Providence Bruins preview: Reasons aplenty for optimism

Sammy Asselin earned an NHL contract with his strong performance last season. (Photo courtesy of Providence Bruins)

Some of the names have changed, as they do every year in the American Hockey League, but all indications are that the Providence Bruins again will be a strong team in the Atlantic Division this season.

No surprise there, as the P-Bruins have finished at the top of the division for the last two seasons. With fans back in the stands for the first time in a year and a half, a pair of championship banners will be unfurled before the home opener on Saturday night.

One big change is behind the bench as Ryan Mougenel moves up to head coach after Jay Leach departed for the Seattle Kraken.

The departure of general manager John Ferguson Jr. is also a major development, as he moved on to the Arizona Coyotes as assistant GM. Ferguson’s duties will be covered by Evan Gold, Boston’s assistant general manager and director of legal affairs, and Jamie Langenbrunner, director of player development and player personnel adviser.

“The team will play with the same structure. I do think that ability to move pucks north to the forwards, that needs to be part of the emphasis as well,’’ Gold said.

“I’m excited that, hopefully, everything shakes out where every night we should have pretty good goaltending, the ability to defend and hopefully put some goals in.’’

Here’s how the 2021-22 P-Bruins look:

With a good start last season, Zach Senyshyn earned a recall to Boston. (Photo courtesy of Providence Bruins)

FORWARDS

Providence has a strong, deep group up front with the potential to put up some good offensive numbers.

“Depth will be a strength of the group. Through the middle of the ice we’ve got a lot of versatility, some two-position players, so (Mougenel) will have good options in terms of lineup construction,’’ said Gold.

At the top of the lineup, Cameron Hughes and newcomer Steven Fogarty are proven AHL players. Ball-of-energy Jakub Lauko could be poised for a breakout season and maybe his first NHL callup if he can stay healthy. Sammy Asselin, who earned his first NHL contract over the summer, is a versatile forward with a nonstop motor.

Jack Studnicka and Chris Wagner arrived from Boston this week and figure to provide a boost for as long as they are here.

Jesper Froden, a 27-year-old winger from Sweden, had an eye-opening training camp with Boston and should be a nice fit in the top six.

Pesky Oskar Steen has shown steady improvement in his first two years in Providence and will look to build on that in year three.

Zach Senyshyn, coming off a couple of strong preseason games, looks to be primed for a big year in his fifth pro season.

Ian McKinnon, who made his mark with some memorable fights last season, will answer the bell when needed.

Curtis Hall, Matt Filipe, Joona Koppanen, Alex-Olivier Voyer and hulking newcomer Justin Brazeau, who scored 61 goals in 68 games in the OHL in 2018-19, round out the forward group.

Brady Lyle scored seven goals and 14 points as a rookie defenseman last season. (Photo courtesy of Providence Bruins)

DEFENSE

The back end should be strong.

“We’ve got a mix of mix of mobility and puck moving as well as some stoutness in (Tyler) Lewington, (Jack) Dougherty and (Nick) Wolff,’’ said Gold.

Jack Ahcan and Brady Lyle, both of whom have strong offensive components in their games, had good rookie seasons in 202-21 and will look to take another step in their second year.

Urho Vaakanainen, Boston’s first rounder in 2017, enters his fourth year with the P-Bruins.

“Urho’s now at a point in his career where we’re going to rely on him to be the man. It’s time for him to embrace that. I think he’s willing to do that,” said Mougenel. “We want his game tight, good and mean and all of the things he does well every day. It’s just about the consistency of it. Once he has that consistency, we probably won’t see him again.

“There’s a place for him up there. It’s up to him now.”

Veterans Aaron Ness, Lewington and Dougherty have hundreds of games of AHL experience.

“Some guys are getting acclimated, like (Ness and Lewington) have never played probably such an aggressive line rush against, squash and slide. They’ll be excellent as time goes on and they get a little more familiar with it,’’ said Mougenel.

“A guy like Ness is huge in the development of Jack Ahcan. He’s an elite defenseman at this level. Jack’s got a lot of maturity to him, too, which is crazy when you’re that young. Aaron’s a great guy for Jack to lean on, a great peer for him. Lyle, same thing, he can learn a lot from Lewington. He’s got that stiffness, that hardness.’’

Wolff, who plays a physical, defense-first game, is back for a second season.

Andrew Peski provides depth.

Josiah Didier, Victor Berglund and J.D. Greenway start the season on the injured list.

Kyle Keyser went 3-1-1 with a .913 save percentage for the P-Bruins last season. (Photo courtesy of Providence Bruins)

GOAL

Providence received some of the very best goaltending in the league over the last couple of years from Jeremy Swayman, Dan Vladar and Max Lagace.

Taking over the net this season will be veteran Troy Grosenick and 22-year-old Kyle Keyser.

The 32-year-old Grosenick has a proven track record in the AHL, while Keyser heads into his first full season in the league.

“The growth in Kyle Keyser has been a big thing. He probably didn’t get off to the start that he wanted (in his pro career), but there’s a lot of progression there. He can learn a lot from a guy like Grossie. I was there (in Worcester) when he was a rookie and the growth he’s had as a pro and a person is exceptional,’’ said Mougenel.

“The consistency part is big. Especially in the American Hockey League sometimes you need that strong goaltending component just because there are mistakes and it’s nice to have a goalie there that can bail you out. That’s one thing that Keyser understands. It’s taken him some time to get there and I feel like his game’s in a pretty good place right now, but those are two guys that will push each other.

“For now, Grossie’s probably the guy we’ll lean on for that consistency early on, but that’s not written in stone either.”

PREDICTION

The P-Bruins certainly look to have the makings of a playoff team, if not a contender for another division title, depending on how good their goaltending is. They’ll play with structure, as Providence teams have done over the years, and they have the potential for a more balanced attack than they’ve had in recent seasons. After playing without fans in Marlboro last season, look for the good times to roll again at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.

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