Providence Bruins preview: Strong in net, inexperienced on D

Paul Carey has scored 44 goals in his last 90 games for Providence. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Emerson / RI Shots Photography.)

The games finally begin for the Providence Bruins on Friday.

Like I always say, better to start the season four months late than not at all.

Courtesy of COVID-19, this will be an AHL year the likes of which we have not seen before (and never want to see again), but I’ll gladly take it.

“I’m not going to tell you it’s not different. It is different,” said coach Jay Leach. “We’re not practicing in our rink. We’re not playing in our rink. We’re only playing three teams, really only two. That’s just a fact.’’

Putting all that aside, the P-Bruins are raring to go.

“I think they are looking at this as an opportunity to play 26 games and display what they’ve got and set themselves up for next year. Whether there’s playoffs or all that stuff, the bottom line is these games go in the record books. Those statistics go on HockeyDB and Elite Prospects.

“It’s a pro hockey season. At the end of the day, you’re still evaluated on your performance and how the team does, whether we win or whether we lose. That’s really our take on it. We want to win every game.’’

There’s been significant turnover on the roster. Players such as Trent Frederic, Jack Studnicka, Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril have earned promotions to Boston. Veterans Chris Breen, Peter Cehlarik and Ryan Fitzgerald are no longer with the team.

The new faces are a mix of free agents from the NCAA – Boston scouts continue to do a first-rate job there — and major junior, as well as a couple of promising draft picks.

The shorter game schedule leaves more time for practice and off-ice work. Player development remains a priority.

“Our expectations don’t change. We’re in the business of developing NHL players in a competitively successful environment. We do it as well or better than anybody, in our estimation, and that will continue,’’ said John Ferguson Jr., Boston’s executive director of player personnel and Providence’s general manager.

Here’s a breakdown of this year’s team, the 29th in franchise history.

GOALIE

The P-Bruins have a talented tandem in 22-year-old rookie Jeremy Swayman and Dan Vladar, a fifth-year pro at age 23.

Swayman was very sharp in Providence’s only preseason game, making 29 saves in a 3-1 win at Hartford.

“Sway had a heck of a career at Maine and certainly has shown with us up to this point that trend has continued,’’ Leach said.

Vladar posted a .936 save percentage and 1.79 goals-against average last season, best in the AHL in both categories.

“There’s a lot of upside there. He showed what he could do last year and we’re excited about that,’’ Leach said.

Vladar currently is with Boston’s taxi squad, but is expected to get starts with the P-Bruins.

“We view goaltending as a position of strength, that’s for sure,’’ Leach said.

DEFENSE

The P-Bruins have a pair of intriguing offensive D-men in Jack Ahcan, a rookie from St. Cloud State, and Cooper Zech, both of whom scored a goal in the preseason game. They are similar in size – small — but they skate and handle the puck well.

“They both want to make plays heading down ice, whether it’s off the rush or in the offensive zone. Off the rush, they’re either joining or leading, mostly joining. And in the offensive zone, they’re coming off that blue line and they’re going to make a play,’’ said Leach.

“As you saw with both of them (in the preseason game), if there is a path to the net with a shot they are going to take it. They are certainly offensively inclined. We want them to be. We’re going to look to them for offense.

“And to be honest, they both have the ability to defend. Coop’s really worked on that. He had a couple really nice squashes and Jack is really pretty strong down low. He’s knocking guys off pucks. Both of them can play a two-way game even when, I’m sure, their mentality is they want to get up the ice and score some goals.’’

Nick Wolff, a bruiser at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, has a different set of skills. Defending with attitude is his strong suit. There will be a learning curve as he transitions from college after four seasons and two NCAA championships at Minnesota-Duluth.                     .

“Wolfie, like any big defensive defenseman that is going to come into the professional game, he’s going to have his ups and down, just learning timing and angles and the speed is so much different. He wants to make a difference with his physicality. A lot of times that’s great and sometimes it might put him out of position.

“He’s going to have to find that line. That comes with experience. We certainly want him to go after it. If he makes his mistakes, he makes his mistakes being aggressive and physical. He’s got some sneaky finish, believe it or not. You might see that from time to time, as well,’’ said Leach.

The availability of Urho Vaakanainen, Boston’s 2017 first round pick, is an open question. He’s been on Boston’s taxi squad this week, then was sent to Providence today. It stands to reason Boston would want him playing in Providence, instead of sitting in Boston. Obviously, he’ll be a big add for the P-Bruins when he is available.

