By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) – Just moments after selecting Finnish defenseman Urho Vaakanainen with the No. 18 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft in Chicago on Friday, Bruins general manager Don Sweeney explained the selection to NBCSN presenter Kathryn Tappen.
“You can’t have enough of them,” Sweeney said, referring to defensemen.
Some clichés hold true, and Sweeney’s response to Tappen is one of those that always does. Sweeney was specifically referring to the Bruins’ loss in six games to Ottawa in the first round of the playoffs this spring that required Boston to use eight defensemen after starting the series without Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo. He also could’ve been referring to the organization. Sweeney can now slot Vaakanainen behind last year’s first-round pick Charlie McAvoy in the pipeline to the Bruins’ top four.
When you mix in Vaakanainen with McAvoy, Rob O’Gara, Jeremy Lauzon, Jakub Zboril, Matt Grzelcyk and Ryan Lindgren, Sweeney has clearly restocked that position. Now the urgency should be even greater to make a trade for immediate help on defense.
After being unable to trade down in the first round, Sweeney passed on a few forwards at 18, including St. Cloud State’s Ryan Poehling, whose scouting report reads much like that of the Bruins’ second first-round pick from 2016 Trent Frederic; and Kailer Yamamoto, who had 99 points in 65 games last season for Spokane (WHL) but stands just 5-foot-7.
Sweeney called Vaakanainen a guy who covers a lot of ice, and scouts and draft experts laud him for his smooth skating and improved offensive game. He’s 6-foot-1, 188 pounds and coincidentally is a left-handed shot (something the Bruins could use right now). He was a top-four defenseman in the Finnish Elite League, so his game should be ready for the pros pretty soon.
“He was very good,” a scout told Recutes.ca. “This guy is pretty poised and makes a play, has some power play ability. He showed a little bit of an edge to him, he was a little more gritty.”
What might make him more valuable to the Bruins is where he comes from because they won’t be constrained by Canadian Hockey League rules that require difficult decisions throughout a player’s development, and won’t have to try to coax him from a NCAA team down the road. The Bruins can mostly dictate the pace of the development process.
And with that in mind, Sweeney has the leeway to aggressively pursue some of the left-shot, top-four candidates I and others have talked and written about for weeks. Vegas’ Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt are obvious targets, and Minnesota’s Marco Scandella’s name resurfaced in the days since the Golden Knights passed over him in the expansion draft.
Sweeney has positioned himself well with talented prospects at different stages of their development playing in various leagues that are governed by different rules. He can afford to have patience with a player who wants to stay in college or is forced to go back to junior. The Bruins can spread out the players’ professional and NHL arrivals and, just as importantly, their entry-level contracts. Most vitally, however, Sweeney can swing a major trade without leaving the cupboard bare. The risk factor involved in a potential trade has been reduced because there are prospects that can fill in behind the ones that are shipped out.
It’s his plan come to life — he can continue to build for the present and future at the same time. There’s no telling if Vaakanainen will fulfill his potential, but on his draft day he provides the Bruins with value in more ways than one.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.