September 29, 2013

Bruins preseason prospects rankings: 36-21

By Kirk Luedeke

Goalie Zane Gothberg came in at 25th in Kirk Luedeke's preseason ranking of the B's prospects. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

The Boston Bruins currently enjoy strong organizational depth, even if the team is lacking in multiple elite prospects at the top of the future pecking order.

 New England Hockey Journal unveils the 2013-14 preseason Bruins prospect rankings on the eve of the new season, employing a subjective assessment of players under 25 and with minimal NHL and AHL experience. The list attempts to balance pro hockey readiness and development with long-term ceiling and potential, but is ultimately more of a qualitative review The scouting reports and profiles are based on live viewings and film study of all 36 players evaluated, along with the feedback and input from NHL scouting and front office sources and other contacts in the hockey community.

This assessment is an independent review of where Bruins prospects project going into the new year and is a fluid list that will be revisited at mid-season, when the annual top-10 rankings are published in the New England Hockey Journal’s January 2014 issue. A new, end-of-season list will come out in June, at the conclusion of the minor pro and amateur hockey seasons.

 The first of a three-part series, this iteration focuses on the longer-term project players in the system such as University of North Dakota goaltender Zane Gothberg and prep defenseman Wiley Sherman (Greenwich, Conn.), who will spend his senior year at the Hotchkiss School before heading to Cambridge and Harvard Yard next fall. The list also features mid-to-low tier prospects currently in Boston’s system either in the team’s Providence (AHL) or South Carolina (ECHL) affiliates.

 Left winger Justin Florek has shown significant progress as a north-south power forward who has improved his skating since being drafted three years ago and could be primed for a 20-plus goal season in the AHL. Swedish forward Alex Fallstrom is another industrious winger who impressed in a brief late-season stint with Providence and brings the kind of smarts and character that the Bruins prize.

With more talent and depth in Boston’s system than ever before thanks to promising draft hauls since 2010 and a major off-season trade that brought three prospects into the organization from the Dallas Stars, it has never been more challenging for a young player to earn a NHL spot with the Bruins.

Time will tell if more than a handful of the club’s nearly 40 hopefuls can ever make a real impact in Boston or will need to go elsewhere for a better opportunity, but the future appears to be a bright one. The Bruins are legitimate contenders and signs point to GM Peter Chiarelli and his able staff being able to sustain that contention in the years to come having built a solid foundation up and down the organization.

            NEHJ 2013 Boston Bruins preseason prospect rankings: 21-36

Rank/Name/Position/2012-13 Club

21. Justin Florek, LW, Providence (AHL)

Upside: After shedding a few pounds and getting stronger, this 6-foot-4 power forward and former Northern Michigan captain is quietly making a case to see some time in Boston. The 2010 fifth-rounder has an absolute bomb of a shot and can put it in the net from outside the faceoff circle with his fast release. He also goes hard to the net and uses his big frame to box out would-be defenders. Florek won’t wow anyone with his skills, but he will go through opponents and strong on the puck.
Downside: Sluggish initial first few steps; not an especially fast or agile skater. Although he can chip in with goals and points, the Michigan native (Upper Peninsula) does not possess a high offensive ceiling.

Outlook: Because of his size, power game and work ethic, Florek is an ideal injury replacement if the team needs him on the lower lines. He’s one more solid forward in a crowded field of blue collar/plumber types, but like his close friend and off-season workout partner Zach Trotman, has made a marked improvement in his game and body since the B’s drafted him.

22. Matthew Lindblad, C, Dartmouth College (ECAC)/Providence (AHL)

Upside: 23-year-old undrafted free agent from Darmouth by way of Illinois is a heady, instinctive forward with soft hands and the vision to make plays. He is everything the B’s thought they were getting with late 2008 draftee and fellow Big Green forward Mark Goggin, but the team opted for the opportunistic and wise-beyond-his-years Lindblad instead.

Downside: Possesses average size and does not jump out at you with exceptional speed or skill; may be one of those jack-of-all-trade, master-of-none types that are challenged to stick at the NHL level.

