This is one of the odder years at camp. There’s no clear star among the prospects. Most of the upper 20% of the roster are headed to college next year. I don’t see anyone with enough bouyancy that I can say “I can’t wait to see them at main camp in the fall.” It was also the most lightly attended by fans camp I’ve been to.

Of this year’s draft picks I got the most eyeball time on Quinn Olson, and Matias Mantykivi. Neither will be cracking the lineup anytime soon. Both are late birthdays with Olson turning eighteen on May 9th, and Mantykivi on June 21st. The latter played in Finland last year, and is listed at 143lbs, and five foot ten. If he were at his current size to block a shot in the NHL he might well miss time. Both are good skaters and receive passes well, make solid passes. Mantikivi needs to work on his shooting angles, Olson I didn’t see as much.

Of the 2018 draft picks I saw two standout. One positively, the other Dustyn McFaul. Early in the on ice session I saw him cutting corners on drills, and what appeared to be giving up. By the mid-point it was clear he was having some sort of conditioning or injury issue as he was clearly, visibly gassed. Fortunately for him, he’ll have at least a year or two in upstate New York to work out his issues while at Clarkson. Curtis Hall looked even better than last year. When I left camp at the end of 2018 I said he had an outside chance at squeaking into the 4th line. Today did nothing to detract from that and he showed better than the majority of the prospects in the drills shooting, passing, and above all timing both well.

If there is a threat among the forward crop to take a Boston job this fall, it is Oskar Steen. I’ve always liked his attitude, positioning, and skating. Over last year and this his shot and passing have elevated. You can tell just from watching him move that he’s put on more muscle, and learned to use it efficiently with and without contact with other players. He’s still far from the biggest guy on the ice but no one got an extra inch of room from him.

Marek Zachar is an undrafted invitee who had two seasons in the Q with the Sherbrook Phoenix and has since returned to Europe. His resume shouldn’t convince anyone he’s the next Martin St Louis, even if they are of like size, but there does appear to be something there. Matt Brown was likewise undrafted, and if the scoring leader for the Des Moines Buccaneers, and in the top 20 in the USHL for points, not to mention top 10 in goals wasn’t on people’s draft list, I’m curious to know why. The talk today was that he was sneaky good. If he can crack an NHL lineup in the future he might be the whiff of this years draft. Smooth, assertive, and clearly there for more than just to be seen.

Nick Wolff is fascinating to watch. Similar dimensions to Brandon Carlo, an attitude more like Connor Clifton, and very sound positioning. If he hasn’t already peaked in his development guys need to start getting nervous now. He could well be that rare four year college defenseman who makes the jump straight to the NHL without a year adjusting to the pro-life in the AHL. In addition to the defensive positioning that will buy him dinner, he showed off some hands with a nice pass and a couple stuffs that’ll spring for dessert.

Terry Pegula finally got around to selecting a general manager for the Buffalo Sabres. The rumor mill was a little better than average this time with early word that Jason Botterill was the man who was getting the job. Botterhill comes out of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization where he was a fixture for about a decade. His stated goal is to build a contender every year at both the NHL and AHL levels.

Man is that delusional. In order to build a contending NHL team in the salary cap era you have to be constantly flushing talent out of your farm system. Yes there are exceptions, and Pittsburgh is one of them, but they aren’t common. Further more the biggest factors the Penguins have in their favor simply don’t apply to the Buffalo Sabres organization.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have cache they have the two of the top ten players in the NHL in Geno Malkin and Sidney Crosby. They have two cup wins in the last decade. They have an owner who won multiple cups, multiple MVPs, and who is one of those rare generational talents who actually understand’s the business side of the game as well. The other sneaky thing they do that is the kryptonite of other teams is bring players from their successful AHL franchise to their successful NHL franchise while they’re still young

While there are a lot of players who would like to play in one city for their whole career, the truth is that all of them simply want to play in the NHL the bulk of their career. If they can put a couple seasons with Malkin and Crosby on their resume, they know they will get better offers when it is time to go elsewhere. Those players also know that the next man up mantra isn’t just lip service. Unlike with the Red Wings or Boston Bruins the next roster spot will open up before players drafted into the system at 18 turn 25 or 30.

That window to get into the NHL and play for a bigger salary is longer and closer. This enables them to sign free agent out of the USHL, college, and the CHL. While Pittsburgh is hardly America’s premier metropolis, its total metroplitan area population is larger than that of Buffalo and Rochester combined. All those additional opportunities for entertainment are important when you have two or thee months off every year, and when you just want to take your billet parents or your family to a couple nice places.

