With the 2020-21 NHL season still a ways away, let’s spend this week assessing the state of Boston’s pool of prospects. The Bruins’ pipeline of young talent may not be as extensive (and impactful) as a number of other franchises across the league, but there are still a number of young skaters and netminders in Boston’s system poised to make the jump up to the NHL ranks in the coming years, or at the very least elevate their stock down in the AHL, collegiate, junior and international ranks.
As such, we’ve decided to rank the top 25 prospects in the Bruins’ system, highlighting a number of young skaters and goalies that could be donning black and gold sweaters up in Boston within the next few seasons. Here is a look at our previous selections:
We continue our rankings today, moving on to No. 10-6:
(Note: We’re going to count any prospect with 20+ games of service time up in the NHL ranks as “graduated” from our list, with youngsters like Jeremy Lauzon, Karson Kuhlman and Connor Clifton exempt from these rankings.)
10. Zach Senyshyn, Forward
Weight: 205 pounds
2019-20 Stats (Providence/AHL) – 42 games, 7 goals, 16 points
Drafted: Round 1 (No. 15 overall) — 2015
Chalk it up to the label that he's saddled with as one of Boston's three first-round picks in that infamous ... well, you know the story already ... but Senyshyn (and a fellow draftee from that class) often tend to get a bad rap from Bruins fans when it comes to assessing their viability as regular NHLers. And yes, there's no doubting that in a loaded first round back in 2015, Senyshyn's floor in the pro ranks is... underwhelming.
But such is the bed that the Bruins made for themselves when it came to that draft, and we're here to judge Senyshyn on his own individual merits and tools, rather than the rest of the field.
When it comes to evaluating Senyshyn's development and his progression from his days in the OHL, it's pretty evident that he will never be the sniper he was with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (114 goals in 195 games). But the winger's strong frame, plus skating ability and straight-line game could see him morph into a dependable bottom-six winger at the NHL level.
Even if Senyshyn's stats since arriving in Providence (33 goals in 174 games) won't turn any heads, the winger has made some major strides when it comes to augmenting his game — especially given that his days of speeding past younger competition in junior hockey are now no longer feasible against similar skilled talent at the pro level.
"We were very excited for where Zach was going the last five, six weeks,” Providence head coach Jay Leach said of Senyshyn's game back in May. “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 (Brendan) Gaunce and (Brendan) Woods. They were really an up-and-down line that could do a lot of things. They had some speed with Seny and Woody and then Gaunce was able to compliment them 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.”
He may not draw the same headlines as other forward prospects like Studnicka or Frederic, but Senyshyn certainly didn't look out of place during his short stint up with Boston last year, primarily when slotted next to Charlie Coyle. During the 16:22 of 5v5 ice time that Senyshyn logged next to Coyle, Boston held an impressive 61.54% shot share and outscored the competition, 2-0, before Senyshyn had to spend more than a month on the shelf due to injury.
With another assignment to Providence now opening the risk of Senyshyn being exposed to waivers, look for the energetic winger to potentially open the 2021 season on the NHL roster — looking to make good on what might be his best shot at stick around with the B's organization.
9. Jakub Lauko, Forward
Weight: 190 pounds
2019-20 Stats (Providence/AHL) – 22 games, 5 goals, 9 points
Drafted: Round 3 (No. 77 overall) — 2018
After declaring himself as a "steal" in the 2018 NHL Draft, Lauko has often been the apple of many Bruins fans' eyes when it comes to looking forward to the future. At first glance, it's easy to see why some fans might have drawn some parallels between the gregarious Lauko and a similarly skilled winger from the Czech Republic in David Pastrnak — at least during his first few years within the organization.
However, IF the 20-year-old Lauko hits his ceiling as an impactful NHLer, he projects as more of a middle-six, two-way winger that's more than happy to pester the opposition whenever given the opportunity.
“He reminds me a little bit of Marchy (Brad Marchand) when he was younger,” Bruce Cassidy said of Lauko during training camp last year. “Just on the puck all the time, second effort, irritating. Good speed, good shot. He’s just got to learn to harness all of that and stay in the moment. I think Marchy was a little bit, the details were secondary to — Let’s get on the puck, let’s attack the net. Let’s spear somebody. Can I say that?
"And then you learn, Rob Murray was there and myself and there was some work to be done about what about away from the puck? Not guessing on where it’s going, defensively and then the penalty kill got worked in for him and that was his ticket from Providence to Boston. He came up as a fourth-liner because he could take care of those things and he would grow into a first (liner). I don’t know how it’s going to work out for Lauko, but I just see a little bit of Marchy at that age.”
Even though Lauko's evident skill has stood out at numerous times during his still young pro career, the winger still has plenty to work on before graduating from his current spot down in Providence.
