Best of BSJ Free Preview

McDonald: Pros, cons and projections for Bruins’ top prospects after Buffalo

(Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports)

BUFFALO, N.Y. – With Bruins training camp set to open Thursday, the rookies were able to get a headstart by competing in the Prospects Challenge over the weekend at HarborCenter.

Many of the younger players were impressive during the tournament, which bodes well for the chances to earn a roster spot on the parent club out of camp. There are spots available, and these players understand the opportunity in front of them. The internal competition will push both the younger players and veterans, which is exactly what the organization wants.

When general manager Don Sweeney drafted the likes of Jake DeBrusk, Jakub Zbroil, Zach Senyshyn, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Jeremy Lauzon and Jesse Gabrielle in 2015, many questioned some of those selections. Now, it appears many of those players could have an impact for the Bruins this season and beyond.

“We felt the depth of our organization needed to improve,” Sweeney said. “We did set out to do it, and try to remain as competitive as possible at the NHL level. Our veterans want to win, and that’s what we have to do. It’s what this business is all about, and younger guys have to understand that. They have to grow, learn, develop -- and hopefully, they’ll push the envelope for us.”

Here are some observations and takeaways from rookie camp

Forward Anders Bjork is the real deal.

The former Notre Dame standout experienced his first taste of pro hockey this weekend and it was a relatively smooth transition for him. He’s the type of player who likes to have possession of the puck and he has the ability to perform well when it’s on his stick. He’s a smooth skater and doesn’t shy away from the physical aspect of the game.

“He handled himself well,” Sweeney said of Bjork. “He obviously showed some high side of things. (He) showed some areas that he’s going to have to improve and understand the next level, and who he’s going to play against.”

Sweeney was quick to point out the learning curve of shift length, and not being able to get away with certain things in the pros that Bjork was able to at the collegiate level.

“The high side is there and we’re excited about the speed that he brings to the table – the attack mentality,” Sweeney said. “Overall, our group was on pucks, and for our forwards, we can create a lot of anxiety from a speed component. And that’s what we want integrate into our NHL lineup.”

Added P-Bruins coach Jay Leach, “He was impressive. He made some really nice plays in tight. He’s smart and his willingness to get in there; he’s not timid. He’s got some serious skill and speed.”

What I liked: Everything. Has a knack for finding pockets in transition with speed.

What I didn’t like: Needs to get rid of the puck a little quicker. Needs to forget about college game.

Scout’s take: Great with the puck. Terrific one-on-one player. A real heady player.

Career projection: Top-six forward.

Defenseman Charlie McAvoy played only one game and realistically didn’t need to be here.

It was good to shake off the summer rust before main camp, but there’s so much upside to his ability. He’s a vocal leader and his ability to control the play and the puck is outstanding for a 19-year-old.

“He’s very gifted,” said Leach. “He has a lot of instincts that a lot of players don’t have. He’s a gamer. He loves to play hockey. He’s not afraid of the spotlight. His ability to make reads in tight situation is really something else.”

McAvoy will be a top-pairing defenseman in the NHL for a long time. It will be interesting to see who he’s paired with during camp, but I wouldn’t be surprised if McAvoy and Torey Krug become partners sooner rather than later.

What I liked: What’s not to like? He’s the entire package and hasn’t disappointed.

What I didn’t like: That he only played one game.

Scout’s take: Intelligent. Great with the puck. Strong with good hockey sense.

Career projection: Top-pairing defenseman.

Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman was impressed with forward Zach Senyshyn.

Senyshyn seemed a bit tentative, but he was trying to create time and space and simplify his game. The 20-year-old forward definitely finished the tournament with a sense of urgency. He’ll have a learning curve, but if he develops the right way, he’ll be a good player for them.

What I liked: He’s always involved. Game-changing speed.

What I didn’t like: A few times a bit timid. Must shake the junior style of play.

Scout’s take: Simple. He can shoot. Gets pucks to the net.

Career projection: Top-six forward.

Forward Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson is a smart player.

He plays hard and competes. Has the ability to find players all over the ice. He’s a center but can also play the wing. JFK has the potential to earn a roster spot out of camp, but if he doesn’t, he’ll push guys. Has a ton of upside and could start on Boston’s third line this season.

What I liked: So much fun to watch him skate, especially with the puck.

What I didn’t like: Didn’t shoot the puck enough.

Scout’s take: Smart player. Smooth stride. Supports the puck well. Good reads.

Career projection: Top-six forward.

