WILMINGTON – Sharp-shooting Frank Vatrano will finally get another well-deserved crack at the NHL lineup with the Boston Bruins struggling for offense down the stretch.
The Black and Gold have scored just nine goals in their last six games, and have watched both wingers Brett Connolly (one goal in his last 13 games) and Jimmy Hayes (one goal in his last 18 games) turn ice cold down the stretch. So instead of flying the 22-year-old Vatrano all the way across the country as an emergency recall without actually using him as they did last week, the Bruins have called him up this week with the express purpose of injecting his offense into the lineup.
That offense helped Vatrano score 33 goals in 33 games at the AHL level as the league’s leading goal-scorer, and the talented winger is on the verge of scoring 40 goals between the NHL and AHL in his first full pro season. The UMass standout said his last stint in the AHL was important to gain confidence in all areas he’ll need to perform in for Boston, but he also very clearly doesn’t have anything to prove offensively at the American Hockey League level.
Perhaps even more exciting for such a young guy was the way he handled his demotion to the AHL. While some might sulk or take it a bit negatively while headed back to the minor leagues, Vatrano went on a mission to offensively obliterate everything in his path.
Vatrano pumped 23 goals and 37 points into his next 23 games for the P-Bruins, and had a couple of hat tricks and six multi-goal games in a form of dominance that was screaming out for another call-up.
“I’m here for more experience, and I’m excited to be here,” said Vatrano, after skating with Landon Ferraro, Noel Acciari and Tyler Randell on the fourth line at practice. “I went down there to get some confidence back in my offensive game, to play more minutes, a lot of power play and first two lines. I think going down there has really helped me get in this position for another shot to play in the NHL.
“Playing in the AHL has been a good development for me. I accomplished a lot down there, but then again Boston thought it was my turn to come up. So I’m here to make the most of my opportunity.”
The Bruins will be looking to get a goal-scoring transfusion from Vatrano with nine games remaining and the Bruins in a dog fight for playoff position. If things go well then Vatrano will provide the Black and Gold consistent offense from a spot below the top forward lines that have produced big numbers for Boston all season.
Vatrano skated with the fourth line on Tuesday in his first session since rejoining the team, but it remains to be seen where he permanently slots back into the forward mix. If the Bruins want to maximize his offensive impact than a third line or greater role, and some power play time, should be in his future, and more healthy scratches might in the offing for struggling players like Connolly and Hayes. Both underperforming wingers were kicking up to the press box during the ugly California road trip, and had little impact in any of the games they did actually dress for.
So what can Vatrano do to make a different kind of impact?
“Some scoring…some secondary scoring. I think that’s been lacking to be honest with you," Claude Julien said. "Our top two lines have been producing on a fairly regular basis, so we need some secondary scoring. If he gets in there with the way that he can score, hopefully he can give us some of that.”
That’s an area Vatrano could provide instant offensive juice, and the Bruins have the kind of solid flexibility to swing Loui Eriksson over to the right side if they want to truly play around with their line combinations. It will obviously be up to Vatrano to see if he can find a little more shooting space in late season, high intensity games, and bring a little more of skating and feistiness to go along with his pure shooting ability.
“We know he’s scored a lot over there [in the AHL], and he’s scored six with us here. Three were in one game. So he’s scored some goals here, but certainly not at the same level as he was at the American Hockey League,” said Julien. “Our goal is to hopefully get him to do that here. A guy that comes out of college should have the ability to develop in a positive way versus giving him too much.
“Sometimes that can slow down the development of a player when things are over his head. So we sent him back there [to the AHL] to play at one point, he’s done a good job and now he’s up again . . . we’ll see what happens from here.”
For weeks now, Bruins fans and media types have wondered how much it was going to take before Vatrano would get another chance in Boston after again lighting up the AHL. Now the East Longmeadow, Mass. native gets another shot with a Bruins team that needs him, and red light results would be beneficial for both individual player and his hometown organization hungry for the playoffs.