After spending most of the month of October looking very much unlike the confident, itchy trigger finger winger that scored on pretty much a nightly basis during his brief AHL career, Frank Vatrano appears to finally be adjusting to a bit of a different role in Boston. Vatrano has been penciled in as a bottom-6 forward this season with first year wingers Anders Bjork and Jake DeBrusk earning the splashier top-6 roles that include PP time and a higher rate of offensive chances coming their way.
It’s certainly been a departure for Vatrano, and the adjustment period has been pretty clear with a very inauspicious first few weeks to the season.
In his first six games this season after a very average training camp, the 23-year-old didn’t have a single point with just six shots on net and a minus-2 rating while playing on lines that weren’t factoring much in the games. Vatrano still doesn’t have a point with the first month of the season in the books after Monday night’s game in Columbus, but he does have five shots on net in his last two games with his best game of the season in last week’s 2-1 win over the San Jose Sharks.
Vatrano has only had two games this month where he’s even topped 10 minutes of ice time, so the East Longmeadow native has been tasked with figuring out how to do more with less for the first time in his hockey career.
“For me I’m just trying to recreate my role a little bit. Since I’m not scoring I’ve been kind of focusing on more of a fourth line energy role. That’s when the goals will come. I obviously want to throw up goals and points, but for me defensively I have to be a little bit better,” said Vatrano, who now has 18 goals and 29 points in 91 career NHL games. “When I’m moving my feet I’m creating chances for me and my teammates, and when I’m in the D-zone you have that confidence that you can make that extra play rather than just throwing it off the glass.
“I just need to keep shooting the puck and eventually it’s going to go in. I’m trying to create turnovers on the fore-check and make plays that way, but this is the NHL where you also need guys out there to help you make plays. I can do as much as possible to get pucks to the net, but it makes it a lot easier when you’ve got other guys playing with energy, going to the net and helping you get to those open areas.”
The Bruins coaching staff has taken note of Vatrano slowly incorporating the things they’d like him to add to his arsenal. The shot and the release are still there even without the point production, but it doesn’t matter how well somebody shoots if the opportunities aren’t there to shoot the puck. The Bruins want to see Vatrano venture closer to the net and create offense by disrupting opponents with his forecheck rather than just standing in the slot waiting for set-up passes.
The thinking is that offense based on turnovers and taking pucks to the net doesn’t go into a slump like the traditional “shooter” can when the chances aren’t coming, and doing all of those other things can make Vatrano more of a factor on a consistent basis. Vatrano did both of those things to noticeable effect against the Sharks, but wasn’t quite as visible with it on Saturday night’s OT loss to LA in the perfect show of the consistency challenge he’s facing on a nightly basis.
“It’s trending toward [an A-game],” said Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. “[Against San Jose] he affected the play with his foot speed on the forecheck, he got to some loose pucks, he had some chances on net. All positives, things we look for every night.
“He’s a guy that’s still learning, growing his game in that regard so we have patience with him there, but we’d like him to bring the other stuff on a consistent basis…he’s a guy that’s used to being a sniper for lack of a better term and he does have a great release. But let’s get to the top of the crease when it’s warranted. Those are the things we’re trying to build in and he’s buying in, and as a result we’re all noticing him a little more.”
It’s a positive that Vatrano has shown some willingness and ability to grow into a more complete role as a bottom-6 winger, but the points need to also beginning coming for the local kid. Vatrano is at a point with the Bruins where he really needs to start showing the uppermost reaches of what he can be at the NHL level, or some of the next few waves of Bruins prospects might end up displacing him as they rise up through the organization.