Forward Danton Heinen had a strong second half for the P-Bruins last season and was excellent in the playoffs too.

There’s a possibility for him to earn a spot on the roster out of camp. He has NHL finish to his game -- he made the team out of camp last season, and played seven games before being sent to Providence. He was solid this weekend and will battle for a roster spot at main camp. The games this weekend were a good start.

“Getting a couple of games under your belt, you get the heavy legs out of you and it’s a good jump start before you head in with the big guys,” Heinen said. “It’s definitely an advantage for us.”

What I liked: Terrific hands.

What I didn’t like: Want to see more.

Scout’s take: Skilled. Hockey sense. Ability to separate.

Caree projection: Potential top-six forward.

Forward Sean Kuraly also has a chance to earn a roster spot.

He played eight games for the Bruins last season, but spent the majority of his time in Providence, where he recorded 14 goals and 12 assists for 26 points in 54 games for the P-Bruins.

What I liked: Compete level.

What I didn’t like: Times he went unnoticed.

Scout’s take: High-end motor. Good on penalty kill. Can really skate.

Career projection: Fourth-line player.

Defenseman Jakub Zboril should be better than what he showed this weekend. He struggled in the first game. Was tentative and didn’t use his body as well as he should. Needs to be more aggressive. Thinking too much. Coaches talked to him on Saturday morning and he was better in that night’s game and was paired with McAvoy, which seemed to help.

He struggled in the first game. Was tentative and didn’t use his body as well as he should. Needs to be more aggressive. Thinking too much. Coaches talked to him on Saturday morning and he was better in that night’s game and was paired with McAvoy, which seemed to help.

What I liked: He’s strong and physical.

What I didn’t like: Lazy at times. Not engaged consistently.

Scout’s take: Skilled. Needs to play with an edge. He’s a wild card. Needs structure. Has the tools though.

Career projection: Middle pair defenseman.

Of all the rookies, forward Jake DeBrusk is probably the most ready to make the jump to the NHL.

The 20-year-old forward has real potential to earn a spot on the Bruins’ roster out of camp, and he’s confident he’ll be able to make an immediate impact in Boston. One of the three first-round selections for the Bruins in 2015, DeBrusk is ready for the next step. He’s a solid two-way forward and already polished as a true pro. Being a hockey lifer and son of former NHLer Louie DeBrusk has helped the rookie’s development.

“He comes from the pedigree of being in professional hockey for a long time, so he knows the ins and outs of it,” Leach said. “Last season, the ups and downs of being a professional he handled pretty well. I’m sure he’s getting some guidance from his dad. Jake knows it’s a long season and hopefully it’s a long career.”

What I liked: 200-foot player. Pedigree. Personality. He’s a gamer.

What I didn’t like: A few shifts seemed too calm.

Scout’s take: Deceptive size and strength. Does the little things right.

Career projection: Top-nine forward.

Defenseman Emil Johansson suffered a concussion in the second game and will be re-evaluated in Boston. Sweeney said the defenseman was feeling better on Monday but he’s listed as day-to-day.

What I liked: Battled hard.

What I didn’t like: Struggled at times with the puck at offensive blue line.

Scout’s take: Good skater. Tight gaps. Good first pass.

Career projection: Bottom-pair defender.

Fans are going to connect with forward Jesse Gabrielle. He opened some eyes during camp. He was in the middle of everything during the rookie tournament. He puts effort into every stride and is always smiling on the ice. He’ll quickly become a fan favorite in Providence.

What I liked: Finds pucks. Gritty with offensive upside.

What I didn’t like: Small sample size.

Scout’s take: Good motor. Speed. Nose for the net. Energy.

Career projection: Role player or third-line forward.

Forward Justin Hickman had a solid weekend. It’s fun to watch him go to the net with reckless abandon. His physicality is a good weapon.

What I liked: His effort level.

What I didn’t like: Couldn’t find anything I didn’t like.

Scout’s take: A big body. Strong and physical. Good shot.

Career projection: Fourth-line player

Forward Ryan Fitzgerald also opened eyes this weekend. Son of former NHLer Tom Fitzgerald, he plays the game the right way and is learning how to be a pro. Going to be interesting to see his transition to the pro game.

What I liked: He plays with a lot of heart for all 200 feet.

What I didn’t like: It took him a few periods to get going.

Scout’s take: Pedigree. Opened some eyes. Two-way competitor. Size could be an issue but he’s deceptive.

Career projection: Fourth-line player.

