With some of Boston’s brightest young prospects on their roster, an early glance at the 2007-08 Providence Bruins revealed a team that, at least on paper, was loaded with potential. As they near the midpoint of the season, they find themselves not only at the top of their division, but with the best record in the entire league. While talent certainly plays a role in their success, what has put them ahead is hard work from a group of players that bought into the system early on. To put it simply, everyone has been on the same page, and this has included players brought in from the ECHL.
“Our guys, from day one, have just really come prepared to play and when there’s been opportunity for our team to struggle, it’s somebody that’s stepped into the lineup and come up big,” said Providence head coach Scott Gordon.
This season’s Providence Bruins team is fast, solid in all three zones, and relentless in their attack. They’ve scored more goals than any other team, averaged more than 30 shots per game and been out-shot by an opponent on only two occasions. In the first 37 games of the season, Providence put together a 29-5-2-1 record.
“One of the things that really made a difference is the good job our forwards have done. Our forwards have played so well in the offensive zone that we don’t spend a lot of time in our defensive zone. As a result, we’ve been able to get strong performances out of our goalies because we don’t put them at a disadvantage.”
The goaltending position has seen some instability from the movement of bodies. Rookie Tuukka Rask was called up to Boston to cover for injuries, while third-year pro Jordan Sigalet needed time to recover, relating to a Nov. 16 incident where he collapsed during a game. Sigalet had only made three starts, and none since last November, but he’s now getting closer to being able to return to the lineup. Providence has also looked upon Mike Brown to take up some of the slack, as well as 26-year-old Andy Franck, who arrived via the Central Hockey League. Brown went 6-2 while in Providence with a .891 save percentage before being sent back to Johnstown.
Rask rejoined the Providence Bruins in mid-December, and because of his stay in Boston, has only started 17 AHL games. His season record is 14-3, while posting a 2.04 GAA and .907 save percentage, however his strongest play has come since he returned from Boston. Not unexpectedly, Rask has taken on the majority of the workload while in Providence, which Coach Gordon explained is to maximize their time with him, and also to make sure he can handle that workload.
“We’re playing him a lot because we don’t know how long he’s going to be here — an injury tomorrow could change everything,” he explained. “As far as what I’ve seen, it’s getting used to playing a lot of minutes, and that’s the big thing. It’s all about playing a lot, to not get yourself comfortable in a routine, and staying sharp mentally. When he was here earlier in the year, I wasn’t seeing that as much as I’m seeing now.”
Adam McQuaid, who was acquired by the Bruins prior to the season, is just returning to the lineup after missing the latter part of December with injury. McQuaid has been a pleasant surprise, a player who has made tremendous strides early in his pro career. He keeps his game simple and generally makes good decisions on the ice, qualities that have already made him an effective defenseman. If he continues to fill out, the potential is there for a dominant defensive player.
“This summer when he came to camp, he looked like a major project,” said Coach Gordon. “[He’s] a very intelligent student, pays attention, and that, combined with the fact that Paul Vincent’s done a great job with the technical part of his skating, he’s progressed so rapidly that he went from being a project to a legitimate call-up prospect.”
Jonathan Sigalet is still finding his way back after missing the better part of the 2006-07 season. Though the size and strength he had prior to last year’s injury are not back, he is continuing to improve.
“You can’t make up something like that over the course of the season. That comes over the course of the summer and you build on it. The mental part — reading the plays, making the right plays in the right situations, you know that’s something that he can work on and should get better over the course of the year.”
Matt Lashoff and rookie Matt Hunwick have earned recalls to Boston early on. Hunwick turned heads in training camp with his exceptional skating ability, poise, and hockey sense. The rookie defenseman already has 13 NHL games under his belt, but has returned to Providence for the increased playing time and experience. In 18 AHL games he’s at +17 and has tallied 7 points.
Lashoff, the Bruins’ first-round draft pick in 2005, is still with the team in Boston. Already an accomplished offensive defenseman at the AHL level, Lashoff was on pace to exceed his rookie totals, standing at 20 points and +9 in 28 games. He needed the additional time in Providence to round out his game before heading north again. It remains to be seen whether he will stay in Boston, but he’s demonstrated much more confidence this time around, and has shown enough improvement that he’s making a case for himself.
Brett Skinner, who was acquired from Anaheim prior to the season, has also been a strong addition, and currently leads all defensemen on the team in scoring. He’s a smooth skater and intelligent player who carries the puck well, and is a gifted overall in his ability to create offense. Skinner has 23 points in 30 games. Nathan Saunders, who also came to the Bruins in that same trade with Anaheim, began the season in the ECHL. He’s a big, physical defenseman who can be intimidating and has demonstrated a willingness to fight. He’s played in just 13 games with Providence, with a goal and 21 penalty minutes.
The Providence Bruins’ leading scorer, Pascal Pelletier, was named player of the month for December and is the top goal scorer in the league. He’s one of many players on the team who have stepped up big this season.
“I think part of it is the makeup of the forwards we have, last year we had more softer, skilled forwards, this year maybe we have a little less skill, but there’s a lot more bite in their game. They’re better skaters, and as a result we get to spots quicker. Because of that we don’t allow the opposition a whole lot of opportunity to get looks on plays coming out of their defensive zone.”
