot to like about the kid.

Just temper the expectations and don’t be in such a rush to see him in Boston- all in due time.

Brandon Carlo- "shiny new toy?" (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Brandon Carlo- “shiny new toy?” (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Brett Connolly’s moment of truth

Leading up to last February’s NHL trade deadline, there was a lot of talk about the Boston Bruins acquiring veteran forwards for that late season push to make the postseason after struggling to put together sustained stretches of high-level play and wins.

That’s why it  came as a mild surprise when Peter Chiarelli pulled the trigger on a deal for then-22-year-old Brett Connolly, the sixth overall selection in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning. The move raised eyebrows because ‘Bolts GM Steve Yzerman was moving on from his first-ever draft choice with that organization, a player who had been selected just four spots after Chiarelli tabbed Tyler Seguin. Unlike Seguin, Connolly was dealt for different reasons, and ironically enough- the player whom Boston hoped would help them earn enough points to get into the dance was felled in his very first practice with the team, missing all but five of the final 18 games, as the B’s came up short on the last night of the regular season.

Connolly arrived to pro hockey with great expectations, and at least thus far, has been a disappointment given where he was drafted. After signing a one year, $1.075 million “show me” extension with the B’s, he is in position to establish himself as a legitimate top-six NHL right wing this season on a team that was starved for goals at the 22nd overall position for offense after finishing third overall in 2013-14.

In this post, we’ll take a look at Connolly then and now- and try to project what he’ll bring to Boston at age 23.

Then (the 2010 NHL draft and beyond): A little over five years ago, questions swirled around Connolly’s long-term viability because of a serious hip injury he sustained early in the 2009-10 season, which limited him to just 16 games (10 goals) for the Prince George Cougars of the WHL. A season after posting 30 goals as a rookie, Connolly was seen as the consensus top WHL player available in the 2010 NHL draft class, and though Portland Winterhawks forward Nino Niederreiter would move up to edge him by just one draft position (NY Islanders) in Los Angeles, most conceded that given a full and healthy season, Connolly had impressive potential.

Take a look at this NHL draft profile, which features the late great Central Scouting director, E.J. McGuire, former Maine Mariners coach, who lost his battle with cancer in 2011. RIP E.J.- a true class act who did so much for the CSS when he was in charge.

Here are excerpts from the profile I did on Connolly for my 2010 Bruins Draft Watch blog, which some of you may or may not remember.

One of the most skilled and dangerous forwards in the draft had an injury-marred campaign and faces questions about his lower body’s long-term health..Excellent skater with a flash initial burst and ability to separate when observed last season before his hip problems flared up during the Ivan Hlinka tourney in August ’09. A dynamic presence when fully healthy and on top of his game: darts into open spaces with the puck and can wire it into the back of the net in the blink of an eye. Has that offensive zone killer instinct you want in your forwards; takes the puck to the net and shows off some real grit when it comes time to pay the price down low and in front of the net.

His health was the biggest obstacle facing Connolly, as he returned to action for the Under 18 championship tournament in April, but did not look all that effective after such a long layoff. Here are the downsides to him as I saw them back in June of 2010:

Faces some major scrutiny in light of serious hip flexor injuries this season that shelved him for all of 16 games. Looked strong in a late-season stint in the WHL, but raised real concerns with his tentative, ineffective performance for Team Canada at the World Under-18 tourney in Belarus in April. Lacked explosiveness and jump in his stride. Word out of the NHL combine is that the hips aren’t chronic problems, but with the failure of New Jersey 2001 first-round pick Adrian Foster still fresh in a lot of minds, many teams can’t afford to gamble. Not an overly physical player despite a long frame that will bulk up in the next few years. Needs to add a lot of mass/fill out his lanky build.

