BUFFALO, N.Y. – This took longer than originally intended but here are some impressions on all Boston Bruins prospects that attended the Prospects Challenge:
Urho Vaakanainen and Connor Clifton seem to have developed a complimentary pairing. Clifton, an outgoing and gregarious right-handed defenseman has been pulling a quiet and enigmatic Vaakanainen out of his shell according to Providence Bruins head coach Jay Leach.
“[Clifton] has this infectious personality and will get his partner, whoever it is, involved in a game. He talks a lot. [Vaakanainen] is a reserved kid. That pairing [of Clifton-Vaakanainen] we strategically tried to see if we could bring him out. [Vaakanainen] was pretty effective last night. He skated well, he did some nice things.”
Leach did not rule out the possibility of seeing the Vaakanainen-Clifton pairing in the future. As a side note regarding Vaakanainen as he gains confidence playing on North American ice, it would not be a surprise to see him leapfrog up the depth chart and partnership with Clifton in Providence may be the key for him to do exactly that.
2015 first round pick Zach Senyshyn obviously earned the trust of Jay Leach last season, as Saturday night the former was tasked with fore-checking first overall 2018 draft pick Rasmus Dahlin. Admittedly, Dahlin eluded the speedy right-winger early in Saturday night’s contest but Leach was quick to support the efforts of his winger. Senyshyn will need more time at the AHL level to round out his game, as he learns to add a physical element in conjunction with his speed and finish around the net.
In the race for the Boston Bruins’ third-line center, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson edged out fellow pivot Jack Studnicka this weekend. Forsbacka-Karlsson proved to be the more complete player; he was deployed for more defensive-zone faceoffs, won more draws, and played a more 200-ft. game. Nevertheless, to his credit, Studnicka ran the offense and in tandem with his defensemen, quarterbacked the powerplay. Through two games, he had a goal to his credit off a brilliant outside-in deke before picking the corner of the net.
Ryan Donato, who needs no introduction, had a successful weekend. Friday, he made a smart pick off a Penguins defenseman and scored top shelf. While a later article will cover him in more detail, Donato told me his NHL experience mentally prepared him to succeed in this rookie exhibition. Barring a major regression, his spot is almost assured on the NHL roster come October.
Kyle Keyser and Dan Vladar backstopped the Bruins prospects to wins on Friday and Saturday respectively. Since development camp, Keyser looked more refined and has since cleaned up his rebound control and glove hand. During his game against the Penguins, his performance was reminiscent of last year when he earned his entry-level contract. If Keyser stays healthy, expect a long, productive season in Oshawa from him.
Meanwhile, Dan Vladar is poised to graduate to the AHL level after two successful campaigns in Atlanta. Leach would not commit between Zane McIntyre and Vladar for the starting role in Providence, but it may resemble a 1A/1B scenario with no set “starter.” Vladar demonstrated his readiness for the next tier of professional hockey by holding the stacked prospect system of the Buffalo Sabres to one goal on 39 shots. In that time, he faced a handful of breakaways and grade-A scoring chances, but with a little help from the posts and crossbars, secured the W for the Bruins.
While Vladar stood tall in the crease Saturday night, UFA pickup Karson Kuhlman scored the game-winner and an insurance empty net goal. The hard-nosed forward told the media afterward his speed was a big factor in helping the offense and that it contributes to his 200-foot game. The insurance empty-net goal came off a sprint down the wing by Kuhlman, who flew in behind the puck carrier and took a short shovel pass before finishing the scoring rush off with an easy tap-in. Kuhlman plays an unselfish, intelligent game that is very team oriented. He is content to play as a finisher or a set-up man depending on the offensive scheme and that Swiss army knife quality extends into his positioning–Leach deployed Kuhlman as both pivot and wing where the latter excelled in both capacities.
You might have read this on my Twitter account, but Daniel Bukac needs a healthy dose of discipline. In the game against Pittsburgh Friday afternoon, the ex-WHL player let emotion get the best of him and could be found routinely hacking and slashing opponents away from the play. His misbehavior caught up with him in the form of a minor, but the Bruins weathered the ensuing penalty kill. Bukac will also need to improve his positioning, as his frustrations may be largely be cured by playing more positionally sound hockey in his own end.
Ex-Wisconsin Badgers Trent Frederic and Cameron Hughes both contributed to the Bruins offensive efforts. Hughes roofed a wicked shot to open the scoring Friday afternoon as he capitalized on a loose puck in the right faceoff circle. After a strong drive to the net by Vaakanainen, Frederic was in a position to finish off a scoring chance Saturday night versus Buffalo. Since joining the Providence Bruins late last year, Frederic was a point-per-game player to end the regular season. Given his size and playing style, he should be in the running for the third-line center job, or at least considered as a call-up option in case of injury. Hughes will need more time to season, as his growing pains from the NCAA to the AHL weren’t as subtle as Frederic’s.
