The Boston Bruins have long been well ahead of the curve in the American Hockey League.
All but a handful of NHL teams have jockeyed in recent seasons to station their AHL affiliates as close to home as possible. With every team looking for an edge here or an advantage there, geographically proximate affiliates ease player movement, allow NHL management easy access to watch prospects play live and make 1-on-1 instructional time much more feasible.
However, long before this trend gripped the AHL, Boston had already established such a set-up with Providence.
The capital of Rhode Island, an AHL stronghold until the 1970s, returned to the pro hockey ranks in 1992 when the Bruins moved their affiliate there. The Boston-Providence affiliation has gone on to become the longest uninterrupted such partnership in the AHL at 26 seasons.
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney has relied heavily on Providence to cushion the effects of injuries to several key players in the first month of the season. Through Tuesday, there have been 26 transactions involving eight players between Boston and Providence.
Bruins forward Danton Heinen is one of those players. He has eight points (goal, seven assists) in four games with Providence and seven points (two goals, five assists) in nine NHL games.
A fresh set of eyes from outside the organization can offer a different perspective and Providence has that in goalie Jordan Binnington, who is on loan from the St. Louis Blues.
Despite the roster upheaval, rookie coach Jay Leach has Providence off to a solid start in the very deep Eastern Conference. Providence is 7-4-0-0 with a .636 points percentage that is tied for sixth in the league.
Binnington (6-1, 174 pounds) is 2-1-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage in a key role with Zane McIntyre a regular on the Boston-Providence shuttle.
"[Leach] has been through the [battles] and understands what it's like to be in any position in this league," Binnington said. "He is transparent and good with communication. It's straight-up, and I respect that a lot. I think that's what people need to hear."
Providence has been a stepping stone to an NHL coaching job. Peter Laviolette, Mike Sullivan, Bruce Cassidy and Scott Gordon are among the Providence NHL coaching alumni.
Though Heinen might be in Boston to stay, there are several players that Leach and Bruins management will monitor closely this season:
Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson
The rookie center (6-1, 184 pounds) may not be too long for the AHL. A second-round pick (No. 45) by the Bruins in the 2015 NHL Draft, he has assumed heavy responsibilities already. At age 21, he has shown considerable playmaking ability in the highest league outside of the NHL and has seven points (three goals, four assists) in 11 games.
Cehlarik (6-2, 202) possesses NHL-ready size. Last season as an AHL rookie, he had 38 points (20 goals, 18 assists) in 49 games. Boston has found success drafting in the second and third rounds in recent years, and Cehlarik was a third-round selection (No. 90) in the 2013 draft. An injury has kept the 22-year-old out of the Providence lineup since Oct. 21. He had six points (three goals, three assists) in five games before the injury.
It would have been reasonable to pencil the 25-year-old left wing into Boston lineup. Last season in the St. Louis organization, Agostino (6-0, 202) was the AHL's most valuable player with 83 points (24 goals, 59 assists). However, he did not win a job with the Bruins in training camp and instead headed to Providence, where he has nine points (three goals, six assists) in six AHL games. Injuries and recalls have prevented Leach from using a consistent lineup, but Agostino had been part of a line that featured Forsbacka Karlsson and Cehlarik to start the season and might be the most dangerous in the AHL if it comes back together.
This defenseman (5-9, 174) is always noticeable on the ice. He skates very well and is well-suited for the modern NHL game, and had a strong showing in training camp in his second season as a pro. At 23-years-old with four seasons of NCAA hockey at Boston University, he is much more polished than the average AHL defenseman in his second season. He debuted as a pro with Providence last season and had 32 points (six goals, 26 assists).
At 28 and in his sixth pro season, Cross is no longer a top prospect, but he has held the Providence lineup together for a long time. Providence's captain adds a calm, steady personality on and off the ice, something that any AHL coach appreciates. He has added offensive production to his game in recent seasons as well; he set career highs in goals (12), assists (35), and points (35) last season. He has six points (two goals, four assists) in 11 games to start this season.