BostonBruins.com - The Bruins of late have been bitten by an injury bug that more resembles an injury bear. After losing only 28 total man-games to injuries throughout the first 29 games of the season, the Bruins have now lost 18 total man- games in just the last four.
The unfortunate amount of injuries has opened up opportunities for players who started the season in Providence, and currently there are five players on the Bruins roster who started the year in the AHL.
Matt Fraser and Ryan Spooner were recalled on December 8, after Chris Kel- ly was placed on long term injured reserve for a broken right fibula and Shawn Thornton was told by the NHL that he would have a disciplinary hearing following a 3-2 victory against Pittsburgh on December 7.
The Bruins then lost Dougie Hamilton to a lower body injury on December 8 dur- ing the first game of the road trip versus the Maple Leafs.
Then on December 10, B’s foward Daniel Paille was sent back to Boston after what was later learned to be concussion-like symptoms. This happened on the same day that Loui Eriksson was officially placed on IR with a concussion, which opened up the door for Nick Johnson to be hastily recalled before the start of the game against the Flames.
Before Hamilton went down, injuries had already taken their toll on the blueline in November when Adam McQuaid and Dennis Seidenberg both suffered lower body injuries within 10 days of one another, and it was Los Angeles native Kevan Miller who was called up from Providence to provide stabilization for the defensive core.
He performed the job handily for three games and was sent back down, only to be called back up a week later on December 2 when Johnny Boychuk injured his back 1:45 into the game against the Montreal Canadiens. Miller has stayed put on the big club since then, playing in five consecutive games and the entire road trip through Canada. His first NHL goal against Toronto gave the Bruins a 3-1 cushion and was pivotal to the team’s eventual 3-2 victory.
“Sometimes teams get a bit of bad luck with some injuries and stuff and that’s hap- pened here so I guess it’s good that they’ve had some guys come up and fill things in,” said center Ryan Spooner.
The replacements have done more than just plug the holes left by injuries. During the four-game road trip, Miller, Spooner, Fraser, and Johnson all saw extended play- ing time for the first time in their Bruins careers. They handled the opportunity with poise, helping the Bruins post a 3-1 record on the road swing.
The similarities between the system in Providence and the system that is used by Claude Julien in Boston is something that certainly makes recalled players feel more confident stepping into the NHL spotlight.
“Developing young players is the lifeline of every successful organization and we are fortunate to have two great coaches, Bruce Cassidy and Kevin Dean, who prepare our young players to be able to step into our NHL lineup when their time comes,” said assistant GM Don Sweeney.
“Claude’s system has proven to be successful and in Providence they try and mirror that system. We believe it creates continuity as well as reinforces habits that allow players to feel comfortable when they are recalled so they can play to their own individual strengths.”
The most recent call-up for the Bruins is Craig Cunningham. Cunningham has played 178 total games for Providence, and reinforces that knowing the basics of the system helps in transitioning to the big show.
“Providence and Boston are pretty close to each other and they have guys in and out. Last year during the lockout, assistant coaches were coming down and involv- ing themselves with us and it helps make you feel a little bit more comfortable when you get up top,” he said.
“There’s obviously a couple of things that are a little bit different but for the most part, they try to make it that way so when guys get called up it’s a lot easier to transi- tion,” said Spooner. “So it’s been really helpful.”
Additionally, the call-ups also have a wealth of experience and veteran leadership in the Bruins locker room to learn from and help them adjust to the professional game, on and off the ice.
“I think if you look around the room, there’s a lot of guys with long, great careers so far and guys that I’ve really looked up to since I was a young kid,” said Cunningham.
“I watched Iginla on TV since I think I was 10 or 11 years old so to have those guys in our locker room and be around them has been a great experience.”
“All the guys are pretty nice. They all come up to you, they say, ‘Hey, how’s your season going?’ They say, ‘If you need any help with anything just let me know.’ So it’s good to have that,” said Spooner.
“I think they know that they were in that position once too where coming up, it’s a little nerve-wracking at times. So obviously to have guys like that and guys that are awesome players to kind of look up to and kind of just sit back and watch just learn some stuff from them, so that’s good.”
The life of a call-up is one that is rarely full of certainty; be it about playing time or their spot on a line or even how long they will be with the big club. So does that make for more pressure to perform during the times that you do get to step on the ice?
“I think any time you’re able to get an opportunity, you want to play well. I think there’s pressure either way whether there’s an injury or you’re just recalled,” said Cunningham. “In the end, everybody wants to play in the NHL and this is the first step.”
“Just seize the moment. Just try to take it game by game, just try to learn on some stuff,” said Spooner in response to what the mentality is like for a player who has been called up.
“Being up here, obviously you’re going to make some mistakes here and there so just trying to learn from those and trying to make myself a more complete player.”
For management, the decisions in deciding who to call up and who to send back to Providence are decisions that require patience, good communication, and an eye for diagnosing needs within the team.
“Peter and Claude will assess their team’s current situation and reach out to the necessary parties that can speak to which players in Providence are playing well and who step into the role being discussed,” said Sweeney.
“Consistent dialogue is important to understanding what each player can provide from a depth standpoint.”
In a situation like the Bruins have been facing recently, where far more than the usual amount of call-ups has been necessary, what aspects of the decision become more challenging?
“The challenge is that honestly, more than one player is usually playing well, and while both players may deserve to be recalled, there is only room for one player,” said Sweeney.
“’Behind the B’ certainly showed us having to relay disappointing news to those players who are being assigned to Providence and those discussions can be very difficult on both the player and management.”
Despite the ups and downs of managing players who bounce between the AHL and NHL, Sweeney considers it a necessary and rewarding part of his job to be able to deliver the good news to young players who are being given an opportunity to prove what they can do at the highest level.
“One of the most rewarding aspects of the job of being in management is making the call to a player in Providence to tell them to pack their gear as they are on their way to the ‘show,’” he said.
“I often joke that the players in Providence always answer their phones when they see my number but their phones seem to go to voice mail after they have been recalled to Boston.”
For the Bruins, this ultra-magnified attention to the development of its young talent has paid off dividends for when the experienced players have succumbed to injuries and been rendered unable to play. It’s the kind of work that enables the Bruins to contend every night no matter who is in the lineup.
“Claude and his staff has done a tremendous job of integrating these young players into their lineup so they may succeed as individuals but more importantly, contribute to the Bruins’ winning,” said Sweeny.
“Our scouts also work hard to provide us with great players and therefore everyone in the Bruins organization should feel pride when a young player contributes to a win in Boston.”
---Ethan Hartley, BostonBruins.com