PROVIDENCE — Frank Vatrano
had one goal entering his first professional training camp.
Here's the kicker: That goal is definitely not what you would expect.
“I wasn’t really expecting to make the team out of camp,” Vatrano said following a Monday morning P-Bruins practice at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence. “I just wanted to make a good impression on the management and the fans in Boston.”
Sure, it would have been nice to crack the big club just a few short months into his professional career, which began last March when he left UMass-Amherst to sign an entry-level deal with the Bruins. It would have been nice to wear the Spoked-B on opening night at TD Garden just a month after wearing it as part of Boston’s rookie team at the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo, N.Y.
But it wasn’t meant to be. Not quite yet. Though Boston’s coaching staff and management perpetually lauded Vatrano throughout training camp as one of the most impressive rookies with arguably the most potential, he was one of the last cuts.
From there, he was sent to Providence’s training camp. In his eyes, it wasn’t a bad thing.
“Coming into camp, the biggest thing with me was I just wanted to make an impression on everyone — whether it’s scoring goals, making a hit, or making a play, that’s something I just wanted to do,” Vatrano said. “I wanted to leave an impact on the ice. I felt like I had a really strong rookie camp, and a pretty good main camp — I showed people what I can do — and I came down to Providence with a goal to play in the National Hockey League someday.
“So just being out there, playing with confidence, having my teammates down here to help me is really making it a smooth transition.”
In Providence, Vatrano has excelled. His confidence is obvious to anyone who has watched him skate a single shift. He has scored a goal in all but one of the five games he has played thus far. He scored four of them in an explosive performance against Portland on Oct. 11. He has hit the back of the net seven times on 20 shots in five games.
To say he has a knack for the net would be an understatement.
“With the puck, he’s been very good at attacking, getting to the net, creating separation to get his shot off,” said Providence Head Coach Bruce Cassidy. “So he’s been good at going to the net and then hanging out in the right spots as well. That’s a talent. That part of it’s been real good, and who knows? We haven’t had him long enough to know if he’s streaky, but right now, he’s sure on a hot streak.
“He recognizes that he needs to shoot the puck. That’s the thing about Frankie: He knows what his strength is, and that’s his release and his shot, so he’s not thinking ‘Pass, pass,’ all the time; he’s thinking shoot. Recognizing what you do well and applying it right away has certainly been something he’s bought into right away, and it’s going to help him.”
The league took notice of that shot not only during a two-game rookie showcase in Buffalo in September but also during a three-game preseason stint later that month. In Providence, however, Vatrano has made a point of showing what he can do off the ice as well. He may be a first-year pro on a team filled with guys who have been there a lot longer, but that has not stopped Vatrano from proving to Boston’s staff and management that he has the kind of leadership skills that can go a long way.
“[Cassidy] told me, ‘Just because you’re a younger guy — [it] doesn’t matter if you’re a veteran or a first-year guy — just because you’re not wearing a letter on your jersey doesn’t mean you’re not a leader,” Vatrano said. “So I think I just try to lead by example every night on the ice by playing hard, and I try to lead by example by putting pucks in the net, putting up points, and making plays for our team.”
Though the 2015-16 season is only five games old, Vatrano has already demonstrated the ability to put his team on his back. Twice this season, he has scored in the third period, and both times, he struck with less than two minutes to play. He can come up big in the clutch. He can be a difference-maker. Already, he has been recognized for it, receiving AHL Player of the Week honors for the period ending on Oct. 11.
It is true that Vatrano’s nose for the net is the biggest reason why he has garnered national attention. But that shot alone isn’t going to get him to the next level. He is a smart enough player to realize that. Vatrano cites consistency as something he needs to continue to work on during his stay in Providence, however long it may be.
Cassidy believes it’s more than that. He said the 21-year-old native of East Longmeadow, Mass., must continue to develop into a threat in all three zones, particularly with this organization.
“He needs to be more of a student of the game — ‘What’s my responsibility in neutral zone to help create turnovers, or on the forecheck, getting over top of people?’” Cassidy said. “Because he’s good when it’s his turn to go — what I mean by that is, if he’s F1 on the forecheck, then he knows, ‘I’m on the puck. But what if I’m not? I’ve got to read the play.’ So some of that needs to improve — reading the play, even in defensive zone coverage. ‘Where’s my responsibility? How does it change?’ — the little intricacies of the game there where he can get exposed by good players by his stick maybe being in the wrong lane, and little things like that.
