BostonBruins.com -- The Boston Bruins have gotten significant mileage from their prospects playing in the NCAA this season.
Two of the biggest impact players have come out of the NCHC, where both Zane McIntyre (University of North Dakota) and Danton Heinen (University of Denver) scored major conference awards for the 2014-15 campaign. McIntyre was named the conference’s outstanding goaltender, a Hobey Baker finalist and was named the winner of the Mike Richter award as the NCAA’s top goalie. Heinen was named NCHC Rookie of the Year after leading the Pioneers in scoring with an impressive 45 points in 38 games. His top-end hockey IQ is one of the many reasons he finished in the top-15 of NCAA scoring as a freshman.
Closer to home, Boston University captain Matt Grzelcyk capped a sensational run to the Hockey East championship by earning conference First Team All-Star honors. With a career season in all offensive categories, the 2012 third-rounder continues to impress with his speed, smarts and energy from the blue line. He also secured the Terriers’ first Beanpot championship since 2009 with an overtime strike to cement his reputation as a character performer in the clutch.
Northeastern defenseman Matt Benning earned Hockey East All-Star Honorable Mention with a solid sophomore season. Although he did not score any goals, the deft puck-mover registered 24 assists (third on the team) and points (fourth on the team) from the blue line. He finished with just one helper fewer than each of the Huskies’ top scorers Kevin Roy and Dalen Hedges.
Boston College sophomore Ryan Fitzgerald showed glimpses into what his next couple of years at the Heights might look like offensively, as he finished with the team lead in goals despite a disappointing Hockey East tournament and Beanpot.
Also making a positive impression in collegiate hockey this season was Notre Dame freshman Anders Bjork, a fifth-round draft choice last June who brings speed and a strong two-way game to the mix. Bjork had a solid second half after playing sparingly to begin the year. Harvard defenseman Wiley Sherman is a huge (6-foot-6) but raw project. He will be an important piece for the Crimson moving forward, as players with his size and mobility are rare.
The Bruins signed rugged forward and 2012 seventh-rounder Colton Hargrove to an entry-level contract, while adding UMass free agent Frank Vatrano to the mix as well. The former Boston Jr. Bruins scoring ace is an intriguing risk-reward signing if he can round out the other areas of his game as a pro.
Perhaps the most underrated of all Boston prospects in the college ranks this season is Yale junior Rob O’Gara. The final pick of the fifth round in 2011 has the size, intelligence and attitude to one day be a solid top-four NHL defender with the Bruins. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds he continues to grow into his sizable frame, and with his fine skating/footwork and long reach, he’s tough to beat 1-on-1. This season, the Long Island native took a major step forward offensively, finishing tied with friend and junior hockey teammate Frank DiChiara for the Bulldogs team lead in scoring with 21 points.
While O’Gara will head back to New Haven for his senior season, it might not be too much longer after that before Bruins fans are seeing him in the Boston lineup. He’s perhaps the best-kept secret in the B’s organization and seems to be getting better at each and every viewing.
Although not yet an NCAA player, 2014 second-rounder Ryan Donato bounced back from a disappointing loss in the New England prep championship game vs. Salisbury to make an impact for the USHL’s Omaha Lancers. In just eight games with the Lancers, he racked up five goals and five assists and chipped in an additional goal in three playoffs appearances. He’ll be in Cambridge next season playing for his dad at Harvard.
Bruins Prospect Snapshot:
Frank Vatrano, LW, Providence Bruins (AHL)
Scouting report: East Longmeadow Mass. native is built like a fire hydrant but moves with fluid agility and power despite a short stride. Although not tall at about 5-foot-10, Vatrano has a low center of gravity and is strong on his skates, often getting up under defenders to outmuscle them for loose pucks and fighting through checks in traffic. Deadly between the hashmarks…shot and blurry-fast release are already NHL-caliber. Possesses a natural nose for the net and can wire the puck to any corner from just about anywhere in the prime scoring areas. Three-zone game is something Vatrano will need to improve at the next level. Plays with enthusiasm and will go straight to the net…loves to score. Needs to prove that he can dedicate himself as a pro both in terms of on-ice ability and conditioning.
Outlook: With the talent to eventually play a regular shift and contribute on the power play in the NHL, Vatrano is one of the more interesting free agent signings this spring because he had a couple of years of eligibility remaining for the Minutemen. The team is looking to add more scorers to the mix, and despite the lack of ideal size and speed, the 21-year-old is a pure finisher who may be on the cusp of putting everything together. He’ll be one to watch in Providence as the latest local kid to get a chance to one day put on the spoked-B and skate for the hometown team.
Kirk Luedeke covers the Boston Bruins and NHL prospects for the New England Hockey Journal and is a contributing editor and hockey scout for the Red Line Report. You can follow him on Twitter at: @kluedeke29