Providence head coach Jay Leach evaluates Bruins prospects, talks potential call-ups & more

(Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Providence Bruins head coach Jay Leach knows that there are plenty of things more important than hockey — especially now, in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, that doesn’t lessen the sting of knowing his club will not be able to see through a campaign that arguably stood as Providence’s best shot at a Calder Cup since it took home the trophy back in 1999. 

Speaking with reporters via Zoom on Monday afternoon, Leach touched on a number of subjects — ranging from the cancellation of the 2019-20 AHL campaign to updates on some of Boston’s most promising prospects. 

Here are a few highlights:

Leach expects the usual suspects to get the call up to Boston

Whether it expanding rosters outright or incorporating “Black Aces” to a practice squad, NHL clubs are going to be taking a long look at their prospect pipelines if/when the 2019-20 season resumes.

While Leach admitted that most parties don’t know exactly how many players could get a call up to the NHL ranks later this summer, he singled out the obvious headliners as potential candidates for such a promotion.

Blue-chip prospects such as Jack Studnicka, Urho Vaakanainen, Trent Frederic and Jakub Zboril could all benefit from a couple of months spent practicing with the big club, but an outright roster expansion could very well see a player or two getting a spot to showcase their talents during game action — especially given the lack of defined roles among Boston’s middle-six forwards. 

“This is really just my best guess — it's the guys that we always talk about right? It's the Studnickas, the Frederics,” Leach said. “If you have five guys, it's Study, Freddy, it's Zboril, it's Vaaks (Urho Vaakanainen) and (Steven) Kampfer and then you've got – I'm not even calling (Karson) Kuhlman in that mix because he was in Boston more. So it's really tough to nail it down. I'd go with those four or five to start and then where does it end?

“It just depends on what the limit is and what they're going to need. And I don't know if anyone can really forecast that, just because of the unknown that is this virus and the environment in which we're competing in. I can tell you that there are plenty of candidates. I think that these guys have shown that, whether it's the Senys and even the up and comers with (Jakub) Lauko and Study and all these guys. So there's certainly a lot of guys that we can pick from. I'm sure if it was up to Butch (Bruce Cassidy) and Don, they'd have the opportunity, or they'd have the ability to pick from any one of them, just because of the fit factor.”

Leach looking to 'salvage something' from impressive season

Clearly, there's a whole lot that can go right (and wrong) during a playoff run in hockey. But, whether it be on paper or from what Leach saw out on the ice, there was an awful lot to like about the 2019-20 Baby B's.

Boasting the top record in the Eastern Conference (38-18-6) at the time of the pause, the P-Bruins appeared to be peaking with the Calder Cup Playoffs right around the corner — with a younger, skilled supporting cast settling into a groove and supporting a veteran group anchored by the likes of Paul Carey, Brendan Gaunce, Brendan Woods, Kampfer and others.

Even though this group will not be able to reach some semblance of finality on a breakthrough season, Leach believes that there are still plenty of positives to take away from a year in which many younger skaters took major steps forward in their respective development.

"It was tough. I think I'd like to start and just say that I fully recognize the situation we're in with this country and in the world, and by no means is us making a run to the Calder Cup more important than these frontline workers. So I want to make sure I make that clear," Leach said. "With regards to our season, it was definitely disappointing. We were just clicking right at the right time. I think we'd won 12 in a row and our players, more importantly, our younger guys, were really coming along and kind of just hitting their stride. So certainly disappointing.

"We had two goalies that were really at the top of the league, which, as we all know, is probably your most important key down the stretch here. And then we were getting scoring from all four lines. And our defense was pretty shored up. So we were certainly a team that looked like we could make a run and unfortunately this happened and it is what it is. I think we're just hoping — and I know we will — that we'll salvage something out of it. The guys played 62 games and they were able to get a lot of minutes and they had some success, and so we'll build on it one way or another whenever that time comes."

Senyshyn 'exactly where he ... needs to be'

Whether it be his longer development curve or the emergence of other forwards like Frederic and Studnicka, Zach Senyshyn has flown under the radar a bit over the last few seasons. While he may not ever be the sniper he was during his years in the OHL with Sault Ste. Marie, Senyshyn's wheels and larger frame (6-foot-3) could make him an effective middle-six contributor up in the NHL ranks.

Senyshyn showcased some flashes of his skill earlier this year in Boston, where he impressed on a line with Charlie Coyle (plus-2 goal differential, 61.54 CF% in just 16:22 of 5v5 ice time) before missing time due to injury.