Sixth-year pro Josiah Didier is a leader and a rock-solid defender. He plays the right way, as coaches like to say, shift in and shift out. It’s not a coincidence that Zboril blossomed in the second half of last season while partnering with Didier.

Rookie Brady Lyle put up good numbers in the Ontario Hockey League.

“I think he’s worked on his skating during the pause and that’s shown. We’ll continue to get him in more offensive situations. I’m sure that’s where he feels most comfortable, but we also want him to make sure he’s crossing off all the boxes to make sure he’s able to play in most situations,’’ said Leach.

Joel Messner and rookie Andrew Peski round out the group.

“Mess is certainly familiar with us and we’re familiar with him. He’ll be a little bit of a veteran back there because the other guys really haven’t played a whole lot. Peski certainly can skate, he’s strong. I thought he was real solid in (the preseason) game,’’ Leach said.

“As a whole, there’s not a lot of experience, so sometimes you’re going to see some scruffiness out of the group. That being said, they will only improve and with that improvement you’ll have some youthful energy and life that eventually will get to a pretty nice spot.’’

FORWARDS

Providence’s first line in the preseason game was Paul Carey-Cameron Hughes-Robert Lantosi.

As Leach said, “There’s a lot to like on that line.”

“Hughesy the guy that gets it going. He’s in on the forecheck, he’s got a good stick and works back. PC, obviously, has scored 44 goals in 90 games for us. He’s going to be that guy. And Tose certainly had a good start to his North American career last year with his production. He’s got a bunch of speed and can handle the puck.’’

The line of Jakub Lauko-Joona Koppanen-Zach Senyshyn created some chaos with its speed. Senyshyn stood out on a couple of rushes.

“He put some time in this summer. He went to a different group, working out up in Ottawa. (Chris Kelly) got him in with another group that he really liked. He worked on some strength and endurance and it’s showing, in my opinion,’’ Leach said.

“Obviously, he’s a little bit more mature and familiar with the system. I think you’re also going to see him taking pucks to the net a little bit more and being a little bit more aggressive, even when he’s shooting. You can tell he’s got a little bit of that mentality. We’re excited that hopefully he continues to trend upward.’’

Lauko looks to have made a complete recovery after knee surgery a year ago,

“He looks strong to me. He’s rolling off people. There’s really no signs of hesitation. He’s fast. He won a couple of puck battles, he just missed on some opportunities. He’s raring to go, for sure,’’ Leach said.

Oskar Steen, who centered rookies Matt Filipe and Curtis Hall on Sunday, should be one of Providence’s top forwards.

“I think he’s picked up a half a step, at least from what I’ve seen in the last month or so. He had a tough start to training camp when he missed a bunch of time. Now he’s back at it and the other night he had a couple of real nice looks off the rush,’’ Leach said.

“He’s always going to be the guy that’s digging for pucks and he’s got an NHL shot. And he’s certainly a bit more vocal this year, which is great. He’s taking a little bit more charge. We’re going to look to him to be a bit of a leader. This is really his third year pro and I think he’s wanting to take that step. He’s certainly going to play in all situations and be one of our leaders up front.’’

Sam Asselin, Pavel Shen and Alex-Olivier Voyer are other forwards who will be in the mix.

“I like to roll four lines. It will continue that way. Whether these lines stay the same — they never really do — but there’s certainly something to work with. The centers are young, but solid. Then we’ve got options, too. Sammy Asselin has played more center than wing. We certainly know that. He was pretty good the other night. He can jump in and out. Curtis (Hall), I think, played more center than wing last year. He’ll fit in that mix, too, if we want to change guys in and out,’’ Leach said.

WHAT TO EXPECT

With some interesting prospects in their lineup, Providence should be a fun team to watch.

In a season of just 26 games and with only two other teams in Providence’s division, wins and losses will never matter less. How the young players develop will be the story.

“We’re young. We can skate. We’ve got a lot of energy,’’ said Leach. “We’re going to make mistakes. My hope is that when we make mistakes, we make up for them with speed and energy, frankly. Execution, poise, all that comes with experience and is probably something that we’ve got to continue to work on, but hopefully we can make up for it with our youthful energy and our skating ability.’’

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