Sure, he was playing well, having already tallied 10 goals over Providence’s first nine games. And of course his ultimate goal was to get to the NHL.
But just over half a year removed from starring at the University of Massachusetts, a speedy ascent to the big club – and an immediate impact on the AHL – was not what he expected.
“If you asked me this same question last year when I came here at this time…I didn’t know where I’d stand this year,” Vatrano said after a recent practice at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.
“I didn’t know where I’d be…first line, second line, third, fourth. I came down here and wanted to make a statement and show that I could play at this level. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that.”
That he has.
His performance in October – including a four-goal outburst against Portland in the second game of the season – earned him that call-up to Boston. And in 30 games for the Bruins, Vatrano notched six goals and an assist, while potting his first career hat trick against Pittsburgh on Dec. 18.
In January, the East Longmeadow-native returned to Providence, where he has since been a dominating force, scoring 22 goals in 21 games.
For the season, he leads the AHL with 31 goals in 31 games. The second-leading scorer is Albany’s Mike Sislo, who has scored 27 goals – in 54 games.
Vatrano credits his stint with Boston for providing him with the belief that he belonged.
“It definitely helped a lot to give me confidence, knowing I could play in the NHL,” said Vatrano, who on Monday – his 22nd birthday – was recalled by Boston on an emergency basis for the Black & Gold’s game against San Jose, though he did not play.
“It was nice to get a little glimpse of it and that I can hang with those guys and play with them.”
Vatrano does not look at the demotion as a negative, but an opportunity to further develop his skills.
“Once I came down here, I didn’t want to look at it as being upset about it,” said Vatrano. “I just wanted to come down here and get better every day and that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
Vatrano has been focused on rounding out his overall game. While it seems that he has solidified his offensive abilities, being dependable in all three zones, as well as bringing his best on a nightly basis, is the ultimate goal.
“Consistency is the biggest thing, especially up there,” said Vatrano, who initially signed with the Bruins a year ago this week. “I think just bring your A-game, but even if you’re not bringing your A-game, bring your B-game every night. For me, working on my D-zone is one of the biggest parts…working on the little things, getting pucks out of the zone, making sure my D-man’s not getting around me.
“Just little things that will really help me be a full-time NHL player.”
Bruins coach Claude Julien complimented Vatrano’s offensive and scoring abilities, as well as his effort to develop the other areas of his game.
“I think we always look at these young kids and we always want to see them up here because there’s parts of their game that excite us,” Julien said this week.
“As much as we like his shot and his scoring, there’s other parts of his game that we want him to work on and it’s a lot more comfortable and easier to work on those parts of their game down in the American League.
“So give him a chance to do that. He’s in his first year [of] pro. I think he’s exceeded expectations for a guy in his first year, so those are all positive signs here and he’s had a taste of the NHL. He now has a great idea of how much better he needs to get, and he’s been working at that.”
Vatrano’s work extends off the ice, where he has been meeting with Providence coach Butch Cassidy and Bruins Director of Player Development Jay Pandolfo to look over video and find areas for growth.
“I’ll watch video on the things I do well and also the things I’m not doing well,” said Vatrano. “I think it’s good watching your game film and [seeing] the things you need to do better. For me, just focusing on those things so I know that I can make it to the NHL.”
That occasion will come – on a full-time basis – at some point. But for now, patience is Vatrano's biggest asset.
“The Bruins know what’s best for me and they know when I’m going to be ready to be up here, so I’ve just got to be patient and when it’s my time to stay up here, it’s my time to stay,” said Vatrano.
“I’m just here to make the most out of the opportunity and I’m not going to worry about going down and staying up — I’ve just got to take it day by day and just keep going.”