It’s a brave new world for the Black and Gold.
The Bruins organization boasts the NHL’s leading scorer in David Krejci with 12 points (5 goals, 7 assists) in seven games, and the AHL’s leading scorer in Alexander Khokhlachev with 11 points (2 goals, 9 assists) in seven games. They also have the AHL’s leading goal-scorer in Frank Vatrano, who has an eye-popping eight goals scored in seven games for the P-Bruins this season.
The influence of President Cam Neely and GM Don Sweeney dialing up the offense has clearly been heard and adopted by all levels of the B’s organization, and now they have the early numbers to show for it.
Clearly the defense needs to catch up to the offense a bit at the NHL level, but the play of a youngster such as Vatrano in Providence is exactly what the Bruins are looking for.
That goes doubly after the college hockey free agent signee put together an excellent NHL training camp before his inevitable dismissal to Providence. Vatrano and Austin Czarnik eventually both showed they needed more development time in the AHL once the preseason intensity heightened a bit, but they each showed the aptitude and ability to not only be NHL players, but potentially dangerous NHL players, in the near future.
That’s clearly a good thing for a Bruins organization that’s becoming more open-minded to big offense. It’s also a boon to the NCAA scouting department for the Bruins that includes diligent talent evaluators Ryan Nadeau, Scott Fitzgerald and Mike McGraw regularly checking in on players in college hockey. While established players Torey Krug and Kevan Miller have already proven how important it is to corner the market with talented, undrafted college hockey free agents, Vatrano could end up being the biggest coup of them all if he continues to score big bunches of goals.
The 21-year-old from East Longmeadow, Mass., never scored more than 18 goals in a season in his time spent with the US National Development Team or in college at UMass. He was always looked upon by scouts as a talented player with conditioning challenges at 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds.
Vatrano was exactly the kind of local talent the Bruins are willing to roll the dice on, and Vatrano responded in kind by putting in an impressive amount of committed work toward getting in “pro shape” the summer.
“My biggest thing was working on my conditioning this summer. When you get to the next level you’ve got to give your all in every minute of the game,” said Vatrano. “I really focused on running a lot, and getting my body fat down and my conditioning up. I’m down almost 15 pounds from the end of last year.
“I can feel the difference out there. I feel awesome out on the ice. I’m glad the Bruins put me on that type of program because I can feel the results on the ice.”
Vatrano dropped the big number in the 15 pounds by strictly adhering to a pro workout plan over the summer in Agawam and East Longmeadow, and undoubtedly put an end to the late-night pizza runs to the one-and-only Antonio’s after leaving the UMass-Amherst campus.
"When [Vatrano] came in, he probably wasn't as conditioned as he could be," admitted Bruins Director of Player Development Jay Pandolfo at B’s development camp this past summer. "He has taken the message we gave him right when he got to Providence, and he has done an unreal job with it. You can see it translate to the ice. He is skating great.
"Obviously his shot is his biggest asset, but he is skating much better than he was when he first was at Providence [last season]. He has done a heck of a job, so hopefully it pays off for him."
Vatrano will get a look in “The Show” based on his NHL-caliber shot and the sweet release he showed off at rookie camp and then NHL camp last month. Still, he’ll stay in the NHL based on the improved skating game gained through his diligent work over the last year. Every player in the NHL needs to be able to keep up with the elevated pace of the skating, and a young winger such as Vatrano, in particular, needs to be able to move his feet to get to the shooting areas of the ice without the puck.
Vatrano has done all that and has now pushed himself into being one of the first wingers called up from Providence if there’s an injury to a top-six winger this season. He is also a player that looks as if he’s going to factor into the future as a potentially prolific top-six forward in Boston. Those kinds of undrafted free agent signings help the Bruins mitigate those tough NHL Draft classes from 2007-2009.
So, now an NHL reality is in reach for the red-hot Vatrano. It’s something he dreamed about growing up as a kid from Massachusetts while watching Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Zdeno Chara.
Sharing the ice with them in training camp this fall was something else entirely.
“Being around guys that I grew up watching like Bergeron and [Brad] Marchand was pretty nice...just passing pucks and making plays with them is kind of a dream come true...surreal feeling. Marchand and Bergeron are the guys I really focused on going into high school when I started watching hockey a lot more closely,” said Vatrano. “You can’t put words together to describe it. I’ve watched the Bruins with my family for my entire life, and I just can’t wait to keep going.”
Vatrano showed off his elite shot and release early and often in training camp as Rangers minor league goalie Jeff Malcolm can attest after he was victimized by a Vatrano shootout score at TD Garden. The left winger clearly has a shooter’s mentality when it comes to aggressively attacking the net and the lack of hesitation in the scoring areas was noticeable when Vatrano was on the ice.
