By Kirk Luedeke
One of the major challenges for any young prospect with NHL aspirations is beating out the veterans ahead of them on the depth chart for a spot on the team.
When you factor in that the Boston Bruins are defending Stanley Cup champions, that challenge becomes even greater for those youngsters still with the club as the 2011-12 NHL season gets underway next week at the TD Garden.
On defense, Steve Kampfer and Matt Bartkowski both had a chance to see NHL action a year ago, but with a seemingly established top-six of veteran players on the back line, (Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference, Joe Corvo, Johnny Boychuk, Adam McQuaid) may have to bide time as a seventh defender and wait for their chance, much like McQuaid did a year ago.
“Right now, there’s, you know, there’s a couple of guys that are there that are pretty even and each bring a certain element that we like, so now it’s a matter of them battling for that spot,” head coach Claude Julien said after Wednesday practice.”It’s pretty obvious that both those guys (Kampfer, Bartkowski) were on our radar last year. Either they were call ups or they were here for part of the season and again it’s that same battle that happened last year.”
Kampfer played 38 games with the B’s a year ago, three short of the minimum that would have seen him have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, but he showed plenty of promise as an offense-minded blue liner, scoring five goals and 10 points. Bartkowski spent six scoreless games with Boston last season, but was one of Providence’s go-to guys with five goals and 23 points in 69 AHL contests as a rookie.
“They’ve been around our players for most of the camp and team building,” Julien said of the former NCAA standouts. “I think that it’s an asset and that’s what we plan on doing again this year- making sure that we bring some of those guys with us that we plan on bringing up through the course of the year. I think that it’s important for those guys to be around us, that team building- through the team building process and I don’t think that’ll change this year.”
Up front, Jordan Caron is the likely frontrunner to crack a forward lineup that like the defense corps, doesn’t have a great deal of room to add new blood. The team signed free agent Benoit Pouliot over the summer and invited former Washington Capitals captain Chris Clark (Windsor, Conn.) to compete for a spot as well. Caron, as the 25th overall selection in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft who appeared in 23 big league games (3-4-7) has the size and skill level to play a checking role on the lower lines while adding enough offensive upside that might see him given some opportunities on the power play if he makes the cut.
“You know he started off and skated really well and then somehow his game kind of went down a little bit – downwards for the level of the NHL,” Julien said of Caron. “So we thought his skating needed to be better and so far he’s shown that he’s capable of skating, even on the top line and with some skill and speed. I think he’s done a great job.”
Caron admitted while down in Providence last season that he was perhaps trying too hard and gripping his stick a little tight when he didn’t get off to a hot start. Given his NHL performance, he was expected to have a greater offensive impact in the AHL, so when the production didn’t come, Caron struggled to find his rhythm. By focusing on the little things and keeping it simple, the 20-year-old from Sayabec, Que. finished strong and used the turnaround as a springboard to trying to make the Bruins out of camp for a second straight year.
“He’s gotten to the corners and he’s used his strength and his body to come out of there with the puck,” said Julien. “He’s done a great job in front of the net, he’s had a lot of great opportunities as well shot-wise and stuff like that so he’s doing a lot of things that has really put him in a real good position. I think right now he’s got his foot in the door more than he’s got the other one out.”
Like Caron, fellow QMJHL grad Max Sauve is also trying to crack the Boston roster on opening night. Although the second-round pick from 2008 has yet to see his first NHL shift, Sauve has progressed well in the system despite several injury setbacks to his ankle and wrist that forced him to miss extended action in the past two seasons. Despite playing in only 61 AHL contests last year, Sauve tallied 21 goals and has impressed the Boston brass with his speed and strong overall game in the exhibition season.
“We all know he’s got skill,” Julien said. “We all know he’s got speed and you know, he’s a guy that’s pretty dangerous around the net and he showed that in Providence last year and I think he has a lot of attributes that will allow him to play in the NHL.
“But in order to be an NHL regular, you have to do a little bit more than just skate and shoot and the one thing is that- you know, competing for that loose puck which you hear me say a lot about players, you know, if you’re- I’m not a big fan of players who go in the corner and come out with the puck once out of every ten tries.”
This may not quite yet be Sauve’s time to become an NHL regularb, but much like Brad Marchand during the ’09-10 season and Jamie Arniel a year ago, he could be rewarded with a callup to the big club at some point this season as a reward for his improvement.
Also in the mix for a spot up front are Providence veterans Arniel and hard-nosed winger Lane MacDermid, who is cut from similar cloth to fan favorite Shawn Thornton. Both have NHL bloodlines: Arniel is the nephew of Scott Arniel, head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets and a former NHL forward who saw action with the Bruins during the 1991-92 campaign. MacDermid’s father, Paul was a member of the Hartford Whalers at the height of that team’s rivalry with the Bruins in the mid-to-late 1980s, and the younger MacDermid was even born in the insurance capital.
Unfortunately, there simply aren’t many spots to be had in Boston for role guys like Arniel and MacDermid given what the team currently boasts. Unless a rash of injuries devastates the B’s depth up front, it will likely mean another full year in the AHL for the pair.
Being a championship hockey club can be a double-edged sword. It means that the youth movement has a much tougher time earning NHL jobs and at some point, may require a change of scenery. On the flip side, the B’s have done a good job of building depth and as inevitable changes occur going forward, could call on one or more of the kids to make an impact.