Civian: Four Bruins prospects who might actually make the NHL

Sara Civian
June 29, 2018 - 12:46 pm

Brad Kempel/USA Today Sports

Before we talk about Bruins development camp, please indulge me in a tale of two prospects:

Prospect One is past drafting age, but the NHL team that comes knocking at the end of his NCAA career won’t regret it. The rising senior has bounced around a few camps over the years.

His problem is a microcosm of the problem with these development camps: He’s good enough in the flashy aspects of the game -- speed, scoring, size -- but those aren’t his standout strengths. His faceoffs and reliability on defense are his sell. So unless he challenges a veteran player a la Sean Avery's Red Wings tryout, he probably won’t get the attention he deserves. 

Prospect Two has already been drafted (not a Bruin). He’s a friendly guy who coaches and teammates like, everything’s on track with his contract, so why isn’t he going to development camp?

“I’m just not.”

Here's the point: These camps are mostly an opportunity for prospects to develop or progress dialogue with a team’s development staff. The important things happen almost exclusively behind the scenes.

What do shmucks like me and you get out of it? A chance to pick the brain of Bruins’ director of player development Jamie Langenbrunner.

I figured I’d pick my top four development camp standouts, ask them to scout themselves, and find out what Langenbrunner thinks.

Urho Vaakanainen

The Bruins’ prized 2017 first-round pick signed a three-year, entry level contract earlier this month to get the left-side defenseman to North America. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound 19-year-old has spent the last two seasons in Finland’s top pro league, where he played among mostly older athletes.

That’ll help move his development along, but the Bruins are in no rush to get him on the NHL roster. The thought process within the organization seems to be “if he’s ready right out of camp that’s great, if he’s not we won’t force it.”

Projection: Top-four

What Langenbrunner likes: “His steadiness. He’s smooth with the puck, his transition in his skating is smooth. His ability to get up ice rather easily should transition well over here. He played a bit of a safer game on the big ice there, but, especially in the World Junior, he showed the ability to really be active when encouraged to do so. He’s played a safe game to survive, playing with men since he was 17...but he’s going to be encouraged to be active (here). I think that confidence will play to him.”

What needs work: “It’s just going to be the adjustment to North America. I think we’ve talked about it and it’s pretty well documented how good of a skater he is. He’s a smart hockey player that knows how to defend. Confidence, confidence in how to finish plays, confidence on when to jump into plays. All those things, we’ll see how quickly he adapts to that. But he’s playing 23 minutes-ish a game over in the Finnish Elite League as a young kid. That’s an impressive stat on a good team. We’ll see how he blends in. There’s going to be opportunities for him to push and we look forward to seeing where he ends up.”

Straight from Vaakanainen: “My goal is to get the spot in Boston, that’s pretty much my only goal…(this summer) I’m in Finland with a small group, just trying to get some upper body strength and (working on) my shot.”

Why you’ll like him: Soft-spoken Finn getting used to the United States. He went to his first-ever baseball game Wednesday night and said it was boring in the most polite way possible. He’s supposed to be a big part of the post-Zdeno Chara Bruins gameplan, so you’d better start believing in him regardless.

He also seems like a pretty good sport.

Cliche-est cliches: Puck-moving, smooth-skating, defense-first defenseman.

Karson Kuhlman

With so many quality Hockey East and ECAC teams in New England, you can’t blame the Bruins for doing majority of their NCAA recruiting from the backyard. They pulled a move more typical of the Penguins in signing undrafted free agent Karson Kuhlman right out of Minnesota-Duluth.

It’s going to work out in their favor.

Kuhlman is a clutch hard worker, with a resume of game-savers and a goal and an assist against the best collegiate goaltender in the Bulldogs’ NCAA Championship win. More than that, he seems to have a generational personality.

Seriously.

“Good work ethic” is one of the lamest prospect cliches out there, but someone who has been on Minnesota-Duluth’s staff for more than three decades told me Kuhlman “easily” cracks his all-time Top 5 classiest athletes list. Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin was just as brief: "If I had 25 of him, my job would be easy."

