Boston Bruins’ Prospect Update- The Defense

By Vincent Fusaro
Player “report cards” are largely a subjective matter. The task becomes even trickier when dealing with prospects, because improvement from previous seasons is as important, if not more so, than actual play or sky-high statistics. So, instead, this is a general run-down on some of Boston’s prospects currently playing for the Providence Bruins. No grade, no ranking, just an update- how current play compares to past, how they’ve contributed , and what they need to improve.

Elias Abrahamsson

Little has changed with Elias. In fact, many were surprised when Boston renewed his contract this summer. Abrahamsson is still an inconsistent physical defender prone to taking bad penalties. With Martin Grenier waiting in the wings, Elias could find himself out of a job next October.

Jon Aitken

No longer a member of the Boston Bruins’ organization, Aitken’s contract was bought out shortly after training camp. What was most surprising about this situation is that Jon actually finished out last season with three rather successful games in Boston. He also had an impressive AHL playoffs, even providing some offense by putting his booming slapshot to good use.

We’ll never know if Aitken could have had an impact in Providence or Boston, because he was not dressed for any P-bruins games, even prior to his buyout. Currently, Aitken is trying to further his career by playing in various European leagues. From all reports, he has thus far been less than spectacular. Jon’s future in the NHL is highly questionably, though a rebuilding or expansion team may take a chance on him.

Nick Boynton

To say that Boynton has improved by leaps and bounds is an understatement. Expectations for Nick have cooled significantly, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a solid prospect. When the Washington Capitals drafted Boynton 9th overall, they no doubt had images of Ray Bourque and Rob Blake dancing through their heads. Two years later, when the Bruins took him at the 21st spot, expectations may have been lower, but many still saw Nick as a number one stud defender. Reality is that Boynton is probably not an offensive defenseman in the number 77 mold. Instead, look for Nick to be a top-four transitional d-man that can contribute on offense when the opportunity arises, but takes care of his own end first. Eric Brewer and Kyle McLaren come to mind as fair comparisons.

Boynton’s play in Providence has been stellar thus far. Nick’s offensive production has remained steady from last season, when he had 5 goals and 14 assists in 59 injury-plagued games. This year, Nick has 4 goals and 15 assists in 55 games. What has changed about Boynton, however, is his poise and defensive play. Many times last season, Nick looked confused and intimidated. This season, he appears confident and steady, and is not easily knocked off his game. His physical play has been top-notch, and he has taken his fair share of bouts, some against respect minor-league scrappers. Boynton was also criticized heavily for his defensive work last season, when he would play too deep in the opponent’s end in an attempt to contribute offensively. Now, however, Nick clears the defensive zone before joining the rush.

Why Nick hasn’t been called up to Boston remains a mystery. There are two distinct possibilities that could explain Boynton’s failure to don the spoked “B” for more than a game, the first being that the organization has soured on Nick. If the Bruins have in fact lost interest in Boynton because of last season’s debacle, they are being short-sighted and unfair. Hopefully the second possibility, that the Bruins are giving Nick an entire AHL season to boost his confidence and develop further, is closer to reality than the first. Boynton has a bright future as an NHL defender. Anyone placing him in the Jon Aitken/Evgeny Ryabchikov disaster bin should remove him immediately.

Jon Girard

Jon Girard is proving why he was once taken before Vincent Lecavalier in the QMJHL midget draft. Prior to his call-up to Boston, Girard was considered by many to be Providence’s best defenseman. While not as consistent with the big club, when he’s on, Girard has been Boston’s only true offensive blueline threat. With Providence, Jon recently set a team record for assists in a game with six, while he registered his first two-goal NHL game with Boston.

Though Jon played a handful of games in both the NHL and AHL in the past two seasons, he looked awkward and uncomfortable. This season, Jon has excelled in the American League and is beginning to adjust to NHL duty.

The concern with Girard has always been his size, but his amazing talents will help him overcome that handicap. Jon is a joy to watch on the powerplay and on the rush. He is a fast, agile skater, a skilled passer, and possesses a laser-guided wrist shot. Though Jon was drafted for his offense, he has shown a commitment to improving his defensive game. Earlier this season, he publicly admitted trying to develop a physical side. Whether that endeavor will be successful remains to be seen, but Girard has made massive strides in improving his positional play. Even if Jon doesn’t become an all-around d-man, he has brought his game to a point where he can play in the NHL. At worst, Jon is a fine power play specialist. At best, Girard has the ability to be one of the league’s top rushing defensemen.

Pavel Kolarik

Boston obtained this overage Czech defender in the 9th round of the 2000 NHL entry draft for depth and insurance. Kolarik has come as advertised. He is a steady stay-at-home defender who provides an unspectacular, mistake-free backline presence. When playing his game, Pavel is largely invisible. He has no offensive side to speak of, and provides depth only. His future in the Boston organization depends largely on the development of players like Bobby Allen, John Cronin, and Martin Grenier. Should more than a handful of Boston’s top defense prospects make the Providence roster next season, Kolarik will be pushed further down the depth chart.
Zdenek Kutlak

A younger version of Kolarik, Kutlak has a brighter future in the organization based on age alone (he is 21, compared to Kolarik’s 29). Like his fellow native Czech, Kutlak is a stay-at-home defender who goes largely unnoticed. He does play a more physical game than Pavel, however, and possesses a powerful but largely inaccurate shot. It is tough to judge what Kutlak’s ceiling is. When drafted, many assumed Zdenek was much older and viewed him as a depth aquisition. His age, however, puts him in the prospect category. Should he continue to improve, Kutlak might become a number five or six NHL defender. Otherwise, he will provide Boston with an option for call-ups.

Brandon Smith

The Providence captain continues to be a top minor-league defender, but is quickly running out of time to make an impact in the NHL. At the beginning of the season, Boston was in dire need of a power-play quarterback. When the Paul Coffey experiment failed, many assumed Smith was it. It comes as a surprise, then, that Brandon has only seen 3 games of NHL action. In one of those games, Smith impressed coach Mike Keenan, manning the point and scoring a goal, but was injured shortly thereafter.

Smith’s future in a Boston uniform is less bright than at the conclusion of last season. Jon Girard has filled the role of rushing defenseman, Lars Jonsson is on the horizon, and players like Nick Boynton and Jarno Kultanen are quickly surpassing Brandon on the depth chart.