Happy Camp Opening Day, everybody!
Today, plenty of young prospects who’ve been going through some optional skates throughout the month of december and have largely been AHLers, in-betweeners, and brief European hockey stars while waiting for opportunities to open back up here in the states. That ends today.
Or really, it ended on the 31st of December, as the Bruins decided that now was time to move on from Zdeno Chara, after some deliberation post-Torey Krug exit, leaving two spots on the left side open.
Today begins the biggest week of the lives of all of their prospects of course, but their Left D prospects especially: Urho Vaakanainen, Jeremy Lauzon, and Jakub Zboril, as well as recent college signings Jack Ahcan and Nick Wolff.
What needs to be filled, and how they’ll be supported:
2nd pair and 3rd pair left defense on the Boston Bruins, namely a team that will be playing a bunch of games against American Eastern Conference regulars in short order. Not a small ask whatsoever, but that’s what prospects dream of: One day becoming the next piece of an NHL team’s success after somebody gets shipped out.
The good news for them is that they’ll have plenty of help; Matt Grzelcyk’s solid 200-foot defender style has rocketed him up the chain to become the #1 Left Defender if only by default, ensuring they won’t be asked to do something crazy like play 20 minutes unless something goes wall-eyed, and Boston’s right side as it stands is pretty good! Starting with:
- Charlie McAvoy, who will almost certainly be the best decision Don Sweeney has ever made at the draft
- Brandon Carlo who could easily be the best thing about the infamous 2015 draft.
- A solid, if a bit squirrelly, defender in Connor Clifton, or a solid if injury prone defender in Kevan Miller, depending who you like better.
All of whom have played significant minutes, all of whom have significant experience as NHL defenseman in playoff games, in close games, in overtime situations, in the new overtime situations, in wins and in losses, the works. Unless there was an arrangement for Zdeno Chara, Nick Lidstrom, and Ray Bourque to coach all the prospects personally over the next several months, they will be placed in as good a position as any to succeed.
The bad news is that with the truncated schedule, and even more truncated training camp, it’s unlikely we’ll have a clear answer straight away. Even the best performance in camp skirmishes and scrums won’t be safe once we get to see their skills up against live targets in about a week.
These prospects not just have to prove themselves to pundits and fans, but most importantly, to Bruce Cassidy, who makes all final roster decisions by game time of x day, and Cam Neely/Don Sweeney are all too willing with this team to let him do that thanks to his well-earned record as bench boss. Simply put, they may start here at camp, but their last day to take the job may come well into March.
While all three of the young players have their individual upsides, but the big one for the defensive depth this year is Kevan Miller and his health. Miller is a perfectly solid depth defender, but has the unenviable position of having to rehab a shattered patella over an entire year, which is only the most recent on a list of increasingly troubling injuries he’s received over the years, and this camp (and probably the first couple of games of the season) will help determine whether or not he’s still capable of handling NHL level competition. He’s shown plenty of instagram photography of him working out and looking like he’s still in game shape, but we all know the funny thing about comeback songs and dances from the last guy who kept bringing them up: They don’t end well if all that working out doesn’t translate to success here.
For each of the three youngsters, each have at least a pair of edges the others can draw upon:
- For Lauzon, his X-factors is unquestionably his Aggression and Experience. Jeremy Lauzon is a player with plenty of the skills that any defender would want (good skater, good battler in the corners, physical), the willingness to use his body has to be a major plus for any Bruins fan who wants the Bruins to remain “big and bad” only as a warning, and not a descriptor. Lauzon’s a player who plays like every shift can be an opportunity to show how big and mean you can be, and as a result seemed to ingratiate himself most of all to Bruce Cassidy, having by far the most NHL experience out of the bunch. However, his ability to actively create zone-exits is a bit suspect, and the biggest problem Lauzon has faced is his own X-factor. Simply put, the kid cannot get his aggression completely under control, having the highest PIM of all three of the frontrunners; even in pro level action. But even with that, it’s clear Lauzon remains the front-runner among the front runners. One of those two jobs will be his to lose.
