The undrafted free agents: Noel Acciari

The Boston Bruins undrafted free agents series rolls on with a closer look at Rhode Islander Noel Acciari. He’s a personal fave but I can’t really claim it because I had a chance to sing his praises publicly but didn’t. More on that later, but read on…

No(el) sure thing: Acciari

Noel Acciari was no sure thing.

And after the Boston Bruins signed him in June of 2015, some would say that he still isn’t, even with a promising NHL debut under his belt.

The former captain at Bishop Hendricken, Kent School and Providence College would probably be the first to tell you that even though he played 19 NHL games with the B’s in March and early April to close out a highly disappointing 2015-16 campaign, he has not yet arrived in the big show. However, when you consider the many obstacles that Acciari climbed from his minor hockey days as a Johnston, R.I. native who played with fellow NHLer Kevin Hayes on the South Shore Kings, reaching the highest level in his rookie pro season was a pretty special accomplishment.

The early returns are encouraging, and it shouldn’t be all that surprising if you go back and look at Acciari’s track record. Although he hasn’t ever truly projected as a major league scoring presence, the key cog in the Providence College Friars’ 2015 national championship machine has always brought tenacity, smarts and an ability to elevate his play in key situations.

He showed some of that panache in Boston, when he immediately found a way to make an impact by establishing effective pressure on the puck carrier and finishing his checks at every opportunity. Acciari reads and reacts to the play well and excels when play is in the defensive and neutral zones because of his quickness and anticipation.

“I think Noel is doing a great job in our D-zone as far as really being reliable, closing quickly,” Bruins head coach Claude Julien told the Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa back in March. “On the offensive side, those other two guys (Landon Ferraro and Brett Connolly) are skating and creating some opportunities there, so I think we’ve got a good combination so far.”

Acciari won’t just walk in and grab the fourth-line center job in Boston, but there aren’t many players better positioned to go out and earn it coming out of training camp and exhibition play than the 24-year-old is. After all, he’s no stranger to hard work and has seen his share of setbacks, so at this stage, having already achieved his dream of playing in the NHL has provided him with the proper grounding to go out and carve a niche for himself.

Growing up in the Ocean State, Acciari bounced between top hockey programs in Massachusetts (SSK) and Connecticut (Kent) to round out his development as a Rhode Island product. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for him, though. Never possessing an abundance of size or standout skill, Acciari often had to bring an off-the-charts work ethic and desire to the ice, along with a physical style. Coaches and scouts have always noted that he is the classic forward who plays “bigger than his size” and much of that comes from his natural head and heart.

Veteran Providence Journal assistant sports editor/hockey scribe Mark Divver probably has the best handle on Acciari of anyone in print (he’s watched him for years), and last March, he wrote the following:

If Acciari hadn’t missed a month after fracturing his jaw when he was hit by a slap shot on Dec. 4 — he expects to shed the protective guard on his helmet after the weekend — he might have been recalled sooner. His play in Providence has improved steadily from the start of the season.

Known for his hitting, Acciari said postgame that lining up NHLers is harder than hitting AHL or college players.

 “Every guy out here is very shifty. I can’t just throw my body — then I’ll be out of position. It has to be timed pretty perfectly. I’ll definitely throw my body around when I can. Hopefully, I’ll get some turnovers with that,’’ he said.

“For me, it’s just when I get my chance, be hard to play against. Throw my body around. Get to the net when I can,’’ he said.

Academics also posed a challenge for Acciari as he progressed up through the ranks. Several schools he was interested in were out of reach, and even when he arrived to the Friars, he had to sit out his first year for classroom-related reasons.

Matt Metcalf, writing in the Johnston Sunrise, told of Acciari returning to Bishop Hendricken to talk to student athletes about his hockey journey, and the story took an interesting turn when chronicling his final two years of high school, as he prepared to transition from prep hockey to the NCAA:

Providence, too, was a bit hesitant to take him in because of grades, but Acciari worked hard in his final stages at Kent to prove to the Friars that he could handle the academic load in addition to playing hockey.

Ultimately, Providence and its coaching staff believed in him and Acciari enrolled at PC for his freshman year.

But that freshman season couldn’t have gone any worse. Acciari found himself academically ineligible. Not only could he not play the whole season, but he couldn’t practice or work out with the team either.

“It was the worst feeling in the world,” Acciari said of that freshman year. “There’s nothing worse than seeing your friends playing while you’re just sitting around waiting.”

But Acciari took that time to work harder than he’s ever worked – not only in the classroom, but on his own in the weight room.

And by the time the following winter rolled around, he became an integral part of the team, playing in 33 games and posting 11 points.

However, none of that would’ve happened without working hard in the classroom. Acciari wanted the kids to know that it doesn’t matter how good of an athlete you are because, if you don’t perform well in the classroom, you won’t even get a chance to perform on the field or on the ice.

“I’m glad I could come back to talk to these guys,” Acciari said. “Just to know that I was in their shoes just five or six years ago, I wanted to get the message across that it’s not just all athletics, it’s academics. I wouldn’t be able to be where I am today with just hockey, I needed academics too. I wanted to get that across – that academics is a big part in getting to where you need to be in life.”

Some things in life come more readily to some than others, and in Acciari’s case, he found success in the classroom at PC, earning enough credits to graduate with a marketing degree in the spring of 2015. Even though he had a year of college hockey eligibility left by virtue of redshirting that freshman year of 2011-12, winning a national title and even more- pulling down a bachelor’s in the process- made the decision to sign with the Bruins that much easier.

Once again- credit Boston scouts like Ryan Nadeau, Scott Fitzgerald and ultimately- GM Don Sweeney, who made the final decision on offering a two-year deal to the PC captain- for finding another undrafted gem in Acciari.

He’s not going to put up a great deal of offense at the NHL level, but he’s a proven winner. With the wheels, physicality, faceoff prowess and character/poise to get you big time points when the game is on the line, Acciari is a strong bet to establish himself as Boston’s fourth-line pivot this season and beyond.

Here’s one last personal perspective to share on No. 55 for the Bruins:

Back in March of 2011, while watching the NEPSIHA Elite 8 prep tourney, Acciari far outshined other bigger “sexier” names on the Lions roster, such as manchild D Mike McKee (not drafted) and 2012 NY Rangers second-rounder Boo Nieves.

I kept looking at Acciari in those playoff games (his team lost a 2-1 heartbreaker to Rob O’Gara’s Milton Mustangs in the championship contest) and asking myself what was I missing? He was not overly big, but so physical- and it was an effective physicality. He demonstrated superior closing speed and instincts- he would often read and react so quickly that the puck carrier was on his butt and sans biscuit before he could even process what had hit him (Acciari). He wasn’t getting whistled for his play, either. Even then, he played the game hard, but clean. When it came time to key goals, he had a knack for scoring them or making the important plays to set them up.

I lacked the courage of my convictions to stand up for Acciari and take the time to write about him on my Bruins 2011 Draft Watch blog (to my eternal shame). The fact is- after watching Acciari in prep and since, there was nothing I was missing- he’s a player. The Bruins stand to benefit from his contributions provided he’s used in the right bottom-six role and more is not expected of him than he is suited for.

Acciari reinforces the importance of recognizing that there is always something new you can learn in the business of evaluating hockey talent. Sometimes, the gut feeling is the right one. Four years after watching him rock the competition as a prep but not having the guts the float his name out there as having legitimate pro potential, even as a lower-end checking player, it just goes to show that you don’t have to be a highly-touted teen who lands early in the first round to be an NHL player.

Not every prospect projects to be a top-end guy, but to build winning teams, you need players like him. He’s got a nice NCAA championship ring in the collection- perhaps some more hardware and jewelry could be in Acciari’s future.

 

Noel Acciari 2012-14 Providence College away frontNoel Acciari 2012-14 Providence College away back

Boston Bruins post-development camp prospect check- the Pros

Heinen

The purpose of this two-post series is to make a quick snapshot of where one analyst sees the Boston Bruins’ professional prospect depth chart stacking up after the 2016 NHL Entry Draft and this past week’s development camp. We’ll start with he professional players who are expected to be in Providence or in the North American and European pro ranks this season. On Monday, we’ll hit the amateur (NCAA and junior players).

Caveat up front- I did not personally attend development cam this year, so am basing my assessment on feedback from members of the Bruins organization, media and fans who were there in person to see the players. I have seen every prospect on the list, either on film or live, so the bulk of this assessment comes not from four days of on-ice drills and a 3-on-3 scrimmage, but from a season and in several cases, multiple years worth of evaluation. Note- I am only covering players aged 25 or under, so that takes Tommy Cross out of the mix on this list for those who might be wondering. Noel Acciari  and Chris Casto just make the cut as December 1991-born players.

Here we go, and I’ve done an audio file to supplement the limited write-ups below, so for all you Bruins hockey junkies, there’s more content in this post than ever…tell your friends!

