Steen leads my development camp all-star team


Compared to past years, the 2019 Boston Bruins development camp was short on snap, crackle and pop.

There were some excellent players, but no Tyler Seguins, Charlie McAvoys or David Pastrnaks. Or even Dougie Hamiltons.

And three of Boston’s better prospects – Jack Studnicka, Kyle Keyser and Jakub Lauko – didn’t go on the ice. They finished their seasons just a few weeks ago and didn’t need the work.

The lack of star power may be the reason crowds were a bit sparse, especially compared to bygone days when Ristuccia Arena was packed with enthusiastic fans.

Jamie Langenbrunner of the Bruins cautioned against “overvaluing” development camp performance, to which I say: Amen.

Anyway, without further ado, here is my development camp all-star team.

F OSKAR STEEN – For my money, Steen was the best player here. He’s played at a higher level than the rest – the top pro league in Sweden — and it showed. He has an explosive first step and plays with pace all over the ice. Steen made some nice plays around the net while also showing the ability to finish.

He’s going to need time to adjust to the smaller North American rinks, so I believe starting the season in Providence would be good for his development, though I’d bet on him playing NHL games next season at some point.

A top line of Paul Carey-Studnicka-Steen could do some damage for the P-Bruins.  Just sayin’.

F JOHN BEECHER – Don Sweeney’s description of Beecher’s skating as effortless was right on the money. He’s a runaway train when he gets going. We’ll get a better idea about his hockey sense and puck skills when he gets to Michigan.

F PAVEL SHEN – The Russian, who was good in the World Juniors, didn’t bring me out of my seat with dazzling dangles in camp, but he showed a knack for protecting the puck and making some plays. Hopefully he’ll be in Providence this season.

D COOPER ZECH – I said going in that he’d be one of the top players and he delivered. The sequence early in Friday’s scrimmage when he made two or three subtle moves to elude a forechecking Steen was vintage Zech. He looked to make a play every time he touched the puck. As a member of the Boston staff put it, he plays with conviction.

D NICK WOLFF — Twenty years ago, a rugged customer like Wolff would probably be a lock to play in the NHL just for his physical presence. Times have changed as the game gets faster, but Wolff has a chance if he continues to improve his footwork and his stick skills. It looks to me as if the Bruins have the inside track on signing him – either to an AHL or an NHL deal – once he finishes his senior season at Duluth.

G JEREMY SWAYMAN – Maine’s best player is getting better all the time and was easily the best of the three goalies who played in Friday’s scrimmage. (Dan Vladar, who already has three pro seasons under his belt, didn’t play in the scrimmage.)

Player to watch in Bruins development camp: Cooper Zech

Just like a certain undersized offensive defenseman for the Boston Bruins, Cooper Zech hails from Michigan and is at his best with the puck on his stick.

“I was a Detroit fan as a kid, but I always looked up to Torey Krug,’’ Zech says.

The 20-year-old doesn’t have any draft pedigree or the hype that comes with it, but then neither did Krug when he signed with the Bruins as a free agent out of Michigan State in 2012.

Zech will be an intriguing prospect to watch when he takes the ice for his first Boston Bruins development camp starting on Wednesday. I’m betting he will be one of the standouts of the three-day event.

Obviously, Zech has miles and miles to travel before he comes anywhere close to Krug’s starry level, but there’s reason for optimism about his future given his promising play in the AHL at the end of last season.

He had an outstanding freshman year at Ferris State, where he was rookie of the year in the WCHA with 28 points in 36 games. When his college season ended, he signed a two-year AHL contract with Providence (AHL deals with Toronto, St. Louis and Washington were also on the table).

Displaying plenty of poise, Zech played well in 12 regular season games and 4 playoff games for the P-Bruins.

“From the day he got here to the day he left, he was a really impressive player for a 20-year-old kid who weighs 160 pounds. He ended up being our best defenseman overall in the playoffs,’’ said Providence coach Jay Leach.

The 5-foot-9 Zech can use his excellent skating ability to carry the puck out of his zone or he can pass it out. He is an excellent passer. His escapability under a heavy forecheck is impressive. He finds seams in transition. He makes smart plays from the point on the power play.

And he’s got swagger.

“I love how he wants to play the game and compete – he’s more or less fearless out there, with a slight frame. He wants the puck,’’ said Leach.

Zech handles questions about his stature as comfortably as he dodges forecheckers.

“It is what it is. We all have disadvantages. I grew up a lot smaller than this, so it was nice to finally have a growth spurt. I was catching up a foot back then. Now it’s four or five inches. It’s made me the player that I am,’’ he said.

This will be Zech’s second NHL development camp. He attended Washington’s camp a year ago and played well. “There was talk of signing a contract, but nothing came of it. I went to college and it all worked out for me, getting to Providence,’’ he said.