Buffalo doesn’t have that winning tradition. While Eichel, Kane, Lehner, and O’Reilly are all well above average players, most hockey observers would rate the star appeal of Malkin and Crosby higher, and some would say that either Penguin outweighs the four Sabres.

Am I saying there’s no one in the world who will want to play hockey in Rochester and Buffalo? No. Just that the pool of talent is so much smaller that building not one but two contenders is likely beyond the ability of anyone, much less a newly minted general manager who like his ownership group has done two things when in the big chair. One of them is ‘jack’ and the other starts with ‘s’.

Every season there are players who because of injuries, changes in coaches, or family issues just fall off a cliff in terms of performance or their interaction with their team. The following year some players bounce back. In some cases it will take an additional year to get back to form, and some just never make it. This season there’s a handful of notable players who might just reclaim who and what they were.

Niklas Backstrm

Last year was the worst season of Backstrom’s professional career. He made it into only twenty one games. His record was a dismal 5-11-2, and the less said about his personal stats the better. Let’s not forget this is a Vezina quality net minder with a championship pedigree. What would a good season for Backstrom be? Sixteen post season wins would be great but first you have to get there. A thirty or more win regular season, and a save percentage .914 and up are more than possible with the team he has in front of him.

Loui Eriksson

The counterbalance to Tyler Seguin in a massive trade Eriksson had a 36 goal season on his resume when he arrived and managed to scrape together just ten in his first season in one of the most scrutinized hockey markets on the planet. Part of the problem was getting two concussions, one at the flying elbow of John Scott. Part of it was less minutes in a much more defensive system. This season he’s likely to be playing on the top line and the minimum Bruins fans will accept is a 25 goal 65 point season.

Mike Ribiero

An ignoble season playing for the Coyotes ended in him being bought out. It is arguable that his issues were a prime contributor to the Coyotes missing the playoffs. This season brings a news start for the 34 year old. The Nashville Predators extended him a one year contract and the opportunity to prove he can stick to irritating just his opponents.

Michael Del Zotto

Del Zotto is 24 year old USHL alumni who at the top of his game was over half a point per game. The young defenseman was sent to Nashville last season after starting his career with the Rangers. He was not retained. This year he’s on a defense that’s in flux and with more offensive upside than the Predators, and more structure than the current Rangers. A good season for Del Zotto is should see him back over the 25 point mark.

Dany Heatley

The Anaheim Ducks are the 33 year old’s fifth team. His goal production has been in decline the last few years. Part of that is undoubtedly the lack of a world class offensive minded center. Another part has been nagging injuries and the inevitability of Father Time leaning on him. With either Getzlaf or Kesler up front and Fowler and Lindholm moving the puck on the backed there’s a chance of him reversing his declining numbers. Improving on last years -18 and just 12 goals shouldn’t be too much of an issue, a 30 goal season may still be possible. Among other positive elements are getting to play with fellow former Minnesota Wild Clayton Stoner.

Boston Bruins Development Camp has come and gone. There were over a dozen returning players, new draftees and invitees. While I do wonder how it is they failed to invite any goalie prospects, and had Malcolm Subban filling in for Adam Morrisson, and University of North Dakota star, and Fargo Force alumni Zane Gothberg. There  are literally dozens of colleges within driving distance of Boston, and if the goals of camp is to coach, develop, and protect the health of prospects then it makes perfect sense to have additional prospects in camp.

That said, camp was as always engaging.  The progress some players made over the years is notable. No players stood out as not belonging, but trying to watch two dozen players at once is foolish. Below are the players who stood out most for one reason or another.

Cole Bardreau, of Cornell University stood out among the forwards showing great speed, lateral movement and hands.

Anton Blidh had a hard shot that was a little bit high at times.

Oleg Yevenko was the largest, and oldest of the prospects. The UMass Amherst defensemen didn’t exhibit great skating but was in the right place to use his stick well.

Billy Sweezey of Hanson, Ma was the youngest player in camp and it didn’t seem to mean much. Solid positioning, good skating, respectable size and still a year of high school to go.

Rob O’Garra clearly is an athlete with high level conditioning. The day camp opened when some of his campmates were flagging, he looked like he might be warmed up. The rest of week he never looked like he broke a sweat.

Wiley Sherman, more poised, more precise and clearly having filled out more than a little.

Colton Hargrove, the improvements in Hargrove’s game are pretty obvious, I’m willing to bet if the 2012 entry draft were redone the son of Rockwall Texas would go before 205 this time.