"We were very excited for where Zach was going the last five-six weeks," Leach said. "I think we've talked about Seny quite a bit and sometimes I think, our staff included, you tend to forget how young some of these players are. He's just turning 23. Players develop in different ways and in different timetables and Seny found a home with Gaunce and Woods. They were really an up-and-down line that could could do a lot of things. They had some speed with Seny and Woody and then Gaunce was able to compliment them with with some heady play. Seny was starting to score and he was getting to the dirty areas and they were a heavy forechecking line. For me, he was finding an identity.

"But I think we all would somewhat speculate that that was his identity — being a big guy that can get to places quick and obviously get to the front of the net and get those opportunities. It seemed like he was really starting to put it together down the last, like I said, five or six weeks. So what did I see? I saw speed, I saw willingness to get to the net. I saw willingness to be an F1 on the forecheck. And then with that came some offensive opportunities and he started to cash in a bit. I know it's tough, it's his third year of pro and I think people tend to — I get it, it's professional hockey and there's expectation there — but in our mind and in Seny's mind, he's exactly where he is and needs to be and he's starting to really develop."

Zboril was Providence's top blueliner down the stretch:

Much like Senyshyn, Zboril catches plenty of flak for his status as a first-round pick during that fateful 2015 NHL Draft. Still, even if Zboril has needed much longer than most in terms of rounding out his overall game — Leach believes that the Czech native's transition game gives him an edge that few in the AHL possess. Every player has different development timelines, and it appears as though Zboril finally put some of the pieces together down the stretch this season.

"Zboril, really, very much like Senyshyn, the last 12-15 games, became probably our best defenseman overall," Leach said. "His ability to move the puck cleanly is just really — there's not many that can do that at our level. He was paired with the (Josiah) Didier for most of it, and I think Dids' competitive juices wore off a little bit on Z and kind of ignited it a bit. And before you knew it, he was a real force down low."

Vaakanainen getting more comfortable in pro ranks:

Unlike Zboril, it's been a bit more of an up-and-down campaign for Vaakanainen, who has had to adjust to the pro game and work more on his consistency and compete level after storming onto the scene as an AHL rookie and World Junior Gold Medalist in 2018.

Some of Vaakanainen's most impressive strides, from Leach's perspective, had more to do with his off-ice persona than the skill he evidently has whenever he hops over the boards.

"Vaakanainen, whether it's a leadership role or whatever, he certainly showed a big leap from year one to year two — just in his maturity and his comfortability about being in the room and really having a bit of a voice and also just a real presence in there," Leach said. "He's a Finn, so a lot of Finns tend to be a little quiet to start, but he really opened up this year and you could tell he really embraced the group and I think they reciprocated and he had a lot of fun.

Leach added: "Vaaks, like I just said, more of a maturity thing but always the competitor — but started to really show signs of some offense. I don't know exactly, I think had five (goals) this year but all of them on the rush and he's starting to get a little bit more comfortable there."

Vladar on track as far as goalie development goes: 

You could make the case that Dan Vladar — with both an AHL-leading goals-against average of 1.79 and save percentage of .936 in 25 appearances this season — should be in contention for Baz Bastien Memorial Award, given out annually to the top netminder in the league

Since getting drafted back in 2015, the 22-year-old netminder has gone through his fair share of injuries and the expected of ups and downs that come with a goalie learning his craft. Still, Leach believes that Vladar is right on schedule in regards to the extended timetable it usually takes for goalies to really settle into their game.

"I, for whatever reason, have the number 23-24 in my head, the age," Leach said of how long it takes for young goalies to develop. "A lot of that is Mike Dunham, who is our development goalie coach, he talks a lot about that. And there is a correlation there. And it's not to say it's for everyone. There's (Igor) Shestyorkin who is in New York now. He's 24. And he's a rookie and he was a rookie in our league, but he had played in the Russian league for several years prior to that. 

"The same thing with the guy in Washington, (Ilya) Samsonov ... There's, there's certainly something there. I think goaltending in general is obviously by far the toughest position. Therefore, it's going to take you a little bit longer, most of them, to get to that place. ... We've got Daniel Vladar, who I think is turning 23 and, you know, he's 6-6 and he's just just coming into his body. And then at the same time, mentally, to handle the ups and downs really just even in our league, not to mention at the NHL levels, it just takes some time. I don't know if there's an exact science behind it. I will say that the guys that I've seen kind of come up through the ranks, it's taken them some time and they get to 23-24, somewhere around there. You can see they put the time in and they're ready for the next step."