A season of disappointment promises change for the Providence Bruins

By Bill Ladd
Photo: Ohio State product Matt Bartkowski looks to have established himself as a solid two-way presence at the AHL level. For the 2010-11 season, he will be expected to compete for a NHL roster spot. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

This year was supposed to go differently for the Providence Bruins. A crop of exciting new prospects were expected to inject some skill and enthusiasm. Returning prospects were expected to take significant steps forward in their development. And the team was expected to make the playoffs.

Ultimately, not enough of those expectations were met, and as a result, Providence Head Coach Rob Murray lost his job, with potentially more change to come, as lots of players including Juraj Simek, David Laliberte, Jeff Penner, Cody Wild and Matt Dalton failed to progress to a point that would warrant their re-signing.

Here’s a year-end-review of Boston’s key prospects, and what their future holds.


Forward

Jordan Caron, LW/RW, 20

Jordan Caron has the size, strength, poise and intelligence to play in the NHL right now and even made the big club out of camp, but as is the case with a lot of first year pro’s, his game slipped, and eventually the big winger was sent down to get more playing time. In Providence he put up respectable numbers, running hot some months, 13 points in 15 games in January, and cold in others, three points in nine games in December. But he finished strong, with eight points in his last nine games boosting his final stat line to 12 goals and 28 points in 47 with the P-Bruins. Even during his cold-spells, Caron had the look of an NHL player, consistently making smart reads, working the walls, setting screens and creating traffic in front of the opposition net. At this stage, it’s hard to know what Caron’s potential upside is in terms of points at the NHL level, but he may find his niche as a Mike Knuble-type, a complementary player that meshes well with skill forwards because he does the little things so well, and thinks the game at a high level.

With a better understanding of what’s required of him, look for Caron to make the Bruins out of camp again next season, and stick this time.

Maxime Sauve, C, 21

Max Sauve was one of the bright spots in Providence this year as the speedy, game-breaking winger scored at nearly a 30 goal pace in his first pro season, but a wrist injury cost him almost two full months from October 16th to December 10th, and injuries are becoming a concern.

There are many in and around the team that believe Sauve has 30 goal potential in the NHL, that he can be a speedy two-way forward in the mold of Marco Sturm, only with a better shot. But at this stage, his defensive coverage is still spotty and inconsistent, and his long, lean frame is still a bit too wiry for the rigors of pro hockey.

Expect Sauve to have another solid off-season of strength training, and add several pounds of muscle much like he did last year going from 184 to 190, and to come to camp ready and able to challenge for an NHL job. But the depth on Boston’s roster and the holes in Sauve’s defensive game will probably require another season in the minors, with his name at the top of the call-up list.


Stefan Chaput, C, 22

In a somewhat curious move, the Bruins acquired 25-year-old David Laliberte and Stefan Chaput from the Anaheim Ducks for Brian McGrattan and Sean Zimmerman at the trade deadline this year. Chaput is an offensive player who simply hasn’t been very offensive during his career in the AHL and that trend continued with the P-Bruins where he scored seven points in 15 games. Both Chaput and Laliberte are free agents on July 1st, so the real motivation behind the deal might have been to make the money wash for Anaheim as the B’s unloaded demoted and disgruntled NHL veteran Brian McGrattan.


Yannick Riendeau, RW, 22

Yannick has considerable skill and while he’s not being particularly fast or physically dynamic, he is smart and deadly accurate with his shot. Riendeau has been a dominant player in the ECHL, scoring near a point per game with 18 goals, 43 points in 54 games, but unfortunately hasn’t been able to transfer that success to the AHL with just five points in 28 career AHL games. It’s unclear whether Riendeau will spend next season in the AHL or in the ECHL, but at this point, his NHL aspirations look like a real long-shot.

Lane MacDermid, LW, 21

Lane MacDermid continues to make strides toward the NHL. Not overly skilled or particularly talented but a tireless worker who continues to improve his game, posting gains in goals and points to the tune of seven goals and 19 points in 79 games, all triple his rookie season totals. And while it’s important to see him improve as a player, his pugilistic endeavors are what will land him an NHL contract one day. Tough and determined, but also somewhat tactical in his fights, MacDermid is not unlike Boston’s own Shawn Thornton when it comes to dropping the gloves. Ironically, it’s also Sugar Shawn who will prevent him from seeing NHL ice for a few years.

