Frank Vatrano, UMass Minutemen (Kirk Luedeke photo)
Got a tip after the first day of camp- fitness testing (closed to the media) was in the books- that the Boston Bruins were going to be without a player for quite some time due to injury. I had to scrap a bit to get a name, but by the next morning- I was hearing it was Frank Vatrano, and the worst of the fears started to come true after he was a no-show in both on-ice training camp sessions Fridayh at the Warrior Ice Arena.
Now, on Saturday, Don Sweeney and the Bruins have announced that Vatrano tore ligaments in his foot and will have surgery on Monday, Sep. 26 with a three-month recovery window. That’s a major setback for the Springfield Rifle, who was coming into the new season to make the case that he’s the B’s second LW behind Brad Marchand. That’s all on hold now.
The details are a little foggy- one player source tells me that Vatrano injured himself “weeks ago” but that the severity wasn’t determined (and player and team hoped that rest would heal it) until he engaged in the fitness testing and the cat got out of the bag that it was far worse than anyone thought.
It also answers the “how full of (bleep) are the Bruins” question that some fans were directing their way when Peter Mueller was announced as a PTO/invite to camp. Given that they had to know Vatrano might suffer such a setback, bringing in the veteran forward makes a lot more sense now. Of course- if he’s not up to the task, the vacancy up front will be filled by someone else, but at age 28 and as a former top-10 draft pick, why the heck not?
Danton Heinen is my choice to step up and grab a spot coming out of camp…he was already a dark horse favorite, but now- I think a spot is his to lose because he’s so talented and brings that high-end hockey IQ to the table. We’ll see, but I like Heinen as someone who understands the opportunity that just knocked for him- I expect the 2014 fourth-rounder to open the door and walk in.
More on Vatrano later- this is a tough setback for a kid who seemed on the verge of taking a next big step in the NHL after a dazzling pro hockey debut a year ago.He’ll be back, but it will be a path he’s likely got to earn every step of the way. We saw Seth Griffith deal with a similar situation when he was injured in the preseason last year and barely saw a sniff. For the record- I think Vatrano will get more of an opportunity to get back into the Boston lineup than Griffith received, but even when he’s cleared to return, the B’s will likely rehab him down in Providence and take their time. At least, that plan makes sense today on September 24, 2016. If the B’s scoring well runs dry in late December, we might see Frankie Vats faster than anticipated.
Patrice Bergeron is Boston’s “Mr Everything” (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)
The NHL season is around the corner, and for the second consecutive season, the Scouting Post blog is back to provide the season preview and deeper look at the Boston Bruins from a position-by-position perspective. The team will soon break training camp on the 2016-17 NHL season at a brand-spanking new practice facility- the Warrior Ice Arena- in Brighton, and although the World Cup of Hockey is up first, there is no shortage of subplots and storylines swirling around this Bruins club.
Given the optimism surrounding the team at forward, we’ll start with the centers. Now, some might take issue with beginning the series from what is Boston’s greatest area of strength, but I started with the goaltenders last year, so there is a method to the madness.
Unlike last year, I am including an audio component to each post, so that allows me to write less and talk a little more, which will save me from carpal tunnel, but will also go a little easier on your eyes. So, without any more foreplay- here we go.
The Bruins are strong at the center position up and down the roster. They don’t have any flashy, dynamic types, but in Patrice Bergeron, have the best two-way pivot in the game, despite what Selke Trophy voters last year would have you believe. David Krejciis the ole reliable playmaking center, but with offseason hip surgery casting his season in doubt, there are some concerns about his durability, especially as he is entering the new year on the wrong side of 30. The B’s big-money free agency ticket item from the summer, David Backes, will be previewed both as a center and a right wing- but we’ve yet to determine where the B’s will slot him, and that promises to be one of the more intriguing storylines as the team breaks camp. Ryan Spoonercurrently holds down the third center spot, and the fourth line pivot is wide open. Noel Acciari finished the final 19 games of the schedule after recovering from a shattered jaw in his rookie pro season, while fellow Providence College product Tim Schaller was brought in to provide competition in the offseason. The B’s also recently announced the signing of Dominic Mooreto a one-year deal, and former 2006 eighth overall pick Peter Mueller, who is trying to make an NHL comeback after concussions and injuries derailed a promising start.
