It is not difficult to imagine, therefore, that Zach Senyshyn, Jake DeBrusk and Jakub Zboril might have been a bit anxious when they hit the ice for the first time against pro-level competition on Sunday night at the HarborCenter.
“I think at first, they all looked a little nervous,” Director of Player Development Jay Pandolfo said following an optional morning skate at the First Niagara Center on Monday morning. “I think as the game went on, they got a little more comfortable. DeBrusk and Senyshyn, I’m sure they want to create some offense, but sometimes, that’s the only thing in their heads, so they kind of get out of position… But I think once they get comfortable, they’re going to be fine.”
All three of those 2015 first-rounders will get another crack at it on Monday night, when they face the Buffalo Sabres’ rookies at the First Niagara Center. Though that trio of first-rounders did manage to hook up for a game-tying goal in the third period, courtesy of Zboril, there is still room for improvement.
There is always room for improvement.
“It was kind of one of those things where I really wanted to show my speed and my skill out there, and [I was] a little bit of nervous at the start of the game, but tonight, I think I’m going to have my feet under me,” Senyshyn said on Monday. “I’m going to be able to create a lot more offensively and really be able to play a little bit more sound defensively as well.”
Though the Bruins aren’t demanding that their prospects fully internalize the ins and outs of the system at this stage, they do want their prospects to play a strong two-way game. It is the cornerstone of the Bruins style, and already, Senyshyn seems to have a handle on that.
He loves to score, but he knows he has to do more than that in order to sustain an NHL career.
“My big tool is my skating, and I really love to be able to show my speed on the backcheck and be able to play great defensively,” he said. “I find that when I’m more focused on the defensive side of the game, the offensive side really takes care of itself for me, so that’s what I try to focus on.”
Defense will certainly be Priority No. 1 for the Bruins on Monday as they face a rookie team led by 2015 No. 2 overall pick Jack Eichel.
Senyshyn, however, doesn’t plan to do much differently, whether he’s facing Eichel or anyone else. In every game, he hits the ice with the same objective: worry about his own game and let the rest take care of itself.
“He’s a really special player and an exceptional player, for sure, but I came back from the OHL playing against Connor McDavid and some of that elite talent,” he said. “You’ve got to focus on your game to be able to block out a lot of that attention and be able to focus on your own game before worrying about someone else’s.”
Pandolfo knows a player like Senyshyn has speed and skill. He knows Senyshyn can bury the puck. But a camp like this also allows Pandolfo the opportunity to see how this player operates in a game situation — how he responds to a missed assignment, a bad penalty, a shot off the post.
That is almost as valuable as seeing a player showcase everything he does well.
“Especially with the young kids, you know they have skill and kind of what they’re good at, but you want to see the overall package and what they need to work at,” Pandolfo said. “That’s the biggest thing — see what kind of steps in the development are going to help them get to the next level. That’s the big part of this tournament.”
Vatrano, Acciari Have What it Takes to Compete
Ever since preparation for this Prospects Challenge began, both Bruce Cassidy and Pandolfo have echoed a similar sentiment.
When they are evaluating the 24 players on their roster here in Buffalo, they haven’t necessarily been looking for the best shooter, the best skater, the best defender.
They have been looking for the player who competes hardest and competes consistently — on the puck, away from the puck, all the time. In their eyes, a young player who knows how to maintain that compete level is among the most valuable prospects a team might discover at a camp like this.
And oftentimes, those same players who compete hardest are some of the players who went overlooked in their draft years.
Two prime examples currently reside on Boston’s rookie roster. Both Frank Vatrano and Noel Acciari went undrafted. Both excelled at the college ranks and signed with Boston as free agents in March and in June, respectively. Both made big impressions in the first game of this rookie tournament, outworking the opposing New Jersey Devils rookies and scoring critical goals to carry the Bruins to a 4-3 victory.
“Obviously, a lot of teams bring in undrafted guys; for whatever reason, they’re overlooked at certain times,” Pandolfo said. “Sometimes, guys are just a little later developing. I think when they get a little older and teams see them play more, you kind of get an appreciation for the stuff they do.
“In a case like Acciari, that’s after playing four years at Providence [College]. I think people might have looked at his skating and things like that and didn’t think it was great, but when you watch his overall play and the way he competes, he’s a game-type player.”
Similar could be said of Vatrano. When he was draft eligible, perhaps he didn’t seem like an NHL-caliber prospect. Now, he has an NHL-ready shot and release, and physically, he is where he needs to be in order to compete for an NHL job.
“Frank Vatrano is another guy who didn’t get drafted, and he was a little bit of a smaller guy and not in great shape,” Pandolfo said. “He’s gotten older and a little more mature and realized what he’s had to do to get in shape and [in] better condition, and he could always shoot, but he’s kind of taking care of himself a little more and matured. He looks like he’s headed in the right direction.”
It is still a bit too early to make any real projection, but the Bruins hope Vatrano and Acciari could be among the next crop of undrafted free agents who emerge from the NCAA ranks and impact the big club in a big way.
Vermont product Kevan Miller did just that not too long ago. He went undrafted and developed into a steady, reliable stay-at-home defenseman for Boston. So did another blueliner — one who has made quite an impression on Bruins fans.
“Obviously you look at Torey Krug — a huge example of that,” Pandolfo said. “He was overlooked because of his size, probably; look where he’s at now.
“There’s a lot of guys — guys that I played with in New Jersey. Brian Rafalski and John Madden were two guys as well that were overlooked for whatever reason, but if you can find guys like that who can help your team, it’s a huge help, obviously.”
Pandolfo confirmed that North Dakota product and 2015 Hobey Baker winner Zane McIntyre will make his first start in the Spoked-B on Monday night.
It is exciting, for sure, but in the hours leading up to the game, McIntyre intends on keeping his mind blank.
In essence, there is nothing that makes this start any different from the hundreds of others he has made in his life. That is what he is trying to keep in mind as puck drop approaches.
“I’m trying not to think right now; that’s how you get in trouble, to be honest,” he said. “Just go out there and play hockey. I’ve talked to people close around me and they say the same thing — just have fun, just enjoy it. Obviously, the game hasn’t changed, by any means.
“Hockey’s still hockey, I guess. You’ve just got to go out and enjoy it, and that’s when I think you play the best. So it’ll be fun. It will be obviously exciting and I’m anxious for it, but it will be fun for sure.”
Pandolfo also said that there will be some additional lineup changes when the B’s hit the ice against Buffalo on Monday. Jordan Maletta, Max Everson and Mitch Dempsey will all slot in on Monday after being scratched for Sunday’s game against New Jersey.
“We want to give everyone a chance to play,” Pandolfo said, “and kind of see what they can do.”