My draft day and after projection for Connolly was this (after mocking him to Dallas with the 11th pick):

He’s got all the tools you look for in a high-end scoring wing, and it’s a shame that he had such problems with injuries this season, because it robbed him of the chance to generate a potentially intriguing draft subplot to challenge Hall and Seguin near the top. Now, he’s caught in that limbo/Twilight Zone between those publications that are steadfast in their belief that he’ll go off the board around No. 5 overall, and those who are a little more conservative and who think NHL teams will take some safer options rather than risk taking a player who could be damaged goods and never again look like the 16-year-old who scored 30 goals in the WHL. Bostonians know all too well how devastating bad hips are to a hockey player; it was a degenerative hip condition that forced Cam Neely to tearfully hobble away from the game he loved at just 31 years of age in what was a memorably heart-wrenching press conference. Teams who don’t take the potential disaster of a player who faces a lifetime of being day-to-day the way Neely was over the last five years of his career seriously may jump on Connolly well inside the top-10, but they do so knowing that if he can’t go, it could cost the jobs of those management and personnel types who made that call.

Okay, so the hip hasn’t proven to be all that big a factor, though he’s had other health issues (more on that later).  Tampa grabbed him early and he appeared to justify that faith in 2010-11, as he put his hip woes behind him to the tune of 46 goals in 59 WHL games. That was good enough for the team to sign him and give him a shot in the NHL for the 2011-12 campaign, but he had a bit part, scoring just 4 goals and 15 points in 68 games. With the lockout occurring the following year, he began the season with Tampa’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse and stayed there, scoring 31 goals and leading the Crunch to the AHL championship series. Unable to lock down an NHL job the following year, Connolly had another solid if unspectacular AHL outing in 2013-14 (21 goals, 57 points in 66 games).

Now: A year ago, Connolly made the big club, but found himself skating on the bottom-six, where he was able to score a respectable 12 goals in 50 games at the time of his trade to Boston.

Much was hoped for when he arrived, but a freak injury suffered when a Dennis Seidenberg shot in practice caused a displaced fracture in his right index finger, forcing him out of action for the next five weeks. He got into Boston’s last five games (2 assists) but could not have been 100 percent- especially for a shooter who needs his hands to be at his most effective.

For a club that gave up a pair of second-round selections in 2015 (Tampa took Peterborough Petes d-man Matt Spencer) and 2016, losing Connolly when they needed him most was one more added insult to injury (pun intended), but he has never played more than 71 games in any of his pro seasons whether spent in the AHL or NHL. There always seems to be some kind of physical issue preventing him from playing a full 82-game schedule.

“Obviously, it’s tough for him coming off his hand (injury) right when he got here, but he’s got a natural ability to skate,” B’s defenseman Zach Trotman said this week when asked about the player he competed against in the AHL and was teammates in Boston with to close out last season. “He’s a really good skater and he’s got a good shot even with his hand being…I don’t know what percentage it was at the end of the season but I’m sure it wasn’t full. He seemed pretty hungry and anxious to get the puck to the net and go in after it. I’m not going to project on what line he’d be or anything, but as far as skill goes, he’s got that hunger and he’s got that ability to skate and get the puck on net and just having those tools alone is going to be very advantageous for our team and I’m excited to see him play more this year fully healed and see what all he can do. I thought at the end of the year he was impressive and his speed and skill will help make the pace of our team faster.”

Trotman may not predict what line Connolly will be on, but I’ll take a stab. He’ll work in early on the bottom-six with special teams time on the power play, but I think the Bruins are hoping he and Jimmy Hayes will give them enough confidence to perhaps have the confidence to trade Loui Eriksson to open up some breathing room on that right side. This is not a slight to the veteran Eriksson, but with his impending unrestricted free agency, the team cannot afford to be sentimental. If neither Connolly nor Hayes are up to the task to take on more of a scoring role for the B’s, then Claude Julien may stick with Eriksson, as he is a more proven player at this stage of his career. However, with just $3.5 million invested in the two younger wingers, that salary flexibility is how a team like Boston can get further out of the cap hell that dogged them the last two years, forcing the parting of ways with key contributors and fan favorites like Johnny Boychuk, Jarome Iginla, Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton.

Nobody said building a Stanley Cup-caliber team would be easy, but it goes without saying that if Connolly can develop into a 25-30 or more goal scorer this year for the B’s, Don Sweeney would have more options open to him to make the club better in the present and longer term. Of course- that kind of success comes at a price and if Connolly comes through with a season like that, he’ll be looking at a hefty raise in 2016.

All in due time, I suppose- and first things first. There’s a hockey season to play…in the meantime, Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita & Billy Zabka know what we’re talking about in the style of Survivor.

Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview : Wingers

This is the last installment of the position-by-position look at the Boston Bruins as we enter the new NHL season- training camps are less than a month away. Thanks for reading and passing the links to the other pieces on the goalies, defensemen and centers. There is more to come on the blog as the season goes on, but here’s a breakdown of the team’s situation on the left and right wings.

Brad Marchand raised his arms 24 times last season, a team best (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Brad Marchand raised his arms 24 times last season, a team best (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

In retrospect: Scoring was down across the board, as Milan Lucic and Reilly Smith combined for just 31 goals between them after posting 44 the season before. Both players have new zip codes for the new year, as the Bruins and GM Don Sweeney have attempted to generate some flexibility with the salary cap in sending them to Los Angeles and Florida respectively.

Brad Marchand and Loui Eriksson are the only Boston wingers who surpassed the 20-goal mark last season, as Marchand led the club with 24. Eriksson, who has been much-maligned after being the central return piece in the Tyler Seguin trade on July 4, 2013, bounced back with a solid 22-goal year after dealing with two concussions and just 10 goals in his first full Boston campaign.

Rookie David Pastrnak was a bright spot, electrifying the fan base in his second NHL call-up in January when he posted back-to-back 2-goal games and earned a job with the big club the rest of the way, finishing with 10 goals and 27 points, while leading the team in scoring over the final quarter season stretch. Fellow Providence kiddo Seth Griffith showed some flashes of offense when called up earlier in the year, but a lack of speed and experience saw him returned to the farm for more seasoning.

Former top-10 selection Brett Connolly was brought in at the deadline and suffered a freak finger injury in his very first Bruins practice, causing him to miss all but the final five games. One can only wonder if his presence might have helped the team eke out a win somewhere along the line before he got back into the lineup at admittedly less than 100 percent.

The Simon Gagne veteran redemption experiment did not work, and Daniel Paille 6 goals in 71 games was his worst output since coming to the B’s early in the 2009-10 season. Gagne retired and Paille is still looking for a new team after not being re-signed.

The view from here: Marchand is the team’s most consistent finisher, having tallied at least 20 goals in each of his five full NHL seasons with the exception of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 year, but even then he scored 18 in just 45 games. The small but fleet-of-foot agitator can be his own worst enemy, and he will go long stretches without scoring, only to get hot and carry the team for extended periods. Streaky play aside, Marchand has the bona fides as an important contributor who will continue to get the ice time and could hit 30 goals this year.

Pastrnak is the player the Bruins have been waiting for. The 25th overall pick in 2014 dazzled in development camp immediately after the draft in Philly, the first indication that Boston had a steal. You can never really account for why players like him drop, but the B’s were major beneficiaries, as they had him projected in the mid-teens but after being unable to move up to get him (sensing a trend here? Trading up is much more easier said than done- takes two to tango) they stood pat and got him at their regular spot anyway. He’s not only highly skilled, but extremely hard working and energetic. Cynical Boston fans will grumble about waiting for the inevitable trade that is coming to unload the young star as was the case with Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, but Pastrnak is not going anywhere. In him, Boston has their next Patrice Bergeron in terms of a player who not only has the talent to be a front line guy, but who embodies the team-first, competitive values the organization treasures.

Boston signed free agent Matt Beleskey away from Anaheim in the off-season, getting him at five years and an AAV of $3.8M- not a cheap contract, but less than what prognosticators thought he might receive on the open market heading into July. At 27, he’s in his prime and coming off of a career-best 22 goals for the Ducks in 65 games, but does not have an established body of work as a scorer at the NHL level and has dealt with injuries consistently in his pro career. He’s done and said all the right things since signing with Boston and the Bruins are banking on him getting another 20+ markers while bringing an energy and physicality despite not being an overly big, classic power forward.

Another new addition who does fit the mold of the modern big wing with scoring potential is Dorchester’s Jimmy Hayes, who comes home to play for the team he dreamed of skating for as a kid. Although not your snarly, intimidating presence, the former Boston College star tallied 19 goals the old fashioned way- in front of the net where he parks his 6-5 body and uses his quick hands and offensive instincts to finish off scoring chances. The 25-year-old signed a three-year extension with the B’s after being acquired for Reilly Smith with an AAV of $2.3 million, a bargain if he maintains his production or better yet, ups his numbers into the 20’s. He has talent enough to do it, though he doesn’t have the skill and upside of his younger brother and Rangers forward Kevin.

