Vatrano not on road trip, but nearing return for Bruins

Vatrano not on road trip, but nearing return for Bruins

MONTREAL -- Frank Vatrano didn’t make the two-game road trip that goes through Montreal and Pittsburgh at the start of this week for the Boston Bruins, but he’s still honing in on an imminent return to the lineup for the Black and Gold.

The 22-year-old Vatrano skated with the Bruins group at practice on Sunday at Warrior Ice Arena in a top-6 role alternating with Tim Schaller at left wing alongside David Krejci and David Pastrnak. He’s moved past the red no-contact jersey in a sign of progress, and was a full participant in Sunday’s practice with Claude Julien indicating he’s “getting closer” to a return.  

Certainly Vatrano will need a few more practices under his belt before game action becomes a realistic option, but the good news is there's just one final check from doctors before he's medically cleared to play. 

“Everything is getting better day-by-day. The past few skates I’ve had with the team have felt really good, so now it’s just waiting to see the doctor one more time to get cleared and start playing,” said Vatrano, who had foot surgery in September after tearing ligaments while training for the conditioning tests at the beginning of main camp. “You hope everything goes well, and kind of take it day-by-day waiting to hear the news. I just want to ready 100 percent when I’m back in the lineup.”

One would expect the Bruins are going to take a little extra time with Vatrano given that he missed all of training camp and the first 31 games of the regular season. But it’s also clear he’s nearing the point when he might become an option for the Bruins, and should be an option to play in the next week or two. That would beat the initial, post-surgery recovery timetable where Vatrano was not expected to return to game action until early January.  

After scoring 44 goals between Boston and Providence last season, Vatrano might stand as Boston’s best option to permanently solve the revolving left wing alongside Krejci while helping to improve the 26th ranked offense in the NHL this season. It could be a while before his skating, timing and conditioning are all up to midseason form as he jumps on a regular season train that left the station months ago, but the Bruins could badly use any talented wingers ready to produce and contribute at this point. 


2020 NHL Playoffs: Will Bruins' experience, mental toughness carry them through?

2020 NHL Playoffs: Will Bruins' experience, mental toughness carry them through?

It really remains to be seen exactly how this hockey postseason is all going to play out.

Some players like Brad Marchand have their own ideas about it all and think that teams with older legs, like the Boston Bruins as the fourth-oldest team in the NHL for example, are “going to struggle” in bouncing back into midseason form after a nearly three-month absence from the ice.

Maybe the Bruins agitator is simply setting up a scenario where the Bruins can play themselves off as underdogs, or maybe that’s a genuine look at what lies in front of the Black and Gold.

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Others like Hall of Famer Mark Recchi think it’s going to be the mental strength and character component that will carry the eventual Stanley Cup champion amidst so many trials of adversity coming in the next few months.

Nobody really knows for sure what strengths or weaknesses will best serve the 24 NHL teams invited to take part in an NHL postseason that isn’t going to get going until early August. But Bruins President Cam Neely has his own ideas about what will serve a hockey club best once the Stanley Cup Playoffs are underway in earnest.

Not so coincidentally, it’s the exact kind of intangibles the B’s have in large amounts along with enough talent that made them the only 100-point NHL team when the regular season went on pause.

“Everybody is in the same boat. I’d like to think that because of the experience that we have some of that is going to help them in this situation as opposed to players that are newer and younger into the league,” said Neely, during a mid-week Zoom call with Bruins reporters. “But at the end of the day it’s how well you’re going to be prepared and how well you’re going to execute. Our players have a lot of experience in that regard and it’s just a matter of how it’s all going to fall into place.

"I know our guys are going to be well-prepared. I’d expect the same from other teams, but I know what our group does and how they do it, and how well the players respond to it. I’m expecting everybody to be ready to go once training camp is hopefully ready to begin."

All that being said there are plenty of variables that will play into a very unpredictable set of games when hockey does return.

Will a goalie like Carey Price or Henrik Lundqvist stand on his head in a short play-in series and shine brilliantly just long enough to upend a higher-seeded team? Will teams with young legs like the Toronto Maple Leafs have an inherent advantage given that youngsters like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander aren’t going to need a great amount of time to rev up to full speed once again?

Will the ultimate advantage be with quality teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins that will be getting healthy returns from impact players like Steve Stamkos, Dougie Hamilton and Jake Guentzel who wouldn’t have been able to participate back in April?