While Lauko's first post-draft season saw his stock soar after helping the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies win the 2019 Memorial Cup (41 points in 44 games / 13 points in 19 playoff games), the 2019-20 season was much more of a struggle for the forward. Even if growing pains were to be expected upon making the jump from junior hockey to Providence (nine points in 22 games), Lauko's campaign was knocked off the tracks after suffering an MCL injury less than a minute into the 2019 World Junior Championships. He did not return to game action until March, skating in four more contests before the AHL season came to a premature end.
He may not be a 30-goal scorer that some may have envisioned he'd be shortly after the 2018 Draft, but Lauko's skillset and commitment to a 200-foot-game should have him on a reliable path to the NHL in due course. He also has a tattoo featuring a quote from Gandalf The Grey, which is awesome.
8. Dan Vladar, Goaltender
Weight: 195 pounds
2019-20 Stats (Providence/AHL) – 25 games, .936 save percentage, 1.79 GAA
Drafted: Round 3 (No. 75 overall) — 2015
It was a rollercoaster type of season for Vladar in 2019-20 — to say the least.
After an uneven first season against AHL competition in 2018-19 (.898 save percentage), Vladar’s following campaign began on another ominous note. In his just his third appearance of the 2019-20 season, Vladar suffered a high-ankle sprain — sidelining him for over six weeks.
Despite that extended stretch on the shelf, Vladar made the most of his time off, working with Bruins goalie development coach Mike Dunham to fine-tune his game and augment his playing style — with the young netminder focusing on staying more on his skates and cutting down on his propensity to drop to his pads. Fair to say, that off-ice work paid off.
Upon returning to the ice, Vladar was arguably the top netminder in the AHL down the stretch, leading the league with a goals-against-average of 1.79 and save percentage of .936 over 25 appearances.
And even though Vladar was fed to the wolves in his first taste of NHL action up in the Toronto bubble (three goals allowed on 15 Tampa Bay shots during a 7-1 Lightning win), there's a lot to like about the strides Vladar made in 2019-20, with Leach noting that the Czech netminder has kept pace with the (often extended) developmental curve that goalie prospects go through.
"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 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."
Even though Vladar had a breakthrough showing in 2019-20, he is set to face tougher internal competition during this upcoming shortened AHL campaign, as fellow blue-chip prospect Jeremy Swayman will also be vying for starting minutes down in Providence. Perhaps the threat of lost reps will motivate Vladar to take another major step forward in his promising young career.
7. Jack Ahcan, Defenseman
Weight: 185 pounds
2019-20 Stats (St. Cloud State/NCAA) – 33 games, 7 goals, 25 points
Drafted: Undrafted - Signed contract with Boston in March 2020
Ahcan hasn't logged a single shift as a member of the Bruins' organization, but it's pretty easy to see why the St. Cloud State blueliner should quickly rise through the ranks of Boston's system and establish himself as an impact player at the next level.
After a standout four-year career with the Huskies in which the playmaking defenseman tallied 103 points over 144 games, Ahcan was considered one of the top collegiate free agents on the market, with Boston ultimately emerging as the winner for the blueliner's services.
At just 5-foot-8, the flaws in Ahcan's game are rather easy to map out, especially when it comes to how he handles bigger and stronger competition at the next level. But there's an awful lot to like about Ahcan's game, with the skilled (and often ornery) skater likely serving as the closest thing Boston has had to Torey Krug since ... well, Torey Krug.
Ahcan's size does force him to augment his game when dealing with tougher matchups and larger skaters, but the Minnesota native is not afraid to throw his weight around and mix things up after the whistle. Of course, he's at his best when operating with the puck on his stick — with his skating ability, hockey IQ (knows when to activate) and playmaking ability making him a power-play weapon that should continue to round out his overall game down in Providence. You also won't sort through a single scouting report or blurb on Ahcan that fails to mention the former Huskies captain's competitiveness and leadership qualities.
Of course, as much as he projects as Krug 2.0., it's tough to saddle a player like Ahcan with comparisons to Boston's all-time leading scorer for an American-born skater. But it's also pretty tough to ignore the considerable upside that Ahcan can bring to a team whenever he hops over the boards. Already 23 years old and battle-tested in the collegiate ranks, Ahcan may not need all that much seasoning down in Providence before he starts knocking on the door at a spot on Boston's blue line. The B's might have something special here with Ahcan, whose development will be one of the top storylines for me this upcoming season.
6. Jakub Zboril, Defenseman
Weight: 195 pounds
2019-20 Stats (Providence/AHL) – 58 games, 3 goals, 19 points
Drafted: Round 1 (No. 13 overall) — 2015
Zboril, much like his fellow 2015 first-rounder in Senyshyn, catches plenty of flak for his draft position and standout skaters that Boston passed on when it selected the Czech defenseman with the 13th overall pick (he ranked No. 12 among NA skaters by NHL Central Scouting).