The Pros (AHL, ECHL or Europe)

  1. Frank Vatrano, LW (East Longmeadow, Mass.) Plus: Put up mind-boggling numbers with 36 goals (55 points) in as many AHL games, while adding another eight goals in 39 NHL games with the big Bruins. The undrafted free agent turned himself into a sleek scoring machine as a rookie pro and is primed for a bigger Boston role this year. Minus: Without ideal NHL height, Frank the Tank will have to maintain a high-energy pace and work in all three zones to maximize his potential.
  2. Danton Heinen, RW Plus: After two high-end scoring years as a collegian, he put up a pair of assists in his second AHL game last spring; with his genius-level hockey IQ and slick hands, the 2014 fourth-rounder could earn an NHL job right away. Minus: He’s about 6-foot and not even 200 pounds, so he’s going to have his hands full with the increased speed and physicality of the pro game.
  3. Brandon Carlo, RD Plus: Like Heinen, Carlo’s on a positive trajectory at making the Bruins right away- he’s 6-5 and can really skate and move, already a beast in his own end, something Boston lacked down the stretch a year ago. Minus: Not all that instinctive in the offensive end; could stand to play a lot of minutes in more of a top role and on the power play to try and tease more offensive production and build confidence.
  4. Rob O’Gara, LD Plus: At 6-4 and north of 220 pounds, this premier shutdown/defensive mind can also skate extremely well for one so big- his speed and footwork has always been advanced, and the rest of his game has come along quite well in the five years since he was drafted in the fifth round. Minus: More of a “safe” prospect than one you would assign talk of high “upside” or “ceiling” to, O’Gara isn’t quite the physical specimen Carlo is (they’re close), but he may be a more complete defender when all is said and done.
  5. Colin Miller, RD Plus: “Chiller” has top-shelf skating, passing, shooting skills; showed off some offensive flair in his first NHL campaign, putting up a respectable 16 points in 42 games despite not having an overabundance of ice time/becoming a spare part in the season’s second half. Minus: The former LA Kings farmhand has a lot of work to do on the defensive side in terms of processing/making better decisions and improving his three-zone play.
  6. Austin Czarnik, C Plus: Dazzling offensive center impressed in his first rookie pro year with 50+ points to back up his tremendous speed, lightning-quick hands and ubermensch-worthy vision/hockey sense. Minus: At barely 5-8 (and that’s probably being charitable) the former Miami RedHawks captain wasn’t drafted, and will have to overcome size concerns at a position the Bruins are pretty deep at.
  7. Malcolm Subban, G Plus: The progress has been slower than expected, but there is no doubt that he’s one of the more dazzling athletic talents at the position and when healthy, has shown some major league promise. Minus: The fractured larynx was a significant setback, and if it hasn’t been one thing for Subban, it’s been another (    outplaying him in 2014-15)- this is the year that he proves his worth to Boston and justifies his selection in the 2012 first-round once and for all.
  8. Noel Acciari, C (Johnston, R.I.) Plus: Ace two-way center earned his way to Boston for a 19-game stint at the end of the year after being an undrafted free agent less than a year earlier; a good skater, superb faceoff man and intelligent, charismatic 24-year-old who plays the game hard, but clean- he’s got a lot in common with Patrice Bergeron, without the scoring. Minus: With just one NHL assist- there isn’t a whole lot of scoring in the well for the one-time captain of Providence College’s 2015 championship squad; as he turns 25 in Dec., there probably isn’t a whole lot of development left- he’s a solid, if unspectacular grinding bottom-line pivot.
  9. Matt Grzelcyk, LD (Charlestown, Mass.) Plus: When it comes to speed, sense, and spirit/heart- they aren’t built much better than the Townie, whose veins probably bleed black and gold; the former BU captain is an ultra-slick puck-moving defender who can push the pace and get the puck out of his own end with ease. Minus: At about 5-foot-10, Grzelcyk is going to have his hands full forcing his way into Boston’s top-six D rotation and might have to benefit from some luck and minors time to get there.
  10. Peter Cehlarik, RW Plus: Big-bodied Slovak plays the off-wing and signed with Boston after spending four years playing pro hockey in Sweden; he’s got a nice 6-foot-2 frame plus some offensive chops as a late third-round pick in 2013. Minus: He’s just an okay skater- he’s gotten better and can move pretty well in a straight line, but his first few steps and acceleration are clunky; he’s not great at the quick stops/starts/direction change and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to the smaller North American ice surface.
  11. Zane McIntyre, G Plus: When it comes to drive and character, they don’t come much better than the native of Thief River Falls, Minn. who once earned top goalie honors in that state- named for former Bruins great Frank Brimsek; whenever tested, the 2010 sixth-rounder has always responded with dramatic improvement and maturity beyond his years. Minus: It was a tough transition to pro hockey for the NCAA’s best goalie; he’s got technique issues to work through and will have to fend off fellow pro Daniel Vladar for internal crease competition.
  12. Seth Griffith, RW Plus: Despite the odds working against a smallish forward without dynamic wheels, the 2012 fifth-rounder has seen NHL action in each of the past two seasons; he’s a highly creative scoring mind with the superb puck skills to set up plays or finish them off. Minus: We so want to have Griffith higher on the list, but what is he at the NHL level? Scorer? Checking forward? We probably know the answer to the second question, so he’ll have to make it in the top-two lines- good luck.
  13. Daniel Vladar, G Plus: Huge (6-5), athletic and learning- he put up pretty nice numbers with the Chicago Steel of the USHL in his first North American season; very tough to beat on the first shot and improving his technique. Minus: After the B’s signed him to a 3-year ELC in the spring, where is the still quite raw Czech native going to play next year? ECHL? AHL? Europe? Clock is now ticking on his timeline.
  14. Linus Arnesson, D Plus: A bit of a forgotten man and 2013 second-rounder didn’t forget how to play- he’s got good size, can skate, make a clean first pass and is a smart, savvy defensive player even if he’s very much on the vanilla side of the red line. Minus: Nagging injuries kept Arnesson from getting out of second gear, and questions about his vision and ability to process the game well in the offensive aspects mean that at best, he’s probably a 4/5 at the NHL level assuming he ever gets there.
  15. Brian Ferlin, RW Plus: Looking for someone who can play the right side effectively and has enough size to drive through traffic and skill to make things happen around the net? Ferlin’s your guy. Minus: After a promising rookie pro season in 2014-15 that saw him see seven NHL games near the end, a concussion forced him out of most of this year- he’s got a lot of work ahead to put himself back to the fore.
  16. Sean Kuraly, C Plus: With his pro-style body (6-2, 210) and wide skating base, the Ohioan gets around the ice pretty well and has shown the potential to be a solid if unspectacular bottom-six option, either at center or more likely on the wing somewhere. Minus: There’s just not a whole lot to get excited about when it comes to Kuraly’s hands and creativity- when forced to carry more of an offensive load for Miami U. as a senior, he flamed out.
  17. Anton Blidh, LW Plus: You gotta love this energetic, abrasive little cuss of a Swedish forward who plays bigger than his size and stands out with his pure hustle and physical style. Minus: Unless you’re fine with him on Boston’s fourth line (which is A-OK) there’s simply not enough pure talent/ability in our view for much of an impact at the NHL level.
  18. Colby Cave, C Plus: Fine skater with a fine two-way hockey IQ and the raw leadership skills that will be an asset in any room. Minus: We just don’t see much in terms of high-level skill, so he’ll have to win a spot on the bottom lines while swimming in a pretty deep pool.
  19. Chris Casto, RD Plus: With his thick build and pretty quick feet to go with a bomb of a shot, Casto is a bit like Arnesson in that he’s not suited to ride around near the top of Boston’s prospect lists; he just spent three years in Providence after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota-Duluth and was qualified, so that speaks to the fact that the B’s saw something in him worth keeping around. Minus: Every team needs solid, safe, unspectacular players to feed their minor league farm teams and Casto might be that guy- unless the B’s get into a real pickle with injuries this season, it’s hard to envision him being seriously in the mix as a regular.
  20. Colton Hargrove, LW Plus: Put up surprising numbers in his first full AHL campaign; big, gritty power winger is heavy on the puck and finds ways to get dirty goals- one tough nut. Minus: There’s a lot of competition for bottom-six jobs and Hargrove  needs to improve his foot speed and maintain his focus/drive. He’s getting there.
  21. Emil Johansson, LD Plus: Another Swede in the Boston system- he impressed at development camp after a real strong finish to the Swedish pro season with HV71; he skates well and moves the puck with gusto- something the B’s desperately need. Minus: Excelling at drills against amateurs when you’re playing pro hockey overseas is one thing, being able to process, read and react in the NHL is another- still not sold on the 2014 seventh-rounder’s ultimate big league potential.
  22. Justin Hickman, F Plus: Coming off shoulder surgery, it was a frustrating year for the Seattle Thunderbirds captain and power forward who was slow out of the gate and never recovered. Minus: Undrafted free agent just another physical forward in a sea of them, but could rebound and improve his stock with better health and more confidence after playing through a challenging rookie season.
  23. Oskar Steen, F Plus: Energetic and gritty; excellent skater who has a low center of gravity and powers through would-be checkers while taking pucks tot he net. Minus: He probably deserves a better fate than to be at the bottom of the list, but someone has to bring up the rear- reports said he showed quite nicely in drills at development camp but was not as noticeable in the scrimmage/replicated game situations. A 5-9 forward has to be better at that.

Rob O’Gara: On the verge of making the NHL

Rob O'GaraBruins

Five years ago, the Boston Bruins had just won the Stanley Cup and made six selections 10 days after raising hockey’s silver chalice in Vancouver. Just two picks from the 2011 Bruins draft class remain: fourth-round choice Brian Ferlin reached the NHL in 2014-15 season, playing seven big league games (1 assist) before his development was derailed by concussion issues stemming from a hit he took in the 2015 AHL playoffs. (Editor’s note- Alexander Khokhlachev- taken 40th overall that year- is still technically Boston property after getting a qualifying offer to retain his rights as a RFA, but he signed with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL and if he ever makes it back to the NHL, it won’t likely be with the Bruins.)

