Bruins

Haggerty: It's time for Bruins forward prospects to step up

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Haggerty: It's time for Bruins forward prospects to step up

If last season was the year of the young defensemen with both Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy breaking through at the NHL level, this should be the year of the forward for Boston’s stocked prospect group.

Bruins general manager Don Sweeney has made no secret that a couple of key positions up front are going to be open for competition, and that competition has officially begun with the start of B’s rookie training camp this week. The Bruins kick off their rookie camp with a Friday afternoon tilt against the Pittsburgh Penguins rookies, and continue on with games against the Devils and Sabres ahead of next week’s start to NHL training camp.

“We’ve always stated that we want to be a deeper team, a deeper organization from top to bottom.

"You have to have players that can push through, and push other players out,” said Sweeney. “We potentially have spots open, but we also have incumbents that don’t want to give spots up, players that broke through last year that are going to want to continue their own progressions.

“We have younger players that are coming online, that as we’ve laid out, the opportunity is going to be there and you’re the one that’s going to have to take advantage of that. We’ve seen players come out of the gate strong and then have sort of. . . as the rest of the players and the rest of the league gets better they kind of stay at the same level and realize that they have more work to do and that could happen. But we’re excited about the competition.”

The competition may certainly include a surprise or two in the bottom-6 where Sean Kuraly may earn a spot after last spring’s playoff heroics, raw prospects like Zach Senyshyn and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson will try to show they are ready with virtually zero pro experience, and young up-and-comers like Jesse Gabrielle will be hungry to impress Bruins management. But there could also be some very important roles up front where Bruins prospects will be given first priority to win NHL jobs over the next month. Clearly, there may be many different permutations where forwards will be mixed and matched during training camp, but the B’s need to find a skilled, finishing answer at left wing alongside David Krejci. That’s all assuming David Pastrnak is signed, sealed and delivered to Boston sometime soon for Krejci’s right side as he was for most of the season’s second half.

There may also be a job opening at right wing alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand as well, and that would be a plum assignment for any player looking to break into the NHL with a bang. So it’s a perfect time to be a Bruins forward prospect based on opportunity and timing meeting together at the ideal juncture. That's exactly where Anders Bjork, Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen find themselves on the cusp of NHL readiness.

Bjork is a natural left shot that’s played mostly right wing during his career at Notre Dame, and arrives with the most amount of hype as a speedy, gifted forward that could theoretically fit into either available spot. Bjork’s lack of pro experience also makes him the biggest question mark among the hopefuls, but the 21-year-old has already looked comfortable skating with the big boys at captain’s practice over the last week.

“It’s obviously exciting, but my focus is doing the best I can. Whatever game it is whether it’s preseason, rookie camp or whatever, my biggest focus is trying to win the game and do all I can to help the team win,” said Bjork, who finished with 21 goals and 52 points in 39 NCAA games last season. “There’s definitely [NHL] opportunity, but it’s opportunity that has to be earned. I’m just trying to do that.

“Guys like [Bergeron and Marchand] don’t really make mistakes. It’s kind of crazy to watch. It’s exciting and inspiring at the same time. It seems like a dream watching those guys when I was growing up, so it’s exciting that there’s a potential to play with them. But it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of focus.”

Heinen is the most seasoned of the three players after playing pro hockey for portions of the last two years, and the only one of the three with any NHL experience whatsoever. The 22-year-old admittedly struggled during his time in Boston going scoreless in eight games, and looked thoroughly invisible during his forgettable stints with the big club. But Heinen caught fire in the second half of the season with Providence and was a dominant point-per-game force (nine goals and 18 points in 17 playoff games) for the P-Bruins during their run through the AHL playoffs.

The high arc to his first full pro season has Heinen entering this training camp full of confidence, and ready to show all the offensive skills that made him an offensive stud during his time at the University of Denver.

“You learn how strong guys are and how hard they are on pucks, and you get a little better in those areas,” said Heinen, of his takeaway from last year’s experiences in Providence and Boston. “I did a bunch of work with skating coach this summer to be a little more efficient out there with my skating. It was a big confidence-booster for me to produce in the playoffs and during the big moments [for the P-Bruins].

“I don’t think I played as well as I can when I was up [in Boston]. I know I can play here. Mentally I might not have been ready, and now I just have to have that confidence that I can play here. Confidence is huge for me, and I felt really good down there. Now I just need to bring that into camp.”

Lastly the only first round pick of the bunch, Jake DeBrusk, similarly seems on a path toward getting a long look for a top-6 job with the Bruins. DeBrusk may be the most natural left wing of the three forwards and that may tilt him toward being a favorite to end up on Krejci’s line when it’s all said and done. The 20-year-old finished strongly last season for Providence and was considered for a call-up based on his productive rush in the AHL season’s second half. It never happened last season for DeBrusk as the Bruins were wise not to rush his development, but that has put him prominently in the mix for an NHL job this fall.

The one question about DeBrusk is his ultimate ceiling in the NHL after finishing with 19 goals and 49 points last season, but he feels the time is now for him to find out.

“I think the whole year of development helped me to get to where I am today,” said DeBrusk. “Grinding it out last year is going to help me going into this camp, but it makes me very comfortable going into this season. It’s pretty exciting. They’re looking for a good competition and they’ve got a lot of [young] guys vying for those spots. I’m just lucky to be one of them.

“I understand that and realize that. I’m really looking forward to fighting for a spot and trying to earn it. It’s going to be really competitive because we all want it really badly. It’s going to be execution and timing with certain things, but I’m really looking forward to getting it going.”

