Thursday, April 12, 2012

P-Bruins’ Future Begins Early In Final Weekend Of 2011-12

The Providence Bruins can and should accept only one rerun of 2010-11. But they can take one.

As he was for the final weekend of last year’s regular season, high-ranking Boston prospect Ryan Spooner is on hand for a valuable blade-whetting twirl at the AHL level. Ditto a host of fellow late-season additives out of the Canadian major junior and U.S. college ranks.

Although the race is not yet mathematically lost, it is safe to assume Bruce Cassidy’s first season as head coach will virtually Xerox his last as Rob Murray’s assistant. An atrocious start will make the subsequent vain cramming session just that en route to a Calder Cup playoff no-show.

The P-Bruins, currently No. 11 in the Eastern Conference, cannot afford to miss more than one out of six possible points this weekend if they are to garner bonus action in 2012. And that’s assuming the eighth-place Portland Pirates simultaneously lose their two remaining games in regulation while the Manchester Monarchs and Adirondack Phantoms stall.

And yes, when the Bruins were still writhing like a diver in a rogue fishnet circa New Year’s, this author was among those pronouncing Cassidy a one-and-done skipper. Old patterns were signaling the need for a complete change in coaching personnel if Providence was to stop its playoff drought at four years in 2013.

But upon further review, it is worth giving one more look at the man who worked with Murray to succeed Scott Gordon and take a 2008-09 team bolstered by Tuukka Rask, Johnny Boychuk, Brad Marchand and Adam McQuaid to the Eastern Conference finals.

All Cassidy will need is a relative modicum of offseason turnover and more consistent padded personnel in 2012-13. Cassidy must prove that he and his pupils have learned how to weather adversity next season, but a little more seasoning that will come naturally and a little less of an injury bug ought to help.

Of those who figure to be with the team this weekend who were here for opening night Oct. 7, 16 individual skaters have combined to lose 297 AHL man-games to injury or promotion to Boston. The three most noteworthy have been veteran forward Stefan Chaput (62 missed games), captain Trent Whitfield (25), sophomore blueliner Matt Bartkowski (23) and second-year scorer Max Sauve (37).

Of those who have a contract with the parent club through next season, as many as 19 project to see the majority of next season in the AHL. That includes Spooner, fellow OHL winger Jared Knight and the newly signed defenseman Tommy Cross.

Between this April and a brief icebreaker last spring, Spooner has already logged a point in four out of five AHL games. And, at least in the eyes of Hockey’s Future, he is the second-best up-and-coming Bruins forward behind Knight. Both will finally be eligible to join the AHL full-time next autumn.

Cross, who just captained Boston College to its second NCAA championship in his four-year career. His own substantive injury history may now be a comfortably distant memory and his next step will be to validate his position as the third-ranked rising Boston blueliner behind Bartkowski and Dougie Hamilton.

And between Cross, Michigan’s Luke Glendening and Michigan State’s Torey Krug, the Bruins have three late-season signees who are fresh of wearing the “C” for their respective college teams.

Glendening may or may not be back after his amateur tryout. But Krug, who went straight from the Spartans to the NHL at the tail-end of March, figures to meet congested traffic behind established Boston defensemen.

A total of 10 Providence players are set to hit free agency come July 1: Jamie Arniel, Bartkowski, Andrew Bodnarchuk, Chaput, goaltender Adam Courchaine, Zach Hamill, Lane MacDermid, Nathan McIver and Zach McKelvie.

Based simply on their longevity, it’s hard to envision Hamill or Bodnarchuk returning for a fifth year in the Divine City. The former will be easier to part with given his failure to grow into his No. 7 overall draft pick’s frame while the potential departure of Bodnarchuk, as well as McIver, would deal a blow to an already unripe defense.

Arniel’s egregious inconsistency in his third professional season does not set the right tone to earn an extension with the Black and Gold. But assuming Knight and Spooner make the impact expected of them and jell in with rising sophomores Carter Camper, Craig Cunningham and Calle Ridderwall and veterans like Sauve, Jamie Tardif and Whitfield, Arniel should be comfortably expendable.

Hennessy and Chaput are also uncertainties, but based on the impression he made in his handful of NHL appearances last month, MacDermid ought to be extended. And the third-year fan favorite should still see the bulk of his action in Providence for the indefinite future.

The same would apply to Khudobin in net, assuming both Rask and Tim Thomas are back in Boston. But Michael Hutchinson has something to build upon with a 2.35 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in 27 appearances.

Accordingly, while Khudobin continues to play his emergency role in Boston, Hutchinson should play at least two, if not all three games this weekend. And all those playing in front of him should be newbies under contract and, with a few exceptions, established P-Bruins who are not pending UFAs or RFAs.

Last year’s 5-1-0 run through April and three-game sweep of the final weekend was ultimately a tease for, in part, reasons detailed above. But with the likes of Spooner and Cross coming to stay and Knight soon to follow, Cassidy and Co. deserve one last mulligan.