Defenseman Matt Grzelcyk was the team’s best player this weekend. It was evident he’s going to be a second-year pro. His vision and playmaking ability is spot on.

What I liked: It’s obvious he loves to play the game.

What I didn’t like: Tough to find something wrong with his game.

Scout’s take: Speed. Good hockey sense. Size could be a factor.

Career projection: A bottom-pair defenseman.

Defenseman Rob O’Gara is fun to watch. He’s always involved and is a leader on the ice. He adds depth to Boston’s defensive core if needed.

What I liked: His compete level.

What I didn’t like: Nothing negative stood out.

Scout’s take: Tall, rangy defender. Good stick. Good first pass.

Career projection: Bottom pair defenseman.

Defenseman Connor Clifton had an interesting weekend.

“Cliffy is exciting to watch, on both ends of the ice,” Leach said of Clifton. “He’s involved and he loves to play hockey, I can tell you that. A little rough around the edges but has potential. As a staff/organization, we love his compete and the way he’s jumping into plays. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a defenseman have two breakaways on a penalty kill before in my life. That’s pretty amazing.”

What I liked: His non-stop energy.

What I didn’t like: All over the place too much. Don’t like when a forward is forced to play back for an extended amount of time during a shift when Clifton is pressuring offensively.

Scout’s take: A lot of energy.

Career projection: Bottom pairing.

Forward Alex Gacek turned out to be my favorite player during the tournament. He also opened some eyes and the organization likes his ability to add to the depth chart. He will participate at P-Bruins’ camp -- he really stood out this past weekend. If there’s an injury at main camp, he would be a player that will be inserted.

“He had good energy and was able to complement the guys he was playing with and was going into high traffic areas,” Sweeney said. “He was on three teams last year but he produced at that level with all of them. Providence is looking forward to having him there because he could provide some depth.”

What I liked: Love his compete and grittiness for his size. Practices hard. Not afraid of confrontations.

What I didn’t like: Wanted to see more of him.

Scout’s take: Willing to get his nose dirty. Skates well. Smart player. Size doesn’t seem to be a factor.

Career projection: Role player.

The Bruins needed to invite two goalies to rookie camp because Daniel Vladar (Boston’s third-round pick and 75th overall selection in the 2015 draft) suffered an offseason wrist injury and was unavailable. He had a pin removed last Friday and will be ready to return to practice at some point during training camp. Meanwhile, Kyle Keyser played two of the three games and impressed.

“He handled himself well,” Sweeney said. “Both goalies to come in here, and with (Vladar’s) injury, to take advantage of an opportunity was good for both of them.”

What I liked: Handles the puck extremely well.

What I didn’t like: A bit of a showboat.

Scout’s take: Decent. Finds the puck.

Career projection: Has potential to reach the NHL.

Forward Jack Studnicka was a major standout during the tourney. He was not overwhelmed and was impressive. High-end plays and is positionally sound. Baby-faced kid. Under-the-radar type of player the Bruins should be excited about.

“It’s three days,” Sweeney said. “It’ll be interesting the next three days when he goes back and plays with more established and stronger players and see where he fares there but he showed very well here. He reaffirmed what our scouts had identified and his attributes as being a heady player, and he’s only 169 pounds so he’s got a lot of room to grow. He fit in very well.”

What I liked: Does a lot of the little things right. Always puts himself in a good position and wants the puck.

What I didn’t like: That he looks like my son's age.

Scout’s take: He’s a heady player. Basic style of player with a lot of upside.

Career projection: Top-nine forward.

Leach, who coached the team in Buffalo, is going to be a very good coach in Providence. His practices are high energy and players seem to respond to him in a positive way. He coaches like he played – honest.

“Not unlike our players, he’s getting some experience and making those types of decisions for the first time,” Sweeney said. “He’s most comfortable running his practice and in his meetings, but those are experiences in the game that you have to grow from and I’m sure he’ll take a lot of things from that’s and be excited. I think he looks at the landscape of the group and probably thinks its got some talent that he’s looking forward to working with.”

What I liked: He’s a solid hockey mind and he’s honest. Tells it like it is to players. He’s a worker.

What I don’t like: Nothing.

Scout’s take: An NHL-caliber coach.

Projection: He’ll be a coach in the NHL at some point.

Other notes:

Defenseman Jeremy Lauzon was able to play after having offseason hernia surgery. The team monitored his progress during the tournament.

Forward Oskar Steen returned to Europe after playing two games.

Forward Joona Koopanen will spend a few days at main camp and then return to his team in Finland.