Providence Bruins 2011-12 season preview

By Bill Ladd
Photo: Alexander Khokhlachev showed flashes of his high skill level at Bruins’ training camp but was eventually sent back to the OHL. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

A disappointing season in Providence last year has led to a multitude of changes for Boston’s AHL affiliate. Head coach Rob Murray was fired and replaced by Bruce Cassidy, the Bruins are investing more in proven AHL veterans, and there’s a real sense of urgency from management to get this team back on a winning track and into the playoffs.

Forwards

The P-Bruins completely overhauled their forward group and could see as many as six new players in the top-nine. There’s also been something of a philosophical shift: Last year’s team relied heavily on first year players like Joe Colborne, Jordan Caron, and Max Sauve, while this edition will be carried by established AHL scorers like Josh Hennessy, Jamie Tardif and Captain Trent Whitfield who was lost for half of last season due to a severe Achilles’ tendon injury. The three holdovers from last year include; Zach Hamill, who was the most improved prospect at Boston’s training camp, Max Sauve, who scored at a near 30 goal pace as a first year pro, and Jamie Arniel, last year’s leading scorer in Providence. Highly skilled freshmen Carter Camper and Craig Cunningham are expected to provide secondary scoring while Calle Ridderwall and Nate MacKinnon compete with veterans Stefan Chaput and Yannick Riendeau for the final spot in the top-nine.

Providence’s pugilistic duties will once again be handled by the capable Lane MacDermid who, along with Sauve, lasted until the very final cut from Boston’s training camp. MacDermid will also get some support in this role from rookie Tyler Randell.

Defensemen

Providence is hoping for more stability on their back-end this season, as last year’s team saw 16 different defensemen take the ice. The group will eventually be led by Matt Bartkowski, who had another solid training camp but looked to be a notch below Steven Kampfer. Barring something unforeseen, Bartkowski will be sent down when Kampfer returns from injury. Alongside Bartkowski we can expect to see Providence’s longest tenured defenseman, fourth year man Andrew Bodnarchuk, whose plus skating and puck-moving are a nice compliment to Bartkowski’s strong two-way game.

The second pair features Providence’s biggest upgrade to their defense in David Warsofsky. The diminutive, offensive catalyst was a standout performer in Boston’s training camp. Warsofsky is the kind of competitive, confident player who can take charge of a game, and he’ll be reunited with former BU teammate Colby Cohen, who looks stronger and more composed in his second year.

Nathan McIver is the veteran on this defense with over 300 games of AHL experience and there could be as many as four defensemen battling for the final few spots on the team. Among the hopefuls are Ryan Button, Zach McKelvie, Marc Cantin, and Kevan Miller. The enigmatic Button has an impressive puck-mover’s skill-set but is still very raw. Twenty-six year-old Zach McKelvie had to take three years off from hockey to fulfill an obligation with the U.S. Army. Memorial Cup-winner Cantin has an entire season’s worth of postseason games on his junior resume. Miller is a college free agent who was very recently signed to an AHL contract.

Goaltending

Providence’s biggest weakness last season was in goal. Michael Hutchinson was too young and too green to hold down the starter’s role, veteran Nolan Schaefer was worse, and journeyman Matt Dalton didn’t fair any better. To remedy the situation, Peter Chiarelli traded for Anton Khudobin at the trade deadline and Khudobin sparkled for Providence down the stretch, going 9-4-1 while posting a .920 save percentage. Khudobin was an unrestricted free agent this summer and had offers from the KHL, but Chiarelli convinced Khudobin to return and lead the Providence Bruins in their rebuild. Michael Hutchinson is expected to be his backup and the role is a much better fit for the young, inconsistent netminder.

Coaching

With the team looking disorganized on the ice, the losses mounting, and young players stagnating the Bruins pulled the plug on former Head Coach Rob Murray. For his replacement, the Bruins chose Bruce "Butch" Cassidy. Cassidy has ten years of head coaching experience, is a former AHL Coach of the Year, and even has NHL coaching experience, leading the Washington Capitals to a playoff berth in 2002-03.

Prospects

The Bruins had several highly regarded prospects attending training camp including Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Spooner, Jared Knight, Alexander Khokhlachev, and Anthony Camara.

Hamilton was extremely impressive, flashing his rare combination of size, skating, and physical play. Defensively he was air-tight. Offensively he moved the puck efficiently, joined the rush aggressively, and was surprisingly creative in tight around the goal. The only downside to Hamilton was his extreme lack of strength and underdeveloped frame. A full year of heavy weight training is the only thing standing between Hamilton and NHL employment.

Ryan Spooner was the best forward prospect in camp. He clearly added some strength to his frame and determination to his game. In his very first contest of the preseason, Spooner put up five points against the Islanders rookies. He continued to flash his trademark skill and creativity throughout camp but with a year of junior eligibility left and a chance to make Team Canada’s World Junior team, Spooner was eventually returned to Kingston.

Jared Knight also looked much improved from last year. Stronger, and more confident, Knight potted two goals against the Islanders rookies and didn’t look out of his league in a preseason game on a line with Milan Lucic and David Krejci. Expect a big year from Knight on a stacked London team.

Alexander Khokhlachev showed flashes of his skill and high-end hockey IQ, scoring two goals in the Bruins black/white game, but was exposed physically and defensively.

Anthony Camara struggled with the speed of preseason action and was the first player returned to his junior team.