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.’’