In the summer, the signing of Frank Vatrano to his home-state NHL team went almost unnoticed outside New England. The 21-year-old from UMass-Amherst had given some hint of talent last year in the NCAA with 18 goals in 13 games, but even he would probably have admitted that this first season would be one that would see him working hard in the AHL in hopes of a step up, but mainly focused on a solid season of development.
Indeed, there were few who even saw him as having a sniff of the Bruins roster this season. After all, this was simply not a player with the kind of explosive pedigree that would see them make waves in the big leagues...but a low-risk development project who might, at some point, pay off.
Then Vatrano was paired with Austin Czarnik and Alex Khoklachev in the AHL, and magic happened.
Vatrano's joyful abandon in the offensive zone and will to fire pucks on net like a human machine-gun meshed perfectly with his linemates love of a pass and creative instinct to produce one of the most deadly lines the AHL has seen in a while-the two combined for 16 goals, 10 scored by Vatrano before his callup to the Bruins recently.
Since his callup to the NHL Vatrano has spent most of his time flitting between the second and third lines, and wasted no time getting onto the NHL scoresheet with a goal in his first game...against Montreal, no less. His shooting has declined in volume a little (he's fired 18 shots in his six games spend mostly on a line with David Krejci and Loui Eriksson) but what's key here is the QUALITY of those shots.
Vatrano's shot is not necessarily the heaviest shot nor is it the most deadly aimed (his shooting percentage is, naturally, not among the highest on the Bruins) but it is accurate enough to find the net area more often than not and force the goalie into making a save. More important still than that, it's consistently accurate enough.
The NHL has developed over the years into a league where shooting is seen as more of a science than an art - it's all about "taking good shots" and "making most of scoring opportunities"...and admittedly the advanced stats revolution has very much aided the way in which we see the game and measure the importance of every little thing on ice.
Through the stats we can see that of 25 shot attempts Vatrano has taken, 18 have made it through to the net. That's 72% of shot attempts that have forced the goalie into a save. That's an impressively high rate...it's basically saying that for every ten shots Vatrano takes, seven have a clear scoring chance.
Now imagine that you put a player who makes a clear scoring chance with seven of every ten of his shots with a player with a higher than average ability to feed him for those shots...say one that can give him five shots a game. That's at least three clear scoring chances a game for one team alone. In a league where the average number of shots in total fired a night is around 30-35.
Essentially, what the Bruins could have if they put Frank Vatrano with a creative set-up man and get him the puck on a regular basis is a sniper rifle they can load and fire at will in the offensive zone, with a high guarantee that even if that shot doesn't score, it'll get through to the net and force the goalie into a save.
That's the kind of forward that teams crave in an NHL where shot-blocking has become the watchword and defensive systems are focused in making scoring chances as low percentage as possible by stopping the pucks before they even get to the net. In this league, a shoot-first gunner is not always considered an asset, but combine that with a high ability to get pucks actually on net and shoot often and well while getting themselves in the "right" situations, and you have a heck of an asset.
A top-six asset, in fact.
If there's a problem with Vatrano being used this way, it's that he needs a strong, solid two-way winger on the other side. Someone like...say, Loui Eriksson. He'll likely struggle if forced to play a stifling, defensive, two-way game.
Vatrano is, in basketball parlance, a "gunner". Gunners are not traditionally popular players in Boston-they're seen as wasteful, selfish and high-maintenance luxuries by many.
But in this new NHL, where scoring is not so much a matter of getting more shots than another team as getting more quality shots through, he's shown himself so far to be that rare player who can blend quantity and quality.
He deserves to be given a chance to continue to do that for the Bruins and used in offensive situations more and more often...those like top-six time, who traditionally end up against the other teams' best defensive forwards and pairings...or on the powerplay.
If he is used in that way and not forced into a "depth forward" role that will see his best assets wasted, then the Bruins will see the benefits on the scoreboard sooner rather than later