Eriksson once scored 30 goals in a season, but that’s not who he is. The Bruins got a glimpse more in line with the real forward this past season, and if he brings more of the same, the team will take it. His lack of open-ice speed is the biggest drawback to the veteran Swede, who is a quiet professional and uses his smarts to slip through seams and generate stealthy scoring chances that won’t bring you out of your seat, but count just as much as a highlight reel goal if it goes in. His 18:24 average time on ice led all Boston forwards and speaks to his ability to compete on both special teams and at even strength. Because he’s always going to be compared to Seguin, Eriksson is an easy target for frustrated fans, but he did his job last season and will be counted on again. Given his impending status as a UFA, however, if the team looks out of it as the trade deadline looms, he’s a prime candidate to be moved.

Connolly is an intriguing x-factor as a right wing who just couldn’t find his niche in Tampa Bay after GM Steve Yzerman made him his first ever draft pick, sixth overall, in 2010. At the time, Connolly had been dealing with a major hip injury and was seen as an injury risk that early in the draft despite being a gifted scorer coming out of Prince George of the WHL. Ironically enough, Connolly’s hip has held up since then, but the expected offense has not materialized to the degree indicative of his high pre-draft standing and subsequent projections. He scored 12 goals in 50 games for Tampa Bay in a bottom-six line role, so the potential is there, and the B’s feel that giving up a pair of 2nd round picks- in 2015 and 2016- is worth the risk.

Veterans Chris Kelly and Max Talbot are back to vie for playing time on the lower lines and Claude Julien will value their experience and leadership. Both are in the final years of their contracts and may not be back in Boston for the 2016-17 season, so the team will see what they can get from them this year and take it from there.

If he is unable to win a job at center, the Bruins would be well-served to see if they can get Alexander Khokhlachev out on the wing and try him in a top-9 role. Spots are getting more and more crowded, but the team does not have many more forwards with the pure talent and scoring potential Koko does. A lot of fans fell in love with him without realizing how much work the rest of his game needed, so the appetite to have him in the lineup has been pretty constant since 2011. Now, though, is really time to see what they have in him. The B’s struggled to score last year and that’s what this kid does best. Unlike Spooner, he doesn’t have the speed to be an ideal center, so why not see if he can make the adjustment to wing? It’s worth a shot.

Youngsters Brian Ferlin and Seth Griffith will also hope to get more playing time in Boston during the new campaign. Griffith shined at times, including scoring several memorable goals, and has always been a dangerous offensive player going back to his OHL days with London, even if he does not have ideal size or game-breaking wheels. Ferlin is a big-bodied forward who did not look out of place in a seven-game NHL audition (1 assist), but may have to start the year in Providence if there are no injuries to open up spots up front to begin the year.

In what really amounts to Sweeney’s most curious and criticized move, he dealt a 2017 third-round pick for Zac Rinaldo, one of the most polarizing players for the way he plays on the edge and has received suspensions for illegal hits and putting opponents at risk for injury. Rinaldo is undersized, but plays a kamikaze style that opens him up to injury and also leaves the penalty box door ajar as well given his 102 penalty minutes a year ago. On the positive side, he’ll hit anything and plays with an energy most players can’t hope to match, but a perceived lack of respect for his fellow NHLers, not to mention just 1 goal in 58 games has a lot of Boston fans not seeing the sense in trading a top-90 pick for a player like Rinaldo. We’ll have to see whether he can reign in his emotions and be more than he’s been in his NHL career to date with the Flyers or if this will go down as a step backwards for Sweeney in his early tenure.

David Pastrnak is the player the Boston Bruins have been waiting for. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

David Pastrnak is the player the Boston Bruins have been waiting for. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

On the farm: The B’s signed 2013 late-rounder Anton Blidh, and he’ll turn some heads in Providence with his gritty, in-your-face style. Although I try to avoid comparisons, he plays a style reminiscent of old Boston farm hand (and part-time Bruin until his trade to St. Louis) Vladimir Sobotka. What Blidh lacks in skill, he makes up for in “want to” so watch for him to become a fan favorite with the skill set to come up and provide help in a pinch.