Defenseman Rob O’Gara, who was drafted one round after Ferlin, has taken a longer, more gradual developmental path to pro hockey, but is finally beginning his first full season after completing a four-year degree at Yale University. The 23-year-old (he celebrated his birthday last week), who spent another year in prep hockey with the Milton Academy Mustangs after the Bruins made him the final selection of the fifth round (151st overall) five years ago, won a NCAA title as a freshman and earned ECAC defensive defenseman of the year as a junior. Although he has just five pro hockey games under his belt (he did score his 1st pro goal in the process) with a late-season appearance in the AHL with Providence, O’Gara is a dark horse candidate to see playing time in Boston at some point this season if everything breaks right for him.

This post will peel back the onion so to speak on one of Boston’s more unheralded prospects- a guy who has been as consistent and effective a player since bursting onto the prep hockey scene six years ago and forcing NHL teams to take notice of him en route to Milton’s 2011 championship. O’Gara isn’t flashy, but with his size, skating and potential, he could be a solid contributor to the organization’s fortunes sooner rather than later.

Prep hockey 2010-12

O’Gara was an unknown commodity when he left his home in Nesconset and the Long Island Royals 16U minor hockey program for Massachusetts and prep school at Milton Academy.

At about 6-3 at the time (and very thin/lanky), he caught the eye of scouts immediately because he moved pretty well and didn’t show a lot of that gangly awkwardness that is so prevalent with players at that size/age. What also stood out was the contrast O’Gara provided to his Milton defense partner Pat McNally, another New York guy who had been drafted in 2010 by the Vancouver Canucks (now with the San Jose Sharks organization). McNally was an attacking, push-the-pace and often get caught up the ice defender, so O’Gara stood out for his more measured style and for the fact that McNally’s gambles at times meant that his partner was back to defend odd-man rushes on his own. O’Gara showed off a natural poise and smarts right away to go with an active stick- he landed on NHL radars and was identified as one of the top New York talents available in the 2011 draft.

O’Gara reached his zenith in March, when in the championship game against a Kent Lions team that featured current Boston Bruin Noel Acciari (the captain) along with 2012 NHL second-rounder Cristoval “Boo” Nieves, he made a critical play along the blue line to keep the puck inside the offensive zone during a 2-2 game late in regulation. He then made an on-target pass to teammate Sean Okita, who buried the puck for the winning goal. O’Gara only had seven assists (along with two goals) that year, but one of those helpers was as big as it gets, which gets to the heart of where his big league potential might truly lie: he’s always been big time in the clutch (more on that later).

O’Gara told TSP about the game and play just a few short weeks later, when yours truly maintained the 2011 Bruins Draft Watch blog:

“That was just amazing; I have trouble putting it into words sometimes just how awesome it was to be part of such a great team here,” O’Gara said recently from his Milton Academy dorm room, where he is finishing up the semester and playing lacrosse to keep his body in peak form. “We went back and watched the DVD of that game (3-2 win over Kent School) and the tempo was unbelievable- the fast pace of that game and how everything was up-and-down the whole time. We went into that third period with the score 2-2 and knowing that we had 18 minutes. It was do or die time and we pulled it off.”

Although not invited to the NHL’s annual draft combine because he was not ranked inside the top-50 among North American skaters, O’Gara interviewed with at least five NHL clubs during the spring and more clubs expressed interest before the draft. He and his family opted to stay home rather than travel to Minneapolis/St. Paul and he followed the selections along with his father, Brian (and mom Christine). Although the family grew up staunch NY Islanders fans and supporters, that all changed when the Bruins called Rob’s name at the end of the fifth round.

Soon afterwards, he attended his first Bruins development camp, arriving on July 6, 2011- his 18th birthday- and O’Gara was no doubt raw, but game- his skating and fluid footwork stood out in positive fashion even then. Current Bruins GM Don Sweeney was the assistant GM back then and long recognized as Boston’s player development chief. He had this to say about O’Gara after the first day of that camp:

“Robby [O’Gara]’s a piece of clay right now, albeit it’s a big piece. At 6’4” it can change. Things have come at him here a little quicker in the last, I’d say, eight months. But we got a chance, I did in particular and other people got a chance, to see him a lot…The good thing is there’s no timetable for him. He’s not going to get any smaller. He’s only going to fill out and continue to get better. And he’s going to be right in our backyard for another year then on to a real good program in Yale. So I think that he’ll learn a lot. He’ll be one of those kids that walks out of here, hopefully, and learns an awful lot and takes some of this stuff going forward.”– Sweeney

Here’s my own assessment of him from that very first on-ice session at development camp five years ago:

Turned 18 just yesterday and his skating really came to the fore today. He’s tall, but a stringbean. But, have to keep going back to the fluid stride and quick, agile footwork. Had he spent two years at Milton Academy before the draft instead of just the one, I’m convinced that he would have been as high as a third-round pick, but solid at least a solid fourth-rounder. I don’t think enough NHL teams knew about this kid going in, but Boston did because he plays in their backyard. Long-term project, but O’Gara could be a steal. Size + mobility + intelligence + character almost always = player.

He returned to Milton for his senior season in 2011-12, wearing the captain’s ‘C’ and while the team did not enjoy the success of the previous year with so many veteran departures, O’Gara produced at nearly a point per game pace (25 in 24 games after 9 in 29 as a junior) and was widely recognized as the top defenseman in prep hockey that season, earning All-New England recognition.

With that, he completed his prep career and moved on to the next challenge in New Haven, Conn. with Yale.

Yale University: 2012-16

O’Gara wasted little time demonstrating to head coach Keith Allain and ECAC hockey watchers that he was a worthy NHL prospect, quickly establishing himself in a lineup that would go on to win it all in the span of about five months once the 2012-13 campaign got underway.

As was the case in prep, O’Gara was relied upon to be a defense-first, stay-at-home guy as a freshman with the Elis, and he carried it off well, despite not finding the back of the net at all- posting seven assists in 37 games. Never one to dwell on the numbers, the real pride O’Gara had was in showing off the kind of ability and poise to earn a regular shift in Allain’s rotation throughout the year. His team allowed just two total goals in its two-game Frozen Four appearance that year in capturing Yale’s first (and only) NCAA title.

In Yale’s 4-0 championship game over Quinnipiac University, as the clock ticked down to zero, O’Gara was on the ice playing a tenacious defense and making sure that he did his part to preserve the shutout.

“I’ll sit alone at home and I’ll see the watch we were given for winning on my desk, and I still can’t believe it. It’s just an incredible feeling,” O’Gara told veteran reporter Mike Loftus of the Patriot-Ledger at the 2013 Bruins development camp, a few months after winning it all.

cropped-ogara-national-champ.jpg

Rob O’Gara in 2013 after Yale won the NCAA championship (Photo courtesy of Rob O’Gara)

In the span of just two years, O’Gara had claimed the rarest of feats- championships at the high school and college level. While his Yale team was not able to repeat their national title in his remaining three NCAA seasons, O’Gara went on to earn numerous accolades under Allain and the Yale staff:

  • In 2013-14, O’Gara earned the team’s John Poinier Award as Yale’s top defender. He also earned Second All-Ivy and ECAC All-Academic honors.
  • In 2014-15, he was named the ECAC’s top defensive defenseman, which is impressive because he also posted his career-best in offense with six goals and 21 points, leading the Yale blue line in scoring. He was First Team ACA/CCM All-American (East), First-Team All-ECAC and First-Team All-Ivy among several other distinctions to include another Poinier Award as team defensive MVP.
  • 2015-16 was disappointing statistically compared to his breakout in 2015, but O’Gara finished his college career strong, nominated for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player, named a semifinalist for the Walter Brown Award (New England’s top college player) and a second consecutive All-Ivy League First Team selection.

TSP featured O’Gara last October, as he prepared to embark on his senior year. For those who missed it, you can read it here.

A season of ups and downs (including a two-game suspension in February after he retaliated with a slash against Harvard’s Sean Malone, who drove him into the boards) was overall a positive growth experience for O’Gara, who continued to add muscle mass to his big frame and got an enormous amount of playing time, as chronicled in this piece worth reading by Chip Malafronte in the New Haven Register.

After O’Gara signed a two-year ELC with Boston in late March, Allain spoke to Newsday (New York) about his former player, summarizing what he brings to the table:

“He really epitomizes what we want our hockey players to be,” said Yale coach Keith Allain, who also worked in the NHL for 15 years as an assistant coach, goalie coach and scout.

“He’s got great size and reach. He’s extremely mobile, particularly for a big guy. He has great defensive awareness, can make a pass and he’s got the ability to jump up into the play on offense. I see him as an all-around defenseman. I expect him to one day be a regular defenseman in the National Hockey League.”

O’Gara joined the Providence Bruins late in the season, commuting between Rhode Island and Connecticut so that he could complete his course work and graduate with the degree in Economics he worked four years to achieve. Scoring his first professional goal for the P-Bruins was an added thrill for a player who won’t likely be known for his contributions on the offensive side of the ledger, but who is built for the modern NHL with his sturdy 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame- the body sculpting having taken quite some time to build.

With nine defensemen in Wilmington this week, O’Gara is not required to join in the development camp fun, having benefited enough (in the team’s eyes) from his 2011-15 experiences. With his first full NHL training camp ahead in September, O’Gara will keep working out to prepare for that new challenge.

