Results aren’t everything in minor league hockey. For most organizations, the priority at the AHL level is getting players ready and developed to make the leap to the NHL.
On occasions, like Providence in 2019-20 prior to a league shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teams will find success as they continue to churn out prospects. When the league suspended play in March 2020, Providence was the top team in the AHL’s Eastern Conference and vying for the best record across the league.
During an abbreviated 2021 season, Providence continued its dominance, easily winning a three-team Atlantic Division. But last season, after such a strong start, Providence faltered as many of its top players see-sawed between Boston and the Ocean State. While new additions provided a small spark late in the year, Providence ultimately crashed out of the playoffs in the preliminary round.
Fast forward to last weekend. Providence played a pair of preseason games against the reigning Eastern Conference champion Springfield Thunderbirds, winning both by scores of 4-2 away on October 7 and 6-2 at home on October 8. Georgii Merkulov and Luke Toporowski turned heads, as did Justin Brazeau who emerged last season from ECHL Maine as a top contributor for Providence.
With so much roster flexibility and uncertainty, it’s hard to predict how a full AHL season will pan out. But what is possible is setting expectations for certain prospects and development goals. Here are a few storylines to watch for this season in Providence.
Big names will shine
Surprisingly, Providence will begin the season with the likes of John Beecher, Marc McLaughlin, and Fabian Lysell, all of whom were sent back down to Providence after Boston’s preseason concluded. For awhile, it seemed as if at least one would earn an opening day roster spot, but new skipper Jim Montgomery opted for experience and a more patient approach for his top prospects.
Nonetheless, while it may seem like a demotion, the moves will give the promising trio plenty of top-six ice time at the AHL level and should allow Providence to begin the season on a high note. Beecher and Lysell both appeared in Providence’s preseason finale, with the latter notching an assist. It shouldn’t take long for all three to catch fire down in Providence, making for an exciting early stretch.
That ECHL pipeline is still active
In 2020, partially due to a lack of players, Providence promoted their previous season’s leading scorer at the ECHL level, Samuel Asselin, and got immediate results. Last year, Providence found similar success with Justin Brazeau after the forward got off to a blistering start in Maine.
This year, the Bruins are hoping lightning strikes again with Keltie Jeri-Leon. The 22-year-old had 35 points (19g, 16a) with Maine last season and even scored one goal in two games with Providence. Brazeau levied his success from last season into an NHL preseason roster spot and had three points in Providence’s two preseason games last weekend. Jeri-Leon, who joined a Boston contingent at the NHL Prospects Challenge in September, may see similar success this year as he works his way up the ladder.
Still questions on defense, in net
While Providence has plenty of experience and pedigree among their forward ranks, the same can’t really be said about their blue line unit. Providence will get Jack Ahcan and Victor Berglund back, both of whom are looking to lead that defensive group this season and vie once again for NHL ice time.
But other new names are beginning to emerge: Kai Wissmann, Grant Gabriele, Nick Wolff, and Michael Callahan to name a few. Wissmann, a 27-year-old with pro experience in Germany, did get a few looks in preseason with Boston and seems like he could be a piece down in Providence this season to help with leading younger players. Callahan and Wolff lack experience but arrive with plenty of skill as Boston’s recent draft picks continue to enter the pro ranks with a ton of upside.
As for the goaltender situation, Boston waived Keith Kinkaid with the hope of assigning him to Providence. Kinkaid, much like Maxime Lagace did in 2019-20, is poised to be a stabilizer and veteran presence in the crease working with prospective goalies Brandon Bussi and Kyle Keyser. The trio should split ice time throughout the season, with Kinkaid and Bussi likely carrying most of the load.
Look for some surprise breakout seasons
Much of the attention across the Bruins organization goes to the first three forwards mentioned — Lysell, Beecher, and McLaughlin. But others will and have already started to steal the spotlight in Providence, namely Merkulov and Toporowski.
It’s more than just impressing in two AHL preseason games that has people excited about those two prospects. Merkulov, a one-and-done at Ohio State who signed with Boston last spring, and Toporowski seems poised to continue his scoring prowess in the pros after 199 points (96g, 103a) in 245 WHL games. When we did our organizational depth chart last month, we didn’t even mention Toporowski, who enters his first pro season with a ton of upside and could be the surprise of the season if he builds confidence early.
- Preseason MVP: Fabian Lysell
- Leading Scorer: John Beecher
- Breakout Player: Justin Brazeau
- Most Improved: Curtis Hall & Victor Berglund
- Defensive Standout: Michael Callahan
- Projected Regular Season Finish: 2nd or 3rd in Atlantic Division; Advance at least one round in Calder Cup Playoffs.