Those are traits the Bruins could always use more of and it was even clearer when he came right out of the AHL chute with a four-goal explosion in one ultra-productive game against the Portland Pirates.
He’s tied with Devin Shore of the Texas Stars for the AHL lead with eight goals and Vatrano just keeps pushing his way into Boston’s NHL plans long term plans at the wing position.
So did he learn that left-handed shot and release at some kind of elite hockey skills camp? Were there hours and hours of instructional video and studying the mechanics of a hockey swing to put Vatrano’s release together?
The answer is: not exactly.
Given that Vatrano is from a hockey family that also produced an older brother, Greg, who played college hockey at American International College as well, the bright, young B’s prospect’s golden shot was honed and developed in a suburban Massachusetts driveway.
“Me and my older brother Greg used to play a lot of street hockey in the driveway,” said Vatrano. “He’s about eight years older than me, and he’d be really hard on me playing little games like ‘Pig’ or ‘Horse.’ It was really weird shooting street hockey balls. I’m not really sure how it made [my release] faster, but it kind of turned me into that goal-scorer. It’s a credit to him being hard on me when I was younger, and making sure I was putting the puck where it was supposed to go.
“We’d be losing tons of [street hockey] balls and pucks, and hitting the neighbor’s house. All that stuff. But it all worked out really well, and now he’s a police officer in Springfield after playing at American International College.”
Clearly, Vatrano still has development left go within his game after playing just one full NCAA season and he needs to prove he’s a consistently dangerous offensive player over the long haul after an incendiary first month in the AHL. These are all just parts of the maturation process for any prospect, just as reality setting in at the end of the preseason was the same thing for Vatrano.
But with eight goals and 10 points in seven games for the P-Bruins after an impressively strong camp performance, all that hard work with big bro in their East Longmeadow driveway will be turning into an NHL shot for Vatrano sooner rather than later.
GROWING PAINS FOR THE TRIPLETS
It’s been a rough start for the so-called “Triplets Line” with the Tampa Bay Lightning after they were a scoring sensation down the stretch last season and starred again in the Bolts’ run to the Stanley Cup Final. Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov have accounted for only three 5-on-5 goals so far this season through nine games. Johnson is still looking for his first marker of the year for a Tampa team that was shut out 1-0 by the Blackhawks over the weekend.
Johnson is certainly feeling the frustration after so much hype placed on them last season and an upcoming story in the Hockey News on them this season. We’re still talking about a team that’s ranked eighth in the NHL in scoring this season and is doing it largely without the service of the Triplets.
“Do I think other teams are maybe playing a little bit harder and marking us on their calendars? Absolutely...I would if I was in their shoes,” said Tyler Johnson. “Right now I can’t say that we’ve been giving it our ‘A’ game. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit frustrated. But at the same time, am I trying to kill myself at night? No.”
That’s probably not the ideal wording from Johnson, but it’s pretty clear the confidence is still where it needs to be for a turnaround. And the goals should be raining from the heavens again soon for the talented “Triplets Line” just as they will be for high-powered Tampa Bay all season.
NO NUKES IN WINNIPEG
Apparently Winnipeg Jets tough guy Anthony Peluso doesn’t like being referred to as the “nuclear option” by one Winnipeg sports talk radio host, as in Jets coach Paul Maurice pushes the button for Peluso when he wants to inflict some damage on the other team.
The blue-collar Peluso played 49 games for the Jets last season with a goal and two points, and doesn’t have any qualms about his role as a deterrent-type enforcer.
But he’s got no time for the nukes talk.
“To say I’m just a nuclear bomb, I don’t think that’s necessarily fair,” said Peluso last week. “I work a lot on my game, controlling pucks down low and being physical and creating momentum with a physical edge. I think the players on the Jets feed off of it, when I’m going in there first on the body. It’s ongoing, that we can feed off that.
“I’m there because when something needs to be done, there will be no questions about it. Everybody knows that I’ll hold the other team accountable for any dirty plays. It’s just making a presence felt, and that’s what I have to do. I think I can do that.”
*Further proof that Johnny Boychuk has never forgotten about the Boston city he was forced to leave: the Isles defenseman still has a Red Sox “Boston Strong” patch in his dressing room locker stall at the Barclays Center along with a number of other armed forces patches. You can take the Boychuk out of Boston, but you can’t take the Boston out of the Boychuk.
*For those already pushing out the notion that the Bruins could trade franchise goalie Tuukka Rask if they look to start unloading veterans, the Bruins goaltender has a no-movement clause, a young family and he just bought a very nice house outside of Boston. Those aren’t the kinds of players that waive their no-trade clauses under almost any circumstances.
*Malcolm Subban has yet to play for the Providence Bruins due to a lower body injury sustained in camp, but the expectation is the former No. 1 pick will be returning or the P-Bruins this weekend.
*Remember, keep shooting pucks at the net and good things are bound to happen.