Don’t make the mistake of being fooled by those questioning a couple of first round picks in the last two drafts.
Certainly the first round pick of Zach Senyshyn in 2015 and the late first round selection of Trent Frederic can be looked upon as reaches of different kinds: Senyshyn is a player the Bruins scouts were gambling would turn into the offensive stud he became last season for the Soo Greyhounds, and Frederic was simply a “safe pick” of a big, fundamentally-sound center with an organizational mandate to get bigger down the middle. It is fair game to wonder if players selected after them, like Kyle Connor, Matthew Barzal, Travis Konecny or Colin White in 2015 or Alex Debrincat and Pascal Laberge in 2016, will develop into better, more explosive players at the NHL level.
But that is more quibble than major criticism.
Absolutely nobody should be questioning the job Keith Gretzky did as the director of amateur scouting for the Bruins over the last three years taking over a barren system of prospects. That might be the sours grapes-level muttering in some corners as Gretzky joins up with “the enemy” out of Edmonton for a promotion to assistant GM, and in doing so becomes the first key Black and Gold official to defect to Peter Chiarelli’s Oilers operation.
But anybody watching the sheer number of prospects on the ice for last month’s Bruins Develop Camp, while still missing two of the best prospects in Senyshyn and Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, saw proof positive that Gretzky knows how to scout, evaluate and draft talent that will eventually turn into NHL players. That’s something that eluded the Bruins with previous scouting director Wayne Smith, but immediately changed once the Great One’s younger brother got his hands on the scouting wheel in 2013.
Clearly Chiarelli and Don Sweeney deserve some credit as GMs during that time, and the current Bruins GM was the guy swinging deals to make sure the Black and Gold had a whopping five first round picks over the last two Junes.
There’s also clearly enough credit go around to assistant amateur scouting director Scott Fitzgerald, NCAA scout Ryan Nadeau, Western Canada scout Dean Malkoc and key talent evaluators like Adam Creighton, John Ferguson Jr. and Scott Bradley that are still very much a part of the collaborative scouting operation. The Bruins have a vast and talented network of talent evaluators, but Gretzky provided an experienced, hard-working and realistic voice at the top of the department rolling out the organizational marching orders.
Those qualities, and the experience behind them, will be difficult to replace knowing what the draft-and-development arm of the organization was like before his arrival.
Right now 19-year-old David Pastrnak stands as his best choice, a player that made an immediate impact as the youngest skater in the NHL two years ago. But just because you can’t reel off Gretzky’s greatest hits beyond stealing David Pastrnak with the 25th overall pick in the 2014 first round, it doesn’t mean they’re not on the verge of breaking through in Boston.
Beyond names like Pastrnak, Carlo and Heinen, Jeremy Lauzon, Jake DeBrusk, Jakob Zboril and Charlie McAvoy all look like bona fide NHL players already while there’s a very good change that two more picks from 2014 (Ryan Donato and Anders Bjork) will develop into NHL contributors as well. If one of those D-man prospects turns into a bona fide No. 1 defenseman, the Bruins could build a core group of players out of the young talent assembled in the last three years.
It’s way too soon to know about 2016 picks like Frederic and Ryan Lindgren, but there’s no reason to think they won’t be able to help the organization at some point. The point is this: even taking 2-3 every day NHL players from a draft class would be a successful haul for any scouting department, and the Bruins could be on the verge of much, much more from each of the three draft classes under Gretzky’s watch.
The simple truth is that it’s too soon to judge those draft classes based on NHL players produced because the oldest drafted players are 20-21 years old, and only now are some of them, like Danton Heinen, beginning to become fully developed for NHL action.
But all signs point toward this departure registering as a blow for the draft-and-development efforts that refocused under Sweeney, and carried out by Gretzky on the draft floor. Wayne Gretzky’s younger brother admitted to the Edmonton Sun on Tuesday that it was too damned tempting to return to the Edmonton city where his brother became a hockey god.
“It’s one of those things that, when it happened, it kind of hits you — wow, it’s Edmonton!” said the 49-year-old Gretzky to the Edmonton Sun. “It’s like an Original Six team to me because of Wayne and all the tradition there and being so close to it. I never thought I’d be going to Edmonton. It’s a great situation that I’m really excited about.
“That’s probably one of the reasons the Bruins let me talk to Peter, because of the situation. To be part of a group trying to get the Oilers back to where they used to be is a great privilege. We’re going to make sure we turn this around. It’s great to be a part of that.”
There’s no blaming Gretzky leaving for a better position with an Oilers organization that’s tied together so tightly with his family, and there’s nothing the Bruins should have done to stand in his way either. But now the B’s have another major hole to fill within the organization structure while still facing a gaping hole or two on their NHL roster headed into another season fully in question.
Joe Haggerty can be followed on Twitter: @HacksWithHaggs