The Providence Bruins had a solid crop on the back end entering the 2018-19 season. Two first-round draft picks, a second-rounder, the addition of an offensive-minded defenseman with over 100 NHL games and of course Connor Clifton. It was a group that propelled the team to the seventh-best goals against in the league despite a goaltending duo that couldn’t muster a save percentage above .900. The group was able to mix puck-moving ability with defensive responsibility and limit opponents’ chances on a nightly basis.
Depth Tested on Providence Blue Line
The P-Bruins’ depth was tested at all positions this season, and defense was not excluded. Urho Vaakanainen wascalled up and quickly suffered a concussion. Clifton played 53 games in a Providence sweater before eventually making a permanent home in Boston come playoff time. Clifton finished as the leading scorer on the team among defensemen, with six goals and 21 assists, thanks in part to games played and his offensive development.
Vaakanainen was poised in his return to the blue line after the concussion setback and even helped Finland capture a World Junior Championship gold medal before rejoining the team. Along with a mid-season call-up and eventual signing of former NHL defenseman Kyle Cumiskey, the duo provided a needed element to the team, kick-starting the attack from the back end.
Providence finished in the lower half of the league in terms of offensive output, and the lack of a true game-breaker up front made the Cumiskey and Vaakanainen contributions even more important. Both can move the puck and their offensive instincts helped generate more even strength chances.
Vaakanainen is, of course, the prospect and perhaps the top on the blue line within the organization. While there’s still room for improvement on the defensive end, the Finn displayed his first-round pick talent in his January return. Over his last 24 games of the season, Vaakanainen tallied four goals and eight assists for 12 points.
It’s tough to mention offensive defensemen without talking about Cooper Zech. Maybe the shine will wear off as it was a limited sample size, but Zech’s contributions were highlighted by the goal of the playoffs for Providence against the Charlotte Checkers, a coast-to-coast individual effort against the eventual Calder Cup champions.
Zech’s contribution was more than just one goal, as the rookie was a steadying force late in the season after joining Providence. At 5-foot-9, the Torey Krug comparison is impossible to ignore. Obviously, he’s not Krug, but Zech played with an immediate poise that was impressive for a player fresh off of just one season at Ferris State University.
Plenty Left to Prove for P-Bruins Returnees
Including Clifton, there are eight defensemen under contract to Boston entering next season. Unless there’s a move, the defense looks to be a key component heading into 2019-20 when it comes to generating offense. Vaakanainen and Zech, if he continues his late-season form, will be a fun duo to watch.
The two offensive left-shot defensemen won’t play together, but the organization has the pieces in place to make some fun combinations on the back end. Jeremy Lauzon, although another left-shot defenseman, could make a big jump at the AHL level next season. After an injury-shortened 2017-18 campaign, Lauzon started to find his game this season.
Lauzon received a call-up and played 16 NHL games this season, In another organization, he may get more of a chance, but he has the makings of a defenseman that will endear himself to Boston fans. He can be nasty when he needs to be and is comfortable with the puck. The P-Bruins probably needed more out of the defenseman in the playoffs, but coming off a healthy summer next season will be huge for Lauzon.
Jakub Zboril will be right up there with Lauzon as a player with a lot to prove before he enters restricted free agency. The first-round pick was outplayed by Lauzon this season and the organization will be hoping for more next season.
When picking apart the P-Bruins 2018-19 defensive group, it’s hard to complain. The organization has stockpiled talent at the position. Add in veterans like Stuart Percy and Chris Breen and it was one of the better groups in the league. Decisions will have to be made on the two veterans, but the P-Bruins are in a rare position in the AHL where most of the defensive group looks set to return next season.
Boston has eight defensemen, including Clifton, slated to return in 2019-20. The P-Bruins may lose the two veterans but will also return depth in Emil Johansson and Wiley Sherman. Unless moves are made in the offseason, Providence is poised to return one of the better defensive lineups in the AHL.
The P-Bruins will likely undergo changes and have a different look at other positions, but the defense will have plenty of familiar faces in 2019-20. With this season’s emergence of Clifton and Matt Grzelcyk the season before, it’s a matter of time before the next call-up may break through and stay. There will be competition next season to be the one to make the jump, which should make for some exciting hockey in Providence.