Kyle Baun, after Bardreau arguably the most impressive forward in the group. Good hands, good speed.

Matt Benning was hands down the most impressive player in camp. Not only was his positioning excellent he used stick, body, and skates to separate opposing players from pucks. Northeastern has itself a good looking young defenseman right now.

David Pastrnak seemed to have a bit of trouble keeping his skates on the ice and his uniform ice free, possibly new skates, possibly the sheer pace of camp, or possibly an ongoing skating issue, its hard to say in just a few viewings. I won’t be shocked if he’s invited to camp in September, but given that he’s still under contract to Soldertalje he likely will not break camp with either the Boston or Providence Bruins.

Of all the differences between this camp and years past, is how strongly management curtailed physicality. In years past no scrimmage was complete without double digit numbers of hits by players trying to make sure they remembered by management and each other. This year, there a scant handful. While development camp focuses on skill and athleticism, elusiveness is a skill and leadership may be doing the organization a disservice  not to keep the players on their toes. And on the other end, physicality is a big part of the tool set of many players.

While several of the young men look really great among their peers, it is no measure of how they will perform against the AHL or NHL. Among the forwards, I don’t see anyone among the forwards I would project above the second line. Among the defensemen, assuming their trajectory continues at the same level two or three who could land in the second pairing in most NHL cities, and depending on circumstances you could see a top pairing player or two.

The expansion of the NHL is is as inevitable as some back office hack coming up with a rule change like the jersey tuck penalty to justify their salary. Seattle is the new sexy but it is hardly the only city that might do right by a franchise.

The first question is where would teams go after Seattle or whoever is #31 go?

Las Vegas has the appeal of being without a single other top tier sports franchise. Currently the Wrangers of the ECHL and a AAA baseball team are it for non collegiate sports. The tourism industry there has to be considered a plus, or would be if the NHL was good at marketing. A second Chicago area team would also make a great deal of sense, the Second City hosts two MLB and has its own NFL team and two teams close enough they’re nearly the same market, why not give a huge, sprawling sports mad city another outlet for their enjoyment? Saskatchewan, Kansas City, Houston and Salt Lake City can all put in a claim based on their size, cash on hand, or corporate presence.  But with the leagues current configuration, it is unlikely the Greater Toronto Area or Quebec City see a new franchise.

Can the feeder system handle it?

This isn’t just a question of the AHL which finally reach 30 teams again or the ECHL. It goes down to top tier Junior hockey and below, both in North America, Europe, and potentially elsewhere. NHL owners, the NHLPA and sponsors would need to take a hand in expanding the USHL, CHL, and other development leagues. As hockey mad as the northeast US is, the fact that there are zero CHL, USHL or NAHL teams in the six New England states or New York is unfathomable. Yes the EJHL, and to an extent the MWEHL cover some ground, but not enough. The Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League, and Quebec Major Junior Hockey league may need to expand as well.

Will the league push for sensible arena deals?

The biggest bar to success off the ice to teams in the last twenty years has been being shackled to a poor arena deal. The New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets and other teams have suffered, and the league would be better if they hadn’t. Teams that control their arena control their destiny.

Can we please ensure catchy names for the teams?

This is really a marketing issue. The Minnesota Wild have superb fans and the single dumbest name in professional sports. Seriously, the Wild Hunt would have been cool, the Wild Hogs or Wild Dogs or Howe help us all the Wildcats would have been acceptable too, but just “wild” is so bland the team might as well not have a name. New teams in a market that may or may not have a strong hockey tradition will need marketing to start at point zero and that is the name.

With expansion will the league make better use of the NHL network?

Currently there is not an NHL game on the NHL Network most nights of the season. That’s just baffling. The more exposure various teams get, the more they can charge for in arena marketing the better the league does. The more people who can keep up with teams outside their area, the better. Even if the league goes to 40 teams in the next decade, that’s only 40 teams with 360 or more people, 60+ states, provinces, and territories and that’s means a lot of cities still won’t have a local team.

Yesterday we looked at the surprises the preliminary rosters had given us. Now, its time to look at who should be there over who is.

Forwards:

  • Jason Pominville, with a roster that will struggle for offense, at least compared to some, leaving out a the guy who finished seventh among American scorers last season, and second the season before is unabashedly embarrassing.
  • Brandon Dubinsky is one of the best two way forwards in the league. He’s capable of throttling the life out of opposing powerplays, winning faceoffs reliably, and will play physically against anyone. He’s well over a point a game internationally.
  • John Gaudreau makes the most sense of any non-NHL player for this Team USA squad to field. He’s money in the bank scoring goals, and is over a point per game at every level he’s played, USHL, NCAA, WJC and others.

