PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Another hockey season has come and gone. Amidst the rising summer temperatures and the looming, long offseason, we are left to reflect on a historic season for not only the NHL, but the AHL, too. In their incredible first season, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights took the hockey world by storm and made a run at the Stanley Cup. The only obstacle in their way was the iron will of Alex Ovechkin and his indefatigable spirit that ultimately secured the first Stanley Cup in the history of the Washington Capitals.
More recently, in the Calder Cup Finals, the Marlies brought home their first-ever Calder Cup and the first professional championship trophy for a Toronto-based team since 1967.
The recent hockey season was also historic for the Bruins organization, who showcased a bright future in their deep prospect pool. They won a round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in four years, and featured a staggeringly long list of individual prospects skating in their first regular-season games, and scoring their first goals and points early in the 2017-18 season. Had the season soured in early October 2017, as several local media outlets predicted, this would have been a high-water mark in an otherwise disappointing season.
However, the Bruins instead flourished under somewhat-new coach Bruce Cassidy, including a blistering 14-0-4 record between December 14th, 2017 and January 31st, 2018. At times, the black and gold challenged for not only first in their division, but the Eastern Conference, and the entire NHL.
Providence Bruins graduate and 2015 first round pick Jake DeBrusk was the brightest rookie showing, making the team out of camp in September while posting a highly respectable 16 goals and 27 assists during the regular season, and another six goals and two assists in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Suffice to say, barring a significant regression, DeBrusk was both a solid choice and the best prospect to graduate from the AHL to the NHL between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons.
At the AHL level, the Bruins farm team saw the debut of the other two 2015 first-round selections, Zach Senyshyn and Jakub Zboril. While enduring fan and media criticism, Senyshyn amassed a respectable pile of points while working on tweaking weaker facets of his skillsets. Senyshyn also was deployed in PK situations and occasionally on the power-play to increase his time on ice and familiarize him with effective special-teams play.
Zboril initially had a rough transition to the professional game, but, by the end of the 2017-18 campaign, easily earned the “most improved player” designation. His quick transitional game, fluid skating, and heads-up play reminded fans, media, and scouts why the Boston Bruins drafted him in the first round, proving his instincts and skill are well suited for the new NHL. Though it took him almost the entire season to notch his first professional tally, his contributions defensively far surpassed his marginal contribution on the score sheet.
2015 second-round pick Jeremy Lauzon also played his first full season of pro hockey and has the distinction of being the rookie whose first goal came the latest in the season as his first tally was on April 7, in Bridgeport, CT. Out of camp, Lauzon was one of the final cuts from the Boston blueline, playing in all preseason games before being sent down to Providence. Lauzon’s development was stalled by a concussion, which sidelined him for November, December, and part of January. Overall, his progression was upward as the season progressed with no worrisome flaws in his game.
Peter Cehlarik earned himself a call-up during an early-season west coast road trip; after his initial first NHL goal was removed by offsides review last year, Peter tallied his first NHL goal this season in a game against San Jose. Unfortunately, before Cehlarik was able to make a name for himself at the NHL level, he was injured and sent back down to Providence. Despite more injury setbacks in Providence, he continued to impress scouts and Bruins brass alike. Cehlarik has the frame and skill to make it in today’s NHL and has considerably improved his short-area game. His ceiling is entirely dependent on his durability long-term, but barring more injury setbacks, he should get a more extended look in Boston or could be used as a valuable trade chip.
Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson was also sidelined for parts of the season with injuries keeping him out of the lineup for stretches. He remains a solid two-way threat capable of effective three-zone-play; his production was among the top in the P-Bruins roster while being deployed as an effective pivot in all situations. With the probable departure of Riley Nash from Boston and a possible departure of Austin Czarnik from the Bruins’ organization, Forsbacka-Karlsson may be the heir apparent to the third-line center job in Boston. Time, offseason development and rookie camps will tell, but from every indication, the 21-year-old is poised for an extended evaluation at the NHL level.
Toward the end of the season, several talented players from the NCAA and CHL ranks joined the P-Bruins on ATOs or ELCs. Among the newcomers was Trent Frederic from the Wisconsin Badgers, along with teammate Cameron Hughes. In a shortened sample size of 13 games, Frederic put up three goals and five assists. I expect him to challenge Forsbacka-Karlsson for a roster spot, or to push for fourth line duties with the Bruins, as Frederic’s skill set is versatile enough to be used up and down the lineup.
