The Providence Bruins appeared unstoppable. At the top of their division for much of the season, they finished the 2007-08 campaign with a league-best 55-18-3-4 record. While it appeared that the team would carry their success far into the postseason, a determined Portland Pirates team would put an end to the ride, in the Atlantic Division Finals. Disappointing finish aside, the Bruins clearly have little to complain about with their top developmental team.
P-Bruins Head Coach Scott Gordon credits the Bruins’ prospect development camp last summer as a springboard to his team’s strong start, as well as the work ethic, character and hockey IQ of his players. The opportunity to work with players prior to training camp provided both an introduction to the team’s expectations and gave the coaching staff an idea of what they had to work with.
“Usually what happens is we don’t get our players until the last week of September and you get a short amount of time to get everything ready,” explained Gordon. “You play a bunch of exhibition games and you can’t really work on anything because your roster’s filled with guys that aren’t even going to play for you. Once we got through training camp, we had touched on just about everything, so we got out of the gate quick.”
Providence’s aggressive, up-tempo style of play, a relentless attack that continually chips away at the opposition, took a tremendous amount of pressure off of the goaltenders. Tuukka Rask played his rookie season in North America and made the majority of starts. He had the usual rookie ups and downs, but has nonetheless demonstrated some of the talent he has been touted for. Rask appeared in 45 regular season games, with a 27-13-2 record, including one shutout.
“I think in his case it’s been a little bit different, because as good as he is, with this team he hasn’t had to show how good he is,” said Gordon. “You see some of the saves he makes — he only has to do it a few times a game. If he was on a weaker team, all of a sudden you’d be like ‘wow, this guy’s unbelievable.’ It’s his lateral movement, it’s so precise and sharp, and for that reason, he’s rarely out of position. That part, from a coaching standpoint, we see that. In the games it’s been different, because he hasn’t had to be the star, and it’s probably the first time in his career he’s had to do that.”
Because their goaltenders have not had to play hero night in and night out, the coaching staff has emphasized the importance of quality over quantity: it’s all about the timely save. Rask is getting there, but it has been an adjustment for him.
“I think he’s probably struggled with that a little bit, more so at the beginning of the year than he did in the second half, but there’s no question he’s got NHL talent.”
Jordan Sigalet also demonstrated that he could be a dependable goaltender, but the focus on getting Rask ready for the NHL has once again set him in the background. Sigalet appeared in 19 games, with a 12-5-1 record. His attitude and work ethic, despite his illness, and role as backup during games, are really what set him apart. He has proven again and again that he is competent and good at what he does.
Jonathan Sigalet, in his third year as a pro, needed to get his game back after missing significant time from injury last season. He played in 74 games, totaling 23 points, but more importantly, he’s back on track.
“Without a doubt, the first couple months of the year you could just tell that he was tentative,” said Gordon. “He was worried about getting hit. Everything he did was fading away. He barely held onto the puck, and if he held onto the puck he was going the wrong way. We had a pretty good sit down with some video and showed him — everything you’re doing is non-aggressive; you’re bracing yourself for something that never happens. Probably after Christmas is where it picked up for him, and in the second half of the season he’s back to where he was before he was hurt.”
Matt Lashoff put together another solid season in his second year pro and is well on his way to a full-time job in the NHL. He played in 60 regular season games for Providence and was consistently one of the better defensemen. Lashoff was an all-star for the second consecutive season. Brett Skinner, a recent acquisition from Anaheim, was a regular offensive contributor, and led all defensemen on the team in scoring.
Providence also had rookies who were able to contribute on defense. Matt Hunwick had a solid all-around debut. He’s got tremendous wheels and hockey IQ. He could benefit from continued work on his strength to be more effective in one-on-one battles, as at times he was knocked around by bigger, stronger players, but on a whole, there’s very little fault you could find in his game.
“Matty Hunwick, his grasp of the game from the get-go is far beyond what a lot of rookie defensemen have,” commented the P-Bruins coach.
Already a hard-worker with plenty of potential, Adam McQuaid will need some work, but it’s nothing that continued pro experience won’t fix. He’s a big kid who can be an intimidating presence, something that could make him even more effective as he continues to fill out. Primarily a stay-at-home defenseman, his game is pretty cut and dry.
“Adam progressed really quickly at the beginning," Gordon said. "He made huge strides from summer, training camp to the start of the year. At summer we were looking at him as possibly being a pretty big project and by the time the season rolled around he was ready to go. So that was huge.”
Turnover up front appeared to have little effect on Providence’s ability to produce offense. They found contributors across the board. Pascal Pelletier led the team in scoring all season and turned in a more than point per game performance, and a total of five players scored more than 20 goals.
Martins Karsums fell just one game short of appearing in every regular season game, and that was just to make sure he was rested for the playoffs. Staying healthy proved to be an enormous benefit towards his development. Karsums was one of the best forwards on the team, a top line player, who finished out the season second on the team in scoring (63 points in 79 games).
