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


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. 


Banged up B's 'look forward to the challenge' vs Tampa team they're chasing

USA TODAY Sports Photo

Banged up B's 'look forward to the challenge' vs Tampa team they're chasing

TAMPA BAY – It certainly might not be the shape they envisioned themselves being in when these late season games arrived against the President’s Trophy favorites in Tampa Bay, but the Bruins are bracing for a showdown with the high-powered Lightning either way. 

The Bruins stand just four points behind the Bolts with one game in hand, and mathematically they absolutely have a shot of catching and surpassing the Lightning for the NHL’s top spot with three games remaining against them in the season’s final month. But realistically it’s got to be considered a long shot at this point with Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Charlie McAvoy and Jake DeBrusk all out for Saturday night’s meeting with Tampa, and Bergeron and McAvoy expected to potentially miss all three of their divisional scraps. 

Coming off a 3-0 shutout loss at the hands of the Florida Panthers and at the end of a week-long, four-game road trip, the Bruins know they’re going to need to tighten things up against a Lightning team they can’t match firepower with in their weakened state. 

“I think we’ve done a pretty good job of just playing the game in front of us, and not getting too far ahead, too high or too low. We’ve got the best team in the National Hockey League, arguably, at home and rested [in front of us],” said Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. “We look forward to the challenge. They’re a high-scoring team, so we talked about that with our goaltenders and our ‘D’ today. We better be ‘on’ because they’ll be coming. Our forwards are going to have to help out in that area and make sure we’re reloading well, and keep getting pucks at the net. 

“We didn’t finish [against Florida] but it wasn’t because of lack of effort or lack of pucks at the net. That part of our game is trending pretty well offensively. I think you’re going to have score to a certain extent against this team because you’re not going to shut them down completely. That’s our game plan for whoever is going to be in the lineup. They’ve got to be ready for it because that’s how it works, and that’s how it’s worked all year long for us. We need the guys in there to do their part and do it well.”

Certainly the Bruins could still do some offensive damage with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak still intact on their top line, and David Krejci and Rick Nash also still developing their chemistry on the second line. Torey Krug also came through feeling healthy at practice on Friday after soaking up 26 plus minutes of ice time in the loss to Florida, so they’ll also have some puck-moving and offensive pop on the back end as well.

But it may come down to the Chara-less defense and Tuukka Rask to step up and go into shutdown mode against the Lightning if they’re looking to really push up on the Lightning, and make this a horse race for the Atlantic Division down the stretch. Not to mention, it would be a psychological swing for both teams if the Bruins could take down a rested, relatively healthy Tampa Bay hockey club with their undermanned, injury-ravaged bunch. 

That in and of itself should be plenty of motivation for a Bruins team that’s got their sights and set on bigger and better things this spring with the Lightning expected to be one of the big obstacles standing in their way.


Morning Skate: Tavares or Seguin?

NBC Sports Boston Photo

Morning Skate: Tavares or Seguin?

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while jacked and pumped about that Infinity War trailer. Wow. 


*Credit here for something outside the box and clear hockey satire while looking far into the NHL’s crystal ball where the new expansion team is called the Seattle Slippery Seals, and Brad Marchand is the head of the NHLPA. That is quite a twist at the end of the movie right there. 


*The Hockey Central crew debates whether they would want John Tavares or Tyler Seguin as a player to build their team around. Seguin is having a solid year (with the end of his contract coming into view), but I’m going with Tavares all day long. I think he’s more of a competitor and a reliable player along with an equitable level of talent, and that counts for quite a bit in team-building. 


*It’s good to see the PHWA decide to make public the ballots of all NHL Awards starting at the end of this season. It’s something I voted in favor of and already did annually as I think transparency is something we always ask for from those we cover, so it should never be something we shy away from. 


*The Flyers have hit the skids again after pushing themselves into playoff view. This has been such a streak team over the last couple of years. 


*Pro Hockey Talk says that the Montreal Canadiens need to take a long look into the mirror before they move on from this season. I couldn’t agree more. 


*For something completely different: I feel badly for my kids that Toys R us is liquidating as a company, and the stores will be closing. It’s getting to the point where there will be no more brick and mortar toy stores for kids to visit, and that’s something from my youth experience that they’re going to miss out on. Frankly, it’s kind of sad.