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’re going to wrap up our rankings today, looking at our top five prospects in Boston’s system:
(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.)
5. Jeremy Swayman, Goaltender
Weight: 200 pounds
2019-20 Stats (Maine/NCAA) – 34 games, 2.07 GAA, .939 save percentage
Drafted: Round 4 (No. 111 overall) — 2017
It’s a testament to the sudden strength of Boston’s pool of netminding prospects that a player that put together a season like Dan Vladar did in 2019-20 very well could lose regular starting reps to a fellow goalie in Swayman in 2021.
Swayman, who made the looooong trek from his hometown of Anchorage, Alaska to play college hockey at the University of Maine, has seen his stock soar over his three-year career in the collegiate ranks.
"We got a tip about Jeremy, we were looking for a goalie,” Maine head coach Red Gendron said of Swayman back in May. “The first time any of us went out to see him play, I mean, it was pretty clear that he had extraordinary athleticism. I'd had the good fortune to be at UMass, working there with 'Toot' Cahoon when we had Jon Quick.
“And immediately I could see the lateral mobility and the puck-tracking skills that we'd become accustomed to seeing from somebody like Jon Quick. So that was pretty clear, and as, soon as we met Jeremy, it became very obvious that this guy wanted to be the best.”
After averaging a .920 save percentage and 33 starts over his first two seasons with the Black Bears, Swayman separated himself from the pack as arguably the top goalie in the NCAA during the 2019-20 campaign.
While Maine rebounded with an impressive 18-11-5 record this past year, the play of Swayman played a major role in said results.
Even though the Black Bears surrendered 34.6 shots against per game — which ranked 56th out of the 60 D-1 teams — Swayman rarely folded under such a high shot volume, leading all Hockey East netminders with an absurd .939 save percentage and a 2.07 goals-against average.
For his efforts, Swayman was one of the three finalists for the 2020 Hobey Baker Award — given annually to the top NCAA men’s hockey player — while also winning the Mike Richter Award (top collegiate goaltender), All-American First Team honors and the title of Hockey East Player of the Year.
While it remains to be seen just how many games will be on the docket in a COVID-shortened 2021 AHL season, Swayman is set to take a crucial step in his development in the coming months, with the 21-year-old netminder expected to battle with Vladar for starting reps with Providence. Traditionally, the development timeline for goalies is often long and arduous, and both peaks and valleys are to be expected for Swayman in his first taste of pro hockey. However, it's hard not to be impressed with the body of work he put forth up in Orono, and it's awfully easy to get excited about what's to come in Swayman's young career.
4. Trent Frederic, Forward
Weight: 214 pounds
2019-20 Stats (Providence/AHL) – 59 games, 8 goals, 32 points
Drafted: Round 1 (No. 29 overall) — 2016
At his worst projection, Frederic still has the floor of an effective fourth-line stalwart at the NHL level — one that should continue to ingratiate himself to B’s fans by beating the bag out of any opposing skater willing to drop the gloves with the 6-foot-2, 214-pound power forward.
Of course Boston isn’t looking for one of its top-five prospects to simply develop into a checking-line grinder at the NHL level. But when it comes to projecting Frederic’s ceiling, things can get murky (albeit awfully intriguing).
Frederic’s size and snarl is a welcome addition to a B’s prospect pipeline teeming with a bit more skill and speed, and it’s one of the reasons why the 2016 first rounder could find himself fighting for a roster spot with Boston in 2021, especially following Joakim Nordstrom’s departure in free agency.
However, as much as the stats say otherwise (an AHL-leading 148 penalty minutes in 59 games with Providence), Frederic believes he’s much more than just a bruiser out on the ice.
Sure enough, for as much as the 22-year-old forward hasn’t offered much in terms of offensive production up in the NHL ranks (0 points in 17 GP), Frederic made significant strides with Providence in terms of developing into an effective top-six forward, ranking fifth on the club with 32 points (eight goals, 24 assists) in those 59 games.
"He has so many different attributes that not many have," Providence head coach Jay Leach said of Frederic earlier this summer. "He's obviously a bigger guy that has a heck of a shot and can get up and down the ice. And then you add the physical component that he has with really confrontation more than anything being a part of his game. He really, I found, was able to gain some huge strides in that especially with just his consistency, night and night out of being that guy to play against. When you can get to that point, you're relentless and he certainly showed that. He's going to continue to improve on that."