Perhaps one of the most electric young forwards to watch has been rookie Vladimir Sobotka. What’s amazing is how quickly he’s adapted, how quickly he’s absorbed what is expected of him and in turn, how effective he’s been on the ice. Sobotka has played in just 18 games for Providence, and tallied a total 20 points. A gifted offensive player, he’s got incredible hockey sense, and despite the fact that he’s not a real big player, he’s aggressive in his pursuit of the puck and quick to deliver a check. All of this earned him an extended look in Boston during the month of December.
“He’s the exception to the rule. I’ve never seen anyone come in and be able to adapt to the way we want our team to play,” said the P Bruins coach. “With Vladdy, from day one, he’s been one of the most consistent players. He’s displayed a level of intelligence — and throw in the fact that he speaks a minimal amount of English — it’s just really a credit to his ability to play the game. I think the Boston Bruins have a really good player in him.”
Now in his second pro year, Martins Karsums has finally hit his stride, due in no small part to his ability to stay healthy. Karsums has appeared in all 37 of Providence’s games, and is second on the team in scoring at 33 points, and leads the team with a +20. While it’s clear that his offense has improved — he’s already well on his way to beating his rookie season totals — it’s hard to fully appreciate what he does through stats. Karsums is an intense competitor who is difficult to knock off the puck, and more than willing to use the body.
“The key with him was just staying healthy so that he can string together a stretch and develop consistency in his game, and that’s what’s happened,” said Coach Gordon. “All of a sudden all of the mental errors, mistakes he made last year, he’s not doing it. He’s become a better player offensively, just by getting in reps and being in situations, and understanding the message that we’re giving him.”
Both Chris Collins and Wacey Rabbit were players that needed to step up this season, and so far they have answered the bell. Off-season conditioning and better preparation have worked wonders, and both players have found ways to contribute.
“When they finally got the chance to play consistently they stepped right in and played well. Last year that wouldn’t have happened, they would’ve been lost for a period at a time and wouldn’t bring anything consistently enough that you felt confident about putting them on the ice. This year that’s not the case, they’re playing at every single game for 60 minutes.”
Collins, in his second professional season, is quick, responsible at both ends of the ice and demonstrates good overall vision and hockey sense. As his comfort level has gone up, he’s also begun to show up on the scoresheet more regularly. In 32 games, he’s scored 12 goals and tallied 9 assists. Rabbit, who is in his first full professional season, is also a tough competitor and a high-energy player. He has 2 goals and 11 assists in the 27 games he’s played with Providence so far this year.
Nate Thompson was named captain of this year’s team. His continued improvement has manifested itself in a consistent full game effort and he’s proven himself to be a reliable energy forward. Thompson has also found ways to contribute more offense and is on his way to a career-high point total.
“He always provides great energy, whether it’s hits, fights, skating, or getting in the forecheck. What I’ve really liked is the 60 minutes of consistency we’re getting from him.”
While he’s not scoring at quite the same clip he did as a rookie, TJ Trevelyan continues to be a regular offensive contributor. He is first and foremost a goal scorer, an opportunistic player with a quick, accurate shot. He takes frequent shots at the net, and as many of them are quality shots, he is always a danger to score. Trevelyan has 12 goals and 11 assists, and has played in all but two of Providence’s games this season.
Rookie Byron Bitz has had some ups and downs, but shown some overall improvement since the beginning of the season, mainly in puck possession. His offensive production is not quite where it could be, though that too should improve over the course of the season, as should his decision making. A big player at 6’5 215 lbs, he has a lot going for him, not only in size but with his overall skill. Right now, however, it’s a matter of putting it all together, and more importantly, keeping healthy so he can continue to progress.
“He’s had two fights where he hurt himself — and that’s going to slow down your progress,” said Coach Gordon. “His willingness has been great, we love that, but at the same time, ultimately, just like Marty [Karsums] last year, you’re not going to progress as quickly as you could. You’re going to get back to square one, especially as a rookie, and that’s kind of unfortunate for him.”
After winning a roster spot in Boston out of camp, David Krejci found himself back in Providence for a stretch. The talented center saw limited ice time in Boston and seemed to lose confidence, which hurt his overall performance. He returned to Providence and quickly regained form, earning more than a point per game, with a total of 28 in 25 games. The result was another recall to Boston, and the second time around, he’s been much more effective.
“I think because things didn’t happen for him offensively, he probably started to second guess himself. He’s more than capable defensively, I know that, from the time he’s been here — I never thought he couldn’t handle the job in the defensive zone — but when you’re struggling offensively, you usually end up struggling defensively. I think he got himself in a lot of thinking instead of just playing. When he first came down here, he started maybe the first few games as a half a point a game guy, and then he picked up to a point where like last year, he was getting two or three points a game pretty consistently.”
ECHL/ Johnstown Chiefs
In the first year of their affiliation with the Bruins, the Chiefs have not been finding wins so easily. While they’ve managed to climb out of the basement, they are still a sub .500 team, searching for a little consistency and a few more wins. At 12-19-0-1, they are 19th in the conference and 6th in their division. As for Bruins prospects, injuries in Providence have made their appearance for the Chiefs minimal. Goaltender Mike Brown has only started five games for the team. Likewise, defenseman Nathan Saunders has played in 14 games for the Chiefs, during which he tallied 3 assists and 37 penalty minutes.