Another promising center joining the P-Bruins was Jack Studnika from the Oshawa Generals. “Captain Jack” and the Gennies fell to the Niagara Ice Dogs in the first round of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs. Along with teammate and fellow Bruins prospect Kyle Keyser, Studnika joined Providence on an amateur tryout (ATO). In five games played for Providence, Studnika was a point-per-game player, with a goal and four assists. When he wasn’t contributing to the offense, Studnika could be found backchecking and picking up his teammates’ missed defensive assignments fluidly. Off the rush, he is creative with the puck, and effectively drives the net while also creating time and space for himself. While their futures remain to be seen, Studnika (and to a lesser extent Frederic) are among my most highly anticipated prospects to watch develop.
Worthy of a paragraph is journeyman Connor Clifton. While I consider Zboril “most improved,” Clifton was enough of a standout that his AHL contract was picked up by the Boston Bruins and he was signed to a two-way deal with the big club. In a system with few right-hand defenseman prospects, the emergence of Clifton as a smooth skating defenseman with a good shot did not go unnoticed by Bruins GM Don Sweeney. How high his ceiling is remains to be seen, but the Quinnipiac alum has a bright future ahead if he continues this developmental trajectory.
Czarnik, despite being called up to Boston for the early part of the season, was among the top point-scorers in the AHL. The crafty pivot has the Boston Bruins in a bind, as his games played is one shy of necessitating him passing through waivers if management was to return him to the AHL after a stint in the NHL.
Czarnik has routinely been among the AHL’s most productive players, but Bruins brass hasn’t committed to him as a roster regular with the big club. My theory has always been former Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli saw the success the Tampa Bay Lightning had with Tyler Johnson (roughly the same height and weight as Czarnik) and hoped to duplicate their success in much the same fashion without using a pick on their respective undersized forwards. While Johnson benefitted from the influences of Tampa’s forward depth during his formative years, Czarnik was ushered into the Bruins organization during a retooling phase.
During Czarnik’s formative years, the Bruins organization lacked the depth and wisdom to mentor him. In my three years of watching Austin develop, I see a smart, hard-nosed player who would be an asset to any NHL team. Czarnik is a good locker room presence, possesses leadership qualities as evidenced by his two years of wearing the “C” for the University of Miami-Ohio, routinely shows up early to get extra reps in at practice—textbook rink rat. As of this article, Czarnik and the Bruins have been in contract talks, with Sweeney expressing a desire to keep Czarnik around, and the latter open to the idea. However, given the lack of opportunity provided for Czarnik to showcase his talent at the NHL level, I could see him leaving for another team if the right offer was handed to him.
After a brilliant season in 2016-17 in which he was ranked second in the AHL, Zane McIntyre came back down to earth this past season. The ex-University of North Dakota goaltender went from a 2.03 goals against average/.930 save percentage in 16-17, to a 2.52 GAA/.914 SV% this past season and at times struggled with giving up the early goal to opponents. If next season is anything like this past one, people will be quickly applying the “bust” tag to McIntyre. To his credit, however, there were a handful of games Zane stole for the P-Bruins: he increased his number of shutouts to seven, as opposed to 16-17, where he only posted two.
Lastly, in Providence’s promising push for the Calder Cup, they ran into their old nemesis from Lehigh Valley. The P-Bruins mustered two wins in six regular-season contests against the Phantoms and dropped their best-of-five quarterfinals series in four games. This was a self-inflicted wound: in the last handful of games the P-Bruins skated in, they left some valuable wins on the table and dropped to fourth in their division. This aligned a matchup against the first-place team in the other eastern conference division, the Phantoms. Last year, the P-Bruins were in the same predicament, only their opponent was the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
If this team didn’t feature as many prospects, including the emergence of first-year head coach Jay Leach, I would consider this season an underachievement. At one point, per Leach, the team was icing a team comprised of ten rookies. Throughout my writing, my opinion has always been to “play the kids”, but after this year I’m well aware of the need for (good) mentorship.