Defense:

  • Alex Goligoski had his most productive season in points per game, despite having two of the top forwards traded mid season and no describable NHL quality centers on the team.
  • Torey Krug, unlike certain invitees, Krug played a significant number of his teams playoff games and managed to make the Bruins walking dead powerplay look like it had a pulse. Speedy, great passer, plays well against larger opponents (nearly everyone).
  • Matt Greene while offense is undoubtedly needed, a shut down defenseman who can hit like a freight train is never something to be without. Arguably the best American shutdown defenseman in the NHL, certainly top 3.

Goal:

  • Jack Campbell has international experience and even if he doesn’t make the final roster the organization should take a good look at him for next time around. It is unlikely Howard, Anderson or Miller will be at or near their top form as goalies in four years.

 

One thing that stands out right away when looking at the roster is the number of guys who have yet to play their first NHL game. Jacob Trouba is highly touted, but as the Vancouver Olympics showed us the national rosters with the most NHL players will win, and that’s a lot of talent for someone who might still not have an NHL game to their credit. Not long ago, I went over the old roster and looked at the potential new one.

Dan DeKeyser was the most talked about college free agent this spring, and yet he got into just two of the Detroit Red Wings playoff games this spring. If he’s not yet at level to play regularly against NHL competition it is curious to see him on even a preliminary Olympic roster. Jake Trouba and Seth Jones are a surprise because unlike DeKeyser they don’t have even a single NHL game to their credit. It is unlikely that even if all three make it they will play huge minutes for Team USA, but there are other NHL defensemen with a little more creditability as a possible Olympian.

The forward group shows that as always Team USA will be a team designed to win games in a complete manner, and not simply by scoring for dear life. TJ Oshie is a little bit surprising given the occasional questions about his conditioning. Trevor Lewis as a bottom six forward is surprising because he hasn’t shown any strong offensive upside in the NHL yet. Justin Abdelkader’s hits are enough to get anyone attention, but offensively, he’s had just two 20+ goal seasons in his hockey career, one for the USHL’s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders and once in the AHL. Paul Stastny is surprising, well only if you fail to look at his international numbers. His NHL numbers arguably do not justify a spot on the roster, but his international game is quite solid.

In goal, there isn’t an a team that can match the depth of the Americans at least on paper. Craig Anderson and Jonathan Quick in whichever order you care to list them are the easy picks as first and second goalies. But they probably shouldn’t be, even with strong performances in the last two seasons because Miller and Gibson are both en fuego  Miller, Howard and Schneider should spend their time at camp and early in the year looking over their shoulder at John Gibson who has a career 9.35sv% in international play including tours-de-force of .951 and .955 in separate tournaments this year. Of all the goalies there, Jimmy Howard probably has the least pressure on him.

The biggest surprises on the Team USA roster are who isn’t there. But that’s for tomorrow’s snubs post.

The Boston Bruins development camp was held last week and if it didn’t have a new top of the first round pick to draw people, some of the campers we’ve seen in the past were more than compelling enough on their own. Two notable prospects will be graduating this year. And one youngster in his second year made huge strides.

Malcolm Subban was a surprise pick to some just over a year ago. The goaltender, and older brother of Jordan Subban who was the Vancouver Canucks selection this June was the most recognizable name at camp. Even without the bright Belleville Bull’s color pads he sported last year, the athletic net minder will draw your eye again and again. The book on Subban coming into camp last year was that his glove side needed some polishing.

#81 Malcolm Subban

#81 Malcolm Subban

This year, I don’t think I saw him beat to the glove side even once. When I asked him about the way his save percentage climbed year over year, he credited his teammates contribution and talked about his maturity as a goaltender. Despite facing nearly a full shot more per game this year over the previous season, and taking time to play in the World Juniors the key numbers were unequivocally better. In 2011-12 he had a very respectable .923sv% and GAA of 2.50, in 2012-13 he turned in .934 and 2.14. Even more indicative is the change in his post season numbers. His 2011-12 Memorial Cup playoff stats line was 6gp, 2.93 GAA and .917sv%, while 2012-13’s number improved to 17gp 2.00 GAA, and a .933Sv%. Not surprisingly he won Canadian Hockey League goalie of the week twice, and the best Sv% and best GAA in the Ontario Hockey League.

Year over year the most improved prospect was easy to spot. More than one observer at the week’s workouts and scrimmages had to be pointed at a roster to realize the young defenseman they saw this year, was the same one they saw last year. Matt Benning’s camp was a bit curtailed by injury last summer. His hockey season however boosted his stock, and tagged him as someone more than willing to work to get to the next level.

