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NCAA Players Gleaning Plenty from Week with Bruins Staff

by Jess Isner / Boston Bruins

— Every year at Boston’s development camp, there are new players who filter in, new prospects who need to learn the ropes.

The Bruins are lucky, therefore, to have a core group of veterans who have been in attendance at several camps now and can serve as that much-needed resource for younger prospects who don’t necessarily know what to expect of their first pro camp.

“I know when I first came in, it was really intimidating, so I know I appreciated all of the help from all of the older guys,” said defenseman Matt Benning, a rising junior at Northeastern University. “The year I came in, we had a lot of older guys, so I just try to make everyone comfortable here. I know that’s a main thing [Bruins General Manager Don] Sweeney talked about, is being comfortable while you’re here, so now, I just try to do that as much as I can — just try to get to know everybody.

“The hockey world is a small world, so you probably know somebody that’s on their team or something like that, so it’s really easy to start conversations and it’s good to know the guys around the room.”

Benning is part of a group that also includes veterans such as Rob O’Gara, Ryan Fitzgerald and Zane McIntyre — also all college players — who take pride in serving as leaders at development camp. They all, like Benning, remember what it was like to be a first-year camper. They remember what it was like to come into a professional organization with no idea of what to expect, and they all remember the veteran players who helped them learn.

“Coming back, it’s now my third camp, and it’s definitely a different perspective coming in,” said Boston College forward Ryan Fitzgerald. “You see in the room all the older guys with the younger guys, and you kind of have to lead the way for them and show them the ropes.”

Already, the impact that this leadership core is having on first-year players is evident.

“The level that everyone’s at — they’re all pros,” said 2015 first-round draft pick Zach Senyshyn. “The guys that I’m learning from, and even some of the guys in here, are pros or have been to the camp for so many years before. I’m taking pieces away from everyone — not just instructors, coaches, development guys, but also the players.

“Everyone in this room is here because they do something exceptionally well, and I think looking toward those guys and being able to take something from them, whether it’s small or big — I think that’s going to be what helps you get to the next level.”

O’Gara, who will enter his senior season at Yale this fall, remembers what it was like to be the young guy at camp, but his perspective is unique because he also remembers what it was like to be the young guy at school. And when he was a freshman, he had some of the very best to learn from.

The seniors that year, after all, led the Bulldogs to the national title, so there was no better model to learn from as he developed his own leadership style.

“My freshman year, when we won the championship, the way the seniors stepped up and sort of said, ‘Alright, follow us, this is how we’re going to do this’ — that’s what got us to that point,” O’Gara said. “And knowing that, and now being in their shoes — using something like this to sort of springboard into the season can really help not only myself be a leader, but I think the whole team, and the seniors next year.”

It is clear that O’Gara, Benning and the like take a certain pride in being a resource for the younger players, and it has not gone unnoticed.

“A lot of [the first-year players] are wide-eyed and not sure what to expect, and I think those guys are around to answer questions for them and they’ve been doing a really good job of it,” said Bruins Development Coach Jay Pandolfo. “They’ve been here a long time, a lot of those guys, so I think it just makes those kids feel more comfortable, that they can go up to them and talk to them. And Robbie’s done a good job of going around and speaking to the younger guys.”

The crop of NCAA talent at this year’s camp has been especially notable. Not only are O’Gara, Benning and Fitzgerald thriving as upperclassmen, but they are joined at this year’s camp by newcomers — some recently signed, some invites, some acquired via trade — who are also giving the NCAA a good name.

Benning said there is plenty being covered at camp that he will be able to immediately apply once the season picks up at Northeastern this fall.

“I think definitely the pivoting and trying to not cross your feet, especially if you’re a defenseman — that’s kind of where you get in trouble, especially in a two-on-one or a one-on-one,” he said. “We worked on that [Wednesday] with the skills coach, so definitely that. Especially now, each year, you get better and better, and when you jump levels, the players just get faster, so I know that’s one thing, for me, that I’ve taken from this week so far. I think it’s really going to help.”

During Thursday’s session, the 10 defensemen on the roster worked alone with the coaching staff, which includes Pandolfo, Providence Bruins Head Coach Bruce Cassidy and Providence Assistant Coach Kevin Dean. That kind of personalized attention has made it easier for these players to understand exactly what they need to work on in order to reach the next level.

O’Gara, who has always taken pride in being a stay-at-home defenseman who can shut down an opponent’s top line, has been particularly eager to soak up all of the wisdom those coaches have to impart.

“I guess as a kid, I wasn’t as good a skater, or as talented as most guys, so being that stay-at-home guy and being a guy that could just play defense and just get that job done was my game,” he said. “I’ve tried to work hard to expand on that, but I think that will always be my bread and butter, in a way. I love playing against [an opponent’s] top line, and I love shutting them down. I love that. And scoring goals is nice, and getting points, but I think I help my team best when I’m shutting their top guys down. And I love that.”

Pandolfo and his staff have worked hard to recognize the strengths of each player at this camp and work to enhance that skill set, rather than alter it.

“We want them to play the way they’ve always played,” Pandolfo said. “We’re not going to try to change their game. We want them to round their game out, but we don’t want them to change their game. If they’re a skill player, we want them to play with skill, but also let them know that you have to play a 200-foot game, you’ve got to be responsible in the defensive zone — stuff like that — but we still don’t want them to get away from their strengths. We just want to add to it.”

That way, when these players return to their respective programs in a couple of months, they are not different players, but they certainly are better players. Some of that comes from the on-ice skill sessions, but some of it comes from the knowledge imparted off the ice — during nutrition seminars, during meetings with Strength & Conditioning Coach John Whitesides.

There is plenty that goes into learning how to be a pro, and not all of it happens on the ice.

“Jay’s done a really good job with the guys, just kind of showing us what we need to do — skating, stick handling, and obviously with the skills coach,” Benning said. “[It’s] just little things that we can take away. Most of us know the basics of everything, and it’s just fine-tweaking, and that’s exactly what they’re doing here, and we all appreciate that.”

In the end, when the week in Boston wraps up, the goal is to send each player — with his own unique strengths and skill sets — back to school a better, more well-rounded player than he was when he arrived at the beginning of the week.

The hope is that what these NCAA players learn during this week translates into their work back at school and takes them to the next level.

“It’s still bigger, stronger, faster,” O’Gara said. “Talking to Whitesides back there — you can’t plateau. You can’t get stagnant. And whether it’s keeping the body fat down, gaining the right weight, becoming stronger in the exercises, making sure you’re passing the running tests — I think that is the emphasis right now.

“Going into my senior year, with the team we have, I’m excited. I think we can do some damage. I think our goal is always, especially after freshman year, to win the championship. That’s what our mindset is, and the guys who just missed it, and the guys below them — they want it bad.

“As a team, we’re hungry because every season since, not having that, it’s like something huge is missing, so that’s where our mindset is, and it’s exciting going forward.”

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