Outlook

If you’re into flashy, “upside” players then O’Gara won’t be at the top of the list, but when it comes to the big-bodied, mobile and smart defenders that have become critical components to winning in the modern NHL, Boston’s investment over time appears to be inching closer to paying off.

He’s always been a smooth skater for his size- able to stay contain speed and prevent forwards from getting around him wide. While not an intimidating hitter and snarly type, O’Gara uses his body effectively and has made substantial gains in strength and quickness in the five years since the B’s chose him. With his long reach and positional savvy, he’s difficult to beat 1-on-1, but probably doesn’t get enough respect for his ability to skate with his head up and advance the puck quickly with a crisp outlet. This is not to say that he’ll be a classic two-way threat on defense, but he has enough in the feet, hands and head department that he can chip in with timely offense when needed. The guy is a winner- he always has been- and there is a great deal to be said for that. He made a critical play that resulted in a high school-level championship and then was put out in the final minute of a collegiate title as a freshman (full disclosure- his team was up by four goals)- that tells you all you need to know about what kind of performer O’Gara is when the game is on the line.

As Jack Nicholson aka Marine Colonel Nathan R. Jessup once said- “You want me on that wall…you need me on that wall!”

 

Why O’Gara will play in the NHL this season: You can’t teach his size or physical attributes, and his steady development means that he’s mentally and physically ready to come in and play a lower pairing role right away (or in a pinch if the team is hit with injuries). He’s a likable guy who can walk into any room and fit right in because he’s always had the people skills and carried with him a measure of respect- he’ll sit down and listen/process everything around him and isn’t one to spend a lot of talking. When it comes to doing his job, O’Gara is the consummate quiet professional who gets after it without fanfare and is just as happy being a cog in the bigger machine- he doesn’t have a thirst for attention.

Why O’Gara won’t play in the NHL this season: Right now, the B’s have some pretty well-established veteran players on the blue-line who like O’Gara, are left-shooting players. There is no need to rush him to the big show when he can take another year to play prime minutes in the AHL in just about every situation and shoot for making the Boston lineup when he has more pro experience under his belt.

Whether he plays NHL minutes this season or doesn’t is not the question, but rather- that he continues to move forward and progress in his developmental trajectory. There will be ups and downs at the pro level, like many young players there are times when he will get caught puck watching or won’t make the physical play on defense when it is there for him. If you watch enough hockey, no matter how accomplished, every defenseman will be part of a goal scored against, it’s just a matter of learning from mistakes and not repeating them.

When it comes to Rob O’Gara, the promise he showed as a mature and capable prep school defender more than a half decade ago is coming sharply into focus. Dougie Hamilton, who was taken 142 spots earlier than O’Gara was, is a Boston footnote who now plays in Calgary. As we all know from the old tortoise and hare parable, the race is not always to the swift…it appears that Boston will benefit from the faith and patience they showed in this player.

Because of his playing style, O’Gara has never really occupied space near the top of the various Boston prospect lists nor has he been at the tip of everyone’s tongue when it comes to projecting who will meet or exceed expectations, but there aren’t many who have performed with more consistency or promise.

He’s on the verge of achieving that goal that others selected well before him have not yet come close to. Don’t call him a tortoise, but he’s been steady as she goes all along.

***

Weekend at Bergy’s has his first pro goal- a rocket from the point (wearing his old No. 15 from Milton Academy days):

 

 

Bruins prospects in their draft years 2010-2012

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

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

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

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

2010

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

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

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

2011

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

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

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

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

Red Line ranking: 245

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

 

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

Red Line ranking: 263

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

 

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

Red Line ranking: 73

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Red Line ranking: NR

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

2012

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Red Line ranking: 237

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

 

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

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

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

 

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

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

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

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

 

 

 

Bruins prospect updates- the Pros

Most of the Boston Bruins’ are in offseason mode. Note, I said most- not all.

Jake DeBrusk’s Red Deer Rebels were eliminated from WHL championship play by the Brandon Wheat Kings, but by virtue of being the Memorial Cup host city, they’ll be playing May hockey once the three CHL champions are decided.

Jeremy Lauzon, who dodged a major scare after taking a skate blade to the neck a few weeks back missed Rouyn-Noranda’s third-round playoff series win over the Moncton Wildcats. He may or may not be back for the President’s Cup series against the Shawinigan Cataractes. The deeper the Huskies go, the better the chance that the B’s may see one of their three second-round picks back in action, but that will depend on medical clearance and the player’s long-term health takes precedence over the desire to have him in the lineup today.

For everyone else, it’s about preparing for the 2016-17 season. I’m breaking up the prospects list into pro and amateur sections, and sliding all of the recent NCAA signings and players who are projected to be playing in the AHL season next year onto the pro side.

B’s pro prospects

Noel Acciari, C (undrafted free agent- 2015): The former Providence College captain finished the season with the big club, playing 19 NHL games down the stretch and impressing with his skating, smarts and effort. The single assist with the B’s is  an indicator that offense will not be Acciai’s strong suit, but given more time to center the bottom line as he gains experience, more production will come. He’s an overachiever who is strong on draws, hits everything forcefully but cleanly, and immediately earned the respect and trust of coaches. He broke his jaw when he took a Chris Casto shot to the face earlier to the season or else, as reported by Providence Journal veteran reporter Mark Divver, Acciari would have made his Boston debut even earlier. He’s signed through next season (pending RFA) at a $792.5k cap hit.

Linus Arnesson, D (2013 draft, 2nd round): The Swedish defender had tougher first full North American season than projected, dealing with nagging injuries for most of the year. Never a player who was thought of as having a high offensive ceiling, he’s mobile and savvy, but more was expected of him. With a year under his belt, Arnesson is a player who could see a Boston opportunity via recall at some point next season if there are injury issues on the B’s blue line, but if he can stay healthy, the focus will be on continued development. Arnesson is under contract through 2017 (pending RFA) at a $817.5k hit.

Anton Blidh, LW (2013 draft, 6th round): Gritty, abrasive forward doesn’t bring much in the way of points potential, but if you’re looking for a grinding energy winger who forces turnovers and plays a heavy game, Blidh’s your guy. Having said that, the B’s have no shortage of forwards who fit in this category, so there’s not a big buzz factor here. He’s got two more years on his ELC (2018) with about a $784k cap hit.

Brandon Carlo, D (2015 draft, 2nd round): One of Boston’s more eagerly anticipated prospects after being the 37th selection in June 2015, the late ’96-born Colorado native is eligible to spend the 2016-17 season in the AHL if he doesn’t make the Boston roster out of camp. At 6-foot-5, he’s highly mobile and a premium shutdown type defender. The jury is still out on his offensive instincts/vision to develop into a higher-end two-way threat at the NHL level, but make no mistake- this guy will play. Last fall, Carlo signed a three-year ELC that will keep him under contract through the 2019 season (RFA) at a rate of $820k per.

Chris Casto, D (undrafted free agent- 2013): Casto posted his best pro season to date, but has the look of a journeyman pro at the AHL level and it’s hard to see him beating out those higher on the depth chart to make a go of it His ELC is up and there’s a good chance that the B’s will allow the former University of Minnesota-Duluth star to hook on with another team.

Colby Cave, C (undrafted free agent- 2015): After signing with the Bruins a year ago, Cave showed some promise in Providence as an effective two-way forward with speed. He’s not a top-six project, but could in time establish himself on the lower lines. With two more seasons left (2018) on his ELC before Cave becomes a RFA ($655k), the former WHL captain is in the fold at a nice rate.

Austin Czarnik, C (undrafted free agent- 2015): The AHL’s leading rookie scorer with 61 points had opened eyes this season. Despite his small stature, he’s a plus-skater with superb puck skills and the hockey IQ to provide offense. He nearly willed Providence to a victory in Game 3 of their sweep at the hands of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and is a solid bet to see NHL time with the Bruins next season. He’s signed through 2017 at a rate of $817,500 (RFA).

Brian Ferlin, RW (2011 draft, 4th round): He was greatly impacted with concussion woes this season, his second pro campaign after a promising 2014-15 year that saw him earn a late stint in Boston. A bottom-six winger who can skate and excel in puck possession, Ferlin needs a bounce-back campaign in 2016-17. His ELC ($875k) is up and he is a restricted free agent.

Seth Griffith, RW (2012 draft, 5th round): Providence’s top scorer (23 goals, 77 points in 57 games) saw some very limited time in Boston this season and is still on the bubble in terms of proving whether he can break into a top-six forward role or might be a ‘tweener as someone who puts up points in the AHL, but has trouble establishing himself in the NHL. He’s got the hands and head to score, but the lack of size and speed make it a challenge for him. Griffith’s ELC ($759k) is finished and he’ll likely be tendered a qualifying offer, but whether the B’s dangle him as part of a trade package at some point remains to be seen.

Matt Grzelcyk, D (2012 draft, 3rd round): The Boston University captain signed a two-year (thru 2018) NHL contract worth a reported $858,750 per season (RFA) at the conclusion of his NCAA season. It was a tougher year for the Townie, as he dealt with starting the season late after knee surgery, only to injure his other knee shortly after coming back. His excellent speed and puck-moving ability will make him one of Providence’s top threats in all situations if he doesn’t win an NHL job out of camp next fall.

