Frank Vatrano is playing like a man possessed.
The American Hockey League has been a personal playground for the undrafted free agent from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. His first professional season as a hockey player has been filled with red lights.
In just 33 games, Vatrano has a League-leading 33 goals including three hat tricks in the AHL and one with the Boston Bruins. To put that in perspective, the next closest goal scorer (Mike Sislo in Albany) has 27 goals in 54 games.
He has six fewer goals in 21 more games played than Vatrano. Let that sink in for a minute.
His torrid start to the season down in Providence earned him a spell of 30 games with the parent club from November to January, scoring six goals and generating some chemistry in the bottom-six with young center Ryan Spooner.
However, Vatrano hasn’t seen time in Boston since the middle of January. He continues to make headlines in the AHL while Boston’s recent road trip through California yielded just two goals from three games. It was a case where they could have used Vatrano’s hot hand to muster up a stronger attack than they put forward.
His recent call-up on Tuesday is a sign that coach Claude Julien recognizes that when his top-six forwards can’t generate anything offensively, his bottom-six haven’t been able to pick up the slack.
Jimmy Hayes in the last 10 games: 0-0–0. Only forward without a point since the trade deadline.
— Fluto Shinzawa (@FlutoShinzawa) March 17, 2016
The personification of this is in the form of 6’8 Jimmy Hayes. The Dorchester native has been a healthy scratch the last two games and has been a ghost on the ice. As Fluto Shinzawa of The Boston Globe points out, he’s the only Bruins forward that is yet to score a point since the trade deadline.
In other words, he’s gone over three weeks without putting his name on the scoresheet. Slightly concerning.
However, it’s not just Hayes who’s been invisible. His entire line with Matt Beleskey and Spooner, according to Bruins Stats on Twitter, has put up donuts for the entire month of March. Considering the top-six accounted for a grand total of four points on their recent California swing, it may have served the bottom-six well to pick up the slack.
With nine games left in the season, Julien has to find a way to get his bottom-six producing again. Inserting Vatrano into the lineup is a good start. If one thing is clear from his first rodeo, the kid likes to shoot the puck and find the net – two things the Bruins need.
Pairing The Kids
The most sensible place for Vatrano to play is alongside Spooner on the third line.
After all, the Pittsburgh Penguins defense may still be having nightmares about the night they combined for seven points back in December. Vatrano scored his first NHL hat-trick that night while Spooner racked up four assists in Boston’s 6-2 victory over the Pens in Pittsburgh. It was a promising sign for Bruins fans to see the two “kids” play so well together that it could be a permanent pairing for next season.
It’s reminiscent of the combination of Spooner and then-rookie David Pastrnak last season. Combined, the two carried the Bruins offense for the final six weeks and kept the Bs alive in the postseason chase all the way to the end. They may have been an adventure in their own zone and gave Julien a headache but there’s no doubt Spooner and Pastrnak were on the same page offensively.
Spooner and Vatrano are bound to be liabilities in the defensive end again if paired together but, at this stage of the game, Julien can’t afford to take any chances. After all, a second consecutive season of missing the playoffs lingers in the back of upper management’s mind. With it would surely some dire consequences for coach Julien. He has to pull out all the stops to ensure that doesn’t happen.
With Boston’s third line struggling to generate anything, the time is now for Vatrano to come in and get them going. Bruins fans are hopeful the red lights he’s been lighting in Providence will make their way up Interstate 95 to the Garden.
Joe is a writer covering the Boston Bruins. He is a lifelong native of Massachusetts and is currently a content writer/manager for a newsletter at a Human Services Agency. Joe can be found on Twitter: @JoeCherryTHW