For the Providence Bruins, winning and developing players to move up to Boston have gone hand in hand in recent years.
They’ve made the playoffs for seven straight years. Last season, 16 players who skated in Providence also played in Boston, including Connor Clifton and Karson Kuhlman, both of whom contributed during Boston’s run to the Stanley Cup Final.
This season the P-Bruins are expected to be good again. They’ll start the season with a young but deep roster layered with good prospects and established AHL players.
“Stacked’’ is a word I’ve heard a lot from fans this week, so this is a good time to note that the American Hockey League regular season is a six-and-a-half-month battle of attrition. The roster you start with is often not what you finish with, courtesy of callups, injuries, trades. Veterans aren’t a lock to play as well as in previous seasons. Prospects that are expected to thrive as they arrive from college or junior hockey or Europe don’t always do so.
This is a roundabout way of saying that while optimism is all well and good, don’t schedule the Calder Cup parade just yet.
“I’ve said this before: There’s no hardware in October or November or December,’’ says John Ferguson Jr., Providence GM and Boston’s executive director of player personnel. “The division we’re in never stands still. There’s always teams making pushes in the summer to add players and contributors. It’s a real dynamic division.’’
The schedule will be a challenge right off the bat, with 10 of the first 14 games on the road. The P-Bruins open this weekend with games in Pennsylvania against two of their toughest competitors in the Atlantic Division, Lehigh Valley on Saturday and Hershey on Sunday.
Here’s a closer look at the team.
The P-Bruins are young up front, starting with their top two centers, second-year pro Trent Frederic, 21, and rookie Jack Studnicka, 20. Fourth-line center Pavel Shen just turned 20. Third-line pivot Brendan Gaunce is the veteran at 25.
On the wings, veteran Paul Carey was one of the best players in the AHL in the second half of last season. Anders Bjork starts the season in Providence, but probably won’t be here long if he builds on his strong training camp performance with Boston.
Fourth-year pro Peter Cehlarik has NHL talent, but hasn’t been able to stick in Boston. He’s been a good offensive player in the AHL.
Promising rookie Oskar Steen, 21, put up points in a breakthrough season in Sweden last season and showed off a good scoring touch in training camp.
After scoring 12 goals as a rookie and 14 last year, Zach Senyshyn looks to hit the 20-goal plateau. He made two pretty passes to set up goals in Providence’s preseason win on Saturday.
After battling injuries last season, Ryan Fitzgerald looks like he is primed for a strong season in his third year.
Underrated second-year pro Cameron Hughes can play wing or center and can play up and down in the lineup.
It remains to be determined what the best lineup fit is for dynamic 19-year-old Jakub Lauko, who has emerged as a top prospect. He’s an exciting player to watch.
Robert Lantosi, a speedy winger who played for Slovakia in the World Championships, burly Brendan Woods and Joona Koppanen round out the forward group.
Providence will miss Anton Blidh’s relentlessness on the forecheck, but he could return by February after shoulder surgery.
“It’s a great mix. We obviously have some guys on all four lines that make plays. Is there a classic fourth line or third line look? I don’t know if there is right now. We’re going to have to figure that out. We want to compete on pucks and make plays. Whether that’s the first line or the fourth line, that’s not going to change,’’ said third-year coach Jay Leach.
The D corps looks to be the strength of the team.
It’s a group that offers “a blend of youth and experience and size and mobility,’’ Leach says.
Second-year pro Urho Vaakanainen, 20, is Boston’s best defense prospect. He and 21-year-old rookie Cooper Zech can skate and move the puck.
Jeremy Lauzon, who played 15 NHL games last season, and Jakub Zboril have made solid progress in their first two pro seasons and are expected to continue to develop.
Veteran Chris Breen is invaluable on the penalty kill and is a physical presence. Josiah Didier is coming off a Calder Cup title with Charlotte. NHL veteran Alex Petrovic brings size and experience. Second-year pro Wiley Sherman provides depth.
With players like Breen, Lauzon and Didier on the back end, Providence will be difficult to play against.
Max Lagace, 26, has an established AHL pedigree. Dan Vladar is entering his fourth season as a pro even though he’s only 22. Lagace and Vladar will compete for the net at the start.
Twenty-year-old Kyle Keyser had an impressive training camp, but will start his first pro season in Atlanta. The plan is for him to get all the work he can handle in the ECHL. If he plays well, don’t be surprised if he is summoned back to Providence.
The Bruins’ organization’s emphasis on player development in a winning environment has served them well. This has the potential to be an entertaining year as Studnicka, Vaakanainen, Lauko, Steen and the rest try to work their way up the ladder. Ninety points is a realistic goal for the P-Bruins, which would land them in the thick of the playoff race with Lehigh Valley, Hershey, Bridgeport and Scranton Wilkes-Barre in the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division.