Colton Hargrove, LW (2012 draft, 7th round): A pleasant surprise, finishing sixth on the team in scoring with 14 goals and 30 points in 66 games. A big, rugged forward- Hargrove’s improved conditioning helped him to have success, but after a productive and impressive middle stretch of the season, he cooled off at the end. There is one more season left on his ELC, which pays him a $737,500 rate (RFA)

Danton Heinen, RW/LW (2014 draft, 4th round): After a tough start offensively, the British Columbia native erupted in the second half of the year for Denver University, finishing as the team’s top scorer and helping DU reach the Frozen Four. He’s a slick, playmaking wing who posted a pair of assists in his pro hockey debut with Providence and is a darkhorse to break camp with the NHL Bruins on the opening night roster come October. He’s signed through 2019 at a $872.5k cap hit.

Justin Hickman, LW (undrafted free agent- 2015): The Seattle Thunderbirds captain did not have the anticipated impact after missing the rest of 2015 to shoulder surgery and signing with Boston. He’s a hard-nosed winger with underrated scoring ability, but took a while to adjust and adapt to the demands of the AHL. Heavy on the puck and willing to play a physical, grinding game- watch for him to take on more of a consistent role next season, with about 15-20 goals at the AHL level a reasonable target to aim for. Hickman is on an ELC that keeps him a Bruin through 2018 at an (unconfirmed per General Fanager) $700k hit.

Alexander Khokhlachev, C (2011 draft, 2nd round): Despite making a difference in the AHL for much of the season, the 40th overall selection was not able to do much with the limited ice time he was given in Boston. There’s not much else can be said that hasn’t been already at TSP- he’s talented enough to be an NHL forward but hasn’t translated being an impact performer on the farm to the big show. Koko’s ELC has expired and he is expected to either be traded to another organization or pursue his Europe options with St. Petersburg, which owns his KHL rights.

Sean Kuraly, C (trade with SJS- 2015): The Miami University RedHawks captain signed for two years (thru 2018 at a $809k cap rate) after finishing a disappointing senior year. Acquired from the San Jose Sharks last June as part of the return for goaltender Martin Jones, Kuraly has good size and skating ability to be more of a two-way center or wing who is heavy on the puck and does the grinding work on the bottom-six.

Zane McIntyre, G (2010 draft, 6th round): A TSP favorite since before he was drafted in 2010, it was a season of ups and downs for the rookie pro. The former star at University of North Dakota has some work to do on technique and mechanics after being exposed at times during the regular season. His performance in Game 3 was a particular disappointment, but he has the drive to roll up the sleeves and get to work, so it will be interesting to see how he responds to the adversity next year. He’s signed through 2017 at a $975k cap hit (RFA).

Colin Miller, D (trade with LAK- 2015): The NHL tools are clearly there for the one-time Kings prospect picked up last draft day as part of the Milan Lucic trade. Although not tall, Miller has a thick build and has the skating and puck skills to be a solid NHL defender, but he also has to show he can think the game enough to log bigger minutes and take care of his own end. Miller’s ELC ($602,500) expired and he is RFA. Expect the B’s to extend him a qualifying offer and we’ll see what happens next.

Rob O’Gara, D (2011 draft, 5th round): Four-year starter and NCAA champion at Yale University finished up his eligibility this past March and signed a two-year ELC worth $925,00 per through 2018.A big (6-4), mobile defender who is sound positionally and can move the puck effectively, O’Gara may need developmental time in the AHL, but could one day join Boston’s blue line to form a pretty good shutdown presence with Carlo.

Malcolm Subban, G (2012 draft, 1st round): After a rough beginning due to a lower body injury, Subban was playing the best hockey of his pro career over a two-month stretch in the AHL when he took a shot to the throat in warmups. A fractured larynx cost Subban the rest of his season and means he has to hit the reset button, so to speak. He’s talented enough to win the Boston backup job this fall, but experience and an extended run as an AHL starter have continued to elude the 24th overall pick. His ELC runs  for one more season at about $863k before he becomes RFA.

Frank Vatrano, LW (undrafted free agent- 2015): The crown jewel of undrafted free agents last year tore apart the AHL (36 goals, 55 points) in 36 games with Providence, and still found time to make an impressive showing in Boston, where he finished the NHL season. The Springfield Rifle (no, I’m not calling him the “East Longmeadow Rifle”- that doesn’t have anywhere near the ring) added eight more goals in 39 games while exhibiting the speed and gusto that is sure to produce more offense at the highest level. Vatrano’s transformation and sheer impact this season earned him AHL co-Rookie of the Year honors (with Colorado prospect Mikko Rantanen) and set him up as a potential key contributor in Boston going forward.

Daniel Vladar, G (2015 draft, 3rd round): After finishing a solid USHL season with the Chicago Steel, the 75th selection last June is a giant (6-foot-6) project with impressive athletic ability. On the flip side, Vladar needs work with his technique and is still pretty raw- it remains to be seen whether he will be in the AHL, ECHL or possibly Europe next season. While not impossible, NHL is about as long a shot as it gets for Vladar at this stage of his development. Signed a three-year contract in late April worth $742,500 annually.

(Source for contract updates: http://www.generalfanager.com/teams/boston-bruins)

Update:

Maxim Chudinov, D (2010 draft, 7th round): After reports that the small, speedy and feisty defender wanted to sign and come over to North America, his St. Petersburg SKA team in the KHL just announced that he agreed to another two-year contract extension. Though it does have several reported provisions to give him an out if he gets an NHL offer or if his salary isn’t paid on time, the Bruins lose his exclusive negotiating rights on July 1. It looks like Chudinov won’t justify Boston’s decision to draft him six years ago, though the door isn’t completely closed. His agent is former NHL defenseman Petr Svoboda. If you can read Russian, here’s the extension announcement: http://www.ska.ru/news/view/ska-prodlil-kontrakt-s-maksimom-chudinovym

(h/t to Dominic Tiano for the update)

 

 

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.

PacRimLine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

TSP Podcast: “Don’t Cry For Me Music City”- the Vesey Report

Jimmy Vesey’s decision to not sign with Nashville this week has created some legitimate hockey buzz.

Rather than write a big post about my own connection and background with Jimmy, one that goes back to his high school years when he was being seriously scouted for the USHL, and address some of the key issues around this situation, I figured I’d do a podcast on it.

It’s 50 minutes, but if you make it through- you’ll know a lot about Vesey’s past and some of the factors that might have played into his decision to part ways with the Predators. I address that team’s reaction and how they essentially burned the bridge with him…assuming he didn’t Alec Guiness the thing over the last week or so (Bridge on the River Kwai reference- check it out if you’ve never seen it). I also talk about the current NCAA loophole that allowed Blake Wheeler to choose his destination in 2008 after being Phoenix’s fifth overall pick four years earlier. Others have followed suit- Vesey certainly wasn’t the first, and if the NHL doesn’t close the avenue available to certain NCAA players that qualify, he won’t be the last.

I take a look at how the Bruins’ players under similar circumstances have fared- Zane McIntyre, Rob O’Gara and Matt Grzelcyk– Vesey’s close friend and minor hockey teammate. He’s on track to sign with the Bruins as well, so this gets to the heart of the premium the organization has placed on developing relationships and the success the team has had in signing its draft picks. Danton Heinen is next. But, if the NHL doesn’t act to provide some kind of compensation, eventually, the B’s could find themselves in a similar spot. So long as we understand that this is the way of life that the current collective bargaining agreement allows for. Don’t blame Vesey- it’s not about compensation with him, it’s about choice and the ability to decide his own NHL destination.

If you can’t get enough of Vesey analysis and news- I covered similar ground today on TSN1260 in Edmonton with Allan Mitchell. You can listen to that much shorter segment here.

Enjoy the audio commentary.

For a bonus, here’s the capsule I wrote on Vesey in the June 2012 New England Hockey Journal NHL draft preview article for the region:

1. Jimmy Vesey, LW South Shore (EJHL) 6-1, 195 Shoots: L (North Reading, Mass.)GP- 45   G- 48   A- 43 PTS- 91 PIM- 43            Central Scouting Final Rank: 77 NA

The skinny: Vesey used the draft snub as powerful motivation to shatter EJHL scoring records with the Kings under Scott Harlow (Bridgewater, Mass.). His skating continues to get better, but his high-end instincts and soft hands mean he won’t get skipped this time. The 2012 John Carlton Memorial Trophy winner as the top area scholar-athlete in hockey has also added about 15 pounds of muscle to his frame thanks to hard work with noted trainer Brian McDonough (Easton, Mass.).

Quotable: “He’s such a strong skater and was a lot more aggressive with the puck this year, taking advantage of his good hands and hockey sense. With his added strength and conditioning, he’s been so much more effective in all areas of his game.”- Gary Eggleston, regional scout, Central Scouting Service

Update: final stats JFK, Grzelcyk, O’Gara

UPDATE 1 3/29/4:15 pm EST: TSP has confirmed that Rob O’Gara is signed and in the fold with Boston. Later this week, he will ink the ATO to join the Providence Bruins for the rest of the season. According to ESPN’s John Buccigross, Sean Kuraly is under contract as well. That would put the Bruins at 48  contracts (see update below), so it might be an indicator that Tanev is a bridge too far, so they’re getting Kuraly in the mix to start his pro career now. Also in play- the B’s could allocate their final contract spot on Matt Grzelcyk (more on him below).

