Here's the fourth of our five-part “Breaking Down the Bruins” series where we look at where the B’s sit at the end of this season and where they’re headed as they aim toward again vying for a Stanley Cup. Today, we look at the Bruins efforts at draft and development, and the next wave of B’s prospects on the horizon.
- PART 1 - A look at the roster improvement plan
- PART 2 - B's foundation is there, now for that next step...
- PART 3 - A look at the salary cap picture
The Bruins put a lot of faith into their drafting and the development the past few seasons as Don Sweeney and Cam Neely took full control of the operation and it really came to full fruition this season. The Bruins opted to only sign minor-league journeymen Kenny Agostino and Paul Postma on the July 1 opening of NHL free agency last summer and left a pair of top-nine winger spots wide open to their group of young prospects.
Eventually, Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen claimed those spots and both had strong rookie seasons, with DeBrusk putting a punctuation mark at the end with the way he performed in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was a gamble to leave a pair of important forward spots open among their young forwards, but Bruins management correctly had the faith and knowledge they would be up to the challenge.
Anders Bjork and Ryan Donato had their moments as well and both Bruins wingers should be heard from again next season. As far as Bruins rookies for next season go, Donato probably has the best chance of any of them to make a seismic impact with the Black and Gold, where his goal-scoring and offense could be difference-makers.
That doesn’t even get into the Bruins moving 20-year-old rookie Charlie McAvoy into one of the top pairing defenseman spots for this past season or rookie Matt Grzelcyk nailing down the bottom pairing D-man spot. Basically, the Bruins put a lot of trust into their young players as they hadn’t always done under the previous coaching regime. That trust was rewarded with the league’s best production among first-year players.
A whopping eight Bruins scored their first career NHL goal in this season’s magical 112-point campaign and it was a tremendously prominent trait for a team that did an ideal job of merging older and younger players.
“We went into the summer with the plan of being younger and faster and building around our core or adding to our core with a younger group, and I felt we did that this year,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. “We allowed these players the opportunity to be Boston Bruins, and I think some of them, certainly met expectations, and some went beyond that with our younger group. I think it made us a better team, harder to play against.”
Clearly, some younger guys fared better than others in the playoffs, but that is to be expected with such a large contingent of inexperienced NHL talent. It shouldn’t discourage the Bruins from continuing to introduce a newer wave of more prospects and youthful talent to the fold. That’s exactly what the Black and Gold plan to do again next season. It remains to be seen which areas of the Bruins roster will provide openings for the young guys, but there are a few spots where youth might definitely be served.
The most obvious and glaring would be at third-line center where Riley Nash might just price himself out of a gig with the Bruins after posting career-high offensive numbers. When a team is managing it properly, it’s simply the way of the NHL salary cap that veterans price themselves off teams and are supplanted by inexpensive rookies. The Bruins should have multiple internal options to replace Nash next season whether it’s Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Trent Frederic or even a promising youngster from junior hockey like Jack Studnicka.
JFK had injury problems that limited him to 58 games in Providence this past season, but he managed 15 goals and 32 points while playing in every situation for the P-Bruins. He’s the most experienced option at the pro level, but would be just entering his senior season at Boston University had he stayed in college. Forsbacka Karlsson could be the kind of two-way player that might mesh nicely with Danton Heinen and David Backes in a third-line role, but ideally, he’d get a little more seasoning in the AHL before his next call-up to Boston.
Frederic was very strong in Providence after signing out of the college ranks following his sophomore season. He had five goals and eight points in 13 games with the P-Bruins, where his size and strength felt like a better match for the pro game. Studnicka, 19, was a point-per-game player in a five-game audition with Providence at the end of the season, so the future continues to look bright with this very skilled, offensive-minded player. He had 22 goals and 72 points in 66 games for the Oshawa Generals last season prior to his cup of coffee with Providence and looks like a very strong second-round pick for the Bruins last summer.
Beyond the third-line centers and a somewhat established player in Donato, who will have to earn a spot on Boston’s roster next season, a wild card such as Ryan Fitzgerald might be somebody to watch for as a fourth-line option. It remains to be seen if the Bruins are going to re-sign unrestricted free agent Tim Schaller (who should be in line for a raise), and Fitzgerald might be a pretty good fit for a fourth-line role with a little added offense. Fitzgerald topped 20 goals for Providence last season and drew some comparisons to Brad Marchand last fall at training camp for his offense and competitiveness. Well, just as Marchand began on a fourth-line role it might be the same for Fitzgerald next season as the Bruins work to piece together a new energy line that didn’t quite get it done vs. Tampa Bay in the second round of the playoffs.
There are also younger D-men Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon who could finally break through next season with a role clearly there for the Czech-born Zboril, 20, if he can realize his potential as a frontline top-four defenseman. Zboril had four goals and 19 points in 68 games for Providence last season and had a strong second half to his season, so there’s clearly still hope there even if he may never live up to D-man names like Noah Hanifin, Zach Werenski and Ivan Provorov drafted before him in that first round.
Clearly, there will be some spots open for competition even as the Bruins return a core veteran group and a large group of established NHL youngsters, but Sweeney said as always that it’s up to the young guys to play their way into jobs.
“We all were young players at some point in time, and we all wanted to be told that there was an opportunity if you were good enough as a player. The one thing you can’t have when you start out is experience. So, is that held against you if you’re not overripe, so to speak? The whole league is trending towards that,” said Sweeney. “We don’t want to put players in positions they’re not ready for and they’re not able to succeed in on and off the ice. The players themselves, as I use the term, have to determine it. But they should be really, really excited, but there is an opportunity there.
If they’re a better player than the player in front of them, they take the job. If they’re not, they have to go and learn what it takes to earn that job. We have players that had positive years in Providence. Austin Czarnik had a really good year. He could come in and take somebody’s job. He’s a pending group six [free agent].
“I can go through the whole list of players I’m sure you’re referencing, whether it’s Jakub Zboril, whether it’s [Zach] Senyshyn, whether it’s Frederic coming out of school, we’re cognizant of every one of them and sort of where their potential trajectory is. Our exit meeting with Forsbacka-Karlsson, as an example [of a guy] who had a tough injury and missed a stretch down there. They’ve all made good progress, but when the rubber hits the road in training camp, you’ve got to take someone’s job. That’s what we try to tell them. Prepare for what’s in front of you and your opportunity will be there. There’s no absolute certainty, even when you draft a player – Buffalo is really excited. They have the first overall pick. That guy could be a potential generational player, and I’m sure they’re excited about it, and we’re excited about our young players. But, the player himself will dictate it. The opportunity will be there. Nobody is boxed out. We have depth. Hopefully, we’re going to continue to add to that in our organization, because you need it.”
Perhaps, as Sweeney said, Czarnik can finally nail down a regular NHL job after earning All-Star honors in Providence, and certainly, Senyshyn hasn’t completely fallen off the radar after an inconsistent first season as a professional player. Still, they might be toward the bottom of the list of an impressive collection of young talent that will be providing the Bruins with another energetic wave next season ready to take them to bigger and better places.