Big winger Colton Hargrove will provide some toughness with Tyler Randell after turning pro out of Western Michigan. The Texan showed offensive improvement every year with the Broncos, and he was a nasty fighter in the USHL with Fargo before the NCAA. He’ll likely embrace a policeman’s role similar to Randell, but don’t expect much in the way of production as he adjusts to the pace and demands of the pro game and schedule.

Anthony Camara has been a disappointment in two pro seasons after being a third-round pick in 2011. As much a victim of internet hype without context, he’s a gritty player who likes to hit, but who does not have the requisite hockey sense to be a front line player and needs more talented linemates to produce. This is probably his last chance to get it going in the Boston system.

Brandon DeFazio and Frank Vatrano provide the ability to score goals on the wings for Providence as neither figure to be favorites to earn spots in Boston out of camp. Vatrano, who hails from East Longmeadow, Mass., has a wicked shot and made a lot of strides in improving his conditioning. He’s someone to keep an eye out as a player who played just one full season at UMass before deciding to make a run with the hometown team.

Free agent Colby Cave could see time at center in Providence, but a move to the wing might suit the gritty, smart and underrated scorer nicely. He can push the pace with his skating and he brings a tenacious style that coaches love. Watch for him to earn Bruce Cassidy’s trust early and often, even if he doesn’t project as a high-end player in the NHL.

The future: Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn were the team’s top two draft selections, but left wing Danton Heinen is the player to watch in the nearer term. The 2014 fourth-rounder out of the Surrey Eagles of the BCHL made an immediate impact at Denver University, finishing with the third-best freshman point totals in the nation. He’s a smart, creative playmaking wing, who showed a consistent ability to make plays around the net even without elite skating ability. He’s shifty and quick, but his mature game and a knack for setting up plays and making it look easy could see him turn pro as soon as this spring if he takes another step forward in his development with the Pioneers.

DeBrusk scored 42 goals with Swift Current and will likely need time to physically mature back in the Dub, but he brings a sniper’s mindset and an eagerness to be a Bruin that makes it none too surprising that the club jumped on him early in the draft at 14th. Like DeBrusk, Senyshyn has a natural ability to find the back of the net- he’s under pressure to justify his high draft standing but has the demeanor to see it through. Time will tell if the Bruins have it right with this duo, but there is no rush to figure it out this season.

Jesse Gabrielle, the club’s fourth-round selection in 2015, grew up in Western Canada cheering for the Bruins and Marchand. Now with Prince George of the WHL, he’s got some Marchand in him. He’ll have to prove that he can maintain his production and consistency while remaining dedicated to working towards an eventual job in Boston.

Rising Notre Dame sophomore Anders Bjork looked good in this month’s Team USA WJC national evaluation camp in Lake Placid. Watch for the 2014 fifth-round pick to make that squad as a versatile, effective two-way forward who brings speed and penalty killing chops to any team he’s on.

Slovak winger Peter Cehlarik will give one more year in the Swedish Hockey League a try before he’s expected to come over and compete for an NHL roster spot. The tall, lanky third rounder two years ago has a good release and offensive ability, but is not all that heavy a player nor does he play with much attention to detail for a 200-foot game. He’s skilled, but leaves you wanting more at times when it comes to his energy and hustle.

The verdict: It’s a middle tier collection of wingers, with not a single player coming off a year of 25 or more goals.

There is some promise with this group, and the Bruins will need it as major steps back by key contributors means that there isn’t much depth to pick it up behind them.

The Beleskey and Hayes additions were solid roster moves, but losing Lucic is going to hurt more than Bruins fans realize until they start watching the games. It’s kind of like that old Cinderella song- “Don’t Know What Ya Got Til It’s Gone”- and fans will have to decide on their own if the contract/UFA debate was worth losing him. Given the return, it probably was, but it’s going to take some getting used to when he’s skating around in a Kings sweater this season, likely playing some of his best hockey in years. It’s only human nature, after all.

Pastrnak is the key- the Bruins need to put him in situations where he can thrive while preserving his health. Don’t expect All-Star caliber numbers, but 20+ goals and north of 50 points as a sophomore would be a win and show that he is well on his way.

Still, there are more lingering questions about this group than answers- the only way to settle the debate is by playing the games.

It’s almost time.