Likewise, team captain Nate Thompson had a career year. Statistically, he had a career-best 39 points, but more importantly he was a consistent performer shift to shift. Thompson is an energy guy who is essentially NHL ready, but with a number of guys in the same boat, he hasn’t yet had the opportunity to prove himself in Boston.
TJ Trevelyan did not have quite the impact on the scoresheet that he has as a rookie, totaling just 38 points in 72 games. With players like David Krejci and Ben Walter absent from the lineup, it affected the number of quality chances for a goal scoring wing like Trevelyan, however Gordon expressed his confidence in the second year forward.
“Those opportunities that he got last year, he didn’t get as many this year, and it’s nothing more than that,” he said. “That leads to a lack of confidence. He’s a guy that suffered a bit from not producing because he’s so used to it. We try to stay on top of him and keep pushing him. His game isn’t necessarily about beating people one on one or outmuscling people. His biggest job is getting to an area where someone can get him the puck, and he does a really good job at that.”
Providence had a number of rookies on the roster as well, and they were all able to step in and contribute. Both Chris Collins and Wacey Rabbit had brief appearances in 2006-07, but came back much improved this season. Also making debuts were Byron Bitz and Vladimir Sobotka. It was essential for all of these guys to be ready to play and make contributions.
“Last year we really didn’t get that from Wacey [Rabbit] and Chris Collins. There’s two guys that didn’t have the benefit of being here at the end of the year before they turned pro, and as a result they got off to slow starts. Both of them probably at the start of this year were slated for the East Coast League, but they were able to buy some time and get into the lineup, and they played significant roles at different times. Nobody ever had Chris Collins penciled in for 20 plus goals – he goes out and does it. They’re second year guys — we got production out of them that we didn’t expect.”
Byron Bitz, a rookie out of Cornell University, was a little slow out of the gates this season. Some of that can be attributed to acclimating to the pro game, but he also had a string of injuries early that slowed things down further.
“What he’s been able to do in the last two months of the season is tremendous,” said Gordon. “He’s been a workhorse. He’s starting to play a power forward game- he’s making the most of his offensive opportunities. He played a very conservative style in college whereas here we’re a lot more aggressive, and getting him to go wasn’t something he was used to.”
While his stay in Providence was limited to the beginning of the regular season and some of the playoffs, rookie Vladimir Sobotka also made an impression.
“I got the feeling that had he been here from the get-go he might have been an all-star," Gordon said. "He was further along than David Krejci was [as a rookie] in the first half of the year- not so much that he was smarter, but I think he was just more acclimated to the pro game. He really couldn’t speak English but his hockey IQ is tremendous. He didn’t cheat, he was a quick learner and at the beginning of the year- he wasn’t here long- he made huge contributions for us.”
Coach’s early impressions of some late-season additions
“Zach’s [Hamill] got tremendous puck skills and vision. We’ve already seen that here. He’s got a very good head for the game.”
“Jordan [Knackstedt] has great size and reach. I think he’s a guy that has a lot of untapped potential. I know he’s going to get better at skating and hitting, I know he’s going to get better at using his body with the puck. Along the way as he fills out even more, he’s going to get stronger. He’s a real tall, lanky kid- to me there’s a lot to work with there.”
“Jeff Penner came in after a lot of time off- we kept him around for a week just sort of observing. He’s stepped in and played two games, and to be honest there’s not a whole lot we had to show him after these games. He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
Courchaine gets a taste of the pros
Goaltender Adam Courchaine joined the team on an ATO following the close of his season with the Ottawa 67’s (OHL). He appeared in three games, one of which was in relief of Tuukka Rask — just enough to test the waters of the pro game. Courchaine will be returning to juniors next season, but the hope is that he will apply some of what he’s learned to his game. At the very least, he appeared to enjoy the experience.
“I love it- the whole experience has been really awesome, and getting to play in a couple games is lots of fun. Just being at the rink everyday, you know that winning attitude with the whole team. Everyone’s working really hard to get better and that’s made it easier for me.”
On his first game:
“I did [feel comfortable]. The first period was tough, because there was a lot of nerves, but after that it was fine. Obviously it’s a lot faster and you can’t give them anything.”
Knackstedt hopes to make it a full season in 2008-09
Recent draft pick Jordan Knackstedt also had the opportunity to join the team late in the season, though he is closer to turning pro than Courchaine. He is eligible to play in the AHL next year, or to play one more season in juniors should the Bruins decide he is not ready. Knackstedt had a pair of goals in five regular season games, and a goal in four postseason games.
“When you come in here late in the season it’s a lot of experience, for sure. Obviously I’d like to play here in Providence [next season]. Coming in here will give me a pretty good indication of what I need to work on over the summer and hopefully I’ll come back here next season.”