by Doug Watson
Yesterday was the 2nd to last day of the 2011 Bruins development camp and the first I was able to get over to Wilmington for. Like last year the event brought in a large number of Bruins fans anxious to get a glimpse of the future of the organization. And like last year, the kids in attendance did not fail to impress.
The morning started off with some on ice drills, many focusing on quick breakout/transitions and shooting. The drills seemed focused for two purposes; one, to get guys moving, stretched and attacking; and two, to see how quickly guys can turn the puck around and attack - an ability becoming more and more necessary for players' success in today's fast paced game.
The camp held quite a few impressive players in this regard, most notably Jared Knight whose cross over and explosive ability has improved significantly from last camp (where he did play with an undisclosed broken foot). Knight, one of two Bruins second round picks a year ago, has had a great camp overall, and is showing his larger frame, his increased speed and the well rounded play that makes him the most ready NHL player from camp in the minds of many. And it is true - expect him to come into the preseason camps even larger and ready to go. There will be an extremely strong case for him to be on the club and I wouldn't be surprised if he gets nine games or more at the NHL level in the 11-12 season.
Looking beyond Knight shows a number of other guys though that continue to show progress. Ryan Spooner also looks larger, quicker and closer to the NHL level than a year ago. His speed, vision, hands and creativity all make him a valuable asset to the organization and almost landed him a stint in Boston to start the season last year. This camp has gone well for him. The drills have shown him to be a stronger skater, one whose shot has improved significantly, and one who has also been more dedicated to the game in his own end. His work this past season under Doug Gilmour has helped here, but there's still work to do like always. Personally, I expect Spooner to be a player that the B's avoid rushing into the big leagues too quickly. Another year in the OHL will be beneficial for him as he works on play in all three zones. Doing so will make his transition easier and make him more likely to succeed both offensively and defensively as he's able to avoid a number of struggles he would face currently. Size wise, another year will likely help fill out his frame and protect him from injury.
Keeping with the second round prospect theme, latest additional Alexander Khokhlachev has me impressed. The youngest player drafted this year, he's had a bit of a time adjusting and learning things at camp this week but the skill and ability is there along with the effort and desire to succeed. The more I see of him the more I think of Jeff Skinner- a kid who is able to open up his frame while skating, survey the whole ice and pose an immediate threat through passing, shooting or shifting himself around a defender. He's quick and shifty and the figure skater like stance similar to Skinner's is something that has been extremely effective for guys like Jaromir Jagr and Sidney Crosby. Sunday's work on the power play showed him off the most as he worked with Cross and Hamilton up high and off the half boards, changing the angle of attack and opening up lanes that lead to quality chances. While he's a ways off still, he's definitely got the tool box to be one of the most talented offensive players the Bruins have in the future. Keep an eye on him as he develops next year in the OHL and makes a strong case for himself to be a young talent on the Bruins in the 12-13 season.
While the 2nd rounders were the main attraction up front for the Bruins, a number of guys drafted a bit later certainly came to play. This year's 3rd round pick Anthony Camara showed that he's got more in him than he's been given a chance to prove in Saginaw this past season. Camara didn't have an over the top season, showcasing more of the fisticuffs than the goal scoring but he is a young, tough kid that has some speed, decent hands and a desire to compete. Right along with him is 2009 sixth round pick Tyler Randell. Randell was looked to as a grinder and PK guy this past season in Kitchener but when the team was hit with a serious of injuries, he was one of the guys that took it upon himself to carry the team and play beyond expectations. His efforts in camp have also been good and have shown the confidence and comfort of someone who has been here before, has grown and is looking to excel at the next level. While he'll never be an offensive power house in the NHL, he could be pushing hard for fourth line time with work on the PK in coming seasons.
On the back end the Bruins have had a number of stand outs in camp. After having the chance to talk to his parents yesterday morning it was great seeing Ryan Button go out and continue to do what I have hoped to see from him. He's mobile, extremely quick and creative. He can manage the puck at the point well, create space where there is none and keep plays alive. He's also decisive on the rush while still being cautious. Overall, he's the top defender at this point. As has been pointed out, he does need to become a little less cautious when he gets into the big camp and be willing to show off what he can do but he has the ability to really make an impact at the next level. With a bit more size and experience, I expect him to make the jump.
Right on his heels though is first round pick Dougie Hamilton. Dougie was of course the highlight for many fans coming to attend today and for the most part, he played well. His inexperience did show a bit but you can tell that he's looking to learn to do things the right way, get them down and then perfect them- an invaluable mindset. He has the size, skating ability, hockey IQ and everything else to make it happen at the next level but he does have a number of areas to improve upon before doing so. His speed needs to be brought up a notch, his frame needs to be filled out slightly and he needs a bit more seasoning before he's exposed to the pro game. When looking at him though, it's hard not to believe that he could be pushing for a spot in the 12-13 season and that by 13-14 he could be taking serious minutes in a top pair role.
The biggest surprise today for me though was Milton Academy's Rob O'Gara. The Bruins did a great job scouting and picking O'Gara in the fourth round as he's another prospect with great skating ability, size and a high hockey IQ. On the ice today he was fluid, confident and played better than a kid coming out of high school would be expected to when looking at the competition. O'Gara is a defense first type player but picks great spots to make his presence known offensively. He's already able to play the physical game with the guys in this camp and hasn't been blown out of the water skating wise. Technically he's sound and will do himself well continuing with the game he's developing. He's back to Milton before heading to Yale for the 2012-13 season. His time at Yale might be shorter than needed to get a degree though if his progression stays on track.
Overall this camp appears to be another big success for the Bruins. The level of talent the organization has acquired has been great and the fact that the team has had success with a young, signed core has presented the opportunity for them to reach and go after a number of highly talented development projects (though to be fair, having 2 top 10 picks in the past 2 years hasn't hurt either). The organization is showing depth at a number of positions. Keep an eye on Kokholachev, Hamilton, O'Gara and Button as they develop over the coming season- they could be the most high end talents this organization adds in the near future. And be on the watch for Knight and Spooner as both will be fighting to make the team and make continual improvements to their games.
With a Stanley Cup a few weeks removed and the kids we're seeing in camp, it's a great time to be a Bruins fan.