Of his decision to leave Ferris State after only one season, he said, “I wasn’t a big school guy. I’ve always wanted to make hockey a full-time thing, revolve my life around it. I figured that was the best way to do it and not have to deal with going to class. It just wasn’t my style. Pro hockey was what I wanted to do.’’

At the start in Providence, Zech was given the green light to find his way.

“The first couple of games (the coaches) let me play my game and do what I do best and after that they made some adjustments. First game, they just said have fun and show them what I could do,’’ he said.

The signature moment of Zech’s late-season stint came in the playoffs against Charlotte. On the power play, he lugged the puck end to end to score a highlight-reel goal.

“It was crunch time, obviously, and that’s when I play my best hockey,’’ he said of his first goal as a pro. “That puck’s hanging up in my dad’s office right now.’’

Since Providence’s season ended, Zech has been back home in Michigan, helping his family with a move into a new house, “doing a ton of working out, fishing and just enjoying it.’’

He is an avid fisherman, for sure. He dropped a hook into Narragansett Bay on the day he arrived in Rhode Island in March. Charlie Moore’s going to be a fan of this kid.

Development camp will be the first time the Boston coaching staff and some in the front office will get a look at Zech in person. I expect they are going to like what they see.

Can he follow a similar development track as Connor Clifton, who signed an AHL deal as a college free agent and in time leapfrogged more highly touted defensemen on his way up to Boston? We’ll see.

“Obviously, he’s got to put some weight on. Some of that is just growing up,’’ said Leach. “His size will always be a question mark. But if there’s a guy who could find a way, it’s probably him.’’

Jayden Struble used NTDP snub as motivation

In 2017, Jayden Struble was widely regarded as one of the best 2001-born players in New England.

So a few eyebrows were raised around the region’s rinks that March when he was not one of the 16 defensemen from all over the country to be invited to USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program Evaluation Camp.

You certainly can’t argue with the squad that USA Hockey picked, led by Jack Hughes, that turned out to be arguably the best in the star-spangled history of the NTDP. While Struble may not have made the team, I believed at the time and still do that he was worthy of a look in camp.

Struble readily acknowledges that he was surprised by the snub. And to his credit, he did not let it get in his way. Not one bit. Instead, he used it as motivation.

“You want to prove that you are one of the best players. When you don’t get picked, you’re just thinking, ‘I have to work harder now.’ Then see where you’re at in the future compared to those guys (who did get invited),’’ Struble said this week.

“Time will tell. All you can do is work hard and keep your head on straight and the rest will play itself out.’’

As the NHL Draft unfolds in Vancouver this weekend, look for Struble to be picked ahead of several of the D-men who attended that NTDP camp while he sat at home in Cumberland, R.I.  I’m expecting that a team looking for a good skating defender with offensive skills who plays with an edge (wow, does he ever!) will take him no later than the third round. [UPDATE: Struble was picked by Montreal with the 46th pick in the second round on Saturday.]

[UPDATE: On Thursday, Struble was named to the initial U.S. roster for the 2019 World Junior Summer Showcase this summer.]

The 6-foot, 195 pounder helped himself with a light’s-out performance at the NHL Combine a few weeks ago, finishing first in 5 of the 18 tests — bench press, mean power output, standing long jump, right hand grip and left hand grip.

He credited trainer Korey Higgins of Brian McDonough’s Edge Performance Systems in Foxboro with helping him prepare.

It will be the first trip to British Columbia for Struble, but maybe not the last. After playing for St. Sebastian’s for the last two seasons, he is expected to move on to Victoria of the BCHL this year before enrolling at Northeastern in 2020.

“I’m excited to go with my family. Just hearing my name get called and then knowing what team I’m going to is going to be exciting,’’ he said.

Struble said his maternal grandfather, Paul Struble, has been the biggest influence in his hockey life through the years.

“He taught me how to play, coached me growing up, drove me to all the practices. My love of hockey is directly impacted by the amount of work that he put into me, coaching wise, advice wise, all that stuff,’’ he said.

The crowd will be big and spotlight bright at the draft. That won’t be a new experience for Struble, who played in two of the biggest events in youth sports, the Quebec Pee Wee Tournament and the Little League World Series (as a slugging first baseman for Dave Belisle’s Cumberland American team in 2014).

“Just being that young and playing in front of that many people, it’s crazy,’’ he said of his LLWS experience.

“It’s definitely helped me. Calmed my nerves a little bit. If I can do that when I’m 12 years old, I can do it now.’’

Struble interviewed with 24 teams (including Boston) at the combine and is ready for whatever happens at the draft.

“At the end of the day, I don’t really pay attention to the rankings. The teams tell you one thing, the rankings tell you another. Draft day, wherever you go, you go. I’ll be happy with whatever team picks me. Wherever it is, it’s going to be a good experience,’’ he said.