Outlook: This productive (USHL, NCAA) but unheralded forward might be a real find for the Boston scouts, who had the benefit of being close enough to Hanover, N.H. to see him more than others. Lindblad may top out as a third-line NHL player at best, but that would be a major win for the B’s given his lack of a draft pedigree.  His smarts and versatility make him one to watch in his first full pro season and beyond after surviving the first three rounds of cuts at Bruins camp.

23. Alex Fallstrom, LW, Harvard University (ECAC)/Providence (AHL)

Upside: This savvy Swedish defensive forward out of Harvard plays an efficient, meat-and-potatoes game with underrated offensive flair. His hockey sense/vision and soft hands allow him to make plays in traffic and in front of the net, even if he doesn’t project to be a scoring forward at the highest level. His quick stick and tight puck handling are his best attributes, along with a sterling work ethic.

Downside: An average skater who has improved his heavy feet since being acquired by Boston, but may not ever get quick and fast enough to keep up with the play at the NHL level.

Outlook: Fallstrom is yet another solid, unspectacular forward who plays a Bruins-style of game.  He’s got a big challenge ahead to try and crack an NHL roster that has a surplus of similar talent, but the former Shattuck St. Mary’s star is intelligent and motivated enough to give it a shot.

24. Tommy Cross (Simsbury, Conn.), D, Providence (AHL)/S. Carolina (ECHL)

Upside: When it comes to leadership and intangibles like effort, attitude and selfless play, they don’t make them much better than Cross. Along with a lean 6-foot-2 frame, a big point shot and shutdown ability, the former BC captain and two-time NCAA champion is on a mission to prove himself as a pro.

Downside: A major knee injury suffered the week he was drafted in 2007 has kept Cross day-to-day for life, as his durability will always be a question mark. He does not appear to have the puck sense or ability to process the game quickly enough to be the sum of some impressive physical parts.

Outlook: The 35th overall selection in 2007 might have a shot as a bottom-pairing defender at some point, but he looks like a long shot to become a regular in this organization. Given Boston’s depth on defense, a change of scenery might help Cross establish himself in the NHL and work his way up into something more than a sixth defender.

25. Zane Gothberg, G, University of North Dakota (WCHA)

Upside: Athletic and driven, this Minnesota product may not be the most refined of prospects in net, but he never quits on a play and gets every ounce out of his talent. Gothberg is mentally tough, with the rare ability to be an ideal starter capable of posting big numbers or an effective backup as one who only plays occasionally, but responds with consistency.

Downside: Still raw and has plenty of development ahead of him; has some holes in his game that need improvement such as lateral quickness and rebound control.

Outlook: Needs to beat out Clarke Saunders and establish himself as a No. 1 at UND in order to maximize his playing time this season. He’s a good kid who is accountable and doesn’t make excuses. Gothberg has long-term NHL potential, but with players like Tuukka Rask, Niklas Svedberg and Malcolm Subban in the system, the 21-year-old is an underdog. His current ranking reflects the longer timeline and is not an indictment of his skill and upside.

26. Chris Casto, D, U. Minn,-Duluth (WCHA)/Providence (AHL)

Upside: Casto is a mobile defender with good size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) and some unvarnished offensive ability. A high school and USHL standout before joining the UMD Bulldogs for two seasons, Casto can pass the puck effectively and has a hard shot. Casto will likely play his first full pro season as a shutdown defender whose fine footwork allows him to stay with opposing forwards and box them out away from his net.

Downside: Lack of vision and creativity capped the NHL ceiling of a once-promising Minnesota high school product. Given his tools, he looks every bit like a big league defender, but may not ever be one.

Outlook: Casto has the makings of a solid depth player and key AHL contributor, but expecting him to carve a niche on what is a stacked position in Boston anytime soon is a tall order.

27.  Matt Benning, D, Dubuque Fighting Saints (USHL)

Upside: The nephew of B’s GM Jim Benning has NHL bloodlines (both father Brian and Jim played in the big league) is a good skater and powerful, intimidating hitter despite possessing just average height (6-foot) for the position.  Benning is a natural on defense, demonstrating an instinctive grasp of positional play with an ability to properly activate and make the right reads.

