The defensive area of Urho Vaakanainen’s game long has been solid, but the hope was that the offensive dimension of his game would round out in the AHL.
And it appears that’s exactly what was happening.
In Year 2, the 2017 first-round pick of the Boston Bruins had a bit more “normal” of a season. Whereas his 2018-19 season was marred by a concussion, then interrupted by a trip to play in World Juniors, he saw far more routine action in the current campaign. The 21-year-old played in five games with the parent club this season, but 54 with Providence.
Vaakanainen put together five goals and nine assists, and head coach Jay Leach saw a lot of growth in the attacking end.
“(He’s) always a competitor, but started to really show signs of some offense,” Leach said Monday on a conference call. “I think he had five (goals) this year, but all of them on the rush, and he?s starting to get a little more comfortable there. …
“This year I found him to be significantly more confident on the blue line in the offensive zone,” Leach also noted. “Really activating from the blue line. He?s not back there pounding pucks per say, but he?d be really active on retrievals, any sort of rebounds, the corner he?s able to get down there and then make a play out of that. And then I think he also has the ability to walk the blue line, so he?s a little bit mobile up top, allowing him to get pucks to the net. That was one area in which I saw some offensive improvement.
“The other would be joining the rush and really getting his shot off this year in the rush. He?s actually got a really effective wrist shot, and he was able to beat goalies multiple times coming down on his strong side, really for the most part I think it was over the glove. But certainly definitely showing signs of some offense to his game, and it comes from his feet, it?s always comes from his feet just from how well he skates. But he wants the puck a little bit more now.”
Vaakanainen is widely regarded as the Bruins’ top defensive prospect, and projects to be a useful NHL defenseman. He’s looked fine in early exposure to the top flight, but he’s still young, and patience will remain important.
“I think he just turned 21, and it takes a while for these guys to really come into their own,” Leach said. “He?s always going to have that defensive aspect to his game, he?s always going to be competitive, but I think the offensive stuff is starting to come a bit more naturally to him, and that?s just fine with us obviously, and hopefully it will continue.”
While the on-ice contributions are promising in heir own right, Leach also pointed out that Vaakanainen has grown increasingly less reserved off the ice.
“He certainly showed a big leap from Year 1 to Year 2 just in his maturity and his comfortability of being in the room and really having a bit of a voice, and also just a real presence in there,” Leach said. “He?s a Finn, and a lot of Finns they tend to be a little quiet to start, but he really opened up this years and you can tell he really embraced the group, and I think they reciprocated and he had a lot of fun.”
The Bruins have no shortage of left-shot options at the blue line, both in the NHL ranks and below, though Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk all are free agents this offseason. Nonetheless, the Bruins really aren’t in a position where they need to fast track Vaakanainen to the NHL, which is good news for both the team and player.