But still, even if Zboril has needed a longer timeline than most of his fellow '15 draftees when it comes to rounding out his overall game, the Bruins believe that the 23-year-old defenseman is ready for a look up at the NHL level in 2021. Of course, some of that thinking is due to the fact that Zboril will also have to be exposed to waivers if he doesn't stick with the NHL following training camp. But Leach was quick to praise the strides that Zboril has made over the past season, especially during the final stretch of the 2019-20 AHL season — in which the P-Bruins won 12 straight games before COVID-19 halted their campaign for good.
"Zboril, really, very much like Senyshyn, the last 12-15 games, became probably our best defenseman overall,” Leach said of Zboril. “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.”
Unlike other dynamic blueliners such as Ahcan or even Victor Berglund, Zboril isn't quite as flashy, nor will some of the offense he showcased during his days in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League likely translate to the pro game. But Zboril is still on track to at least be a contributor at the next level thanks to his plus skating talent, smooth transition game and willingness to engage opposing skaters, even if he isn't the largest body out on the blue line. In some aspects, Zboril (when he's playing well) can somewhat remind me of an offensive lineman — in that it's often a good sign if you don't notice him all that much.
Rather than developing into an end-to-end offensive catalyst, Zboril makes an impact on his shifts by connecting on crisp first passes, using his wheels to cleanly exit the D zone and snuffing out scoring chances thanks to an active stick and a willingness to throw his weight around.
Zboril thrived last season down in Providence when paired with a stay-at-home option like Didier, so you wonder if perhaps some regular reps alongside a fellow defenseman like Brandon Carlo could help Zboril finally settle into a groove at the next level. Fair or not, Zboril remains one of the more divisive prospects in Boston's system, and even when he's playing at his best, the game film won't pop as much as a Krug or another more bombastic blueliner. But Zboril's adherence to the little things — coupled with some refreshing physicality — could be what Boston is looking for on the blue line.
OTHER NEWS & NOTES:
Well, so much for those fun MacKenzie Weegar rumors...
Despite the number of trade whispers surrounding the hard-nosed, effective top-pairing blueliner for the Panthers, Weegar and Florida ultimately agreed to terms on a three-year contract Friday worth an average annual value of $3.25 million. Weegar, a restricted free agent who was underwhelmed with prior negotiations with the Panthers when it came to a new payday, was reportedly linked to the Bruins and plenty of other suitors in the weeks leading up Friday's announcement if Florida opted to part ways with the defenseman.
Weegar is an analytical darling when it comes to his ability to log heavy minutes, chip in regularly on offense and negate scoring chances on a Panthers defense that is ... less than ideal. But, as is the case with plenty of free agents this fall, Weegar was forced to ink a contract likely below his expected value (a telling sign of what might await Jake DeBrusk in the coming months).
Now, with Weegar locked up and trade rumors largely dissipating in a stagnant offseason market, it would seem as though the most likely course that Boston takes moving forward with its blue line is a youth movement — with the likes of Zboril, Urho Vaakanainen, Jeremy Lauzon and Connor Clifton all vying for regular minutes in 2021, while the health of Kevan Miller and the potential return of Zdeno Chara also loom large when it comes to sorting out Boston's starting D corps next year.
At long last, it appears as though college hockey in New England is set to make its return later this month.
Hockey East announced in a video on Friday afternoon that it is targeting Nov. 20 as the starting date for its delayed 2020-21 season, with a full schedule still yet to be announced.
As expected, this upcoming collegiate season is going to be vastly different from previous campaigns due to COVID-19, with the Boston Globe reporting that the plan is for each school to play each of its fellow Hockey East opponents twice. As such, that would create a 20-game schedule for the 11 men’s teams, and 18 games for the 10 women’s teams in Hockey East.
The 2020-21 Hockey East season (to the surprise of very few) will begin with no fans in the stands, while the latest state ordinances in Massachusetts (9:30 curfew for business, events and more) will likely lead to plenty of these games featuring a puck drop earlier than their usual 7:00 - 7:30 start time. Currently, the plan is for both men's and women's hockey to wrap up this upcoming campaign with a conference postseason tournament, while no postponements / rescheduled games during the winter could even prompt the league to add more games to the regular-season slate.
Even if college hockey has largely been at a standstill this fall, the teams themselves have been practicing for this new season for over a month now, with a loaded Boston College team looking to defend its 2020 regular-season title. We still don't have a set starting date for the NHL's return, but plenty of Hockey East on the horizon should at least help tide us all over during what should be a very long winter.