By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Congratulations Jack Studnicka, your name came up.
You’re just 19 years old, one year removed from being a second-round pick (53rd overall) and you just had a 72-point season (in 66 games) for Oshawa of the OHL, after which you played five games with Providence in the AHL.
And four days after the Bruins’ season ended with a Game 5 loss to Tampa Bay in the second round of the playoffs, your name crossed Don Sweeney’s lips Thursday when the Bruins general manager was explaining whether the Bruins would continue to integrate young players into the lineup after breaking in five rookies on a regular basis this season.
Sweeney was recapping how Jake DeBrusk and Anders Bjork took advantage of their opportunity to jump to the NHL in the fall, and how Ryan Donato earned playing time after he joined the Bruins in March. There could be young players who do the same at the next training camp.
“The younger players in Providence, and even a Jack Studnicka, they’ve all heard that if they’re good enough, they get an opportunity to play and develop,” Sweeney said.
The GM went on to say that the Bruins probably won’t be plugging another handful of rookies into a lineup that could already be one-third second-year players next season. He added that there will have to be enough veterans to balance things out in order to ensure there’s no step back after Boston making it to the East semis this season.
The reason it was interesting that Studnicka’s name came up was because as a 2017 draft pick, one would think he’d be a little farther back in the pecking order (especially since he won’t be eligible to play in the AHL next season). Trent Frederic and Zach Senyshyn should be ahead of him at this point; their names came up later in the press conference. Sweeney isn’t a GM that talks off the cuff. He measures his words and mentioning Studnicka is definitely a signal not only that the player might be ahead of the curve, but that the Bruins aren’t afraid to keep getting younger.
And there’s really no reason at this point to be scared of youth. That’s the way the league is trending, with analytics proving most players (Patrice Bergeron aside) peak in their late 20s and with the emphasis on high-end speed. With so many teams locking up their best players before they hit free agency, devoting large chunks of salary-cap space in that market isn’t wise. Trades are difficult to make and there’s always a chance of losing one that could set your organization back.
The way to go is for teams to keep developing their own players and plugging them in. It’s alright to assess a team’s needs near the trade deadline and pay a hefty ransom for a player like Rick Nash in a trade. But in the summer, players of that caliber aren’t generally available in free agency or in a deal. No need to sign mid-level free agents that could block your youth’s progress. That’s why the Bruins were quiet last summer and signed just Kenny Agostino and Paul Postma.
One would hope that the Bruins could uncover a couple better bargains this summer. Agostino and Postma came cheap but proved the adage “you get what you paid for.”
However, the Bruins didn’t lose anything when those players proved they couldn’t cut it. The youth movement clicked from the outset with DeBrusk, Bjork, Charlie McAvoy and Sean Kuraly contributing right away with Danton Heinen and Matt Grzelcyk joining the fray a short time after. The Bruins have done an outstanding job of drafting talent and also finding players who’ve matured quick enough to step right into the lineup with just a little bit of seasoning. There’s no reason to believe that won’t keep happening. And coach Bruce Cassidy, with help from a championship-tested veteran core, has proven adept at plugging kids in the lineup and making sure they’re in the best position to be successful. Whether it’s the changes he made to the system after he took over as coach, or the ice time he doles out, or the choices he makes deploying players based on where a faceoff takes place, Cassidy knows how to avoid putting too much heat on younger players until they can handle it.
If there’s an obvious, no-brainer trade offer that comes across Sweeney’s phone this summer to upgrade the top four on defense, even if it means trading a young player or two, by all means the GM should make it. But the Nash trade set the Bruins back a little bit by costing them Ryan Lindgren and a first-round pick. Now they’ll try to replenish the coffers with their draft picks and possibly by trading into the top 31 at the draft. By all accounts they’re already pretty loaded with prospects, and maybe that defensive upgrade involves Urho Vaakanainen, Jakub Zboril or Jeremy Lauzon taking the next step in their careers.
“There’s no absolute certainty, even when you draft a player. Buffalo is really excited. They have the first overall pick. That guy could be a potential generational player, and I’m sure they’re excited about it, and we’re excited about our young players,” Sweeney said. “But, the player himself will dictate it. The opportunity will be there. Nobody is boxed out. We have depth.”
These are words that should both warm Bruins fans’ hearts, and be plastered on the wall of every gym and rink that Bruins prospects, including Studnicka, are working out in this summer.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.