BRIGHTON, Mass – There is little question that youth is going to continue to be served with the Bruins.
Brandon Carlo established himself as a top-four defenseman last season and David Pastrnak exploded into a game-breaking force in his third NHL season with 34 goals. Then in the playoffs, 19-year-old Charlie McAvoy got a head start on what’s expected to be an exciting upcoming season for him in Boston. There’s more to come this season as draft and development continue to crank at a high level for the Black and Gold. There was ample evidence of that during last week’s B’s Development Camp that wrapped up on Sunday afternoon.
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It might not have been as high wattage as the past couple of years when Carlo, McAvoy and Jake DeBrusk were still campers, but it was also clear that there will still be Baby B’s pushing to make the final NHL roster a couple of months from now.
“We’ve been fairly committed to allowing our young prospects to try and grow and take some opportunity,” Bruins GM Don Sweeney said. “Now, we’ve got some great competition and internal competition set up, and I do believe there will be a couple players, and there are a couple that are here that got a taste last year that will be along those same lines, will challenge; particularly up front. On the back end, probably not as much, which has led me to continue to look outside [the organization]. I’ve had some conversations. Our RFA situation sort of dictates a little bit of patience as well in making sure we clarify that before we move forward. But I think the most exciting part is the internal competition piece that we’ve set a plan in motion. I think there are players that will step forward and grab that opportunity.”
That may not be particularly good news for Robbie O’Gara or Matt Grzelcyk among the young defensemen group and it’s a clear indicator that the B’s front office doesn’t think that Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon are quite ready for prime time. Still, it’s just as clear after a great weekend as the best player on the ice that winger Anders Bjork heads into his first pro training camp with a legitimate shot to win a top-six role with the Black and Gold.
Bjork, 20, missed the first few days due to a family obligation, but dominated with his skating speed, skill and confidence level with the puck once he arrived. Bjork was pulled away by the B’s from his senior season at Notre Dame for a couple of reasons, but the predominant one is that he showed at the college ranks that he’s pushing toward NHL readiness at a rapid pace.
The left-shot Bjork will undoubtedly get looks at both wings, with left wing open alongside David Krejci on the second line. He played mostly right wing with the Fighting Irish.
“He’s got a skill level that’s pretty high-end. He can make plays. He kind of dances on his skates a little bit. Light on his skates but strong on his feet, and he pokes it around pretty good. He looks a little bit out of control at times, but he’s really not. He’s in control. He’s just moving that quickly,” said B’s Player Development Coordinator and former Stars and Devils forward Jamie Langenbrunner. “He can skate and he’s smart. So, when you can skate and you’re smart, you can probably play in the National Hockey League. It’s [another thing] for him believing he belongs and being comfortable in that, and using what he has to be a good player.”
It won’t all be on Bjork to represent the B’s youth brigade, however. DeBrusk will get his first real chance to secure an NHL roster spot after a strong first pro season with the Providence Bruins. Danton Heinen will get another NHL look after finding his game down the stretch with the P-Bruins are some hesitant moments in Boston early last season. Zach Senyshyn will also factor into the forward picture for the Bruins after finishing his final development camp, but his considerable gifts of good size and blinding speed may need some polishing with the P-Bruins before they’re ready for prime time.
Beyond those names is Harvard prospect Ryan Donato, who stood out at this year’s development camp with his motor, his hands and his hockey IQ that could be pro-ready as soon as this spring once the Crimson conclude their season.
The bottom line with all of this is that the Bruins have another wave of young players coming to the NHL this season to mesh with grizzled veterans Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Backes, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci and Tuukka Rask. It’s exactly what the B’s need if they want to continue to compete in the salary-cap era and build on a youth/veteran mix that pushed back into the playoffs after their two-year absence.
They also have the right man behind the bench in Bruce Cassidy, who has the developmental role of an AHL head coach still fresh in his mind with an ability to teach the game to younger players while showing the necessary patience to do just that.
“You have to let these kids grow up on the job if they can handle it every day. I do believe that there needs to be a conversation with your leaders. With these young kids that are going to play – let’s say [Patrice] Bergeron and Marsh [Brad Marchand], we’re spit-balling here – but let’s say one of these young kids goes and plays with that line. I have to convince those two guys that they have to pull this kid along, whatever kid it happens to be, because that will make us a better team if we can spread the wealth, and use other players in different roles,” said Cassidy. “Maybe if [David] Backes plays on a line with, let’s say JFK [Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson], a 200-foot center that we have if he starts in that role that he would have to mentor. I think that’s a conversation we have to have. Krech [David Krejci], if there’s a young left winger on his side – you’ve got to work with this kid.
“You can get frustrated with him at times, but you have to work with him and you have to pull him along if we’re going to be the team that we want to be. Can these young kids handle it? That’s the most important [thing]. Can they even play in those positions? If they can, they show the ability to do that, then we need the younger guys to help them through the mental part of that. That’s kind of a challenge, I think, for the coach, is to get those older guys to buy into it. We’ll use Pittsburgh because they just won two Cups as an example of it. Clearly, they found that formula to be successful. I don’t know how Sid [Sidney Crosby] treats the [Conor] Shearys of the world, the [Evgeni] Malkins, or [Bryan] Rusts, but they’ve pulled him along. And [Jake] Guentzel, throw him into that mix. I don’t know the conversation that went into it. Clearly, there had to have been one and there had to have been a buy-in for these older guys to play with these guys and vice-versa – the younger guys to accept these conversations and learn from them. I think that will be our biggest challenge, and one I’m looking forward to because I do believe some of these young kids, assuming they’re ready and we’ve talked about it – until they get on the ice and show it, that could make us a much better, stronger team if we incorporate those younger guys.”
Clearly, the Penguins found that perfect mixture of proven veteran champions and young, cap-friendly players to climb the mountaintop together. That’s exactly what the Bruins are looking to build the next couple of seasons in Boston. Last week’s development camp showed that the Black and Gold are still on the right track toward making that happen with a new wave of youngsters ready to hit the ice this fall.