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First Year Pros Developing Their Roles in Providence

by Caryn Switaj / Boston Bruins - Every player has a role. When you're a Providence Bruin, who wants to one day become a Boston Bruin, you don't take that lightly.

You also realize that it doesn't happen overnight, whether you're a goalie, a defenseman, an energy guy, or a scorer.

For first year pros, the learning curve is steep. They enter the American Hockey League following junior or collegiate careers, and have to not only focus on improving their all-around game in all three zones, but also on how to become a Bruin.

Prospects like goalie Malcolm Subban and forwards Seth Griffith, Alexander Khokhlachev and Anthony Camara made the jump from the Ontario Hockey League. Forward Matt Lindblad and defenseman Chris Casto transitioned from college.

Having a team in Boston to emulate can help the process, especially when they're on a 10-game win streak.

"Yeah, it does help [motivate you]. We watch every game," said Camara, who joins his roommate Jared Knight in closely watching every Bruins game.

"It's a great team and they have great chemistry obviously. It's a good experience to watch every day, how they get better and how they do each day. You've got to know how to play to get to the next level."

All of the aforementioned first year pros have already been acclimated into the Bruins' way. They've attended summer development camps with the organization, and received visits from members of the Bruins brass since they were drafted, that have all reinforced that identity.

Two of them have had the opportunity to join the team this season, on their first NHL recalls.

For Matt Lindblad, his NHL debut came as a result of that recall, when he suited up in Boston's 5-1 win over Carolina on March 15. As Boston pushes towards the postseason, the big club wanted a better grasp on their depth, so Lindblad got the look.

Even one game in the big leagues can make a prospect more confident.

"It's refreshing just to go up there and get a game, and just to be around the guys and the staff up there, and coming back down here, I felt really good, and a lot of the guys knew how I was feeling," said Lindblad, who became the seventh Bruins' prospect to make his NHL debut this season, joining Kevan Miller, Craig Cunningham, Justin Florek, Niklas Svedberg, Zach Trotman and David Warsofsky.

The day following his debut, the center scored just 21 seconds into Providence's eventual 3-2 overtime win over the Hartford Wolf Pack on March 16.

"Just getting the call up, in my mind, you obviously have to be doing something right, to get the opportunity I did, and knowing that management's happy with how I'm playing, it makes me feel better about how I'm playing," said Lindblad, who not surprisingly woke up that morning with more assuredness.

Center Alexander Khokhlachev didn't get to make his NHL debut, but he received his first recall towards the end of the Olympic Break, with David Krejci over in Sochi competing in the Olympics. He didn't get the call for game action, but 'Koko' got to center Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla for a practice.

"For sure, I enjoyed that. It was very cool, and it's my dream to play in the NHL so every opportunity, doesn't matter if it's just practice, I enjoyed that," said Khohkhlachev, who was noticeably more excited once this experience was brought up.

"Everybody's good players there and everybody on the team is a big name - yeah for sure, I really enjoyed that day and had a good practice and it was just exciting."

Whether for practice, or a game, the callups seamlessly fit in, no matter their age.

"It's a credit to them. They're a very coachable group and they buy into what a Boston Bruin looks like, and what they need to be," said P-Bruins Head Coach Bruce Cassidy. "So we, again, try to do all of those things down here that they do up there in terms of being accountable away from the puck, and playing a 200-foot game and a lot of guys have gotten an opportunity."

"That's great for us down here. It's nice to see them get a look. They can't all stay, obviously - that's a Stanley Cup lineup they're going into there - but it's nice to see them get a sniff and be around those veteran guys and learn a little from them and have it rub off on them."

"As a guy down here that's getting older, I'm very proud of them, they're like my kids to me, so to see them go up, and the smiles on their faces, and their parents come and see them play, you know, it's nice for us as well down here as a coaching staff."

The 'Circle of Life'

It's not too often in the Bruins' system that a player gets called up to stay for the season. They often get a game or two for a look, or to help fill the void left by injuries.

But in the case of Kevan Miller, who started the year in Providence, he was eventually integrated as a mainstay in Boston following long-term injuries to Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid. His absence then opened the door for first year pro Chris Casto, out of Minnesota Duluth, to take on a larger role.

Casto has been playing alongside Providence Captain Mike Moore on the back end, and getting considerable time on the penalty kill. In the P-Bruins win over Hartford, the defenseman went down on a knee at the bottom of the circle to block a booming shot away from his goalie, Niklas Svedberg. He shook it off, and finished out the kill.

