Back in early November, Frank Vatrano's tenure with the Bruins lied in the hands of David Pastrnak's health.
That may not be the case anymore.
Vatrano has skated with the Bruins for 24 NHL games, his latest coming against the Washington Capitals in the Bruins' 3-2 loss at the TD Garden Tuesday night. Against an overpowering Capitals third line, Vatrano recorded one shot in 12:40 of ice time. With Pastrnak nearing return from his fractured left foot, there should be more to come for Vatrano with the varsity team this season. And instead of departing Boston, Vatrano may be the reason why a teammate gets sent down 95 South to Providence.
The 21-year-old has yet to record a point since the night he netted a hat-trick against Pittsburgh on Dec. 18 in the Bruins' 6-2 win. Vatrano has five goals and one assist, but it's not the numbers the Bruins are interested in. It's his versatility and reliability that's transformed Vatrano from a call-up to an NHL starter. The Bruins have gone through a mix-and-match with Vatrano, gaining trust along the way. He's served as the No. 1 right wing. He skated with David Krejci prior to his injury. Recently, Vatrano has found himself on the No. 3 forward pairing, this time playing left wing.
Vatrano's flexibility and reliability bode well for the Bruins. His progression has given him breathing room from seeing another Providence assignment any time soon. But as many young players know, job security is anything but certain. Inexperienced skaters are constantly auditioning for their jobs.
Vatrano's audition, though, may keep him with the Bruins longer than expected.
While Pastrnak's fate continues to unfold, Vatrano's hasn't. Upon his return from playing in the World Junior Championships with the Czech Republic, the Bruins assigned Pastrnak to Providence. The Bruins activated Joonas Kemppainen off injured reserve following Tuesday's loss, giving them 13 forwards, including the suspended Brad Marchand. With the activation of Kemppainen, the Bruins reached the 23-player maximum.
Once Pastrnak reaches full health, he'll seemingly rejoin the Bruins. If the Bruins don't have any injuries by then, they will likely have to assign a forward to Providence. Vatrano's stint with the varsity squad leads no indication that he'll be the one packing his bags for the AHL.
The emergence of Vatrano could also play a role in the future of Chris Kelly, who was placed on injured reserved in early November with a fractured femur. The 35-year-old Kelly is in the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.
Vatrano's trust amongst his coaches may solidify his future with the Bruins, and in the NHL, for some time. For Kelly, that could also mean treading into free agency this summer. Compared to Kelly's $3 million cap hit, Vatrano has a marginal $792,500 cap hit, per generalfanager.com. The rise of Vatrano, injury history, salary, and age could all impact the end of Kelly in Boston.
Meanwhile, Vatrano is only just beginning.
Christopher Bokum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris Bokum