Don Sweeney’s update on Vaakanainen, other Bruins WJC competitors

Matt Kalman
January 09, 2019 - 4:35 pm

The 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia was a chance for some of the Bruins’ prospects to show how they hold up against their peers

Three players left with medals and all six competitors had the type of performances that left an impression on Boston general manager Don Sweeney.

Defenseman Urho Vaakanainen, who played two games for the Bruins before suffering a concussion Oct. 23, returned to full health just in time for the tournament and earned a gold medal. Sweeney said it turned out to be the perfect situation for the 2017 first-round pick (18th overall) to return against similarly-aged players rather than trying to play in the AHL or NHL while coming back from his head injury.

The 20-year-old (as of Jan. 1) Vaakanainen had four assists and was plus-5 in seven games.

“It was a unique situation for Urho, he hadn’t played in well over two months. He got in one exhibition game and then he went into a tournament where the stakes are really high. He got better as the tournament went along, got more and more comfortable,” Sweeney told WEEI.com in a brief chat at Warrior Ice Arena on Wednesday. “The feedback was as advertised. He ended up playing a lot of minutes, which was really helpful.”

Vaakanainen will join the Providence Bruins starting this weekend. He had two assists in six games with them earlier this season, and Sweeney said part of the player’s development will be searching for a little more of an offensive bent.

“I think offensively we’d still like to see him maybe be willing to take some chances. As funny as that sounds, we’re trying to build strong habits into other young players, I think there’s an untapped potential. We don’t know yet. We just see his ability to skate and recover, get up ice, take away ice. And there could be shot improvement, of course,” the GM said. “He hasn’t played a lot of power play, he’s been in that elite league over in Finland. You know that lends to the fact the guy’s going to play safe and simple. Now we want to see him maybe develop a little swagger. You compare him to other players that probably that’s [the offensive game] a little more ready-made, but we’re going to see whether or not we can grow it. But he played very well.”

Kyle Keyser, who signed with the Bruins as an undrafted free agent last year, won a silver medal with Team USA. He had a .872 save percentage and 2.95 goals-against average in two games ­– a 2-1 win vs. Slovakia and a 5-4 overtime loss to Sweden, which featured a comeback from 4-0 down. Keyser also had an illness and the U.S. rode Cayden Primeau into the gold medal game.

“I saw Kyle play both his games a matter of fact. The first game he gave up a five-hole goal that … all goalies would say there’s one or two they want back. It wasn’t a bad goal by any means. He played well in a tight game,” Sweeney said. “The next night, they’re down, an incredible comeback and he gets beat by a 3-on-3 backdoor play in overtime. He played well. There’s another player that’s put himself on everybody’s radar, ours included a couple years ago. He’s one of the top goaltenders in the OHL, was certainly off the grid a little bit in his first Team USA and went in and played.”

Pavel Shen, the Bruins’ seventh-round pick (212th overall) in 2018, won bronze. He had three goals and one assist in seven games.

“Now we’ve seen him come over in a couple different environments. Over here – he doesn’t really play a lot over in the KHL [with Ufa Salavat Yulayev] – and he gets really, really big minutes in all situations. Plays two positions, both center and left wing. Plays both power play and penalty kill and a really smart hockey player,” Sweeney said.

The Bruins have high expectations for Jack Studnicka, who was in the mix competing for their third-line center job when training camp opened this past fall. He didn’t medal with Canada but had four points (one goal, three assists) in five games.

“He probably bounced around the lineup a little bit, ended up playing the wing a fair amount as well as center. Certainly was part of their power play. Had a productive tournament and a great experience for him to have made that tournament and made that team, which he in fact did, he didn’t back into it,” Sweeney said of the Bruins’ second-round pick (53rd overall) in 2017.

“So he should feel good about being amongst his peers in that regard and he’s coming off now being traded, so he’s got an adjustment there going to Niagara.”

The Niagara IceDogs are gunning for a championship, so they swung a trade for Studnicka with the Oshawa Generals. This will give Studnicka a chance for a long playoff run in his final season of major junior, and make him teammates with Bruins 2017 seventh-round pick (204th overall) Daniel Bukac.

Bukac played in five games for the Czech Republic and had one assist and a plus-1 rating while playing his usual stay-at-home role at the WJC.

“Pretty safe, simple, steady. That’s as advertised,” Sweeney said. “Penalty killing was solid. He’s coming off of a knee injury the year before where missed a lot of time, change in leagues [from the WHL to the OHL], so there’s some adjustment there. We’re anxious to see how he continues to go here through the end of the season and the playoffs.”

Finally, Jakub Lauko, the Bruins’ third-round pick (77th overall) in 2018, was Bukac’s teammate for the Czech Republic. Lauko, who has 26 points (12 goals, 14 assists) in 26 games for Rouyn-Noranda in the QMJHL this season, played more of an energy role playing for his country as a 18-year-old in an under-20 tournament.

“So if you asked him, he’d probably say he’s disappointed with his opportunity from an offensive standpoint, but he’s a young player, it’s a 20-year-old tournament. So the returning guys, they’re going to get the primary minutes unless you get the extremes of the [Jack] Hughes and [Kaapo] Kakko or some of the other guys,” Sweeney said.

“But an effective player because of his skating ability and his tenacious.”

Overall the decision for Lauko to play in the Q rather than go home and play in the men’s league again is working out. And like Studnicka and Bukac, Lauko is on a team gunning for a championship. The Huskies just traded for 2018 12th overall pick (by the New York Islanders) Noah Dobson.

“Yeah Rouyn’s a first-place team, they’re going for it, so that environment itself to me, you’re going to talk about a coach that’s won and wants details but he’s allowing the player to continue to flourish offensively,” Sweeney said.

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