None of the Boston Bruins are making sweeping judgments right now, and that includes the assessment of Urho Vaakanainen.
The 2017 first-round pick is getting some real on-the-job training, having been thrown on the top pairing with Charlie McAvoy thanks to a number of injuries on the blue line.
Make no mistake, he had some good moments against the New York Islanders on Thursday in what ultimately was a 7-2 loss. But things did fall apart in the third period for the 22-year-old and the Bruins alike, with Vaakanainen’s role on Jordan Eberle’s goal the subject of most of his criticism.
Just past the midway point of the third with the Bruins down 3-2, a bad pinch resulted in an Islanders 2-on-1. Vaakanainen was splitting Eberle and Mathew Barzal, with McAvoy trying to chase down the latter. Vaakanainen ultimately committed to Barzal, though, and a pass was feathered to a wide-open Eberle.
It wasn’t the defense that Cassidy was most frustrated with.
“Part of that is a bad pinch, right? Let’s go to the root of the problem,” Cassidy said Friday over Zoom, “We’re pinching on a play — I know we’re down in the third and trying to keep pucks alive so some of that is going to happen if you’re going to try to get back in the game — so I thought that wasn’t a great decision either which the domino effect leads to an odd-man rush because the high forward is not in a position to support the pinch.
“So I think there’s a little bit more that goes into it. Obviously, the end result is the goal and the D defending the 2-on-1, but I think it goes back to what happened before that, to not put ourselves in those positions. That happened a few times.”
This obviously is a tough situation for Vaakanainen. He’s only been in North America for a few years, and defensemen typically take longer to develop than forwards.
Couple that with the fact that he’s receiving some pretty challenging matchups as a top-pairing defenseman, it’s not necessarily the best combination.
Regardless, the Bruins aren’t even close to writing off the Finn.
“He is a guy that we feel down the road will be a good shutdown guy,” Cassidy said. “Because of injuries in the back end he’s getting pushed up to the top of the lineup a little sooner than everyone would like, but you’ve got to take the good and that is you’re going to get a read on him now. He has played a couple years pro, so it’s good for him to realize ‘Hey, this is what I’m going to be up against every night, I better make sure I prepare myself accordingly as best I can.’
“So that’s how we look at it with him. We’re not down on Vaak. Just work with him, understand what he’s going to see every night and experience will be the best teacher for him. Unfortunately, last night he got schooled a little bit.”
Cassidy did indicate that the Bruins might make a change on the back end Friday against the Rangers, but that it would be a gametime decision.
As he continued talking about Vaakanainen on Friday, Cassidy was coaxed into admitting that he wouldn’t be the one getting pulled out. Like they’ve done with Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril, the Bruins are playing the long game with Vaakanainen.
“He’s going in, he’s going back in (against the Rangers),”: Cassidy indicated. “He did some good things offensively (against the Islanders). A couple shots from the slot, moving the puck a little better. Listen, we did it with Lauzon, we did it with Zboril — Zboril got hurt and obviously so did Lauzon — otherwise, they never came out. We just felt they would get every opportunity as long as they were working, trying to get better, competing every night. If they had an off night, how do they bounce back, how do they handle it mentally, how are they practicing and they passed all those tests.
“Listen, they weren’t dominant but they were doing their job, and that’s the ask right now. Do your job to the best of your ability, and hopefully, the goaltenders will pick you up or scoring will pick you up right now because we’re down a bit, and that hasn’t changed. And Vaak will get right back out there and hopefully has a strong game.”