Second-year professional defensemen Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon had good but not great showings at the Prospect Challenge. There was more than a little rust to their timing and positioning but Zboril reminded everyone in attendance about his creativity with the puck and how effective he could be QB’ing a powerplay. Along with Clifton, Zboril was one of the most improved defensemen of the 2017-18 season, however, he is far from a finished product. His gap control and defensive instincts need work, and another year or so in the AHL will suffice.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Lauzon surprised everyone with a pedestrian seven points (1G, 6A) in his AHL debut in 2017-18 after posting a 28-point season (5G, 23A) with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the QMJHL the year before.
While his season was shortened by a concussion, Lauzon addressed his own lack of offense: “Last year I was really concentrating on the defensive part, be reliable in my own zone. In my junior career, playing in the offensive zone was a part of the game I loved. I’m going to make the effort to play more offense this year.”
Suffice to say, look for Lauzon to be more engaged in the offensive scheme in the coming year.
Harvard alum Wiley Sherman was impossible to miss. Standing at 6-foot-7, his physical size was a deterrent for feisty opponents. His cannon of a shot from the blue line put the Bruins prospects up by four goals over the Penguins on Friday afternoon. The 2013 fifth-round pick has been labeled a “project” by the Bruins brass, and was selected under the old mindset that size is king. As the NHL moves away from basketball-sized players, Sherman will need to adapt his frame to a fast, agile game.
That said, Sherman’s wingspan allows his stick to cover a wide radius and more effectively disrupt passing lanes. Given his frame, he fits the archetypal shutdown defenseman role. To fit in the modern NHL, Sherman will need to focus on speed and agility and not rely merely on size to do the work for him. Should he put the puzzle pieces together, an NHL pairing of Sherman-Carlo would be a tough matchup for any team to solve.
Axel Andersson was the first name to be called to the Bruins organization in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. He was also the first of this year’s draft choices to be offered a contract, which he signed at the conclusion of development camp in June 2018. While still a raw talent, Andersson’s fluid, elite skating ability puts him ahead of his peers for a shot at the Bruins NHL roster. His defensive instincts need refinement as evidenced by a gaffe he made at his own blue line Saturday night against Buffalo. But, Andersson is an enthusiastic sponge and a quick learner. It will not take him long to calibrate his own decision making abilities in his own end.
Finnish giant Joona Koppanen was somewhat invisible in Buffalo despite his 6-foot-5 frame. While he made no critical errors, he never stood out in a positive sense either. Much like Sherman, Koppanen will need to continue to refine his skating and agility to keep pace with the modern NHL. As the league shifts from size to speed and skill, Koppanen may find himself on the outside looking in.
On the opposite end of the height spectrum, Ryan Fitzgerald’s energetic play translated well for spectators on press row. Despite his listed height of 5-foot-9, the second-year pro continued his building case for a spot on Boston’s roster with aggressive, hard-nosed plays. Despite a stint on IR after being trucked into the boards by a Bridgeport Sound Tiger last season, he finished the season strong, posting 37 points (21G, 16A).
While Fitzgerald may not possess the high-end talent of other players, he is a solid bottom-six forward who can play center or wing effectively. Fitzgerald was deployed successfully on the PK both in Providence, and in Buffalo adding minutes and responsibility to a promising player’s profile. With his sharp, albeit developing, hockey sense, Fitzgerald may be a safe bet for trip or few to filling holes created by injuries to the big club.
After a respectable showing at development camp, Cedric Pare struggled in competition this past weekend. The lanky 6-foot-3 pivot has improved year over year in the QMJHL, but had marginal success in the Buffalo Prospects Challenge. His on-ice awareness was subpar, and as a result, he missed several outlet passes. While his skating ability was adequate, his transition game out of his own zone prevented him from meaningfully contributing to the offense. Cedric needs to work on elevating his game at or above his competition to stay.
Last but certainly not least, Jakub Lauko stunned opponents with his blistering speed, beating defenders up ice handily. His ability to hit top gear in fewer strides than opponents provides superior separation from defenders and will help him function as an offensive catalyst. While his efforts did not translate to the score sheet during the weekend, Lauko will not be blanked for very long. In my interview with Lauko, he admitted the transition to the North American ice was challenging, but he’s actively adapting his game to perform better on the smaller ice surface.
Despite a short, three-day stint in Buffalo, there were a lot of talking points. I’ll cover Frederic, Donato, Sherman, and Clifton in future pieces, but until then, be sure to catch the preseason games and observe the prospects for yourself. It is an exciting time to be following the Bruins organization!