Downside: Lacks ideal size and projected offensive dimension at the higher levels to be a top prospect on paper.

Outlook: The B’s will get plenty of looks at him as he skates for Northeastern University this season. On some other clubs, Benning might be a top-15 prospect and even closer to top-10 given his strong defensive game (positioning, gap control, active stick) and surprising offense in one USHL campaign. The B’s can and will afford to be patient with him going forward.

28. Wiley Sherman (Greenwich, Conn.), D, Hotchkiss School (HS - Conn.)

Upside: Gargantuan (6-foot-6) blue liner is still growing and will probably top out at a Hal Gill-like 6-foot-7, 250 pounds when he matures. Skates well for such a big kid and will only get more fluid in his pivots and turns as he improves his edgework and increases lower-leg drive. Has an enormous reach and does a good job of forcing opponents to the outside. Can move the puck well in space, but struggles at times when the game closes up on him.

Downside: Does not appear to have much in the way of offensive upside nor does he play a physical style, though has a legitimate shot at establishing himself in the NHL one day because of his sheer size and smarts. Returning to prep hockey for a senior season before heading to Harvard in 2014.

Outlook: As raw as they come, the fifth-round selection in 2013 is a lot like Rob O’Gara in that he will take a great deal of time to develop and pay dividends. However, the payoff could be nice down the road if he fulfills his potential and the B’s are willing to be patient with him.

29.  Mitch Dempsey, RW, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)

Upside: The B’s think they may have replaced the power game and scoring they lost in dealing Cody Payne to Dallas as part of Jaromir Jagr trade. Dempsey can skate, hit, fight, and as a former OHL first-round pick, has a modicum of offensive talent, too.  Like Payne a year ago, this could be the time for Dempsey to break out for the Greyhounds with a bigger role and increased production.

Downside: Dempsey has simply been unable to stay healthy in two OHL seasons, so this is an important year for his development. He needs to get off the IR and onto the ice to produce and contribute. Intensity levels have wavered in the past, so the onus is on the 210th overall selection to bring his best effort to the rink every night.

Outlook: Don Sweeney’s nephew (his mother his Sweeney’s sister) brings the kind of physical attributes the Bruins covet in terms of his size (6-foot-3), snarl and promise as a capable third-liner one day. He’s a long-term project who has a lot to prove, but was thrilled to get drafted when he thought it wasn’t in the cards. The pick raised eyebrows, so it will be interesting to see what a motivated Dempsey can do in the Soo this season.

30. Maxim Chudinov, D, St. Petersburg SKA (KHL)

Upside: Fast, elusive skater with fine puck-moving ability and an agitating presence that compensates for his lack of natural size.  Low center of gravity and hits like a truck/relishes contact.

Downside: Can be undisciplined; takes himself out of position to throw big checks and is mercurial in terms of his effort levels. Like Yury Alexandrov, seems more comfortable and content to remain in his native Russia and skate in the KHL rather than try his hand in the NHL.

Outlook: 23-year-old should be ranked higher on talent (potential top-4 in the NHL), but his position reflects the pessimism towards his chances of signing with the Bruins anytime soon. Of course, if Soderberg’s status can change, anything is possible. For now, consider Chudinov still a Boston prospect, but long shot. The B’s signing Torey Krug and drafting Matt Grzelcyk (Charlestown, Mass.) in 2012 speaks volumes as to where they think Chudinov’s playing interests lie.

31.  Anton Blidh, LW, Frolunda Indians (SWE- Jr.)

Upside: Scrappy, energetic little bowling ball of a forward crashes the net and plays am edgy, North American-style game. Fierce competitor who never stops moving his feet and launches himself into the play as if shot from a cannon.

Downside: Limited skill set and hockey sense means that Blidh does not have much of a future as anything more than a grinder at the NHL level.

Outlook: The sixth-round pick in 2013 came out of the same Swedish team and system that produced former Boston fan fave and amateur scout P.J. Axelsson and could develop into a diamond-in-the-rough find much like Axelsson did as a late-rounder in 1995. Scouts all say the same thing about Blidh: He’s clearly a Bruins-type of player in terms of his energy and physicality, but he’ll have to will himself to the NHL because his talent won’t carry him.

