By Matt Kalman
BOSTON (CBS) — The Bruins lost forward Loui Eriksson, who scored 30 goals last season, to the Vancouver Canucks as an unrestricted free agent over the summer. So all second-year forward Frank Vatrano has to do is step into the lineup as a second-year pro and replace Eriksson.
Well, not exactly.
The Bruins aren’t crazy enough to believe that one year of experience has turned the 22-year-old into someone who can pick up all the slack after Eriksson’s departure. David Backes, David Pastrnak, a prospect or two and maybe even a recommitted Jimmy Hayes are all going to be tasked with making sure the decision to let Eriksson walk doesn’t get added to the dumb column.
But Vatrano could be a major part of the solution and make life on general manager Don Sweeney and coach Claude Julien a lot easier.
To Vatrano, becoming a regular part of the Bruins’ top six or top nine forwards is about more than just scoring. He wants to be the type of reliable player every NHL coach, especially Julien, wants in the lineup.
“Last year was my first full year. So now to kind of come in knowing what to expect and having a year of pro underneath my belt and kind of knowing what it takes to play at the next level and to be a complete player. So I think going into summer that was kind of my mentality, to be a complete player,” Vatrano said after an informal Bruins practice at Warrior Ice Arena on Thursday. “And it’s something that I’ve been working at all summer and now it’s nice to be back and work at it even more with the guys.”
Vatrano had eight goals and 11 points in 39 NHL games as a rookie. He also obliterated the American Hockey League with 36 goals 36 games for the Bruins’ Providence farm club. If the results from last year are an indication, Vatrano has already outgrown the AHL so the rest of his development will probably come at the NHL level.
Like any first-year pro, Vatrano had his struggles. He not only went through scoring droughts but had some rocky shifts in his own end. But there’s a big difference between a player without the ability to be responsible and one lacking the will to do it. Vatrano has the will. He just needs to improve, the way most 22-year-olds, even those drafted high and not signed as collegiate free agents, need to learn and grow.
His focus on playing better without the puck didn’t affect Vatrano’s proclivity for getting his shot off. He landed 99 shots on goal in those 39 NHL games. That should continue into his sophomore season.
“I think it’s just all a mindset,” he 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 followed up his first professional season by thriving on the international stage at the 2016 IIHF World Championship in Russia. He forged chemistry with No. 1 pick Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and finished with eight points in 10 games during Team USA’s run to the bronze medal game. If Vatrano can duplicate that chemistry with Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci, the rest of the Bruins’ lineup can more easily fall into place and they’ll be ready to at least be a top-10 offense again.
There’s no doubt Vatrano believes he can be the answer to some of the Bruins’ problems.
“Yeah, I’m obviously excited for the opportunity,” he said. “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 be put me in I’m going to play my hardest and be that complete player that I want to be.”
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.