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.