Not only is the Prospects Challenge a good way to ease back into hockey season, but it’s an opportunity to get a look at some youngsters, plenty of whom might get a shot in the NHL this season.
The Boston Bruins kick off the 2019 Prospects Challenge Friday afternoon in Buffalo against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The B’s roster is loaded with talented young players who have varying levels of pro experience. And for reference, of the 28 players who were on Boston’s 2018 squad, 10 of them played at least one game in the NHL last season — among them Karson Kuhlman and Connor Clifton, who saw action in the Stanley Cup Final.
In essence, this tournament isn’t just a bunch of no-namers skating about.
So with the puck dropping in mere hours, here are a few Bruins to keep an eye on.
This is a big year for Bjork. Health problems have marred his pro career so far, but he’s good to go for the upcoming season and likely will have a shot to claim the second-line winger role. The pure skill is there, as he’s proven it at the NCAA and AHL level, even in the NHL at times. But those instances have been too few and far between, and that inconsistency is what’s kept him from being an NHL mainstay. Playing in Buffalo over the weekend should give him an opportunity to hit the ground running for when training camp opens.
Arguably the Bruins’ top prospect, Studnicka is another guy who has a chance to carve out a full-time NHL role for himself this season. He’s a natural center and the organization has expressed the desire to keep it that way, so a Patrice Bergeron-David Krejci-Charlie Coyle-Sean Kuraly logjam up the middle might force him to the wing (unless, of course, Coyle becomes the second-line winger, opening a prime spot for Studnicka). He’s got a great scoring touch and projects to eventually be a top-six forward in the NHL, and this is the start of his chance to prove he’s up for the challenge.
The 2017 first-round pick played two games with the big club last season and would’ve gotten more time had he not suffered a concussion. Plenty are bullish about his NHL potential, and the two-way blueliner might become a staple in Boston should Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo or both hold out to start the season. At some point sooner or later, Vaakanainen will be an everyday NHLer, so get used to watching him.
He has all the makings to be a Boston fan favorite. The Harvard product is 6-foot-7 and from New England (Greenwich, Conn., but New England nevertheless). He’s physical, getting increasingly responsible defensively and is unafraid to play with edge, however, the 24-year-old has been something of a project down in Providence. He’ll never be a major scoring threat, but if he continues developing he could become a useful third pairing stay-at-home defenseman.
Kyle Keyser and Dan Vladar
One has to think we might be talking about these two competing to be Tuukka Rask’s backup this time next year. Vladar is in the final year of his entry-level contract and has been underwhelming in the AHL, but this season should provide him a chance to try and get on track and earn a two-way deal next offseason. Keyser, meanwhile, is the more exciting goaltending prospect of the two, though the 20-year-old has just one professional game to his name, so he remains a relative unknown. Both should get plenty of looks over the weekend and training camp, so it’ll be fascinating to see if either can separate themselves from the other and really grab the attention of the organization. Both will be playing in the minors this season (the Bruins also signed veteran netminder Max Lagace this offseason, so he also will add goaltending depth to the organization), but now is the time for them to begin making their mark.
Hannoun is attending on an invite basis, so there’s really not much here. HOWEVER, his name bears a striking resemblance to Danton Heinen, and we’ve never seen the two of them in the same room at the same time, so …
Here’s the Bruins’ schedule for the weekend (all times ET)
Friday, Sept. 6: Bruins-Penguins, 3:30 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 7: Bruins-Sabres, 7 p.m.
Monday, Sept. 9: Bruins-Devils, 9:30 a.m.