“They’re very teachable, I think. But then they’ve got to translate, for him, during the game.”
Cassidy paused, and added with a wry smile, “I know people will go, ‘Oh, it’s always the defensive part.’ But that matters when you don’t have the puck because a lot of the game, you don’t have the puck.”
Vatrano is more than willing to put in the work. He has proven that in the seven-plus months that he has been a part of the Boston Bruins. He has put in the work on the ice. He has put it in off the ice, as well — his conditioning has improved dramatically since he left college.
He will keep working, and while he does, he will try to avoid paying too much attention to whether roster spots are opening up in Boston.
Unfortunately, he can avoid it all he wants, but chances are, he’ll find out what’s going on in Boston, anyway. That’s what happens when you’re a local kid playing for the local club.
“You know, it’s not me really paying attention; it’s people that are watching games,” he said. “‘Oh, I hear this guy got hurt — when are they going to call you up?’ So I kind of try to zone that out and just worry about my game down here and just get better.
“I’m just more worried about my game down here. If I get called up by the big team, I get called up. But right now, I’m just focused on playing down here, and if my time comes, my time comes.”
Vatrano is not the only P-Bruin who finds his name among the AHL leaders in scoring.
Alexander Khokhlachev has long been one of Providence’s most potent offensive threats. Already this season, he is tied for second in the league with seven points, tallying two goals and five assists in seven games.
There is, perhaps, a good reason for both players’ early successes: A new-look line featuring Vatrano on the left, Khokhlachev on the right and Austin Czarnik at center.
Unfortunately, the experiment of slotting Khohklachev on Czarnik’s wing has been short-lived. Due to an upper-body injury suffered on Oct. 16, Czarnik has been rendered unavailable for the near future. But surely, the line was good while it lasted.
“I think they’re both really good players, and they understand the game really well,” Khokhlachev said. “I think we play all together really good. I think we all understand the game really well, and I think that really helps us. If someone is in a better position, we always will pass it to them.”
Throughout his time with the Bruins organization, Khokhlachev has always been a center. This season, however, is not the first time in his career he has played elsewhere in the lineup. He mentioned World Juniors as the last time he played wing, and it’s not something he dislikes. Not in the least.
“It’s not that huge of a difference,” he said. “When you play center, you have more responsibility, like playing in the D-zone more. When you play wing, I think it’s a more offensive role in the team.
“I think we have a pretty good line with Czarnik in the middle and Frankie on the other side. I like playing wing with those guys.”
During that aforementioned Oct. 11 win over Portland, at least one member of that line factored into each of the six goals scored by the P-Bruins. In addition to Vatrano scoring four times, Czarnik scored once with three assists and Khokhlachev tallied four assists.
Not all of the goals came at even strength, but even so, it was clear that together, those three players found undeniable chemistry. For Cassidy, it was nice to see that translate on the score sheet.
“I like it; I like offensive players,” Cassidy said. “I know you need a balance to win games, but it’s nice to see guys out there making plays, finding chemistry. Some of it was on the power play, so you want your 5-on-5 game in order, and that’s where we need a little work.
“We need a bigger sample size to see if that’s a good spot for [Khokhlachev] or not.”
That line is unique, Cassidy said, because Khokhlachev, at 5-foot-11, is its biggest player. Vatrano is 5-foot-10. Czarnik is listed at 5-foot-9.
There was a time, maybe, when it was assumed that a small line like that couldn’t work. Of late, there has been evidence to the contrary.
“We’ve seen it — the kids in Tampa that came through Syracuse. They weren’t huge,” Cassidy said. “I think there’s room in the game for that type of line now, whereas maybe years ago, you had to have that big guy on the line to kind of complement them. I’m not sure if that’s the case.
“It helps if you have that guy, but I thought [the Czarnik line] did pretty well, and maybe they’ll get a chance again.”
Prior to being sent to Providence as part of the final round of cuts at Boston’s training camp, Khokhlachev had a strong camp. It is difficult for any AHL hopeful to crack Boston’s lineup, given the big club’s strength up the middle, and that being said, Khokhlachev has put some thought into how his success on the wing — and the versatility it demonstrates — might impact his future with Boston.