- Vaak’s X-factors are generally about his Dependability and his Upside: he has been largely a player that the B’s see some form of promise: being a staple player in recent training camps, usually playing in the top 4 against fellow prospects (or in some cases, actual NHL rosters), and recently returned from SaiPa in Finland, and in NHL action, only really limiting his rookie mistakes in comparison to the other two to maybe twice a game, at least in comparison to his compatriots who could sometimes make major mistakes with the puck several times in a row. And regarding his upside, while it’s true he had a mere 14 points at the end of the year, he also finished the year before with similar numbers except far less clustered in the assist column like his first season in the AHL was. If the season had ended when it should’ve, there’s little reason to suspect he wouldn’t have beaten that total handily. I contend that while he did undoubtedly needed seasoning, it’s clear the Bruins either see their future through him: Either as a player, or if you’re to believe the rumors, him as a trade chip, which is kind of bizarre, but we can choose to see it as praise.
- For Zboril, it’s a combo of Physicality and Consistency in Production. Unlike Lauzon, whose aggression can sometimes hamper his ability to be a presence, and Vaakanainen, who has only recently joined the AHL squad, Zboril has taken to North American physicality with a level of quiet interest, and has been an open fan of how hitting works in the north american leagues. Of course, if that doesn’t pique your fancy, he’s been a pretty rock-solid defender and definitely passer over the past couple of years; clocking 19 points without fail among youngster d-men for the past three years as a P-Bruin regardless of where he was in the lineup and in a game that’s often chaotic and confusing, it’s not too often that coach’s go with the safer option to try and smooth out that chaos. Does it translate to NHL success? We’ve yet to see them really go for it, as he’s played the least amount of NHL games out of these three.
What if it doesn’t work out?:
They’ll trade for a guy.
...What? They’ve done it before.
If you’ll remember, there was an eventful but deeply frustrating time before Charlie Coyle, where the Bruins were effectively trying to figure out what their third line was going to look like, primarily by giving it a mixture of veteran presence combined with a host of wing and center prospects who rotated out on a semi-regular basis and while there were combos that did show promise, ultimately the team decided that it couldn’t realistically wait around for it’s prospects to get better at hockey, and just went for a more sure-fire thing in a proven depth player from another organization: shrink-wrapped and ready to go, and then support that guy with decent forwards.
Now obviously that worked out; Coyle and the Bruins were a match made in heaven, which is always a good thing, but those months prior to the trade also gave a good hard look at where the forward strength in the prospect depth was seen by the team and the league at large, and it wasn’t exactly...positive. To the point that now, the forward with the best chance to graduate from Providence and still has the most buzz around him is still Jack Studnicka, a good five years after he was drafted. It wouldn’t hurt to at least put somebody from that 2015 squad, or Stud’s 1st rounder brethren on the Boston Bruins.
Otherwise...sheesh. It’ll look pretty grim on the kind of player Don Sweeney has been putting into the organization for the past half-decade that three or maybe even five players can’t even beat the 7th d-man of the last two years who was by and large the weakest link on the ice whenever he was out there. But that’s what happens when you can’t grab an opportunity: the coach gives the chance to the guy who’s already being paid enough to say he’s earned it.
Simply put, this is a big week and a half:
All training camps are important. This one’s arguably even bigger, as the Bruins have less time than ever to make decisions on how their team is going to look for the upcoming year and maybe the year after that. It could even define how Boston looks for the next decade, in a good or bad way.
And given how that’s gone for the other teams in the area recently, these young guns may want to make the most out of this and make the future a fun thought. For all our sakes.
Who do you think is going to make the Bruins from their defense prospects?
This poll is closed
They’ll PTO a guy before the season starts
WOLFF AND AHCAN, BABY. #NCAAPRIDE