These are all questions with answers that will be borne out once the games get played, but the hope is that the A-Z experience of players like 43-year-old Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand and Tuukka Rask will come to the forefront with so many other things way outside the norm. 

Clearly there's also the elite talent of the Perfection Line with perennial 30-goal scorers in Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak among others, and a rested Rask when he's at his very best stopping the puck. 

They will, in some ways, be able to lean on their experience from the 2012-13 lockout when they all needed to ramp up quickly for a shortened 48-game season that began in January.

As we all remember, the Bruins did it well enough to get all the way to the Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks.

“I’m hoping that leadership plays a big role. Once everybody is together and knowing Bergeron, Chara, Tuukka, Torey and Brad, those guys are going to get the others [going],” said Neely. “The others know what to expect from that leadership group, they know what to expect from themselves and they know what to expect from the coaching staff. So my hope is that they will recognize that we are going from a training camp in essence right to the playoffs.

That’s unusual as we all know, and I’m hoping that the experience of having it ramp up that quickly that the guys can lean on the older players for a little bit of comfort. They don’t necessarily have the experience [of this exact situation], but more being able to get yourselves ready to go in a short period of time.

But even in the 2013 lockout, the NHL players were skating in groups pretty regularly while the NHL and NHLPA were hammering out a new CBA, and they weren’t nearly as rusty as they will be this time around.

That’s a huge difference with the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs looming a couple of months from now as NHL players prepare to start skating in small groups next month, and look forward to a possible training camp that will now start no sooner than July 10.

It’s all so strange and new for an NHL group that’s always found comfort and success in sticking to the routine. It’s going to be fascinating to see just how much Boston’s leadership, character and experience will benefit them when all NHL players will need to go from 0 to 100 immediately once the games start getting played.

Zdeno Chara 'grateful for the opportunity' to play, not focused on NHL playoff format fairness

Zdeno Chara 'grateful for the opportunity' to play, not focused on NHL playoff format fairness

In the aftermath of this week’s NHL announcement about the 24-team playoff format, there has been plenty of talk about fairness, asterisks and whether this plan will even come to fruition this summer as NHL players begin working to get back into playing shape.

Bruins captain Zdeno Chara could have complained about the Presidents' Trophy-winning Bruins being forced into protecting their top seed during a round-robin tournament despite pretty much winning it fair and square during the regular season with a month left.

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Chara could have openly wondered about the safeness of an NHL return or talked extensively about whether the Cup champs will be considered regular champions despite so many oddities with this year’s proposed postseason.

Instead, the wise 43-year-old Chara simply showed gratitude that the NHL players might be able to get back to work, and perhaps in doing so can restore some sense of quasi-normalcy to sports fans eager to see games resume.

“The Players' Association with the player reps worked extremely hard to get to this point and come up with something that will be hopefully entertaining and exciting. I think the fans will enjoy it for sure. It’s never a perfect scenario. It’s not going to be set in stone like it would be after an 82-game regular season,” said Chara while speaking with B’s reporters on Zoom call on Thursday morning.

“It’s not going to be perfect. Anytime you’re going to have an unexpected kind of stoppage with teams at different peaks in their season, you had to come up with some sort of solution. What we see is probably the best [solution]. It’s one of those things where you can’t blame anyone or feel that it’s unfair.

For us, we have to be grateful for the opportunity we’re getting. When you look at the real-life perspective at what other people’s families and businesses are going through, we’re getting the chance to basically start back up where we ended the season. A lot of people aren’t getting that same chance. A lot of people lost financial support and businesses went down, and they will never get the same opportunities. We have to be grateful for the opportunity and take it as a huge motivation [and] excitement. [We need] to be grateful and embrace it.

As with most players focused on winning, Chara knows the Bruins will need to overcome all obstacles if they hope to lift the Stanley Cup, and a newfangled playoff format that was a little unfair to them is nothing compared to what’s happening in the world.

Chara is going to be a slam dunk Hall of Fame defenseman when he eventually retires from the Bruins even if that’s probably at least a couple of seasons from now.

But the 6-foot-9 D-man also showed in his answer why he’s a Hall of Fame person with the way he’s still got everything in proper perspective even as fans get a little excited about progress being made toward a return for the NHL season.