Jamie Arniel, C, 21

Another bright spot in Providence this year was the play of second year forward, Jamie Arniel. The energetic sophomore nearly doubled his rookie year production, putting up a team leading 23 goals, 50 points and over 260 shots on goal. His strong start earned him a ticket to the AHL All-Star Game, where he recorded a goal and assist, as well as a call-up to Boston.

Arniel doesn’t have a high offensive ceiling, but he’s good in all three zones, plays with speed and determination on every shift, and is a smart player away from the puck. Arniel, along with Caron, are the two most NHL-ready prospects in Providence, but Arniel projects as more of a third liner and could start the season next year as Boston’s 13th forward, and fourth line fill-in.

Zach Hamill, C, 22

This was a make or break year for Zach Hamil. The former eighth overall pick in 2007 simply hadn’t progressed enough during his time in the organization, and was on the last year of his rookie contract. Making matters worse, Hamill got off to a slow start, recording just one point in his first eight games and getting regularly scratched. Then things started to come together for Hamill. He started playing with more urgency, started dictating the pace of the play more, and over the next 22 games he recorded 18 points. His play was strong enough that he even earned a call-up to Boston, where he acquitted himself well and had a beautiful spinning back-hand assist to Michael Ryder in a big game against hated rival Montreal. Hamill closed out the season in Providence as the team’s second leading scorer, with 43 points and a plus-six over 68 games.

Looking forward, it’s safe to say he’s earned himself another contract, but more improvement is still needed, and even then, his path to the NHL is blocked by David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin. Perhaps a change in coach could also be beneficial to Hamill. Joe Colborne (TOR) also struggled mightily under Providence Coach Rob Murray, but his game picked up significantly while with the Marlies, and he told the Toronto media that the coaching he was now getting in Toronto was night and day better than what he was getting in Providence.


Defense

Steven Kampfer, D, 22

Steven Kampfer seemed to come out of nowhere this season. He had a solid career at Michigan, but was admittedly immature and perhaps didn’t realize his full potential during his time there. He also had a serious setback when he was targeted with a vicious high hit by Montreal Canadien prospect Tim Conboy that caused a severe concussion and forced Kampfer to miss out on much of his junior season, and as we’ve seen from NHL players who’ve experienced similar, season ending concussions, may have affected his performance the following year as well. But whatever held him back in college was no longer an issue in his first pro season. Kampfer burst onto the AHL scene scoring 16 points in his first 20 games, a 66 point pace. His play was strong enough to earn a call-up to Boston where again, he impressed and saw his ice time increase from 13:50 to 15:00 to 16:41 to quickly becoming a regular 18-21 minute staple in the Bruins top four.

As is the case with many college players adjusting to the longer schedule, as the season wore on, Kampfer’s play slipped some and on March 11th, Kampfer was concussed for the second time in his career. Thankfully, the concussion was minor in comparison. When he returned to action, the Bruins had acquired Tomas Kaberle, pushing Kampfer to the sidelines, and eventually back down to Providence for an end-of-year tune-up before the NHL playoffs began. At the end of it all, he had 10 points in 38 games, was a plus-nine, and is waiting for his chance to play in the NHL playoffs along with the other "Black Aces."

Looking toward next season the Bruins have to be thrilled and excited with their find. They acquired Kampfer for a fourth round pick from Anaheim. He showed this year that when on top of his game, he can be a mobile, aggressive, puck-moving defenseman. His next challenge will be to establish himself as a regular in Boston, and maintain that high-level of play consistently.

Yuri Alexandrov, D, 22

No prospect in Boston’s system had as much to deal with as Yuri Alexandrov. His fitness level was subpar, he was lean and weak for a defenseman of his size, he had to adjust to smaller rinks, a more physical style of play, and he didn’t speak any English. Alexandrov told reporters last summer that working out for him consisted of him going to his high school gym and doing what he thought made sense. There was no formal training, no nutritional regimen, apparently no structure at all, and as a result, he failed his training camp fitness test. His season was similarly disappointing, there were times where his poise, skating and intelligence were in full display, but more often than not, he was a step behind the pace and overmatched physically in the corners.

This is an important off-season for Alexandrov. He now fully understands the kind of work ethic he has to have, and he’s been given a training and nutrition program to follow. If he shows up to camp next year in great shape he could have a breakout season in Providence. He has the skills and smarts to be an NHL defenseman, a poor man’s Tomas Kaberle.

