When this season started, a certain excitement hung about the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. The roster of the AAA Boston Bruins affiliate featured 7 “first year professionals” as Zdeno Chara so eloquently termed them. Prospects from the 2015 draft class, including two of the three first round selections, appeared on an accessible stage in Providence after most were scattered about the NCAA and CHL teams.
My least favorite aspect of the AHL is simple: if you’re good, you won’t be around long. Turning the clock back to the 2016-2017 season, Jake Debrusk (2015 1st rounder), only needed one season at the AHL level before the Bruins made him a mainstay on their roster. After a quiet start, he finished the season second in total points with 19 G, 30 A for 49 points, and in the playoffs, 6 G, 3 A, for 9 points. Summer of 2017, DeBrusk impressed in camp and come September made his bid for the roster in preseason play. He has now earned 2nd line duties with the big club and has scored several pivotal goals for the big club.
With so many to choose from, the 2017-2018 Providence alumni will have trouble prying a player out of a roster spot. Bench boss Bruce Cassidy has coached up the Boston squad, and the developed chemistry is clearly evident in the form of Boston’s smoldering record since December. As the trade deadline approaches, the Bruins have been rumored to be in on wingers and LHD’s. Natural centers Ryan Spooner (converted to winger) and Riley Nash have been white hot, playing themselves into a raise that the Bruins may not be able to afford.
At forward, the 3C position may be the most fluid position as the 2018-2019 hockey season approaches. As of now, your options at this position are NHL journeyman Riley Nash and 4th year professional Ryan Spooner. As far as cap hits go, Riley Nash has made in the neighborhood of $900K while Ryan Spooner makes a reasonable $2.8M after arbitration. At the dot, Riley Nash is hovering around a face-off percentage of 50, while Ryan Spooner has been at a point per game pace since his return. Nash’s defensive responsibility cannot be overlooked, as he will routinely block shots, backchecks wisely, and kills penalties. It would be no stretch of the imagination to see one gone via free agency, and the other gone via trade given their play and attractive cap hits.
Realistically, this opens up one roster spot with the big club, the return of Anders Bjork notwithstanding. He will be disqualified from this post as he began the year with Boston. He could become the next Danton Heinen, but that’s a story for another day.
As the Bruins experienced a rash of injuries early in the season, people asked about the viability of calling up Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, a highly touted 2nd rounder out of Boston University. After seeing him dress for the final game of the 2016-2017 season, it was evident he needed a full season of adjustment in the NHL. Of the bountiful crop of first-year professionals in the Providence pipeline, none has flourished more than JFK. He leads all “rookies” in points thus far, with 13 G, 14 A, and had a nifty shootout game winning goal against Springfield back in November.
JFK’s strengths aren’t only found in points: his defensive game would fit the responsible nature of the Bruins attack. Despite his age, he plays the game with a high hockey IQ and almost veteran poise. Instinctually, JFK possesses a shut-down game that can translate into offense by suffocating his opponent. An example of this would have to be this clip of a goal he scored against the Hershey Bears. The Hershey netminder goes to clear the puck out, but JFK knew where to be, intercepted the pass/clear, and beat the goalie back to his own net for the tally. Watch him calmly stick lift the Hershey defenseman, effectively neutralizing him, and smoothly skate in to exactly the right position to pick the puck off. Further, JFK’s faceoff win % hovers around 50, making him an effective pivot in all three zones.
Additionally, JFK possesses smart playmaking ability. 4 of his 14 assists come on special teams, 3 PP assists, and 1 shorthanded assist. He is an effective cog in a Providence special teams unit that has begun to find renewed life after a long dry spell. Recently, JFK was a playmaker for himself. Down 2 goals late in the 3rd period against Lehigh Valley, JFK made an outlet pass to teammate Kenny Agostino, who then shoveled a quick pass to Jordan Szwarz, and back to JFK after the latter flew up the ice scoring the goal himself. @BruinsNetwork posted this video on his twitter account featuring this crazy sequence. In his words, “The ‘clutch’ gene-[JFK]’s got it.”
With the NHL trending younger and faster, Riley Nash and Ryan Spooner are both pricing, and in Nash’s case, aging out of the 3C spot. Spooner has been on a torrid scoring pace, while Nash centers a line that propelled Boston’s offense for a while. The better they play, the higher salary they will command when this year, and their contracts are up. JFK’s dazzling play and attractive ELC cap hit should vault him to the NHL roster with a good showing in camp during the off-season.
I’d like to make an honorable mention for Peter Cehlarik here: he’s a good fit for the Boston offense. However, based on the rumor mill, Boston is targeting Mike Hoffman for the 2RW position to compliment David Krejci’s playmaking abilities. Whether a trade is made by the deadline remains to be seen. If Spooner and Nash both find new homes, and Hoffman is brought in for DK46’s line while JFK makes the roster, Cehlarik could face a lot of difficulty making it to Causeway Street.
On defense, the Boston Bruins made picking the defensive alumnus easy. Matt Grzelcyk needs no introduction after the injury to McQuaid gave him an opportunity to secure a spot on the Boston blue line. It took him no time at all to prove his skillset was ready for the show, as despite McQuaid’s return from IR, Grzelcyk remained in the lineup. Rob O’Gara has been pushing for an NHL job for a while, but his poise and decision making under duress have held him back. O’Gara has received two looks at the NHL level: one each at the beginning of the 2016-17 and 2017-2018 season. Neither have been anything close to a disaster, but he has yet to impress as Grzelcyk has. Instinct tells me he will make it to the NHL one day, but I’m not convinced it’ll be with the Bruins organization.
When Rask’s play (wrongfully) inspired talks of a “goalie controversy”, click-bait artists were focusing on the wrong goaltending duo for their contrived “controversy”. After a blistering season last year where he stole the starting goaltender job in Providence, Zane McIntyre regressed significantly to start the 2017-18 campaign. Goalie-on-loan Jordan Binnington from the St. Louis Blues organization had a league-leading GAA and SV% while McIntyre struggled to keep his team in games. To his credit, Zane managed to keep the contests close enough for the high-powered Providence offense to fill the back of the net before the opposing team could do the same.
With the play of backup Anton Khudobin reminiscent of Chad Johnston’s amazing 2013-2014 where he helped backstop the NHL Bruins to a President’s trophy as the backup, Anton is another skater playing himself into a hefty raise. The 31 year old Khudobin is having a career year with Boston, with 10 wins, 2 losses, and 4 overtime losses. His SV% and GAA stats are better than his career average, and at his age, will be looking for a deal equal to, or greater than the $1.2M cap hit he currently makes.
Zane McIntyre could be the heir apparent. If he plays out of his mind the back half of this year, and continues to post quality numbers, his $650K salary could anoint him to the Boston Bruins as full-time back up, where he would benefit from goalie coach Bob Essensa’s tutelage. Salary cap constraints could work to Zane’s advantage here.
Despite these mid-season projections, the future is uncertain in the best way. The prospect cabinet is stocked full, and youth movement has paid dividends. NCAA prospects Trent Frederic and Ryan Donato have been tearing it up at the collegiate level and may push for the 3C job in the same way Bjork begun the year with Boston. Providence may supply next year’s wave of talent, or we could see a dark horse push for a roster spot. The only certainty is that the Boston Bruins future is the brightest it has been in a long time.