There are fallback options like free agent signee Kenny Agostino, and Frank Vatrano is still young enough at 23 years old to reclaim a prominent role on the wing in Boston, but it feels like the future is now up front for the Black and Gold. They’re counting on one or two of these forwards to pop this season just like Carlo and McAvoy did last year, and help fill in some of the existing blanks on Boston’s NHL roster.

Judging by the talent level of the players involved, it’s a safe to bet a couple of these prospects are ready for that kind of intense spotlight. 

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End of an era - Rancourt to retire as Bruins' anthem singer

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End of an era - Rancourt to retire as Bruins' anthem singer

BOSTON - The end of this hockey season will mark the end of an era for the Bruins.

After more than 40 years singing the American and Canadian national anthems at the Garden ahead of Bruins games, singer Rene Rancourt has announced he’ll be retiring at the end of the season. Rancourt, 78, began singing the anthems for the Black and Gold in the 1975-76 season and has become an iconic part of the Bruins game day experience with his signature mustache, fashionable vest and animated fist pumps after he’s done singing.

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The Bruins have invited a number of guest singers over the past 10 years in Rancourt’s stead, but it was always Rene singing at the big games over the years. Perhaps his biggest moment came in the first game after Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013 when he stepped away from the microphone and allowed the emotional crowd to sing the words to the "Star-Spangled Banner" against the Buffalo Sabres.

Rancourt was also known, of course, for singing Christmas carols between periods in the final home game prior to the holiday and for his operatic delivery of the anthems each time out.

According to the Bruins press release, Rancourt, an Army veteran from Lewiston, Maine, is a trained opera singer who first began singing the national anthem at Red Sox games in the 1970s.

The Bruins plan to honor Rancourt at the final regular-season home game on April 8 against the Florida Panthers, a makeup for the earlier date vs. the Panthers that was postponed by a snowstorm earlier this month.

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Haggerty: Julien returns to 'great city' and deserves one more moment

Haggerty: Julien returns to 'great city' and deserves one more moment

BOSTON - Claude Julien will get his rightful moment of adulation tonight in his return to the building he called home for a decade.

Similar to the long, warm and appreciative ovation he received after passing Art Ross for the all-time victories in Bruins history, a video montage in appreciation of Julien’s 10 years leading the B’s will be playing upon his first trip back to the Garden as coach of the hated Montreal Canadiens. 

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Another ovation from Bruins fans will undoubtedly follow and, true to his classy nature, Julien will surely acknowledge it in some way before jumping back into rivalry mode. He’ll also get stick taps and appreciative nods from his former players even in the middle of a hard-fought, divisional showdown with Montreal’s playoff lives on the line.

“He’s a great coach and a great person. He taught me a lot about how to play the game the right way in certain situations,” said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. “He was a great teacher. Anytime you have a teacher, you want to learn as much as you can.

“He was here for a long time and he did a lot of great things for the team, the organization, the community and everyone. So he should be recognized for that definitely.”

In the days leading up to his return for the first time since being fired last February, Julien has made no secret about the good feelings he still holds dearly from his time with both the Bruins and living in the city of Boston.   

“It’s a great city. People that come and visit the city love it. I liked it. I think as a family this is where our roots really grew. With a young family and stuff like that, I think there is lots to be said, and I’ve said it before and I’m certainly not ashamed to say that this is a great sports town that supports its teams. The fans are great,” said Julien, who finished his Bruins run with an incredible 419 wins, four division titles, seven consecutive playoff seasons, two Stanley Cup Finals appearances and the 2011 Stanley Cup championship. “There’s nothing to dislike about this city and right now, unfortunately, it’s about coming in here and hopefully making them not like you so much.”

Clearly, it didn’t end well for Julien with the Bruins missing the playoffs in his final two full seasons and then headed that way again last season before he was replaced by Bruce Cassidy. The B’s then ripped off an 18-8-2 stretch to get back into the postseason. The Bruins are playing an up-tempo hockey and utilizing five or six rookies in their nightly lineup this season and it’s difficult to imagine Julien, a conservative, defensive-minded coach, implementing those kinds of changes had he stuck around.

It was probably wise, then, that Julien wasn’t going to go down that hypothetical road when asked about Boston’s new style of play on Wednesday morning.

“We can dissect all we want and I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. I think you move on, and that’s not for me to say. People can decide on their own. All I know is there’s a lot of new faces here and a lot of faces that are gone that would deal with me,” said Julien. “So that’s just the team that was rebuilt, and that’s what they’ve done. They’ve rebuilt, and they gave some young players some time to develop in the minors, and those guys are paying off right now. But as I said, when you have a good, strong leadership group, it’s the best thing for a young player coming in. They have that here.

“I think when you look at this team, they made some room for young players to come in, and they cleaned up some situations here in the last year. They allowed some of their young guys to grow in the minors. You look at [Jake] DeBrusk and stuff like that, you look at [Charlie] McAvoy that’s come in, and their leadership group is still the same. They have a strong leadership group and they tweaked certain things. They’re trying to play with pretty good pace, but when you looked at us against them [last weekend], I don’t think there’s a very big difference in the pace of the game. Sometimes it’s about bounces and sometimes it’s about certain teams making certain adjustments.”

The record, however, says that there is a big difference between the Bruins and Canadiens this season and that Boston’s plan of attack, personnel and coaching style are all flowing into one, big growing Black and Gold success story. This season, the B’s have shown that they have truly moved on from a very solid 10-year run from Julien behind the bench. 

The 42-18-9 record since the coaching change pretty much speaks to that. Still, Julien will get one more well-deserved moment on Wednesday night before he truly becomes the double-agent coaching enemy behind the hated Montreal bench for the foreseeable future. 

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