"It's a great example, because Chris was in and out of the lineup while Millsy was here, and we miss Millsy - glad [he's] doing well up there - he was a good warrior for us, but you know, the circle of life continues, and Chris Casto's game has grown," said Cassidy. "He's a plus player for us, he adds some offense, and he's in our lineup every night. He's learning, he's been consistent, he's paying the price out there and good for him."

"I think obviously games are a big factor in development, especially at a much higher level from college," said Casto, of the immediate transition that takes place. "You know, as your coaches start trusting you, they give you more time and get you into different situations and that's obviously huge for development."

"I've been molded I think, by the coaching staff a little bit - just being a lot more safe and making plays constantly I think is the biggest change. They've been helping me get into my game, not making the high risk plays and always the right one."

Becoming Responsible in All Three Zones

Up front, the forwards adjust to a safer game as well, being defensively responsible. Every first year pro will tell you he's working to improve his all-around game in all three zones.

"They play in certain situations, they play against the other teams' better players, so they're forced to defend, they've got a lot of pride, they don't want to get scored on, they don't want to let their teammates down," said Cassidy, of how that process plays out on a daily basis.

"And clearly video helps, to see where they are, where their stick position is, are they above the puck? are they below the puck? and you know, you put those things together. We certainly practice, we're trying to create good habits so again, those things help."

"And the odd reminder on the bench by when they're not doing it by the coach helps as well," he smiled.

For young forwards like center Alexander Khokhlachev and winger Seth Griffith, who have been playing on a line together, their defensive progress is always top of mind.

"The NHL's the best league in the world, so you need to be stronger, faster, smarter, play good defense," said Khokhlachev. "So I think everybody helps me here, coaches, if I have some mistakes, they tell me right away what I need to do better, so I have to play good defensively, and offensively too."

"These are very young kids," stressed Cassidy, on the young, speedy makeup of his team. "[Seth Griffith] has probably made the most progress in terms of his pace, and being able to keep up and play all weekend, because we play a lot of three in three's and now he's found his scoring touch."

Griffith tallied a power-play goal and connected with Khokhlachev for the two-on-one overtime winner in the team's 3-2 overtime win against Hartford. Khokhlachev leads Providence with 50 points through 54 games, coming on 19 goals and 31 assists, while Griffith is second on the team with 43 points off 19 goals and 24 assists through 57 games. Both see time on the team's first power-play unit.

"[Seth's] learned how to protect the puck and he's a more physical player in terms of that area," Cassidy said of Griffith. "And Koko, his game away from the puck is a lot better. We're not going to call him Patrice Bergeron yet - [but] he's made good strides there too, he's a plus player, he values that part of the game now, like a lot of those young guys, and it makes us a better team, because we rely on them a lot."

"Those are our two leading scorers, so they're on the ice a lot, and they don't always have the puck, so they've got to be able to play both ways, and that's a Boston Bruin trait as well, that we have to build into these guys."

"It's come a long way since development camp, just the little things me and Butch [Cassidy] talk about to try and get my game going to the next level," said Griffith. "Little things like working on the boards, getting pucks in, just D zone, that was my biggest thing coming into this year."

Building Consistency, Chemistry

Another Black & Gold trait is 60-minute consistency. Goaltender Malcolm Subban is working to find that in his own game.

"I think one thing I'm trying to improve on is just being focused, playing the full 60 minutes," said Subban. "And one thing that is definitely improved is I think looking through traffic, and fighting through screens, and playing the puck. I've developed that a bit this year, and just looking to develop that a little bit more as well."

Off the ice, it helps that these newer pros have each other to lean on.

"We have dinners and stuff like that sometimes," said Camara. "A lot of the younger guys and rookies are all kind of from juniors and then there's some college guys, so we talk a little bit and help each other get through our own problems."

After a three-year junior career in the OHL, Camara hasn't quite had the offensive season that he's wanted in Providence, but he's grown into his role as a valuable 'energy guy,' helping take control of the game and "keep the guys going."

Development means there are ups and downs, and adjustments to be made, but for the prospects, they know all of it will get them that much closer to a call.

"[We're] just coming to the rink every day focused and ready to learn," said Camara. "I think we're a tight-knit group and I think the older guys help really well too because they know what we've gone through, so they help the process as well."

That chemistry, like in Boston, could translate to success for the Baby B's, as they push towards their own AHL postseason.

"Everyone's in good spirits and excited to get to the rink," said Lindblad. "We're a younger group, but we're confident and we're a good skating team, and we're all excited to be here and play."

"It's really important that everyone shows up to the rink with good spirits and ready to work."

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