Even more out of the box- Maxim Chudinov still technically belongs to the B’s but with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation holding the cards to a transfer of Chudinov to North America this late in the season, it’s a real long shot (h/t to friend Dominic Tiano for the connecting of the dots here). Just like Sweden did with Carl Soderberg back in 2013, the World Championship is coming up and Russia undoubtedly wants him for that event with Chudinov’s team out of the KHL playoffs. We’re not even sure Boston wants to sign Chudinov at this point (and I expressed my doubts about that in a previous post), but I guess we shall see. I wouldn’t close the book on Tanev just yet, but O’Gara is confirmed and with Kuraly appearing to be as well, that means there is one deal left- unless I got the math wrong, which is possible.

 

UPDATE 2 3/29/7:54 pm EST: Because of the ATOs, the confirmed contracts for O’Gara and Kuraly do NOT count against the 50-max limit for Boston. B’s currently at 48. Thanks to Dom for getting that information from someone in the know on CBA and contract-related stuff.

 

Original post:

Three more Boston Bruins prospects’ seasons ended in the NCAA over the weekend, with Boston University and Yale losing to Denver University and UMass-Lowell respectively.

Out of the NCAA tournament are BU Terriers Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson and Matt Grzelcyk. As reported on TSP yesterday, Rob O’Gara’s Yale Bulldogs fell in OT to UMass-Lowell and he should sign a 2-year entry-level deal with the Bruins real soon. What we don’t know yet is if the B’s will have him report to Providence to finish out the AHL season on an ATO (he won’t be eligible for the playoffs but can remain with the team to practice and work out with the minor league affiliate) but those details will follow.

Grzelcyk is in a similar boat: as a senior, his NCAA eligibility is exhausted, so he needs to be signed. Like Jimmy Vesey, he could opt for free agency on August 15 or sign with his hometown Bruins. TSP reached out to several sources about Grzelcyk’s status, but nothing solid has come back. In similar fashion to Sean Kuraly, the B’s can opt to wait on signing the BU captain until other contracts come off the books at the end of the season, but before the 15 August deadline to retain exclusive negotiating rights. The team could theoretically offer him an ATO to play in Providence, but without an NHL ELC in place, that would entail some risk on Grzelcyk’s part.

There has also been some below-the-radar buzz that the B’s were so impressed with JFK’s poise as a freshman that they might try to sign him right now (by right now I mean this offseason- not necessarily this week or next) and put him in the organization right away. That would be a tough loss to David Quinn’s Terriers, but if events of recent days are any indication, NHL teams might be forced to move earlier on prospects they feel strongly about rather than risk losing them to the existing NCAA loophole. Regardless, a decision on JFK doesn’t need to happen right now, so we’ll see how things play out in what is shaping up to be a very interesting offseason.

Don Sweeney and his team are still focused on trying to make the NHL playoffs, and given how much the Bruins were mocked at the 2015 NHL draft for what they were doing, they’re in a pretty decent spot as of right now. First things first, but signing O’Gara now makes sense and the team can afford to take a wait-and-see approach, especially with undrafted free agent Brandon Tanev still unsigned and the Bruins very much in the mix (though facing stiff competition from other serious suitors).

If Tanev signs along with O’Gara, that puts the Bruins at 49 contracts, so they might have to wait for the 2015-16 deals to expire before moving forward on anything else.

Here’s the final stats on JFK, Grzelcyk and O’Gara in the meantime. Since I covered him in depth in yesterday’s post, O’Gara’s writeup is a little thinner than the Terrier duo.

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, C Boston University (HEA)

2015-16 final statistics:

Games played: 39  Goals: 10  Assists: 20  Points: 30  Penalty Minutes: 28  +/-  4

2014-15 stats differential (USHL)

Games played: -11  Goals: -5  Assists: -18  Points: -23  Penalty Minutes: -10  +/-  -6

Season in review: After being the 45th overall selection in 2015 (incidentally the same exact draft position as that of Patrice Bergeron in 2003 and Ryan Spooner seven years later), JFK opened a lot of eyes around the Hockey East with his smooth, poised and refined game as a freshman, playing all 39 of his club’s games. At least two NHL scouts told TSP at various times during the season that JFK was the top player on the ice in games they witnessed, marveling at his smarts and ability to play such an effective and complete 200-foot game. The Stockholm native who spent the previous two years with Omaha of the USHL (a big reason for the disparity in statistics between his last junior season and first NCAA campaign) finished third on the team in scoring behind accomplished seniors Danny O’Regan (Sharks) and undrafted free agent Ahti Oksanen, a former defenseman who converted to forward as a junior. More impressive than the numbers, however, was JFK’s defensive presence on special teams and a polished, veteran-like ability in the faceoff dot.

Outlook: It would be interesting to see the B’s lure the 19-year-old out of school so soon, but not all that surprising. With the possible (probable?) departure of enigmatic center and restricted free agent Alexander Khokhlachev in the offseason, the Providence Bruins would have room to accommodate another young and talented pivot. One thing that could keep JFK at BU is that he’s on the lower spectrum of his physical development at present. Although he’s about 6-foot-1, he’s still pretty light at under 190 pounds and has one of those body types that will be hard to keep weight on his frame during the season. He’s not one of those players who pushes the pace throughout a game- he’s a good skater with a rangy stride, but at times will slow the play down and be more deliberate in the way he operates. We’ve seen him drive defenders back on their heels, so the capacity exists for JFK to be a dangerous offensive table-setter when he wants to be. Right now, he appears to be well on his way to eventually making the Bruins as a third-line center with top-two line upside who can do a little bit of everything for his team. Forsbacka-Karlsson draws a lot of comparisons to Bergeron in terms of his cerebral approach and versatility, but you couldn’t heap more pressure on a kid by likening him to No. 37, so we’ll have to see where it all leads. For now, the first of two second-round selections as part of the trio of picks acquired from Calgary last June for Dougie Hamilton, appears to be on track for bigger and better things in the not-too-distant future.

Matt Grzelcyk, D Boston University (HEA)

2015-16 final statistics:

Games played: 27  Goals: 10  Assists: 13  Points: 23  Penalty Minutes: 36  +/-  17

2014-15 stats differential (USHL)

Games played: -14  Goals: even  Assists: -15  Points: -15  Penalty Minutes: even  +/-  -15

Season in review: It was a tale of two hockey seasons for the second-year captain and Charlestown native who was picked in the third round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft by his hometown team. He missed the beginning of the year recovering from knee surgery last May and wasted no time making his presence felt, only to injure the opposite knee just six games into his schedule, forcing him to miss 12 total contests on the year. He tied his previous season high of 10 goals, including netting his first career NCAA hat trick against UMass. His assist totals dipped, but considering the number of games lost to injury, put him on a comparable pace to his junior year totals of 28 helpers and 41 total points. Offense was more of a challenge for BU this season, and that shouldn’t come as a major surprise given the loss of 2015 MVP and Hobey Baker-winning center Jack Eichel to the NHL. Grzelcyk gutted it out by playing through the pain associated with an LBI, and when speed is your bread-and-butter, that’s a significant challenge to overcome. He did it without complaint and aplomb, which is typical of his character and why his teammates elected him captain in a landslide. Twice.

Outlook: Although undersized, Grzelcyk has the speed, vision and hockey IQ to be an impact NHLer one day. The easy comparison in playing style is Torey Krug, but outside of the size, the two are their own defender. The former Belmont Hill and U.S. National Team star who led the Americans to a fourth-consecutive gold medal at the U18 championship in 2012 is a faster skater and plays more of a finesse game than Krug’s natural scrappiness. Krug is an aggressive shooter and despite his woes this season at finding the back of the net is probably the better finisher at the NHL level than Grzelcyk will be if he makes it. Both players can carry the puck out of their own zone and when the defender known as “Grizzy” has the time and gets it cranked up in his own end, he can effortlessly go coast-to-coast with the speed and puckhandling ability to beat defenses that try and stand up at the blue line. As mentioned previously, he has no NCAA eligibility remaining, so the Bruins have until August 15 to sign him to an ELC. Because the team is up against the 50 contract limit, they may opt to kick the can down the road until they get some breathing room at the end of the NHL season. Such a decision doesn’t speak ill of Grzelcyk, and where he fits into the organization’s plans going forward, but might reflect a desire for him to have a chance to get healthy and be fully ready to go for the 2016-17 season. Signing him now and sending him to Providence opens the door to the possibility of further injury; not sure the cost-benefit is there just to play a few pro games to close out the year.

Rob O’Gara, D Yale University (ECAC)

2015-16 final statistics:

Games played: 30  Goals: 4  Assists: 8  Points: 12  Penalty Minutes: 41  +/-  5

2014-15 stats differential (USHL)

Games played: -3  Goals: -2   Assists: -7  Points: -9  Penalty Minutes: +10  +/-  -10

Season in review: The numbers were down from what was expected a year after O’Gara posted his best offensive season with six goals and 21 points, to lead the Yale blue line in scoring. Even so, the senior logged consistent minutes in all situations and played a lot with Ryan Obuchowski (undrafted) as coach Keith Allain’s most trusted pairing. In bigger context, Yale is not an offensive team, but limits goals against and scores just enough to come out on top more often than not. Fixating on the statistics does not tell the entire story, even if the scoring totals were a step back for O’Gara this year.

Outlook: The former prep star and graduate of the Long Island Royals minor hockey program has the size (6-4/220) and smarts plus a top-shelf attitude to develop into an anchor-type presence on the Boston blue line. He’s not a flashy, top-end kind of defenseman but is a player you win with. He’s continued to grow and progress since the B’s took a chance on him in the wake of their Stanley Cup victory, but more seasoning and refinement for him in the AHL before he’s ready for primetime wouldn’t be a bad thing. At the same time, O’Gara has the maturity and physical attributes/experience to be a pleasant surprise at Bruins camp next year and challenge for an NHL job as early as 2016-17. Given that we don’t know what kind of offseason changes lie ahead, especially to Boston’s defense as a whole, trying to project O’Gara in the short term is premature.

