Saturday, September 8, 2012

Providence Has More Goals Than Usual

Scoring Ability Vastly Improved
September 6, 2012
By Thomas Chace Jr.

What a difference a summer can make for a team in the American Hockey League.  The Providence Bruins hope to show that they have addressed their major shortcoming over the last two seasons, the skill and ability to score goals.  With a single trade, an influx of higher draft picks than last season, experienced second year players, and a veteran or two, the Providence Bruins may enjoy one of their best seasons in a while.

In late May of this year, the Boston Bruins traded their 2007 1st round pick, Zach Hamill, 23, to the Washington Capitals for Chris Bourque.  Hamill, the 8th overall player taken in the draft, would have to be classified as a disappointment here in New England.  Hamill, a Vancouver native, had 139 career points in 256 games; hopefully, he’ll gain the confidence he needs, to improve as a pro.  Hamill was re-called to Boston on several occasions and played 20 NHL games, but never seemed to gain the trust of the coaching staff or management.

Bourque, the son of Ray, was the AHL’s top scorer last season with 27 goals and 66 assists for 93 points with the Hershey Bears.  Bourque is 14th on the all-time scoring list for Hershey, as well as 25th in games played for the Bears.  While with Hershey, Bourque was a five-time 20 goal scorer, a First Team All-Star, won 3 Calder Cups, and was named the MVP in the Calder Cup Playoffs in 2010. Seems like an even exchange to me, right?  Bourque, a Boston native, was set to be a free agent but was signed by Boston through the 2014 season. 

Despite their recent Stanley Cup win with the “Big, Bad, Bruins” style of play, the physical squad has recently drafted a handful of small, playmaking forwards that will make their way to the Providence roster this season.  It will be interesting to see how these changes in philosophy will affect the future of Bruin hockey.  New England hockey fans demand physical play from their home team.  Surely though, a balance is what’s required in today’s NHL.

Ryan Spooner was drafted in the 2nd round in 2010 and is projected as a top six forward, with his ability to score, make plays, and use his greatest asset, speed.  Head Coach Bruce Cassidy says that, “Spooner can fly.  He is not a big framed guy, but for a skill guy, there are guys like him in the NHL with that kind of speed.”  In two short stints in a Providence uniform, Spooner had 7 points in just eight games.

Jared Knight, also a 2nd round pick in 2010, will be in Providence this season as well.  Knight also got to play in Providence for three games and recorded two assists.  Playing for the London Knights, ironically, Knight was a three-time, 20 goal scorer. Cassidy is wondering how his game will translate to the AHL.  “Knight plays a straight line game and he likes to bull his way to the net against bigger players, it’ll be interesting to see how that works out.”

AHL All-Star, Carter Camper, was the leading Providence scorer last year with just 48 points.  Craig Cunningham led the team in goals with 20.  Those two were part of a group of about nine to ten first year players last year that spent about half the season learning the Boston system of defense and where and what to do without the puck.  The emphasis switched to more scoring during the second half of the season, but with expected scorers hurt or under-performing, the team played on a razor thin line of not allowing too many goals because they couldn’t score themselves.

Trouble getting the puck in the net was exaggerated even more when you have a man advantage on the power-play and still can’t score.  The Providence Bruins have been last in the AHL over the last two seasons on the power-play, 30th out of 30 teams.  Is this an organizational issue?  Boston’s play with the man advantage is not so good either, as evidenced in their last two seasons.  Since Boston was one of the top scoring teams in the league, you would think they would thrive with a man advantage.  Somewhere there’s a disconnection.  Cassidy says, “We had trouble scoring period, on the power-play or five-on-five.”  For the record, Boston doesn’t tell him how to run the power-play.  

Cassidy has been working on a little project this summer to put a little more emphasis on the power-play.  Last year,  so much time was spent on teaching systems and dealing with player adjustments to the professional hockey life, that some worthy aspects of the game were not always a point of emphasis. 

The addition of Bourque, Spooner, Knight, Justin Florek, and highly drafted blue-liners like Tommy Cross, Zach Trotman, and Torey Krug should really impact the scoring drought the team has experienced.  The return of Camper, Cunningham, oft-injured Max Sauv√©, and Jamie Tardif only gives them more depth.

The defense is the best crop to start a season in years.  They should be led by newcomers, Cross, a 2nd round pick, who starred at Boston College, Trotman, who came out early for the draft from Lake Superior State, and Krug, a Michigan State product who was a scoring machine in college.  All three got a taste of the pros at the end of last season.  Returning Colby Cohen, David Warsofsky, Matt Bartkowski, and Ryan Button are no longer rookies and should be better.

Goaltending seems solid as well.  With Boston’s Tim Thomas sitting out this year, the Bruins obtained Niklas Svedberg, of the Swedish Elite League.  Svedberg, 23, should push returning netminder Michael Hutchinson in camp.  “Hutch,” 22, has to show that he can be an NHL caliber goalie. Being in a contract year adds to his burden.  He’s going to be given every opportunity to prove he’s up for the challenge though. 

The team looks like it will be a more ornery bunch to play against as well.  The signing of veteran NHL defenseman, Garnet Exelby, will help Trent Whitfield in the locker room and on the ice.  The re-signing of tough Bobby Robins, the return of feisty Tyler Randell, and “McQuaid-like” d-man Kevan Miller should make things unpleasant for visiting teams to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.  Lane MacDermid adds more toughness if he doesn’t make Boston’s roster.

Speaking of the DDC, the attendance for the Providence Bruins has been phenomenal, despite the lack of any playoff action in recent years.  The P-Bruins approached nearly 300,000 fans for their 38 home games last year.  Coach Cassidy said, “It sure is nice to come into the rink and feel the energy; there’s people that care, it’s better for everybody, hopefully we can reward them this season.”

The goals have been stated, it’s time to put the pucks in the net, boys.  This year’s edition of the Providence Bruins should feature more scoring, more excitement, and more games played this season.  The season also features Providence as the host city for the AHL All-Star Game and Skills Contest in January 2013.  Perhaps the Eastern All-Star squad could have a few homeboys in this year’s extravaganza.  More goals.

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