Ever since each one of the 24 players at rookie camp was drafted by or signed with Boston, each one of them has been imagining this day: The day they get to wear the Spoked-B in game action.
On Sunday night, against rookies from the New Jersey Devils’ system, that dream becomes a reality.
“It will be pretty cool, to be honest,” said Jake DeBrusk, Boston’s second overall pick in the 2015 Draft. “Even just to play against any other NHL team will be pretty surreal. Once I get out there in warmups, and seeing it — it’s exciting. It’s something that you want to wear, and you’re proud to be a Bruin, and I’ll just be really excited out there and just leave it all on the ice.”
For DeBrusk — and for the seven other 2015 draft picks who will make their Bruins debuts on Sunday night — their summer journeys have nearly come full circle. Almost three months ago, they heard their names called by Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney at the draft. Now, for the first time, they will suit up for the Bruins in game action.
It’s kind of hard to believe how far they have come in three short months.
“It’s been a pretty big [whirlwind], not gonna lie,” DeBrusk said. “Just even coming back to this rink — that’s where the Combine was, and just memories of doing the Wingate out on this ice and things like that, and how quickly things can change, how quickly things can get better and things like that… It’s a whirlwind, but I’m really looking forward to the game and just focusing on one thing at a time, day to day and things like that. But it’s pretty surreal.”
The Bruins’ game on Sunday night against the Devils will be their first of two. On Sunday, they will play at the HarborCenter, and on Monday night, they will shift over to the First Niagara Center to take on Jack Eichel and the rest of the Sabres rookies.
After two days of practice, the opportunity to get into game action couldn’t come soon enough.
“I think every day, we’re building on the previous day, so it feels good to finally be on game day,” said forward Justin Hickman. “[I want to] just go in there and play my solid game. Keep it simple, get pucks deep and go to the net hard. Hopefully, I can generate a little bit of room for my linemates, and they can put some pucks in the net.”
Providence Bruins Head Coach Bruce Cassidy — who has been leading practices alongside P-Bruins Assistant Kevin Dean, Director of Player Development Jay Pandolfo and Goaltending Coach Bob Essensa — will not necessarily be looking to see how well these rookies have acclimated to Boston’s system. Instead, he’ll be looking for the players who compete the hardest, who most effectively play to their own strengths.
“We kind of emphasize, to be a National Hockey League player, if you don’t have an extremely high talent level, you have to compete at the puck, around the puck, on the puck,” Cassidy said. “I find those are the guys that get out of the American Hockey League, that do that the best. We’ll emphasize that for these guys starting at 18 years old. It becomes a man’s game. You need to be hard on the puck and make hard plays with it. So that’s what we’ll look for, first and foremost.
“We don’t expect them to be guys that understand the system the first day, nor will we emphasize that, either, because that stuff — that’s our job to teach. And over time, yes, they need to get a grasp of it, but today, it’s more about play hard, do what you do best and play with some discipline and composure.”
Over the course of two practices in Buffalo, the 24 rookies have worked to develop chemistry, to decipher one another’s strengths and weaknesses, to work together. It is no easy task to accomplish that in just two practices, but already, there has been improvement.
Still, Cassidy said Sunday’s exhibition will be, first and foremost, an individual assessment.
“Obviously, you can’t be a selfish hockey player at any level; there’s certain times where if you’re a shooter, you should shoot the puck, and if you’re a playmaker, you might expect a guy to look to make the extra play,” he said. “But after that, I think it’s more of an individual evaluation, to be perfectly honest with you, right now. Yes, [it’s] within the confines of the team, but again, these guys are just learning the structure of how we play, so if they get outside of that a little bit, I think you’ve got to overlook some of that early on than get them into where they need to be.”
And though there is plenty at stake, these players are making sure to remember one simple fact: how cool it is to be here, playing in a game in front of fans while wearing the Spoked-B.