Matt Bartkowski, D, 21

Bartkowski, like Kampfer seemed to come out of nowhere this season. He was another one of those underrated, under the radar pickups by the Bruins front office last year and in his first season with Boston, impressed. Right off the bat, he made a case for himself in training camp and was the last player cut from the team- he even joined the team in Europe to start the season. In Providence he continued to play his strong, three zone game and saw time in all situations, but over the course of the year, some holes were exposed in terms of positioning and decision making. Still, his play warranted several call-ups to Boston, but again, his progression seemed to go in reverse with the big club, looking fairly solid in his first tour of duty, but increasingly out of place as the season went along.

Perhaps those late season struggles can be attributed to the college-rookie wall, and playing almost twice as many games as used to, but regardless of the reason, the regression will likely have Bartkowski slated for another year in the AHL.

Colby Cohen, D, 22

Cobly Cohen is rough around the edges but he has some upside as a Sheldon Souray/Bryan McCabe type of defenseman, i.e. a big body with a big shot. He had a solid pro debut for Colorado, getting in three games before the Bruins acquired him for Matt Hunwick. And in Providence, he posted 12 points in a half-season’s work. Still raw defensively and in need of footwork upgrades, expect Cohen to continue developing in the AHL for at least another year.

Cody Wild, D, 23

Wild is another AHL veteran that failed to progress this season in Providence. After two seasons in the AHL with Springfield, Wild couldn’t crack the Providence roster and ended up only playing seven games for them this season, recording no points and a minus-three. Wild is a free agent and will likely be let go as part of the Bruins minor-league house cleaning.

Andrew Bodnarchuk, D, 21

Unfortunately, the feisty undersized puck-mover failed to make meaning progress this year, posting an identical point per game of .21 to last year. What’s worse, his plus/minus also fell by 15 points and he saw newcomers like Steven Kampfer and Matt Bartkowski pass him on the depth chart. Signed to a one-year extension last summer, it looks as though this may be the end of the line for Mr. Bodnarchuk in a Bruins jersey.

Goaltending

Matt Dalton, G, 24

Matt Dalton had the inside track on the Providence backup job coming into camp this season but he didn’t distinguish himself enough to fend off Michael Hutchinson. Ultimately he spent most of the season in the ECHL posting a 20-11 record with a .919 save percent, but was unable to duplicate that level of play when called up to Providence. Dalton is scheduled to become a free agent on July 1st and it looks as though he won’t be retained.

Michael Hutchinson, G, 21

The Bruins asked too much of rookie Michael Hutchinson this season. Originally slated for the ECHL, his play in camp and pre-season warranted a move up to Providence. And that would have been fine had veteran Nolan Schaefer delivered as the P-Bruins starter, allowing Hutch to get used to the league and to work on his game. But Schaefer struggled and Hutchinson found himself carrying the mail more than anyone had anticipated. Consistency has long been Hutchinson’s biggest issue and this year was no different, as his save percentage fluctuated wildly from month to month, posting an .883 in October, followed by a .912 in November, an .891 in December followed by a .916 in January. And after he posted an .826 in February, and with the addition of deadline acquisition Anton Khudobin from the Minnesota Wild, the Bruins finally sent him down to the ECHL, where he posted a .918 over 18 games, after which, the Bruins called him up for three more games in April, where he posted a sparkling .948.

Moving forward, the Bruins need to create a more stable environment for Hutchinson if they want to see him conquer his consistency issues. Bringing Anton Khudobin back to be Providence’s starter and a mentor for Hutch would be a big step in the right direction.

Adam Courchaine, G, 22

It seemed as though the Bruins couldn’t get far enough away from Adam Courchaine this season, first sending him to Reading of the ECHL where he posted a .552% save percent in his one appearance, and then promptly loaning him to Alaska to play out the season. Courchane had a solid record in the Great White North going 17-7, but only posted an average .907 save percent. He is signed for one more year and will likely spend it in the ECHL again.

Anton Khudobin, G, 25

Anton Khudobin, a recently turned 25-year-old netminder from Russia, who’s style compares favorably to Boston Bruin star Tim Thomas. It’s unclear whether or not the Bruins will be able to retain Khudobin because he’s an unrestricted free agent on July 1st, but he was outstanding for Providence going 9-4-1 while posting a .920 save percent over their final 16 games, but there’s little doubt that the Bruins will make every attempt to try keep him.