Now, it remains to be seen just how much Frederic’s offensive game will compliment the evident physicality he would already bring to the Bruins. He’d still bring value to this club as a fourth-line anchor that can chip in with 15-20 points a season, but the young power forward is certainly capable of much more. We might not have to wait long to see what can regularly bring at the next level.
3. Urho Vaakanainen, Defenseman
Weight: 190 pounds
2019-20 Stats (Providence/AHL) – 54 games, 5 goals, 14 points
Drafted: Round 1 (No. 18 overall) — 2017
Ever since Boston selected Vaakanainen in the first round of the 2017 draft, the gifted Finn has generally rewarded the B’s by elevating his stock as a premier prospect, standing out in play overseas before making the trek over to North America in 2018.
Vaakanainen outpaced expectations to open the 2018-19 season, cracking Boston’s roster out of training camp before a concussion (due to an elbow from Ottawa’s Mark Borowiecki) put him on the shelf for close to two months.
Finally cleared to return in time for the 2019 U-20 World Junior Championships, Vaakanainen played a key role in Finland’s run to a gold medal — averaging 23:07 of ice time and leading his team in TOI in five of the tournament’s seven games. In total, Finland’s defense only relinquished seven goals in the tournament, while Vaakanainen added four assists down the other end of the ice.
But since that standout showing back in early 2019, Vaakanainen has found himself occasionally tripping over the bumps in the road that come with the development curve in the AHL.
After a rather disappointing end to Providence’s 2018-19 campaign, Vaakanainen failed to find much traction during Boston’s training camp and preseason in 2019, with Jakub Zboril beating him out as the final AHL defenseman to be cut from the main roster.
As much as the talent is evident upon watching Vaakanainen out on the ice, he has drawn the ire of Bruce Cassidy at times, especially when called up to the NHL ranks.
“I saw a guy that didn’t practice well last year, to be honest with you,” Cassidy said. “He needed to turn up the urgency at the NHL level. Practices are half-hour, 40 minutes. This is not abnormal for young guys … Maybe the first 20 minutes, they get warmed up, whereas that’s expected of them to get warmed up on their own and be ready to go when the puck drops so we can get our work done and get out of here.”
Still, despite some setbacks, it appears as though Vaakanainen had managed to stabilize his game down the stretch with the Baby B’s in the spring of 2020 — with Leach praising the strides the young defenseman has made off the ice as of late.
"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.
"Vaaks … 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."
Much like Zboril, look for Vaakanainen to get an extended look during this upcoming training camp, especially with so many vacancies still present on Boston’s blue line. Even with a few setbacks, Vaakanainen’s skill is pretty evident when he’s out on a shift, with the 21-year-old regularly drawing praise for his skating ability and poise with the puck.
So long as he continues to build a bit more assertiveness into his game, Vaakanainen should remain on track to develop into a steady, two-way defenseman at the next level. He may not be a bombastic presence out on a shift, but he has the makings of a very solid second-pair D if he continues to take positive steps forward.
2. John Beecher, Forward
Weight: 209 pounds
2019-20 Stats (Michigan/NCAA) – 31 games, 9 goals, 16 points
Drafted: Round 1 (No. 30 overall) — 2019
The jury might still be out on if Beecher has the makings of a top-flight, dynamic pivot at the next level, but at his worst, the University of Michigan sophomore projects as a souped-up version of Sean Kuraly, capable of tipping matchups in his club’s favor thanks to his unique blend of size and speed.
Even if his numbers didn’t exactly turn heads up in Ann Arbor, Beecher made quite the impression in his first season with the Wolverines — ranking fourth on his team with 16 points (nine goals, seven assists) over 31 games, including a highlight-reel tally in what was Michigan's final game of the season — a 3-0 victory over rival Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal back on March 7.
After primarily being relegated into a bottom-six role on a loaded U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP) roster featuring Jack Hughes, Alex Turcotte, Cole Caulfield, Trevor Zegras, Matthew Boldy and others, Beecher was finally handed a featured role with Michigan, including reps as the netfront option on the Wolverines’ power play.