Projection: Will play at least one NHL game this season, will consistently improve

Langenbrunner likes: “He’s a kid that I’ve personally been tracking for a while. He’s from my area (in Minnesota), I’ve known him for a long time. One: his attention to detail. He’s a kid that plays a pro-style game in the way he positions himself, uses his body, gets pucks out on walls. He’s a winner. He’s been on a national championship team, captain at Minnesota-Duluth, was in the finals the year before, had great playoffs. Came into Providence at the end of the year and was a good player there. He chipped in right away, put up some points and looked like a pro as a guy stepping in. He’s a good guy that helps your team. Character kid. He’s going to push guys to be better.”

Areas of improvement: Kuhlman could stand to score more, but the senior captain had been producing more consistently as last season went on. His skillset transitioned fine in the small sample of two AHL games he played last season.

Straight from Kuhlman: “I take pride in my 200-foot game. Always have. I like to make sure my defensive zone is covered then chip in offensively. I think puck protection is big in the offensive zone, I like working along the walls and making plays for guys -- then chipping in goals whenever I can. Just working hard is the main thing in my game.”

Why you’ll like him: You so much whisper the words Karson Kuhlman and some of the most respected people in the hockey world appear in front of you to praise him. No nonsense.

Cliche-est cliches: Character guy, does the little things right, first one on last one off.

Jakub Lauko

I’ve been sold on Lauko from the moment he called himself “one of the biggest steals in the draft” when the Bruins took him in the third round last Sunday. The Czech center/left-wing was heralded as one of the best skaters in his draft class. He’s been living up to that as much as he can at a development camp.

It’s simple with this one. He’s fast, he’s undersized, he’s promising if he develops defensively.

Projection: Actually one of the biggest steals of the 2018 draft. Just give him a few years.

Langenbrunner likes: “I saw Lauko in one tournament maybe.”

A lot of us could stand to be this honest with our prospect talk.

Straight from Lauko: At 6-feet, 179 pounds, he needs to get bigger, and he knows it. “I need to be stronger on the ice, that’ll be my big goal for the summer,” he said.

What does he think his strengths are?

“Skating for sure, from a young age I was a fast player. I always loved to breakaway. That’s my biggest strength. Last year I was looking at Johnny Gaudreau a lot -- small guy but really really good player.”

Why you’ll like him: He is hilarious. At the draft he misunderstood a reporter’s question about what his parents do and said “I don’t know, maybe they will drink tonight.” In one of his first development camp scrums he was asked about Twitter, laughed for maybe 30 full seconds, and said “it’s bad but it’s fun.” Yesterday he slipped on what I can only imagine was a puddle of sweat and yelled “I’m okay!”

Cliche-est cliche: The kid has wheels.

Jack Studnicka

The 2017 second-round pick is just as confident as Lauko.

"I'm going in with the mentality that I want to make the big club,” he said at the beginning of camp.

It’s not that outlandish a declaration for the 6-foot-1, 171 pound center -- even if he’s only 19 years old. Studnicka had 22 goals and 72 points in 66 games with the Oshawa Generals last year, and finished it off with a seamless point-per-game transition to the AHL (one goal, four assists).

Projection: He’ll be in the NHL by the end of this season or the beginning of next season.

Langenbrunner likes: “Leader, played with guys up and down the lineup, kept on plugging. Came into Providence and put up a point a game there. If he wouldn’t have gotten banged up there, he would have played more games down there. His year was strong, real strong. He looks to be even a little bit stronger physically from the end of the year in Providence until now. He’s putting in the work and he wants to be a player. He’s not the most vocal guy in the world. His attitude and the way he plays, he’s a leading scorer, he’s a playmaker, but I saw him on two occasions go and get in a fight protecting a teammate. He has it in him. It’s just a natural thing for him. It’s the reason he was named a captain as a young 18-year-old. He leads by example every day.

Does Langenbrunner think he’ll make the big club? “I think that’s a lofty goal for him as a 19-year-old, not a lot of 19-year-olds play in the National Hockey League. It’s something – I wouldn’t put it past him, he’s a determined kid. I think if you would have asked him last September, his goal was to make the team also. He wants to do that, that’s great. We’re not going to take that away from him. If he’s able to push and take that job, then great. I think (Don Sweeney’s) spoken about that quite regularly. Whoever’s ready is going to get the job.”

Straight from Studnicka: “You hear it a lot with the young guys, but I want to start winning my one-on-one battles, I want to be relied on in faceoffs, and I think a big part of it is going to come in the gym (getting stronger) this summer.”

Why you’ll like him: Quietly confident leader.

Cliche-est cliches: High compete level, coachable, two-way player.

 

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