32. Colton Hargrove, RW, Western Michigan University (CCHA)

Upside: Texas-born-and-bred power forward plays with real aggression and may have some untapped upside for the long haul. Decent hands in close; jumps on loose pucks and has a hard shot that he can get off quickly. Does the dirty work and pays a physical price to help his team win. May have to fight his way into the picture as an enforcer when he turns pro.

Downside: This below average skater needs to get considerably quicker, but is improving his first few steps and moves fine in a straight line.

Outlook: NHL long shot, but the kind of player who carries value in the minors as a tough-as-nails forward who is tough to play against.

33. Rob Flick, C, Rockford/Providence (AHL)

Upside: Big (6-foot-2, 210 pounds), strong pivot was a fourth-rounder of the Blackhawks in 2010 and plays a physical, two-way game. Bulls his way to the net but doesn’t have much to show for it on the score sheet. 

Downside: Limited skill-wise and undisciplined. It is hard to see where he fits into an organization that is so stacked at the center position. 

Outlook: Flick will have a hard time getting playing time in Providence let alone Boston, but stranger things have happened. His best bet is to do the grinding, grunt work and make the most of any opportunities he gets.

34. Tyler Randell, RW, South Carolina (ECHL)/Providence (AHL)

Upside: Skilled enough to post multiple 20-goal seasons in the OHL, Randell showed interesting potential as a nasty, banging power forward who is a tough fighter with surprisingly soft hands. Randell once scored four goals in a 2012 OHL playoff game, so he can find the back of the net, but has yet to translate any real production in the pro ranks.

Downside: Lacks the skating and quickness to be much more than a lower-end minor leaguer. His work ethic has not impressed his coaches enough to earn longer stays in the AHL to date.

Outlook: Unless the B’s are looking for pure muscle and toughness, there doesn’t appear to be much of a future for Randell in Boston. He can rehabilitate his stock by earning a full-time job in Providence this season, but with Bobby Robins handling the bulk of the enforcer duties there, it’s tough to justify a roster spot without the requisite intensity and dedication expected.

35.  Adam Morrison, G, South Carolina/Utah (ECHL)

Upside: With ideal size at 6-foot-3 and a great attitude, everyone would like to see this free agent pickup and former third-round pick by the Flyers in 2009 succeed in Boston. When on his game, plays a polished, fundamentally sound butterfly style with good positioning on his angles, giving opponents very little to shoot at.

Downside: Morrison is an enigma: the British Columbia native showed immense physical tools, which got him drafted 61st overall, but then regressed in his development, only emerging as a WHL star after the Flyers opted not to sign him. He will go through periods where he alternates between looking like a brick wall and being unable to stop a muskmelon. 

Outlook: Like former B’s prospect Mike Hutchinson (since signed with Winnipeg), Morrison’s biggest issue is a lack of consistency, and he has yet to establish himself as a capable starter even at the ECHL level. Until he can do that, there is little use of discussing a viable NHL future, at least not in Boston, given the team’s depth chart at present.

36. Ben Sexton, C, Clarkson University (ECAC)

Upside: A fine skater who is a smart and versatile two-way center, Sexton has been a point-per-game player in the NCAA when he’s been in the lineup for the Golden Knights.

Downside: Has not been able to stay healthy for a prolonged period of time since breaking into the college ranks. His Nepean Raiders (OPJHL) coach, former NHL defenseman and Bruin Garry Galley, told New England Hockey Journal several years ago that injuries would be an obstacle for Sexton to overcome, and thus far, he’s been unable to do so.

Outlook: Will need a tremendous senior season at Clarkson to earn a contract. Solid two-way center in junior and the NCAA, but may simply not bring enough upside, durability to go into the system on an NHL deal for Boston.

Not ranked due to Age (25 and Older):

Chad Jonson, G

Nick Johnson, RW

Kevan Miller, D

Mike Moore, D

Bobby Robins, LW

Twitter: @kluedeke29