Bruins’ Jack Ahcan Has Earned NHL Minutes

The Boston Bruins may have found another good one in undrafted free agent defender Jack Ahcan. The Minnesota-native signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Bruins out of St. Cloud State in March of 2020 after posting 21 goals and 103 points in 144 games over four collegiate seasons.

Jack Ahcan, Boston Bruins
Jack Ahcan has played very well in his limited opportunities with the Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There was a lot to like about Ahcan’s game coming out of college. A very solid skater with tremendous offensive instincts, Ahcan provides a lot of skill from the back-end.

As a puck-moving defender, he has many of the traits necessary to be a factor in the NHL. One of the perceived drawbacks with Ahcan, unfortunately, has always been his size. Though the game has changed and size has taken a backseat to skill in many instances, there’s still something to be said about being slightly undersized when it comes to defending bigger players at the NHL level.

It may not be fair that bigger players are granted more opportunities simply because they’re big and perhaps not as skilled nor possess the highest hockey IQ, but that’s still the reality in the NHL.

At 5 foot 9 and 180 pounds, Ahcan isn’t the smallest guy in the room, but he’s also certainly not the biggest either. It isn’t impossible for smaller players to succeed, they just need to fine-tune certain aspects of their game and learn the necessary traits required to adapt and play around the size issue.

Ahcan Following in Krug and Grzelcyk’s Footsteps

This is something that Bruins’ head coach Bruce Cassidy alluded to recently when speaking about Ahcan and finding certain similarities to his career trajectory in Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk – two defenders who have excelled in the Bruins system despite not having prototypical size.

“When Grizz first came up, he was a little reticent to push the pace or try to make some plays with the puck that certainly he was capable of,” Cassidy said. “He just had to find out what he could do at this level versus the American League. I think Jack’s going through a little bit of that now.”

As Cassidy mentioned, a lot of the adjustments necessary for Ahcan will come from learning game by game and even shift by shift what sort of differences there were between the collegiate level, the AHL level and now the NHL level. As far as the defensive side of the game, Cassidy would elaborate on what was needed to be done in that regard as well.

“He’s still going to have to defend, but for those guys – and Torey [Krug] was in the same boat, they’ve been doing it their whole life against bigger guys. To me, that’s not a big adjustment sometimes because they had to do it in college when they’re 17, 18 at times. So they’ve probably learned through hockey IQ how to defend bigger guys for a long time. Now it’s a matter of, ‘OK, what can I get away with, how can I get away with my strengths as a smaller guy and a puck-mover and still defend well enough?’ So that’s the challenge.”

Cassidy has always spoken candidly about his players. Whether it’s areas that they are excelling or areas where they need to improve, he hasn’t hesitated to light a fire under his players to see how they respond. To Ahcan’s credit, he hasn’t just been listening to his coach, he’s actively been using the critiques and notes in-game and has noticed the results.

“What he mentioned this morning, I kind of just kind of took it to heart and had more confidence in myself tonight,” Ahcan said after the Bruins 4-3 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on March 10. “Moving my feet, making plays, cherishing every time I get the puck, making the right foot. Just little things like that, and I think it helped out quite a bit.”

The result? Ahcan’s first career goal – a goal that exhibited exactly the kind of skill he possesses and can provide to an NHL club.

Of course, it wasn’t all good for Ahcan on the night as all three Blackhawks’ goals came with him on the ice. That doesn’t necessarily make him responsible for each, but it does provide more context than just saying “he scored a nice goal, play him more.” Still, learning from the good and from the bad both have equal value for a young player.

Ahcan Has Earned Regular NHL Minutes

There have been a lot of learning experiences for Ahcan and there will continue to be many going forward. What’s been impressive, though, is that he hasn’t ever hung his head after a bad shift or a bad game. Instead, he’s taken everything in stride and has seemingly bettered himself for it every time.

Given everything he’s shown in his very limited sample size in the NHL (he’s played just eight games total at the NHL level, five of which coming this season), Ahcan has earned himself regular NHL minutes until he proves otherwise. Given the way some of the players on the Bruins’ back-end have played this season, it’s certainly interesting to see players like Connor Clifton and Derek Forbort get more consistent minutes over Ahcan.

Admittedly, Forbort plays a very different role than Ahcan and his size at 6 foot 4 and 219 pounds is attractive when it comes to shutting down bigger NHL defenders on paper. In practice, though, Forbort isn’t a better option than Ahcan right now based on the sample size the Bruins have. As it stands, the Bruins appear to be using Ahcan as a replacement for Grzelcyk whenever he’s absent from the lineup but seem reluctant to play him otherwise.

Derek Forbort Boston Bruins
Derek Forbort is had an up-and-down first season with the Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With Ahcan’s contract expiring at the end of this season, he’s set to be a restricted free agent. He won’t command any sort of big-money this offseason given his limited game action, but the Bruins should make a decision sooner than later on whether or not he does factor into their long-term plans.

The issue isn’t necessarily that Ahcan absolutely needs to be in the lineup this season (though he’s played his way into it). It’s more the fact that there isn’t any sort of clear path to regular NHL minutes for him in Boston even beyond this season.

With players like Grzeclyk, Urho Vaakanainen, Jakub Zboril, Mike Reilly, Forbort and any potential trade deadline acquisition ahead of him on the left side of the defense, Ahcan’s immediate future is up in the air. The Bruins could look to package some players to make room for him, or they could look to move Ahcan himself in a deal to upgrade a more immediate need this season. The latter may not be ideal if Ahcan can continue to develop into a bonafide top-four puck-moving defender, but clearing up a log jam and getting value for a player makes sense.

Related: Bruins’ 3 Biggest Trade Deadline Needs

Again, eight games into an NHL career may be way too quick to assume that he could become a top-four player on a good NHL team. The only way to really see what a team has in a player, though, is to play him when he earns the minutes. If he falters, the Bruins have options to replace him and let him regain his wits before giving it another try.

With the trade deadline less than a week away, some questions could be answered sooner than later. More likely than not, though, Ahcan will likely remain a Bruins through the offseason and the team will continue to develop him and see what he can become. Hopefully the 24-year-old gets a regular NHL opportunity soon, though, as he’s earned the chance.

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