If you go back about a month, the Bruins probably didn’t expect to have this problem.
Sure, there would be some roster decisions to be made, but those were more on the front end, right? Is Peter Cehlarik in, or no? Can Trent Frederic or Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson seize an NHL spot?
If there were questions on the blueline, they surrounded the health of Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo, who were looking to return to NHL action at 100%.
And if there were youngsters to wonder about on the blueline, they’d be discussing Jakub Zboril or Jeremy Lauzon, right? Right???
Instead, it’s September 27th, and the Bruins are faced with a dilemma: 19 year old Urho Vaakanainen is making a serious push for a spot on the NHL roster.
“I like him,” said Bruce Cassidy of the teenage Finn. “I thought he was very good tonight. [He] joins the rush effectively, at the right times,...he’s probably figuring out some of the guys, what plays are there to be made. I think he doesn’t look like he gets many shots blocked, so I think he does a good job of finding the lane.”
With a little less than a week until Opening Night, the play of Vaakanainen has thrown a little bit of a wrench into the Bruins’ smooth blueline plans: with the kid playing this well, what are they going to do with him?
The Bruins currently have 10 defensemen on their roster. In all likelihood, they are going to go into the season with Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug, John Moore, Brandon Carlo, Kevan Miller and Matt Grzelcyk as their main seven guys.
That assumes that Steven Kampfer will be headed to Providence, as will Jakub Zboril.
So what about Vaakanainen? For his part, he thinks he’s managed the transition from the European game to the American game pretty well.
“It’s a more up-and-down game here,” he said. “I think I’ve managed it very well...just try to play the puck up all the time to the forwards.”
Manage it well he has. The kid has opened eyes with his steady play in his own zone and with his ability to move the puck up efficiently.
But what, realistically, can the Bruins do with him?
As a left-handed defenseman, he’d be best used replacing another left-handed defenseman on the NHL roster. He’s not replacing Krug, Chara or Moore. If the Bruins wanted him in the NHL, they could try to play him on his off side (not ideal for a rookie), or could ask another defenseman to play on the off side (also not ideal).
The Bruins will probably be using a rotation early in the season until they nail down their ideal six-man unit; should they make Vaakanainen part of that rotation?
He’s not wanting for confidence: he thinks he’s ready.
“I think I can play in the NHL this season,” he said. “Competition is tough...there’s like 7, 8 NHL defensemen in front of me.”
Even if the Bruins decide Vaakanainen isn’t ready for regular NHL duty (or if they just decide they don’t have room for him), there are still questions about what to do next.
They could send him to the AHL, where he’ll get regular action against NHL-esque competition. Doing so would also keep him readily available if the B’s experienced a rash of injuries on the blueline.
They could also return him to Finland, allowing him to roam free on the larger ice sheet and develop at his own pace in a comfortable environment.
It’s a tough decision: keep him as an extra guy at the NHL level? Send him to Providence? Return him to Finland?
All three have their benefits, and all three have their drawbacks.
The best part? It’s a great problem to have. Vaakanainen has forced the Bruins to take a long, hard look at where he fits in their organization due to his strong play this September.
Vaakanainen knows that his road to the NHL isn’t a given, but has a goal in mind.
“It’s gonna be tough,” he said of playing in the NHL in the near future. “I’m just trying to make the coach’s decision hard.”
In that, he’s already succeeded.