When a team is in cap hell, they desperately need cheap depth players to emerge and provide value that exceeds their cap hit. These value contracts are vital to success in the NHL. Look no further than some of the key young players on teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals in recent seasons. The Boston Bruins are in a tough spot with their salary cap, and have multiple holes to fill in their lineup. The Bruins also have prospects that can step up and alleviate these concerns.
The Bruins announced their 2019 Prospect Challenge roster on Tuesday. The group has a handful of invites and players that won’t impact the NHL roster in 2019-20, but there are a handful of players that could play a role on the big club. Who could make an NHL impact this season? What makes these players NHL candidates?
F Trent Frederic
Frederic, the 29th pick in 2016, made his NHL debut last season and looked like he belonged. He might be the closest of the Bruins prospects to the NHL. The depth of the Bruins’ forward group forced him back to Providence, and he didn’t return to play in the postseason. Frederic has the confidence that 2019-20 will be the year he breaks through as a NHL’er. He has a lot of things working in his favor to make that a reality.
Frederic counts just $925,000 against the cap and can fill a bottom-six center role. He has the ability to play a physical game, has two-way acumen and can help on the penalty kill. Frederic could potentially take the fourth line center spot, allowing Sean Kuraly to switch to the wing. He could also start on the wing himself, providing the club with a fifth center on the roster in case of injury. He’ll need to prove he can provide secondary scoring, however.
F Anders Bjork
A prolific scorer in college, Bjork hasn’t figured it out as a pro just yet. Injury has played a big role in his slow development. Bjork missed significant time with another injury in 2018-19, but is expected to be “full go” for camp. After losing Marcus Johansson to free agency and with consistency questions surrounding Danton Heinen, Bjork has a chance to make his mark.
A potential value contract with a cap hit of just $925,000, Bjork could fill a top-six role. He’s got the shot and the offensive ability, but just hasn’t stayed healthy. A strong camp, starting with a good showing in Buffalo, would go a long way. Bjork’s goal scoring ability could be a sight for sore eyes in the Bruins’ middle six.
F Jack Studnicka
Not many are talking about him, but Studnicka scored 83 points in 60 regular season OHL games. He added eleven more points in eleven postseason contests. Studnicka was an impact player in the best junior league in the world, and turns pro with a ton of confidence. Studnicka has a combination of speed and skill that fits perfectly with today’s NHL. His cap hit fits the value deal template, and his skill could make him a fit right away.
The Bruins needed more speed and skill in the postseason. They had one line of offense, and when the St. Louis Blues slowed them down the Bruins had no answer. A player like Studnicka has the ability to provide a spark for a team with issues beyond the first line.
D Urho Vaakanainen
What happens if both Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo don’t sign before opening night? Someone will need to step up. Alex Petrovic has been added on a PTO, but he leaves something to be desired. Vaakanainen, a first-round pick in 2017, has the all-around skills needed to partially fill the hole. He has the size and speed to handle the NHL game, and showed well in 30 AHL contests a season ago. Without doubt, Vaakanainen is the best of the Bruins defensive prospects in the system.
Vaakanainen, two full seasons after being drafted, should be close to the NHL anyway. He should dominate this prospect event. His high ceiling, cheap cap hit and sound all-around game make him a real solid pick for the roster if the club can’t solve the RFA issues.
The Best Group Yet?
Drawing conclusions like this is a fool’s game. That said, the Boston Bruins could see as many as four players start their season playing in the Prospect Challenge before heading to the NHL. That shows the depth of the system this team has built. It also shows the holes still needing attention and the opportunity that will be there in training camp.
Most fans blow off the prospect tournaments because they don’t impact the coming season. That won’t be the case in Boston this year. The Bruins have multiple players with immediate NHL aspirations heading to Buffalo.