As Zdeno Chara’s captain’s practice wound down late Friday morning at Ristuccia Arena, I caught a glimpse of some of the B’s rookie camp attendees watching from the bleachers. Some nonchalantly enjoyed what was a very loose almost jovial affair, some smoldered with almost envious determination – hungering for membership in the NHL brotherhood, and some looked on with quiet reservation – realizing that their lifelong goals were suddenly within reach.
The first day of camp was a relatively easy affair – certainly a far cry from the near-insanity of the power-skating days at Development Camp in July. Players took part in several breakout drills, working on their on-the-move passing and positioning. Bruins’ top prospect, defenseman Dougie Hamilton, looked particularly sound – almost equaling former Boston University Terrier David Warsofsky (who’s certainly more of a straight offensive d-man) for tape-to-tape passes in stride.
Hamilton’s quality showed all over the ice. In the drills, he was exceedingly tough to beat one-on-one, as he does a great job channeling attackers into easily-defendable lanes. When he got caught, he almost always has another gear to get back into position. He does such a good job of managing time and space effectively – it’s pretty easy to see that with continued coaching support, this young man’s going to be a stud on the blueline.
Asked about his weight, Dougie said, “I gained a couple pounds… I was 193 or 4 here…” this constitutes a 5 or 6 – pound gain for the B’s still very svelte top prospect. Hamilton felt much more self-assured this time around coming to Boston: “It’s a lot easier coming hear the second time… coming in in the summer is a little bit tougher – you don’t know anybody. You start to know people and know the staff and know where to go.”
When asked whether he was conceding that a NHL job (this year) would be out-of reach given the strength and depth of the B’s defensive corps, Hamilton said: “No. I just want to come in and play my best. Obviously, like you said there’s a lot of good d-men, but I think I’m just gonna show my stuff and what I can do, and that’s what I’ll do…For me, I just play my game and I don’t really worry about everybody else.”
What did you take from the world junior camp? Dougie smirked, saying, “There are a lot of good players in Canada!”
But it wasn’t a one-man show in terms of defenders. Marc Cantin, a 21-year-old the B’s signed as a free agent after several strong years in the OHL again brought a physical presence and steady defending. It’s debatable if his offensive holes will prevent a jump to the Bigs down the line, but I feel that he’s got decent enough puck-moving chops to give him a shot.
Zach McKelvie, more than eight years the senior of several of the campers, made another step forward towards his long-deferred dream of pro hockey success. With his excellent skating (certainly still his best “plus” skill) and stalwart play on the back end, this West Point Grad is certainly and at long last on the path, but time will tell if his chances at his ‘advanced’ age have withered.
On the offensive end, Ryan Spooner did not relinquish his crown as the most dazzling Neo-Bruin forward. The slender pivot was all over the ice, setting up brilliant breakouts at one end and dishing and dashing at the other. He even turned on the physicality – twice sending diminutive defender Warsofsky to the ice in one shift.
After two sessions totaling nearly an hour and a half of practice were over, Spooner said, “When I came in last year I had no idea what was going to happen and I had a good camp… this year I’m gonna just try and take it day by day… step by step.”
Spooner mentioned that getting on the ice after the Stanley Cup Champs “is a bit intimidating” but he “hopes that he can be a part of that one day.”
The Knight Train (Jared) was on schedule yet again, as well. The B’s prospect was impressive once more with his north-south play and solid shooting. In what seems to be a bi-annual event, he bowled over another netminder in Day One (as he did in Dev. Camp to Michael Hutchinson) and refuses to take the path of least resistance.
“Yeah, I feel a lot more confident this year,” Knight said. “Last year was a learning experience. Now I know what to expect, so it’s a lot better.”
Knight mentioned he’s working towards being a rounded, two-way player: “Last year I was more of an offensive guy. This year my defensive game has come a long ways. I know you’re not going to make the team if you’re just offensive-minded, so you gotta have that other element to the game.
Responding to a question about his mindset this year and if it changed now that there is a chance he could make the team, Knight said, “Absolutely… last year I came in and I wasn’t signed… this year I’m signed. So anything’s possible, I just gotta work hard.” Being signed, he said, gives him confidence.
“This camp, it’s all about making the team… there’s no friends out there. You’re going out there and competing against one another.”
Alex Khokhlachev seemed to have made big strides (in terms of fitness) since July. The Birthday Boy’s skating looked a fair shade better and while it wasn’t exactly Besa Tsintsadze (power-skater extraordinaire) leading drills today – Koko didn’t appear to be sucking wind. As a result, I feel that this was a much better look at the player he could become: And I wasn’t disappointed. Slashing around the ice with excellent edgework, Koko looked the part of a magician – opening holes for himself and teammates out of thin air!
Elsewhere among the forwards, Development Camp standout Anthony Camara was strong on his skates and played within expectations. Collegiate free agent signing, Carter Camper was a stud and despite his size he was a menace on the ice. The former Miami (OH) Redhawk and Hobey Baker finalist made some deft moves that completely crossed over several defensemen. Calle Ridderwall, graduate of Notre Dame, is pegged with a grinder’s upside, but the kid displayed some nice moves on Friday.
Yannick Riendeau, a B’s minor-leaguer who spent just under 30 games in Providence over the past two years (and considerable time in the ECHL) showed a lot of why there’s room to be excited and worried about him simultaneously. Riendeau’s offensive chops were quite visible in several creative and skillful plays in the offensive zone. However, his skating is extremely suspect (if he’s not with or ahead of the play, he had a very hard time catching up) and with his small size and lack of strength or grit – he’s got a tough road ahead of him.
After the practice ended, Bruins’ Assistant GM Jim Benning talked to the press about the campers, initially commending the kids from Dev. Camp on their improved fitness levels (probably a subtle nod towards Spooner and Khokhlachev). “It’s a big step from playing junior hockey and college hockey [to the NHL]… it’s a learning process for them.” Later, Benning mentioned how Khokhlachev’s body fat had come down a lot since Development Camp.
When asked if the kids who got a ‘taste’ of pro hockey at the end of last season were better for it, Benning said: “They understand the speed and the strength involved… as you keep going up the ladder…and I’m sure they’re going to put in a good showing.”
All in all, it was a great day one of Camp, and an excellent start in prepping these pre-Bruins for their back-to-back games with the Islanders’ rookies in Nassau Memorial Coliseum. While talking about potentially facing his friend, teammate and fellow 2011 first-rounder Ryan Strome in the upcoming rookie games on Long Island, Hamilton quipped, “If he has his head down coming across the middle, I’ll take him down!”
Bob is a Boston Bruins Correspondent for The Hockey Writers. He lives in the Boston Metro Area with his wife, Amanda and their five-year-old son, Cormac.