#86 Matt Benning at Bruins Dev Camp

#86 Matt Benning at Bruins Dev Camp

A sixth round pick out of the Alberta Junior Hockey League who jumped to the USHL this year, and won the league championship under Jim Montgomery with the Dubuque Fighting Saints. In the fall hockey fans can look for Benning in black and red at Northeastern University, making the transition with him will be Fighting Saints teammates Mike Szmatula and  John Stevens.

#86 Matt Benning Defenseman

#86 Matt Benning Defenseman

Anthony Camara came into camp having had the best junior season of his career. He was successful as a physical menace and as a points producer. Thirty-six goals and sixty points through the regular season by itself would have punched his ticket to Providence, and likely to being a late cut in Boston if that’s all he did. That is not however the case. Camara earned his place on an international squad for the first time representing Canada in the WJC. Then he went to the playoffs with the Barrie Colts and racked up nine goals and a point per game in 16 appearances.

What’s interesting about Camara is that he’s not one of those elite prospect like Subban or the exiled Tyler Seguin, he was a late third round pick. Only ten percent of the players drafted in 2011 have played a single NHL game. None have been from the third round. When Camara first came to the Bruins Development camp just days after being drafted he was clearly a project. His shot was so-so, he managed to drive himself into one of the stanchions, and his skating was on a level with Glen Murray and Milan Lucic’s first season.

#51 Anthony Camara #76 Rob O'Gara #88 Matt Grzelcyk

#51 Anthony Camara
#76 Rob O’Gara
#88 Matt Grzelcyk

At some point in the last two years, the major components of that changed. Camara entered what will be his last OHL season with a career high of 9 goals. He ended it with 36, and in less games than any of his previous seasons. While his skating isn’t going to be shaming speedsters like Carl Hagelin and Emerson Etem, or ice dancer Jeff Skinner he’s improved to the point where you only notice his skating by the fact that you no longer notice his skating. Camara’s work ethic is quite healthy, writers and fans noticed it, as did Bruins staffers. During a press conference Providence Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy mentioned Camara by name four times in eight minutes. He didn’t seem at all displeased to be doing so.

 

As with most development camps day one was getting everyone’s feet wet. While some of these young men haven’t skated in weeks, a few managed to stand out.

Anthony Camara’s puck handling ability is far in excess of his first trip to camp. Since last time we saw him he made the Canadian World Junior Championship team, went a point per game in the playoffs for the Barrie Colts, and in general continued to be a menace on the ice.

Bruins development camp 7/10 Left to Right: #53 Ryan Fitzgerald, #78 Derek Docken, #80 Brian Ferlin, #82 Alex Cord, #64 Anton Bligh.  In net: #60 Zane Gothberg

Bruins development camp 7/10
Left to Right:
#53 Ryan Fitzgerald, #78 Derek Docken, #80 Brian Ferlin, #82 Alex Cord, #64 Anton Bligh.
In net: #60 Zane Gothberg

Anton Blidh is in his first camp for the Bruins and showed off a quick, hard shot on day one.

Brian Ferlin spent the school year at Cornell holding down the second spot in scoring on his team, and playing in more games than his freshman season. Smooth, purposeful movements with a clear confidence on the ice.

Alex Cord an invitee from the Mississauga Steelheads opened the door for physicality throwing the first, and loudest hit of the morning.

Matt Benning, while it is hard to judge defensemen at these camps it is obvious that Benning who outscored five other defensemen on the his Clark Cup USHL championship team came to camp very fit and notably poised. This fall Benning is off to Northeastern, and the man who will be coaching him spoke quite highly of Matt and his season.

Zane Gothberg watching Gotherberg in net is a lot of fun. He’s very precise in his movements. When he moves there’s no flailing to stop, when the puck hits his equipment he doesn’t have to search for the puck he just puts his hand down or takes control of the puck with the stick. Backwards, sideways or forwards he seems to always end up exactly where he needs to be.

Off Ice Notes:

Don Sweeny said the team expects 2012 1st round pick Malcolm Subban to turn pro this year. Organizational history indicates that he’ll likely spend the season getting a lot of reps split between Providence and the ECHL rather than minimal games at the NHL level. The assistant general manager also noted that the small size of the development camp this year will allow the players in camp more reps, and be a bit more draining.

Oldest to youngest the players will be competing to see who can knock the most back in the very near future. The Bruins have planned a bowling expedition in addition to their team building and community service projects.