The B’s also have some interesting potential in the system. Whether you’re talking the tiny but ultra-skilled and feisty Austin Czarnik or the slick, cerebral 200-foot pivot in Boston University sophomore Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, the B’s have a couple of options that might not be as far off on the horizon as one might think. Neither is likely to have a great impact this year (though Czarnik is in the AHL and is a dark horse to make some noise and see some NHL action after his excellent rookie pro season), but both Czarnik and JFK are mature players who are likely to work their way into the mix sooner rather than later. The latter player has already drawn comparisons by people in the Bruins organization (as well as some outside the club) to Bergeron, which is a high bar to set for the Swede.
In addition to Czarnik, Colby Cave is an effective two-way center who had a scoring role as captain of the Swift Current Broncos (where he lined up with B’s 2015 1st-rounder Jake DeBrusk) and showed some flashes of ability as a rookie in 2015-16. Sean Kuraly was a center in college, but is expected to shift to wing in the pros, now that he’s expected to start out in the AHL at Providence.
The B’s stirred up some dust when they drafted U.S National (U18) Team center Trent Frederic with the 29th overall pick. Interestingly enough, management (to include the departed former chief scout Keith Gretzky to Edmonton to be Peter Chiarelli’s newest assistant GM) likened the St. Louis native and University of Wisconsin-bound power forward to none other than his childhood idol Backes, who gave up the captaincy of the Blues to sign with Boston a week after the 2016 draft. In Frederic, the B’s get a big slab of beef at the center position for down the road, and if you believe his various coaches who rave about his intelligence and work ethic, there’s more than meets the eye here- he could be a late-bloomer, though don’t expect all that much in terms of production. The B’s also added huge Finn Joona Koppanen(6-5), but he’s more of a defensive clampdown specialist, so even if he makes the NHL, it’s not going to be as a scorer.
A project who will be worth the wait in terms of ceiling and offensive potential is Harvard sophomore and 2014 2nd-rounder Ryan Donato. Watch for the South Shore (Scituate) product to make some noise- this kid is the real deal, and we think he’s going to break out in Cambridge now that Jimmy Vesey has moved on to Broadway. TSP has been a huge fan of Donato’s ever since watching him first dominate the New England prep circuit in 2012-13 and then raise the bar in his draft season. He’s as intelligent and skilled as they come, and knocks on his skating aren’t fair given that he’s bigger than his dad (he gets his size from his mother’s side of the family and a former NFL linebacker uncle), but the hockey sense and hands are elite. Wisconsin junior Cameron Hughesand rising freshman Jack Becker (6th and 7th picks in 2015) are also in the mix as potential payoffs, but will require time and patience, and even then- neither might not ever make it as viable pros.
Outlook: The Bruins have ability and depth up the middle. Bergeron and Krejci (when fully healthy) give the B’s as good a 1-2 punch as any team in the league, but how Backes will fit into that dynamic as the potential third-line center (or whether he moves up and plays a top-two line RW role) remains to be seen. We also have to see how Krejci fares at camp; now that he’s been ruled out of the WCOH for Team Czech Republic, he has some extra time to heal, but if he’s not ready to go, then it’s a no-brainer: Backes moves up to the second line behind Bergeron. Spooner is the source of quiet debate- he appears to be the odd-man out here, as he’s not an ideal fourth-line center if Backes is 3C, and he is one of Boston’s few real trade chips given his youth, skill level and cap-friendly deal (though he’s up for a new pact in 2017). Dominic Moore is a 36-year-old veteran who could mean that Acciari goes back to Providence for more seasoning, and of course- the B’s added Mueller to a PTO, though that is no sure bet that he will even sign or play center for them. Schaller is a wild card for the fourth line as well, but if he’s going to make the Boston roster, he’ll probably need to do it on the wing somewhere.
All in all- center will be the absolute least of Boston’s worries this season, as the team has talent, experience and a roster to weather injuries and unexpected setbacks.
Now, listen to the pod for more (and working on getting these exported to SoundCloud for those who want to do download and listen later- bear with me- it’s coming):