“It’s been feeling pretty cool — just going out there [for practice] in the big Buffalo Sabres rink is pretty exciting, just by itself,” DeBrusk said. “Getting some chemistry with guys and doing certain things — it’s coming along well. I’ve felt better each skate, and I’m ready to go for tonight’s game.
“It’s first ‘pro’ game, I guess, for sure, and I’m expecting lots of things: I’m expecting it to be fast, physical and hard, but it makes it that much more fun, and I’m really looking forward to it. I can’t wait. It will probably be hard to get the pregame nap in there, but it will be fun.”
Vladar to Get First Start
Originally, the plan had been for Zane McIntyre to get the first start of the Prospects Challenge. But on Sunday, Cassidy announced that Dan Vladar will be between the pipes for Boston’s first game instead.
Needless to say, for a kid who was drafted three months ago and turned 18 about 20 days ago, it is an exciting night.
In fact, Vladar said that one year ago, if someone had told him he would be in Buffalo on Sunday, preparing to make his first start as part of the Bruins’ rookie team, he wouldn’t have believed it.
“The guys here are very good guys, very good players, so I’m so happy that I can be here and I learn a lot — every practice, I learn,” he said.
The B’s selected the Czech Republic native in the third round of the 2015 draft. Vladar spent the bulk of last season with Kladno’s U20 team, posting a 2.78 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage in 29 games. He also played for Czech at World Juniors.
In only two short practices, Cassidy likes what he has seen out of the young, athletic goalie. He will know a lot more, however, after Sunday’s game.
“I would expect that if he’s forced to make some of those types of [athletic] saves, he’ll probably do them,” Cassidy said. “After that, who knows? With the young guys, they usually have some detail work. Until you see them in live action here, it’s hard to judge, but he works hard, and like I said, he’s got some good feet.
“I’ve watched him in practice, and some of the saves he makes — we had a little power play drill there, 5-on-0 at the end, and he’s getting across on a lot of those, so clearly, he’s got the ability to push off and quickness. But can he handle the short-side stuff when there’s traffic? All that stuff is to be determined.”
Hickman, Kemppainen Impressing
Both Hickman and Joonas Kemppainen attended development camp with the Bruins in July, but neither of them was able to do much on the ice due to injuries.
But one day of practice was all Cassidy needed in order to see that they bring something special to the table.
Kemppainen, in particular, has arrived at rookie camp with some buzz because he is not your typical rookie. At age 27, he arrives in Boston following a successful nine-year professional career in Finland.
Now, he is focusing on making the leap to the NHL, and by all indications, Cassidy believes he could be ready.
“Kemppainen — you can tell, he’s a man,” Cassidy said on Friday. “He’s played in a very good hockey league, so I would expect him to be the best player out here, and he certainly looked like it today. So we’ll see how that progresses.”
Rookie camp has presented a good opportunity for Kemppainen to begin to acclimate to the North American game before main camp begins.
“It should help him, right?” Cassidy said. “The smaller rink — getting used to that part of it — but hockey’s hockey. He seems like he’s a man of few words. He’s very focused, and I think he just wants to come here, compete and play hard, and if it means playing one game or two games in the rookie camp before he goes to Boston, I think he’s just that guy that — he seems like he’s all business.”
Hickman, who signed his entry-level deal with the Bruins in March, is equally motivated to prove himself to his new club. An injury jeopardized not only his status for development camp, but also his final season with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. Now that he is physically back up to speed, he is ready to impress Boston’s management on the ice.
“Obviously, since signing with the club, I’ve been looking forward to this day and it’s finally here,” Hickman said. “[I’m] looking forward to it.”
So, too, is Cassidy. Hickman is the kind of big, physical forward who can certainly create opportunities for his linemates, but Cassidy has also been impressed by Hickman’s speed in practice and is eager to see how that translates in a game situation.
“For a big guy, he’s strong, he’s fit, so let’s see how that projects in a game because it’s our first look at him,” Cassidy said. “He hasn’t been here in the past, either. Some of the guys, you see from year to year, but him, he’s a real newbie, so I think we’re all a little bit excited to see how he plays.”