The defensive corps of Urho Vaakanainen, Jeremy Lauzon, Jakub Zboril, Connor Clifton, Emil Johansson and Chris Breen was to be crucial as head coach Jay Leach and the P-Bruins dealt with significant losses from the previous season.
"We lost some players," said Leach, entering his second season at the helm. "From last year to this year, we lost Austin Czarnik, we lost Kenny Agostino, we lost Tommy Cross."
Czarnik (signed with CGY), Agostino (signed with MTL) and Tommy Cross (signed with CBJ) combined for 158 points, ranking first, second, and fifth on the team respectively.
Fast-forward to Nov. 16, and Jeremy Lauzon, Connor Clifton and Jakub Zboril all found themselves skating together in Texas as the Boston Bruins battled the Dallas Stars during the second game of a four-game
Clifton and Zboril made their NHL debuts, while Lauzon played in his seventh career game and logged a hefty 24:52 time on ice. The career-high TOI for Lauzon was second on the team behind only Matt Grzelcyk (25:27) in the 1-0 overtime loss to the Stars.
While the Boston Bruins were battling the Stars without four of their top six defenseman, the Providence Bruins were facing off with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in a similar bind.
"We had five D-men out that would have been with us at the start of the year," said Leach. "Five of six. Which is pretty unheard of…it was wild. By no means was it pretty to watch, but at the same time I think we managed the best we could."
In addition to Clifton, Zboril, Lauzon and Vaakanainen (previously called up and injured), Chris Breen was also out with injury. In their place, Providence's lineup included Olivier Galipeau (recalled from ECHL), Joel Messner (recalled from ECHL), Desmond Bergin (signed to PTO), Cody Goloubef (rookie), and Wiley Sherman (rookie). In the coming days, the team would also sign Chris Carlisle (ECHL, Manchester Monarchs) and Kyle Cumiskey (ECHL, Newfoundland Growlers) to PTO deals.
"We played Lehigh, I remember it, we had those five D-men in the lineup," said Leach. "PTO's and rookies that really haven't played any in this league against a team that has a veteran-laden team who we had lost to in the playoffs last year. Internally, I'm sure I'm a little nervous. But at the same time, it is a little fun. It's just like, 'Oh, hey, lets see what we've got'.
"It makes your team really value the little things. Getting a puck out on the wall and really having to lean on the details of the game just to overcome the inexperience. I don't think we were really at all too apprehensive with regards to the lineup. It's just pro hockey. I think it's a great opportunity for all the kids to play."
Leach often looks to his coaching counterpart in Boston for how to deal with such instances.
"We have to embrace that when those things happen," said the 39-year-old Leach. "There really is no other choice. I take it from Butchy [Bruce Cassidy]. I give Butchy a lot of credit. He throws a lot of young kids just out there, over the boards and going. We like to think we do the same thing. It's on them. They can sink or swim. If they sink we'll go get them and they'll swim hopefully the next time. That's the just the way it's going to be, especially if an organization has dealt the losses they're dealt like the Bruins were."
Lauzon was the first recall following Vaakanainen's injury, and the 21-year-old blueliner filled in on the B's back end for 15 games. The Quebec native averaged 15:32 and scored his first career goal, which was ultimately the winning goal in a victory over the Vegas Golden Knights on Dec. 11.
"I've noticed physically his skating is a lot better from being up there," said Leach. "He's able to turn and get on pucks a lot quicker. And I do find that his shot is a bit harder as well…when you're up there, you are practicing and playing with faster, harder players. You have to adapt. It's just natural. Always when an NHL guy comes back down here, you can tell he has the NHL passes going. You can just tell. They're firing passes. It's hard. They make harder passes up there. Definitely you see that with him. And Cliffy too."
When Clifton joined the Bruins in Dallas, two days after Zboril was recalled, he became the 12th defenseman to be forced into action for the B's just over a month into the new season. In his first game with the team, the rookie logged 18:53 and also got in his first career fight against NHL veteran Jason Spezza. After logging crucial minutes in extended NHL stints, Clifton and Lauzon rejoined the P-Bruins.
"He was just super excited to come back down having just played nine games and done really well," said Leach. "Give him credit, both of those guys, they did terrific with the opportunity that they were given. I think they're both super excited for the opportunity and the experience and now we need them to continue to get back into their mold of playing simple, smart, hockey. And also bring whatever they need. Jeremy is going to be really competitive down low and hard on pucks and hard on players. Cliffy is going to be great with his skating, his stick and I'm sure he'll be physical."
While the Providence defense has begun to resemble the original iteration, the forward group is now without two key cogs, as centers Colby Cave and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson have become NHL regulars since late November.
At the time of Cave's recall on November 20, he was leading Providence with 18 points in 15 games. Known as a responsible defensive player, the undrafted 24-year-old broke out offensively to fill a crucial scoring need for the P-Bruins. In Boston, Cave has now appeared in 20 games for the big club.
"Do we miss him?" asked Leach. "Yup. We miss him. We miss him quite a bit. He was a leader for us as well. He's a fourth-year pro, guys respect him in the room just because he does everything right. We certainly do miss him. But I think he certainly deserves the opportunity he's been given."
Cave has one goal and three assists for four points in his 20 games while playing significant minutes on the penalty kill and against opposing teams' top lines.
"Super excited for him," said Leach. "I wasn't here his first year but I was here his last two years and obviously this year. You know Caver, there's no one better. We're excited for his opportunity. He grew as a player. You saw him as a really defensive specialist over the two years prior. Was really good on the kill. Took a lot important draws for us and he came in and really because of the youth movement that we've got going on here, he was able to play a bit more of an offensive role. And he did exceptionally well."
Forsbacka Karlsson is also in his first extended look in the NHL, and the young Swede has held his own, notching three goals and three assists in 21 games.
"As far as the opportunity has been given up there, he's really made the most of it," said Leach. "He really has. He's all around, up and down that lineup, both as a center and as a wing. Credit to Butchy for trying to find a home for him and also to the kid for being as versatile as he's been. I remember the game I think it was against Arizona where he sets up Heinz [Danton Heinen] on the back door there, they really had nothing going. That goal gets them going and all of a sudden, they score four in the second. Teams need that. He's been able to do that a couple times."
At the midpoint of the season with a seemingly ever-changing lineup and in a difficult division, Leach has guided the Providence Bruins to a 16-16-5 record.
"It's been a battle," said Leach. "We've filled in with youth. Ultimately, at the end of the day we'll be real excited and happy about that youth. But it's not going to happen overnight where they come in and just save the world. We're going through that right now. A lot of young guys playing a lot of big minutes and a lot of crucial roles. They're learning the ups and downs of this league, which is already a challenge. Especially in this division, which is and has been historically a real tough division. It's a struggle, but not at all discouraging. I think it's part of where we thought we'd be."
When asked to summarize the up and down first half, Leach couldn't help but chuckle.
"The state of the Providence Bruins?" Leach asked with a smile. "We're young, we're learning, and we're coming. I just made that up, but I like it."