Source: O’Gara to sign with Bruins; Jimmy Vesey opts not to sign with Predators

cropped-ogara-national-champ.jpg

Rob O’Gara in 2013 after Yale won the NCAA championship (Photo courtesy of Rob O’Gara)

It was an interesting Monday, as the Scouting Post blog got wind that Boston Bruins prospect  and defenseman Rob O’Gara is expected to sign with the team this week. He will make it official by putting pen to paper after concluding his NCAA career with Yale University in a 3-2 OT loss to the University of Massachusetts- Lowell on Saturday night.

O’Gara signing with the B’s is the next step in a six-year journey that began in the fall of 2010 when the Long Island native left home to play prep hockey in Massachusetts for the Milton Academy Mustangs (ISL). He helped lead his team to the 2011 New England Prep Stuart-Corkery Elite 8 championship as a big, mobile and smart shutdown defender. He ended up being the final pick of the fifth round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft by the hometown Bruins, who obviously took note of him while he played in their backyard. Since then, he played one more year of prep at Milton (he was the captain in 2011-12), and then spent the previous four seasons with Yale, a key member of the Elis 2013 NCAA title team as a freshman.

While O’Gara has not officially signed with Boston yet, a source close to the situation said that family advisor Matt Keator is working with the team and it is expected to get done soon. Whether he will go to the AHL to finish out the season with Providence or remain in school to close out the semester and start fresh in the fall of 2016 with his first pro training camp (as Brian Ferlin did two springs ago) remains to be seen and is part of the details that are being worked.

It was a disappointing statistical season for O’Gara, but to simply look at the numbers would be to ignore the tremendous amount of playing time he received and how effective he was in myriad situations for Yale.   They were one of the top defensive teams in the nation and needed to be, because offense was an adventure from night to night. O’Gara was named the 2015 ECAC defensive defenseman of the year and is a fluid, intelligent rearguard who can move the puck to the right spots on the ice and while isn’t an overly aggressive hitter, uses his size and reach to very good effect. He and Brandon Carlo could become a sort of “twin towers” combination if you will- two tall (O’Gara is 6-4, Carlo 6-5), agile/mobile and very tough to beat players in their own end.

It’s too early to project where O’Gara will fit in and whether he could earn minutes with the big club next season or might need to spend at least a year or more in the AHL further developing his already mature game. However, he’s a guy who has literally grown up in the Bruins organization, as he turned 18 on the day he reported to Wilmington for his very first Boston development camp in 2011 and has progressed impressively each year since. He’s probably not one of those higher-end two-way threats that earn the distinction of being a top NHL defenseman, but O’Gara could eventually become a solid top-four, minute-munching, shutdown and character player that you win with. To get him at the end of round five is fine value in itself. His college coach, Keith Allain, called him the “best defenseman in college hockey,” last week. Sure, there’s bias there, but Allain knows defensemen and he’s probably not too far off the mark in the purest sense of the word.

Conversely, the Nashville Predators did not get the same kind of good news B’s fans can smile at today.

Earlier this evening, Hall of Fame hockey reporter and analyst Bob McKenzie tweeted that Jimmy Vesey’s representatives had informed GM David Poile and the Nashville Predators that he would not negotiate an entry-level contract and would instead elect to pursue free agency and control his own destination as of August 15.

For the Predators and their fans, this is a tough blow. Vesey was originally passed over in 2011 coming out of prep hockey with Belmont Hill despite a productive season. He was heavily recruited by USHL teams but opted to stay close to home and his family in Massachusetts, playing for Scott Harlow and the South Shore Kings in the final season of the EJHL before the league morphed into the USPHL. In 2011-12, Vesey engaged in a scorched earth campaign to terrorize opponents, shattering the EJHL’s single season scoring records with 48 goals and 91 points in 45 games. He was the New England Hockey Journal’s top-ranked player coming out of New England for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, but wasn’t picked until the third round (66th overall) and after Brian Hart and Sam Kurker both went in the second round. He played with speed, skill and a deadly scoring attitude. Vesey played with a giant chip on his shoulder and it even seemed that all year he was giving one giant middle finger to all 30 NHL teams that passed on him the previous June in St. Paul. In Pittsburgh a year later, Nashville was the first to step up and say “We believe in you”- and most figured that he would eventually make his way to Music City.

But that was before he emerged as one of college hockey’s most dominant players. It didn’t happen right away, but once it did…

Vesey went on to win a gold medal in 2013 with Team USA at the World Jr. Championship tourney despite modest freshman year numbers at Harvard- 11 goals and 18 points in 27 games. He exploded as a junior, scoring 32 goals in 37 NCAA games and finishing as runner-up to fellow Bay Stater Jack Eichel for the 2015 Hobey Baker Award, given to college hockey’s top player. Nashville had seen enough and wanted him to come out and sign then, but Vesey opted to remain in school and return as the Crimson’s captain for his senior year. This season, the goals weren’t as prolific and he carried a heavy burden of getting much of the defensive attention on him whenever Harvard played.

Vesey also got asked the question a lot about whether he would sign with the team that owned his rights or leverage the rare right that few aspiring pro hockey players have to choose their own NHL destination. That had to weigh on the kid, whose real desire was trying to get back to the NCAA and help Harvard win a title for the first time since his head coach, Ted Donato, was a sophomore on the team in 1989.

This column’s purpose is not to debate or pick apart the provision in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that allows college seniors to pass up all the money on the table that a team owning their rights offers and choose to sign somewhere else. We saw it last year with Minnesota defenseman Mike Reilly. We saw it in August 2014 with Boston College’s Kevin Hayes, who could have won a Stanley Cup as a rookie had he signed with the team that drafted him- the Chicago Blackhawks. He instead went to the NY Rangers. Before that, it was Justin Schultz and Blake Wheeler,who in 2008 originally leveraged the loophole to be a free agent if not signed four full years after being drafted. Of course- you all know who Wheeler signed with after being the fifth overall selection of the (then) Phoenix Coyotes.

Vesey is the latest high-profile player to go the free agency route, and per the NHL’s CBA, he’s well within his rights to do it. This is America (and Canada), after all. If you believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then you ought not take issue with Vesey’s choice.

If nothing else, it’s going to give hockey people a lot to talk about in mid-August, but it’s no consolation to the Nashville Predators- Poile and assistant GM Paul Fenton but also the scouting staff and player development staff that invested heavily in Vesey: former CM defenseman (and 1994 first-rounder) Jeff Kealty, who is a Massachusetts guy. They’re all left holding the bag and get nothing- not even a compensatory pick, because unlike Hayes, Vesey was not a first-round selection, so there is no provision in the CBA to compensate a club that loses out on a high-profile prospect like him. The NHL should look at this. Vesey is perfectly within his right to pursue this action, but shouldn’t Nashville get some kind of return on their investment? Even if it is a mid-to-late pick?

The Tennessean’s Adam Vingan, and old press box buddy of mine when were were both covering the Washington Capitals circa 2009-12 (to this day, the title of his Caps blog “Kings of Leonsis” gets a chuckle out of me- he’s a gifted writer and hard worker) has more details on the story and is worth following on Twitter- not just for the Vesey stuff but for a good pulse on what is going on in Smash-ville.

Vingan’s Twitter feed indicates that Poile and company really believed that Vesey was going to sign…until informed today that he wasn’t. That’s the business of hockey and only Vesey and those closest to him know why he opted to pass on a pretty good situation in Nashville: the team is one of the hottest in hockey and was prepared to give him a top-9 spot coming right out of the disappointment of losing to Boston College Friday night in the first NCAA tourney game after losing out to Quinnipiac for the ECAC championship.

Here is part of the statement given by Poile to Nashville media during the second intermission of their game tonight (taken from @Adam Vingan via David Boclair of the Nashville Post @BoclairSports):

 

Vesey

So, after nearly four years in the organization, Nashville rolled the dice and came up snake eyes. Where will Vesey go is now the burning question.

The Toronto Maple Leafs make a whole lot of sense purely for the family reasons than many are away: both his dad (a Townie who starred at Merrimack College before becoming a part-time Blues and Bruins forward is now an area scout for the Leafs) and brother  Nolan, (drafted in 2014) are part of the TML organization. Beyond that, you have Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan running the front office and head coach Mike Babcock for credibility and the rebuild with some impressive foundational blocks already in place. The team cleared the decks of bad contracts to make a splash in free agency come July 1st and have the assets in place to maybe pull off a blockbuster trade to bring in some legitimate new blood to revitalize the sad sack Leafs, who might also get a kid named Auston Matthews in Buffalo come June. Would Toronto have coin left over to throw Vesey’s way come mid-August? You can bet dollars to (Tim Horton’s) doughnuts they will. It’s one of the few situations you could see a kid like Vesey looking at and making the tough call to say “No thanks” to a situation like Nashville.

I have little doubt it was a difficult decision.

So, let the recriminations begin…that is also the business of hockey. It isn’t fair, but that’s the way things go in life. It isn’t fair to the Predators, who will likely get criticized for not trading Vesey’s rights when they had a chance. It’s not that simple, but it’s bound to come out in some circles. It isn’t fair to Vesey, who will likely get criticized for not showing loyalty to the Predators organization, but he’s not the only one who’s followed this path and it’s doubtful he’ll be the last.