“He wants to do the right thing, he wants to win. He wants to be a good teammate,” Michigan head coach Mel Pearson said last November of Beecher. “The size, the skill, strength, speed. Anybody can see that. But you can’t (see) the intangibles."
Expectations will be high for Beecher and the Wolverines this upcoming season, especially with the club welcoming in a loaded freshman class with 2021 first-round locks like Owen Power, Kent Johnson and Hingham’s Matt Beniers all in tow.
He already has the size, skill and intangibles to develop into an NHL regular, but if Beecher can take another step forward in the offensive zone, Boston very well could have a two-way force on its hands at the next level.
"Just kind of close and in tight, putting pucks where they need to go on the net," Beecher said of what areas of his game he’s focusing on at the next level. "If I'm right above the crease or if I'm in a corner and I need to spin off a guy and make a pass. I think that part of my game has really started to develop over the last couple of months here. I've even been working on skills that translate with that stuff to the ice out on my court here at home while we've been in quarantine. So it's been a big focus of mine and it's nice to see that area of my game kind of come into fruition."
1 - Jack Studnicka, Forward
Weight: 176 pounds
2019-20 Stats (Providence/AHL) – 60 games, 23 goals, 49 points
Drafted: Round 2 (No. 53 overall) — 2017
Who else did you expect?
Even before Studnicka impressed during limited minutes up in the Toronto bubble, the 21-year-old forward was already far and away the shining star of Boston's prospect pool, especially after his impressive scoring totals in the OHL (233 points in 252 games) translated over to his first full season against AHL competition (23 goals, 49 points in 60 games).
An explosive forward in the offensive zone with a quick stride and silky mitts, Studnicka can make a lot happen with the puck on his stick. But speaking back in July, Cassidy was quick to note that Studnicka's adherence to the finer details of his game brings along some comparisons to another skilled Bruins pivot.
“Like Bergy (Patrice Bergeron), he’s good at everything, but he’s not this flashy guy," Cassidy said. "And I do see that with Jack. He’s a second-effort player, never quits on a play, can make plays, smart, work both ends of the ice. I think Bergy’s shot is obviously ahead of Jack’s and rightfully so. Jack’s going to have to work on that part of it. I’m sure Bergy did as well over the years. Some of that has to do with getting stronger, some of that is knowing the league. A quick release is paramount if you want to score goals.
“Bergy started in the league as a right winger. Jack may have to do that, I don’t want to project — but when you look at Bergeron, Krejci, Coyle, Kuraly, Lindholm, we’re pretty strong down the middle, so that might be an opportunity for him to make our team on the wing. So he learns a different part of the game. I’m going to say there are some similarities at the same age. Listen, I hope he turns into the next Bergy, that’d be great for the franchise, would be great for the individual. It’d be great for us as coaches because he’s second to none in terms of a player and a person. So if that happens I think the Bruins will be in good shape for the next 10 years.”
Now, it's VERY unfair to expect Studnicka to develop into a player of Bergeron's caliber — but it's easy to see why Studnicka has the makings of an impactful top-six forward at the NHL level. With Boston's current pipeline of centers intact for the 2021 season, it would appear as though Studnicka's best shot at sticking with the big club to start would be on the wing — in which he will be competing for valuable minutes alongside the likes of Craig Smith, Ondrej Kase, Anders Bjork, Jake DeBrusk, Nick Ritchie, Zach Senyshyn and others.
And while there's no guarantee that Studnicka will be logging minutes next to Bergeron, Krejci or Coyle to open the new season, it seems rather inevitable that the gifted forward will be up in Boston and contributing at some point during the 2021 NHL campaign. For as much as Studnicka's skill is evident, it's his willingness to operate in Grade-A ice and drive to the net (despite still needing to pack on some weight) that stands out upon watching the tape — with his fearless approach often leading to a number of quality looks out on the ice.
Individuals shots per 60 minutes — 10.23
Individual expected goals per 60 minutes — 0.87
Individual shot attempts per 60 minutes — 25.01
Individual high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes — 5.68
Just about any time Boston has opted to slot Studnicka into the lineup, the ice always seemed to be tilted in the Bruins' favor. Just imagine what he could do with a full NHL season under his belt. Such a scenario could become reality in short order.