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Prospect Outlook: March 7

by Kirk Luedeke / Boston Bruins - As we approach spring, regular seasons are coming to a close in junior and the Boston Bruins continue to see development and progress from many of their players in the amateur ranks.

Dubuque Fighting Saints (USHL) defenseman Matt Benning is having a fine year after being the 175th overall selection by the B’s last June. The Northeastern recruit is the nephew of assistant GM Jim Benning and came out of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, where his Spruce Grove team was also called the Saints.

Benning is an archetypal Bruins defender: good skater who brings a distinct, physical edge and can chip in with offense in key situations. Although he brings only average height (6-feet), the younger Benning is tenacious and an effective open ice hitter who will lower the boom on bigger opponents. He’s willing to drop the gloves to stick up for teammates and has natural defensive instincts. Still raw, Benning has long-term potential as a diamond-in-the-rough prospect who will spend time in the NCAA and minors before he’s ready for an NHL roster spot.

Alexander Khokhlachev could indeed be coming soon to the “Dunk” (Dunkin’ Donuts Center) in Providence. His Windsor Spitfires OHL club is currently on the outside looking in for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with less than two weeks remaining in the regular season. With Boston’s 2011 second-round selection already signed by the team, he will likely join Providence on an ATO sometime after March 17 and finish the year in the AHL (and playoffs as Jamie Arniel did in 2009). “Koko” has been electric in Windsor since returning to North America, having added speed to his already dynamic offensive game. P-Bruins fans are in for a treat and a possible AHL target date of March 22nd for Koko.

A pair of OHL power forwards in Anthony Camara and Cody Payne are enjoying career years in that league.

Camara has not broken stride despite a couple of suspensions this season and has 33 goals and counting in 45 games after scoring a total of 30 in his first three full OHL campaigns. In addition to the breakthrough scoring, Camara is a rugged, physical presence who goes hard to the net and excels in the “greasy” areas of the ice. The 81st overall pick in 2011 is justifying the offensive potential the B’s saw in him two years ago, but he’ll likely need seasoning before he’s ready for a primetime role in Boston.

Payne, a native Floridian, has nice size at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds and has topped the 20-goal plateau after scoring a total of six markers in the previous two seasons with Plymouth and Oshawa. A fifth-round selection in 2012, Payne must return to the OHL in 2013-14 if he doesn’t make the Boston roster out of camp, but his development is taking off as a physical but skilled winger. Like Camara this year, watch for Payne’s OHL numbers to jump off the page assuming he stays healthy. As a veteran forward next year, he’ll see a lot more ice time on the top-two lines in Plymouth.

Speaking of fifth-round picks, Seth Griffith has missed nearly a month of action with London of the OHL since suffering a broken hand. He just had his cast removed, but there is no timetable for his return to the ice, and it is possible that the Knights will keep him on the shelf until the last weekend of the season in preparation for the playoffs. The injury cost Griffith a shot at the league scoring title, but it has still been a highly successful season for one of the CHL’s top offensive performers.

Bear Cub snapshot: Craig Cunningham, LW Providence Bruins (AHL)

Fresh off his first professional hat trick in a win over the Portland Pirates, Craig Cunningham continues to bring the kind of unheralded three-zone play for Providence that Boston forwards like Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille have made a hallmark of their success.

Talent analysis: Cunningham, 22, is undersized at a listed 5-foot-9, but is solidly-built and naturally strong. Although not a blazing-fast skater, Cunningham is excellent on his edges and elusive, with quick direction-change ability in open ice. The 2010 fourth-rounder (97th overall) has a good stick and excels on the forecheck with his vision, anticipation and hustle. Although he lacks elite puck skills, he compensates with a fast release and the willingness to endure punishment in front of the net. An underrated passer who can thread the needle in traffic. When Cunningham takes the puck down low, he’s able to shake defenders in tight areas and work the play out front for quality scoring chances. Plays a clean, if not overly physical game. The winger’s character and work ethic are second to none: the former captain of the Vancouver Giants is extremely well-liked and respected anywhere he goes.

Outlook:  Like most forwards in the Bruins system, Cunningham faces a tough challenge to crack an established veteran roster in Boston. As it stands, he’ll have to continue to do the little things for Bruce Cassidy in Providence, but his overall two-way game is progressing nicely for its consistency and tenacity. There isn’t a great deal of top-six NHL upside here with Cunningham, but he’s one of the most versatile forwards on the B’s depth chart. He’ll be knocking on the door for a fourth-line look as early as next season, but the possibility also exists that like Nate Thompson, he may have to go to another organization to get an opportunity for quality playing time.

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