No team can talk to Vesey until August 15. Nashville could theoretically get him to change his mind, too- they have until then to do that. If not, then once their hold on him expires, he’s free to sign a deal with a new suitor. Will it be Toronto? Could he come home to Boston? Is there another team out there lying in the weeds waiting to swoop in and offer him max dollars and the lure of opportunity?

That’s what we’ll all have to wait to find out.

In the meantime, it appears that sticking with the team that picked him was good enough for O’Gara, and for that- the Bruins are grateful. However, unless or until the NHL can address the NCAA rules in the collective bargaining agreement and how player rights are handled at present, there will be a buyer beware tag associated with kids either drafted out of the college ranks or headed there.

You can’t fault some of them for taking advantage of the options available to them, but you can bet that no other team wants to be in Nashville’s shoes a year from now or two…or three. Here’s some more on the situation from TSN’s Frank Seravalli

The Bruins now have a pair of high-profile later collegiate picks that have stuck by their team in O’Gara (who admittedly has yet to make it official- will feel better once he signs on the dotted line) and Zane McIntyre, who gave up a year of eligibility to sign with Boston last summer. Slightly different circumstances, but because of when the team had drafted him (2010), he could have pursued free agency. His only decision was whether to sign with the Bruins (which he did) or stay in school, but like Nashville, the B’s could have looked on helplessly as he said “no thanks,” and pursued opportunities with a different Johnny-Come-Lately organization.

This is why relationships and player development is so important. That’s not to say Nashville didn’t invest that with Vesey- they did. But loyalty is a two-way street and at least in the case of O’Gara and McIntyre, they felt strongly enough about the time spent in the organization and the roots they had put down over the summers when they were able to work with the coaches, and then during the seasons when team officials visited them and in between, to stick with the team that brought them to the dance.

But not every story may turn out the same way in Boston, so let this serve perhaps as a cautionary tale going forward. It may also create a climate in which NCAA teams will pay the price through the law of unintended consequences, as NHL clubs might sign their kids away from those college teams earlier than ever to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

TSP put out on March 12 that Danton Heinen was going to turn pro after the season and I stand by that report (with multiple source input). Although the kid himself has said no decision has been made yet, and I respect that given his team is in the Frozen Four happening in a couple of weeks, all that’s left to do is for the ink to dry on his NHL contract. If the Bruins had any thoughts about not signing their 2014 fourth-rounder before, you can rest assured those doubts are gone now.

If only every decision were that simple.

Rob O'Gara 1010152

Rob O’Gara looks on during an on-ice session at the 2014 Boston Bruins development camp (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Sean Kuraly and Danton Heinen update plus NCAA playoffs & the underrated Matt Benning

As tweeted out over the weekend, several reliable sources told me that Denver University sophomore forward Danton Heinen will turn pro after he plays his last game for the Pioneers. What remains to be seen is how soon the Boston Bruins will sign their fourth-round selection from the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.

With the team at 47 contracts and allowed a max of 50, the B’s have some decisions to make on timing of signings, as in addition to Heinen, there are three other NCAA seniors that will need NHL deals before August 1: Matt Grzelcyk, Rob O’Gara and Sean Kuraly, who was acquired from San Jose last June along with the Sharks’ first-round selection for goaltender Martin Jones. With respect to Heinen, he has NCAA eligibility remaining, and the other guys don’t, so that’s a total of four contracts assuming the B’s sign all of them.

Last weekend, the RedHawks and captain Kuraly saw their NCAA tournament hopes dashed by the University of Minnesota-Duluth, who knocked them out of the NCHC playoffs. That makes Kuraly eligible to sign now and go to Providence on an ATO to finish out the season in the AHL if the Bruins so choose. Whether they will do so is going to come down to an internal organizational decision, as the 23-year-old center is less of a scoring/top-six type of forward and more of a bottom-six/grind-it-out checking player who plays a heavy game but doesn’t bring much in the way of a high offensive ceiling for the NHL.

Kuraly is coming off of a disappointing statistical season- one that saw him crash from a career-best 19 goals as a junior to just six tallies in 36 games with head coach Enrico Blasi’s Redhawks. He’s a good skater for his 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame and has a hard, heavy shot. The Ohio native is not all that creative nor does he bring much of a high-end skillset with the puck. He’s a good faceoff man and penalty killer, so there’s promise here- not everyone can progress on to the NHL and once there, then slot into a prime scoring role. In Kuraly’s case, he’s always been one of those players whose game and versatility translated more as a checking forward at the highest level and there’s nothing wrong with that. One member of the Bruins organization told me hours after the trade bringing Kuraly to Boston went public that they were hoping he would one day be a third-liner for them, so even at the most optimistic period- coming off a career year in Oxford- the B’s didn’t have many illusions about what type of player he was going to project as for them.

That brings us back to Heinen. To say his upside is considerably bigger than that of Kuraly is an understatement. After a tough team start offensively (DU was just 7-7-4 and 3-4-1 in the NCHC back in late December- the Pios finished with a 17-5-2 conference record, going 14-1-1 after the halfway point) Heinen and the Pacific Rim line went into overdrive when the calendar turned over to 2016 and he’s been absolute dynamite since February. The versatile winger who played LW for Jim Montgomery as a freshman after being a center in junior hockey, has been over on the right side this season with Trevor Moore on the left and Dylan Gambrell in the middle. Denver just knocked University of Nebraska-Omaha out of the postseason, with Heinen playing a prominent role and his 18 goals in 36 games leads the club (he’s third overall in scoring behind his linemates with 40 points). Even if the Pioneers don’t win the NCHC (they face stiff competition in the Frozen Faceoff to include No. 1-ranked North Dakota), they’re a lock for the NCAA tournament, which means he could be playing into April and won’t be available until late March or into the middle of April.

We’ll leave it to the Bruins to figure it out- timing is an issue for Heinen signing, but it’s a done deal that he will not stay another year in the NCAA, as he has reportedly told the Pioneers of his desire to move on. So, when the Bruins officially announce the signing (whenever that happens), you’ll know the decision was in the works for some time.

Meanwhile, the B’s will have to see what happens out East as well, with a pair of senior defensemen in Grzelcyk and O’Gara who are wrapping up their collegiate careers. Grzelcyk’s BU Terriers were unceremoniously bounced by the upstart UMass-Lowell Riverhawks, who got some outstanding goaltending from Kevin Boyle (a UMass castoff, btw- I bet the Minutemen could have used him, eh?) but are expected to make the NCAA tournament card, so we’ll have to see how that plays out first.

Also knocked out of the Hockey East tourney in surprising fashion- the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (and B’s prospect Anders Bjork) by Northeastern University, featuring B’s 2012 draft choice Matt Benning on defense. The 21-year-old junior and nephew of Vancouver Canucks GM (and former Boston AGM) Jim Benning is a defense-first guy who plays bigger and with an impressive physical edge for possessing pretty average size at 6-foot, 200+ pounds. He’s posted a career-best five goals this season after not finding the back of the net at all last year (his 24 assists/points still rate as his highest NCAA single season total to date). Benning isn’t going to wow you- he’s a consistent presence if nothing else. He’s not flashy or dynamic but is smart and rugged. He fills lanes quickly, gaps up well, and will pop you good if there are any thoughts of trying to cut to the middle- keep the head on a swivel when Benning is out there for the Huskies. His father, Brian, played more than 500 NHL games as a defenseman and tallied nearly 300 career points, so while his career wasn’t all that long (he retired at age 29), he was an impact two-way threat/effective puck-mover who was at his best in the late 1980s with the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings. Matt Benning is a chip off the old block- he’s got nice vision, the ability to make an effective first pass and a willingness to join the rush, not to mention the little bit of nasty he brings to bear during the trench battles along the walls and in front of the net.

Come to think of it, young Benning might be one of the most underrated prospects in Boston’s system. He’s rarely discussed or talked about and because he’s a sixth-round pick, he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to NHL draft pedigree. He’s been nothing but solid since the B’s drafted him- helping the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints win the 2013 Clark Cup championship and being one of head coach Jim Madigan’s go-to guys (he was an alternate captain this season). With his active stick and watching him effortlessly slide across the ice to put a shoulder into an encroaching opponent and often times get the better of physical matchups against bigger players, there is a lot to like about Benning and his pro future, even if he isn’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Here’s an excellent Hockey East All Access feature on him (including the tidbits about his grandfather Elmer, longtime NHL scout and his efforts to have his son and grandson get involved with figure skating as youngsters to improve their balance, edging and overall mobility):

Everyone is excited to see how NU will do against Boston College (and Ryan Fitzgerald) this coming weekend’s semifinal match in their bid for Hockey East supremacy.

As for O’Gara, he and his Yale second-seed mates were bounced out of the ECAC tourney over the weekend in two close, hard-fought games by the seventh-seed Dartmouth Big Green. Dartmouth’s goaltender stopped nearly 96% of the shots he faced in overtime and regulation wins Friday and Saturday. Yale played well enough to win those games, but the offense failed them at a critical juncture. O’Gara and Yale will find out their NCAA tournament fate (along with BU) on March 20 when the entire field of 16 teams (which includes the automatic-bid six conference champions) is announced.

If neither BU nor Yale get a chance to see their seasons extended, then Boston’s hand could be forced sooner rather than later.

Things are heating up…not just a sign of the coming spring but on the ice for the NCAA playoffs as well.