Even though they didn’t get past the first round of the playoffs, the Providence Bruins provided plenty of entertainment during the 2017-18 season. Along the way, coach Jay Leach and company helped move a bunch of players further down the road to being NHLers.
“You look back, it was a good year. It was a wild year. You know the American League is a transient league, but I feel like the lineup was never the same. We had a lot of kids that played a lot, which was a challenge, but it’s well worth it. I think everyone got better. We did a lot of things that we wanted to do,’’ said Leach.
The P-Bruins have been a critical cog in Boston’s very successful draft-and-develop machinery over the last few seasons. Watching a winning team is always fun, but for my money how young players progress over the course of a season is the most interesting reason to follow the team.
To be sure, in the 10 years that I’ve been watching Providence closely, the caliber of player that the Bruins bring in has drastically improved. These days, whether they are draft picks or NCAA free agents, they all have something to offer.
It wasn’t always this way.
There was a year when a free-agent defenseman out of junior hockey showed up for camp with 20 extra pounds around his waist. I remember wondering to myself, “When Boston’s scouts got together, who in the hell stood up and went to bat for this kid?’’ He didn’t make it through the season in Providence.
Another year there was a hulking brawler who had all kinds of trouble getting around the ice. As he was getting back in shape after an injury, he jumped into a random pickup game at The Dunk one afternoon. I didn’t stick around to watch, but I was told later that a half dozen of the pickup skaters were clearly better than the guy who was being paid to play in the AHL. He was gone in a hurry, too.
That never happens anymore. Some of the youngsters may not have what it takes to ultimately make it to the NHL, but they have at least some readily identifiable qualities that make them good players.
That brings me to this season’s crop of kids. The P-Bruins had seven rookies who played significant minutes. I don’t believe there were any Jake DeBrusks, Danton Heinens or Matt Grzelcyks in the group – guys who have a great chance to move up next season. But some of these players will contribute to the big club in time.
Obviously, no one knows the rookie players like Leach, so I asked him for his thoughts on each of them.
4-15-19 in 68 regular-season games
Leach: “The thing I liked about Z the most is that his willingness to battle increased. In the beginning of the season, whether it was a battle or a mistake was made or whatever, he was almost one and done. He was very quick to try and save the world and then it was over, as opposed to really buckling down and staying in the battle and trying to fix what happened, whether it was his mistake or somebody else’s. As the season progressed, especially late, I thought he was better at sustaining the battle. Getting in there a little bit more.
“In the playoffs, I really thought overall he had a pretty solid four games. He didn’t hurt us and he played some valuable minutes and he was able to be effective. Overall, I thought it was a first year in a really tough league for a defenseman in which he had some growing pains, but he finished on a high note.’’
1-6-7 in 52 regular-season games
Leach: “Lauzie always competed, was always someone defensively who would settle things down. As the season went on he became more and more effective as a penalty killer. His offensive play will be something he’ll have to continue to work on. A lot of that comes with experience and playing. He missed over two months of the season with an injury. It will be nice to get another year under his belt, to consistently play, so that he can start to relax a little bit out there with the puck and make plays.
“He’s such a pro. He wants to do everything so well that sometimes he can get in his own way. Like most young players, it will take some time and experience. It’s just playing games. He’s always going to be a competitor. He’s always going to work his hardest. He’s always going to be a professional. It’s just a matter of when it starts to click. Relax, work smart and become a little bit more effective with the puck.”
4-9-13 in 54 regular-season games
“Cliffy drastically improved his game. He was always fun to watch, but there were moments in the beginning of the year when we had a hard time thinking he was going to be able to play for us just because he was so high-risk. His puck management was really poor.
“But he improved. Credit to him. He worked at it, to understand the concepts and the systems that we were trying to apply and then at the same time his puck management became a little bit more sound and he became an effective player.
“His playoffs were excellent. He’s a competitive little bastard to play against. (Lehigh Valley) knew when he was on the ice, they really did. He created some things offensively and was for the most part responsible defensively. He’s fun to watch. I’m sure most people would say that. He brings that element of energy and excitement to our guys that’s infectious.”
2-8-10 in 53 regular-season games
Leach: “Emmy struggled early on. There’s an adjustment to make coming from Sweden. From mid to late December on he got into a pretty good rhythm. Started to simplify the game, to use his skating in some parts of the game and for the most part was effective.
“We got to a point late in the season where he wasn’t in the lineup as much and I found he became a little more inconsistent. Some of that was maybe going in and out. That’s tough for a young player to do sometimes. Overall, it was a good year, a very important year for Emil to be able to play in North America, definitely a different game for him.
“I do think he found his game through all of it. As far as getting to the next level, being a smooth-skating defender who can make simple plays, shutdown plays – that’s obviously our goal moving forward. I’m sure he would have liked getting in more down the stretch, but overall it was a good year for him.
21-16-37 in 65 games
Leach: “Fitz had an excellent year. Production-wise, he had over 20 goals, found his home on the first line with (Austin) Czarnik and (Jordan) Szwarz. Dog on a bone with the puck. Competes. Early on, he had a couple of defensive holes that we had to shore up. He was quick to do so and proved to be a real reliable defensive player when needed. He provided a bunch of energy for his line and was able to finish. We’re excited to see where he’ll land in the next year or two.”
12-14-26 in 66 regular-season games
Leach: “I think Senny was caught off-guard at the pro game, just the way things are here. It’s a lot different from junior. The things you do in junior, you really can’t get away with here. It was an adjustment for him. As the year went on, used his great speed to be a responsible up-and-down winger. He did chip in offensively. He would probably say he didn’t love all his numbers, but it was a respectable start.
“The thing about him – and I said this to him – he is willing and able to do whatever he can to be effective. He has no pretenses about where he is on the depth chart and all that stuff. He just wants to get out there and play and help the team win and obviously become an effective player. He’s willing to do anything he can to do so.
“He’s in a great mindset. It was a real learning experience for him, but I think at the same time he learned a lot of different things that will allow him to transfer his game to the next level, whenever that might come.”
JAKOB FORSBACKA KARLSSON
15-17-32 in 58 regular-season games
Leach: “Production-wise, he was pretty good for his first year. He was injured in February and it did take a while for him to come back. Even when he was back, you go almost right into the playoffs and it’s hard, especially for a younger guy. Clearly has an abundance of skill. Was able to play in all situations. Terrific on faceoffs.
“At times he was really producing offensively. At other times, he hit a dry spell. That’s probably what’s expected out of a first-year player playing in a really tough league as a centerman. It was a learning experience for him, for sure, like everybody. It will be exciting to see what he brings come fall with a year under his belt down here.”