“I thought that maybe I have more [of a] chance to play wing in Boston,” he said. “I don’t really care where I play. I just want to play in Boston, so it doesn’t matter if I play center or wing. If I have more of a chance playing the wing, I will play wing.”
Three years into his professional career, Khokhlachev is still awaiting his first real opportunity with Boston, but he is confident that he has shown enough improvement to warrant a call soon.
“I came here when I was 19, and I got stronger, and I think all around, [my] game got better,” he said. “I think every year, each player should be getting better and better, and that’s what I try to do, too. So I think I’ve just got better in my all-around game, and I know that I will have great coaches here, and they help me a lot, so I think I’ve developed my game a lot while I’ve play here.
“I’m really happy to be here in my career. I think I get help a lot, playing here.”
Vatrano garnered plenty of attention during Boston’s rookie and training camps. At the same time, so did his linemate.
Vatrano and Czarnik were often mentioned in tandem — by Boston’s coaching staff, by management — as rookies among those most likely to become NHL players. Four games into his first full pro season, Czarnik was well on his way to proving that to be true.
Then came the injury.
In a game against Bridgeport on Oct. 16, Czarnik took a hit that that left him with an undisclosed upper body injury. Czarnik has not skated since and will not be available for this week’s home-and-home against Lehigh Valley, per Cassidy.
“He got caught in a hit the other night that I think he normally sees,” Cassidy said. “It just surprised him a little bit. It was a little late, but not late-late. He even admitted it — he was mad at himself for not seeing the guy. But he’ll have to learn defending — to use his quickness and his stick [rather] than getting into physical confrontations.”
Though he is on the smaller side, Czarnik has proven time and time again that he won’t shy away from physical contact. He won’t ever shy away from a hit. Sometimes, that may get the best of him as he continues to compete against players at the pro level who are bigger and stronger.
As he continues to develop, Cassidy said, he will have to find a way to make sure his size doesn’t get the best of him.
“Every guy that size that likes to compete has to learn that — their strength becomes their liability,” Cassidy said. “And what I mean by that is, their willingness and their compete will work against them against bigger guys who will use that to their advantage, and spin off them, and then you can’t recover.
“So they have to just over time, learn when to go in and attack, and when they can have a legitimate chance to win a puck. It’s usually by being quick and anticipating and having a good stick. And they’ll be no different than anybody else. [Czarnik] will have to learn when to attack the net and make his plays from the outside, and I think, like I said, every guy goes through that, and he’s done a good job of that.”
McIntyre Showing Steady Progress
Malcolm Subban’s lower-body injury sustained late in the preseason threw a bit of a wrench into the goaltending plans for the P-Bruins.
Originally, the plan was for Subban to carry the bulk of the workload in the early going. Instead, that workload has gone to rookie netminder Zane McIntyre, a 2010 draft pick who signed with Boston this past spring following the conclusion of his junior season at the University of North Dakota.
“[With] some guys, their opportunity happens quicker than what’s planned because of different things — in this case, it was an injury to Malcolm,” Cassidy said. “Zane’s got a lot of starts under his belt already.”
McIntyre, a finalist for the 2015 Hobey Baker Award, started each of Providence’s first four games this season. He has stopped 103 of 118 shots, and though his record stands at 1-1-2, Cassidy likes what he has seen out of the young goalie thus far.
“I tthink with Zane, it’s going to be the consistency factor — I think every game, there’s been one that he’d like to have back, and I think as you mature and become more experienced as a pro, you’ve got to correct that part of it,” Cassidy said. “Stop the ones you’re supposed to stop, make the big save at the right time, give your team a chance to win. He’s given us a chance to win every night, so that’s a positive.
“He battles back, he’s got a short memory, in terms of if he does let one in that maybe was a stoppable puck. So those are the positives. He continues to work at his game.”
For McIntyre, the line between a win and a loss has been thin — incredibly thin. Two of his starts have gone into overtime. All four of his starts have been one-goal games. That, Cassidy said, is another positive.
“He just needs to stop a few more pucks to get some wins because they’ve been all one-goal games,” Cassidy said. “I think he understands that, and so the next time he’s in, hopefully, that’s the case for him, and as we go forward. But he’s been fine.
“He’s like a lot of young goalies; it’s a work in progress, and he’ll figure it out. He’s a good worker. He’s got a good work ethic, and I think he gets it and understands what’s happened. So he’ll work to correct it.”