How Jack Ahcan Rose From Undrafted NCAA Free Agent To Bruins Prospect

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April 28, 2020

Like any good hockey executive, Don Sweeney will go to great lengths to land a guy he wants.

In the courtship of Jack Ahcan, it meant traveling through Central Minnesota in the middle of a blizzard. That’s how hellbent he was on signing the Boston Bruins’ newest defensive prospect.

“I know Donny Sweeney came to one of the home games at St. Cloud,” Ahcan recalled in a conversation with NESN.com earlier this month. “It was a big blizzard snowstorm and he didn’t even tell my agent (he was coming). He just popped in and popped out and didn’t really say anything, then afterwards he told my agent, ‘Hey, I watched him.'”

In 2017, Ahcan went undrafted (“Kind of a late bloomer, being an undersized guy it wasn’t really a big stab in the chest when I didn’t get drafted in 2017,” he said). But in the ensuing years playing at St. Cloud State University, Ahcan continued to provide offensive contributions from the blue line while rounding out his defensive game.

The end result was the 5-foot-8, 185-pound 22-year-old becoming one of the most highly sought after college free agents last month. And due to a myriad of reasons, he chose the Bruins.

“One of the bigger things was how hard they were on me the whole year. They had guys at every game watching me,” Ahcan said. “They don’t really have to do that and put their effort into me. …

“Their style of play is fun to watch, and kind of fits my game. Hard-nosed defense and I like to play with the puck on offense and make plays and stuff like that. So I think it was just a combination of all those things, I was just so excited to be able to get the job done with them.”

Ahcan grew up a two-sport athlete, playing baseball and hockey in Minnesota until choosing hockey full time following his junior year of high school.

He played a year of juniors with the USHL’s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, scoring 14 goals with 30 assists in 56 games before his four seasons at St. Cloud. By the time his college career came to an end, he had amassed 21 goals and 82 assists in 144 games.

During his freshman year of college, Ahcan played in World Juniors for Team USA, which went undefeated en route to winning the title. Though he wasn’t draft-eligible the summer before that tournament, he ultimately ended up being the lone player not to get drafted from that team, which included Clayton Keller, Kieffer Bellows, Colin White and Luke Kunin, among others. The blue line also featured Charlie McAvoy and Adam Fox.

He models his game after the NHL’s undersized defenseman, specifically naming Torey Krug. Ahcan’s hockey IQ is one of his on-ice biggest assets, which comes in handy for a defenseman who admits he likes skating forward as much as possible. He has a demonstrated ability to recover well and use his positional sense to soundly defend in the neutral and defensive zones when the puck is coming the other way.

A gifted puck mover, he does prefer to pass first and is comfortable quarterbacking a power play.

And his on-ice persona makes him tough to miss.

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“He’s fiery, he’s a competitor,” said Ahcan’s head coach at St. Cloud, Brett Larson, who actually was an assistant coach against Ahcan at Minnesota-Duluth the first two years the defenseman was in college before taking over the Huskies.

“I think he rounded out his game the last couple years,” Larson said. “He really became a better defender, he got better at handling the emotional highs and lows of a game, and I think his game rounded out and matured. The part that was always big time in college hockey is he’s a gamer. He’s a guy that’s going to make a play at a big moment and he’s the guy that you want on the ice when you’re trying to get things done because he has that ability to come through in pressure situations.”

And despite his stature, Ahcan’s not unwilling to throw his weight around.

“In the D-zone, (I’m) trying not to lose those little battles, whether it’s in front of the net or in the corner,” he said. “If it’s a big guy in the corner maybe back up and play him a bit more defensively, or even try to blow him up.

“It’s the best of both worlds with me, I’ve never really backed down from a battle, and I think I’ve done that ever since I was a little kid. So that’s a staple in my game.”

But as Ahcan’s hockey skills have grown and developed over the years, one thing he’s always had with him is a chip on his shoulder.

He has a penchant for trying to make people regret doubting him. And though he was practical about the likelihood, or lack thereof, of getting drafted in 2017, that didn’t stop him from wanting to make teams kick themselves for not choosing him.

“One of the biggest that I thought of (when I didn’t get drafted) and my parents and agent went over was, ‘Hey, now we get to pick where we want to go when you do start turning some heads.'” Ahcan said. “And that was the biggest thing for me, I always had that in the back of my mind where these teams that didn’t draft me, they’re going to be wanting me when I come out as a free agent, and that was the case in the end.

“That was the emotion we took going forward, they’re going to regret not taking me in that draft. But even better I get to choose what team I want to go to, and I believe I took a really good chance and my senior year had a good year and had the opportunity to pick the Bruins.”

Noted Larson: “He thrives off those moments when — you go through the draft, you don’t get taken, and I think for him, a kid like that, that’s just more motivation. That’s more motivation to keep pushing, keep pushing to get better and work to prove people wrong. He’s proven at every level that he can be a go-to player, and I know now he wants to go and do that (in Boston).”

Given the circumstance he’s walking into, Ahcan not shying away from competition is going to be important, seeing as the Bruins are logjammed at left defense.

At the NHL level, the Bruins are carrying Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, Matt Grzelcyk, Jeremy Lauzon and John Moore, though Chara and Krug are unrestricted free agents this offseason, while Grzelcyk is an RFA. The Bruins also have southpaws in Urho Vaakanainen and Jakub Zboril (an RFA this summer) in Providence, and Boston last month also signed college free-agent Nick Wolff out of UMD. Wolff is, you guessed it, a left-shot defenseman.

In other words, there’s no path to Boston for a lefty defenseman right now outside of thoroughly outplaying their teammates.

“I think it’s great,” Ahcan said of the competition. “It’s going to make myself better as well as the organization. One thing that the Bruins said is you’re not going to (be) given anything, you’re going to have to earn your opportunity. I think ever since I was a little kid it’s been you’ve got to beat somebody else, and that’s what I’m going to try to do. And like I said, just because I signed with them they’re not just going to give me an opportunity. I’m going to have to go into camp and work hard and show them what I got and hopefully earn a spot. And if not, (I’m) just going to have to work hard — and that’s what I’ve done all my life.”

The Bruins not exhausting a draft pick on Ahcan won’t preclude him from getting as fair a shake as anyone else, especially in an organization that has hit on undrafted NCAA players before. On the current roster alone, Krug, Kevan Miller and Karson Kuhlman all signed with the Bruins out of college after going undrafted.

In fact, Kuhlman was one of the Bruins’ salesmen as Ahcan was weighing his options. Ahcan also talked to McAvoy, his Team USA teammate, about the organization, as well as Tuukka Rask, with whom he shares an agency.

It’s unclear how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact timelines for players like Ahcan and Wolff to report to Boston. But when the times comes, it won’t be Ahcan’s first trip to the region.

St. Cloud’s hockey team took a trip in the Fall of 2018 to play against Boston College and Northeastern University. Because of his affinity for baseball, Ahcan was jazzed about the opportunity to tour Fenway Park, which happened to coincide with the Red Sox hosting the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Ahcan loved it.

“I’ve been a huge baseball fanatic, ever since I was a little kid it was baseball and hockey,” he said. “Just all the history at that field and the movies that are there and all the history that the Red Sox have had there being a championship team, it was just overwhelming for me. I was taking pictures, I was telling people how much i wanted to be there, how when I was a little kid I was always to play on a Major League Baseball Field and stuff like that. So I was a little kid in a candy store when we got out there. It was just an amazing experience and I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to do that.”

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Thumbnail photo via St. Cloud State University Athletics
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