BOSTON - Boston Bruins forward Frank Vatrano has a great chance to earn a full-time job in the NHL at age 22.
The Bruins lost left wing Loui Eriksson, who signed as a free agent with the Vancouver Canucks on July 1. Then they failed to woo college free agent left wing Jimmy Vesey, a Harvard grad who chose the New York Rangers. Behind Brad Marchand and Matt Beleskey, the Bruins have at least one spot open for a left wing with offensive upside who also can be responsible in the defensive zone.
Vatrano, who took part in an informal skate with a handful of teammates at Warrior Ice Arena on Thursday, said he didn't follow Boston's offseason transactions too closely. But he understands what could be waiting for him if he performs up to expectations at his second NHL training camp.
"I'm obviously excited for the opportunity," said Vatrano (5-feet-9, 201 pounds), who had eight goals and three assists in 39 NHL games last season. "But at the end of the day, it's up to the coaches and management. I've just got to work hard and prove to them I can play in that role. But whatever role they want to put me in, I'm going to play my hardest and be that complete player that I want to be."
After leaving UMass two years early, Vatrano took pro hockey by storm last season, when he led the American Hockey League with 36 goals in 36 games for Providence and finished with 55 points (19 assists).
Scoring didn't come as easy for him in the NHL. Vatrano increased his goal total to five with a hat trick on Dec. 18, when he was responsible for all the offense in a 3-0 victory over the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, but scored one goal in his next 13 games. He was demoted to Providence of the American Hockey League on Jan. 21 and didn't return to Boston for good until March 22.
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Vatrano took the lessons from his last stint with Providence to heart, and finished with two goals in the Bruins' final nine games.
"I went back down to Providence to kind of get some confidence back and work at the things I needed to work on at this level to become a complete player," he said. "I think once I got my second time around, I knew what I needed to do to be reliable in all areas of the ice. So I think that second time coming around was kind of an eye-opener, and I knew what I needed to do to keep a full-time roster spot."
Vatrano's dedication to the two-way game earned trust from Bruins coach Claude Julien. And along the way, Vatrano never lost his knack for offense. He finished with 99 shots on goal in 39 NHL games.
"I think it's just all a mindset," Vatrano said. "I think going into a game you know the things you do good. Then again, you've got to think about the things you don't do so well. So sometimes you've got to pay extra attention to it, but I think it just comes and it will just come naturally once you get into the habit of doing it."
Vatrano caught the eye of USA Hockey in time to be a late addition to the roster for the 2016 IIHF World Championship in Russia in May. The U.S. reached the semifinals and lost in the bronze medal game, but the young squad surprised many. Vatrano was a driving force, found chemistry with No. 1 pick Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and finished with three goals and five assists in 10 games.
Although the Bruins would rather have seen Vatrano continue his development in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the forward's international experience could help them this season, when they attempt to return to the postseason for the first time since 2014.
"I think I maybe a little bit exceeded my expectations," Vatrano said. "I didn't know who I was really going to play with. I was kind of a late addition to the roster, so I didn't really know where I was going to fit in. But they slid me right in to one of those top-six roles and I played with some good players, guys that move the puck and put the puck to the net.
"So I think some of the guys that I played with really helped me out, and really I think it really brought my confidence, knowing I can play at the level going into this season."