( Above Photo Credit: NHL . com )
By: Bob Mand Follow Me On Twitter @HockeyMand
The Boston Bruins’ rookie squad eviscerated their New Jersey Devils’ counterparts 9 to 3 to close out the 2017 Prospects Challenge in Buffalo Monday afternoon. Danton Heinen tallied a hat-trick, and the team’s top forwards poured goals into the New Jersey cage, putting the finishing touches on a solid experience for the boys in Black and Gold, who, even though they failed to come out victorious, still wound up as runners-up in the three-day tourney.
But what were these three ever so slightly above scrimmage-level tilts worth? Well, they revealed several key points about the rooks as they readied themselves for training camp.
The Boston Bruins Prospect Corps is Deep with a Dozen or More Players with NHL-level Upside.
After Charlie McAvoy, the standard hockey fan might find themselves hard-pressed to name a single Boston prospect. But we learned at the 2017 Prospect Challenge that the Bruins possess a wide range of talent with at least a half-dozen forwards and nearly the same number of defensemen possessing probable NHL-level upside.
This was most clearly evinced up front, where the Bruins rolled extremely deep in the Challenge. From Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson to Jack Studnicka, the Would-B’s brought some dynamic performances and steadying play – aside from a period in each of the first two games.
Heinen was clearly the best-rounded forward, albeit one of the most experienced. Jake DeBrusk was one of the more dynamic skaters at both ends of the ice and owns the requisite toughness, athletics, and skill to make the jump to the next level. Anders Bjork was exceedingly solid on the defensive side of the puck, and not too shabby offensively. I think, despite the wishes of some, Forsbacka-Karlsson, Zach Senyshyn, and Jessie Gabrielle could benefit from one or more years in the minors/juniors yet.
Of others I have not mentioned: Jakub Zboril, Jeremy Lauzon, Oskar Steen, Rob O’Gara – all could use additional seasoning in the minors/overseas… and guys like Trent Frederic, Ryan Donato, Urho Vaakanainen were not present at the showcase.
The Best Bruins Defensive Prospect after McAvoy and Urho Vaakanainen is…
( Above Photo Credit: NHL .com )
… Matt Grzelcyk. Though not possessing the top-tier upside of those frequently mentioned above him, the Charlestown native is clearly ready to contribute at least at a part-time level with the big club. He makes smart plays with and without the puck, he possesses a strong skating game, and while he may not have desirable size, he leverages his low center of gravity to his advantage.
This all must sound ludicrous with former high draft picks Zboril and Lauzon ahead of him on most lists, but those guys, despite their upside, look to be ways off yet. Grzelcyk is five seasons removed from his draft year (2012) and displayed the kind of productivity and steadying presence one might expect from a 23-year-old.
With a glaring hole on the third-pairing’s left-D (if the Bruins decided not to flip one of their righties around to their off-side) Matt Grzelcyk might enjoy a puncher’s chance of a spot on Boston’s opening-night roster if preseason goes as planned.
The Biggest Challenge facing the Boston Bruins prospects is…
Emotional balance… steadiness. Some might say ‘defense, ’ and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but in my estimation, their defensive struggles throughout the tourney were a symptom of being caught up in emotion, not necessarily from a lack of skill or intellect or positioning. The Bruins’ defense broke down the most on man-disadvantage situations – situations that they found themselves in all too often because of silly penalties or frustration. It’s something all young prospects have to deal with, but there were more breakdowns in ‘personal’ control with the B’s youngsters than their counterparts on the other squads. They were forcing plays this way and that. Very infrequently one could note a Bruins’ skater’s patience. Is this truly endemic? Time will tell.
That said, the team did come back from deficits of 2-0, 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 during the first two games of the tourney and bull-rushed the opposition in game three. So perhaps this isn’t a flaw so much as the effect of playing with an excess of emotion. If their capabilities – to will themselves to outstanding starts and thunderous resolve in chasing the front-runners – exhibit something deeper in the Bruins player selection during the Don Sweeney Era? It’s something to consider.
Five Bruins Prospects *Will* Make a Run at Roster Spots
I don’t think the five best Bruins’ rookies will make the best dashes towards the Spoked-B come October, but five of some level will.
Charlie McAvoy – This is the obvious one, isn’t it? McAvoy is all but labeled for a spot in the Bruins’ top four blueliners. Only an abysmal camp would shuffle him into the pressbox, let alone down I-95 to Providence.
Danton Heinen – Pretty simply the top forward for Boston during the prospect tournament. Heinen has NHL experience under his belt and the wisdom that comes with being years older than most of his rookie competition. Potentially, there exists a spot open in the Bruins top-six on Krejci’s left wing… and while I see Heinen as only a fringe top-sixer in his prime, he’s got the stuff to get there this year, leapfrogging the veteran competition and warding-off other rookie assaults.
Jake Debrusk – Not quite as polished as Heinen but possessing more upside, Debrusk might not be in the skill/readiness sweet-spot that the former occupies, but with a great Training Camp, his scoring line skillset should shine through and displace others in his path en route to Krejci’s right wing.
Matt Grzelcyk – The hole on Boston’s left side is the biggest reason the ready-now Grzelcyk could get the call up right away. He might benefit from a second year with the P-Bruins, honing his defensive skills… but the Bruins might not have time for that, should the righty-righty pairing of Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid prove unsuccessful.
Anders Bjork – The right-winger seems tailor-made for a spot next to Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand should David Pastrnak slot down the line or remain ‘unavailable’ through camp. A good skater who’s defensively responsible with good offensive instincts – he might be (and here’s wishful thinking) the Marian Hossa the line never had (equipment allergies aside). Ready to make the jump now, he could easily find his way in, even if Pastrnak remains, thanks to his bottom-six palatable two-way game.
Providence Signee Connor Clifton Will Collect an NHL Contract
I’ve been raving about Clifton’s game ever since Day One of the Prospects Challenge. He skates smoothly, is smart and cool under pressure defensively and plays the game with the kind of reckless abandon that’s becoming rarer and rarer in the modern NHL. Given his size and toolkit, he reminds me of a smaller Johnny Boychuk with a less-imposing shot. If his defensive game is as refined as I saw it to be during the Challenge and if he can improve his outlet passing, I could definitely see him breaking into an NHL squad somewhere down the road. It’s on Boston to scoop him up while they have the opportunity – and before other teams catch wind of his regenerated potential after a middling senior year at Quinnipiac University.