Providence Bruins 2016-17 season in review
After a slow first couple of months to the 2016-17 season, the Providence Bruins would surprise many around the American Hockey League by staving off a good Bridgeport Sound Tigers team to clinch a spot in the playoffs in the tough Atlantic Division and then navigate their way past the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy-winning Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and then the reigning Eastern Conference Champion Hershey Bears — coming from behind in both series — to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. It was there that the P-Bruins would fall to the Syracuse Crunch in five games.
The unexpected postseason run and the rapid development in the some of the younger talent in the system not only has fans and the front office of the big club excited, but those of Providence as well.
Despite losing Alexander Khokhlachev and Seth Griffin, both of whom were in the top-three in the AHL in scoring a year ago, having Frank Vatrano, who scored 36 goals in 36 games last season, for only two games during his rehab stint in mid-December, Providence still finished with the ninth highest goal total in the AHL.
Jordan Szwarz, signed by the Bruins to a PTO before getting a full contract in November, led the way with 22 goals and 54 points. Rookies Peter Cehlarik (20 goals), Jake DeBrusk (19) and Danton Heinen and Sean Kuraly (14 each) provided plenty of scoring depth during the year in their first seasons. Heinen led Providence in scoring during the playoffs with 9-9-18 totals. Boxborough’s Wayne Simpson doubled his goal total from last season in his return to Providence, potting 16 goals, while Colby Cave found the back of the net 13 times. In his first season in Providence, defenseman Alex Grant had a career year, finishing second among AHL defensemen with 17 goals and fifth in points with 49. Between recalls, Noel Acciari, Austin Czarnik and Anton Blidh chipped in and brought veteran leadership to the young club.
Defensively, captain Tommy Cross, who became the P-Bruins’ all-time leader in games played on March 18, was solid once again, collecting 12-23-35 totals and a plus-18 rating. Rookie Matt Grzelcyk had a good first season to build on, with 6-26-32 totals as well as a plus-13 rating. Fellow rookie Rob O’Gara and fifth-year veteran Chris Casto also saw plenty of action during the course of the season. Top prospect Charlie McAvoy stopped in Providence before being called up for Boston’s playoff run, collecting two assists in both games he played and looked every bit as good as he did in NHL.
But the real strength of this year’s Providence Bruins came from their goaltending, specifically Zane McIntyre. Though he went winless with Boston, McIntyre was brilliant between the pipes in Providence, leading the league in save percentage at .930 and finishing second in goals against average with 2.03. McIntyre won 15 of his first 16 starts and ended the season with a 21-6-2-1 record with two shutouts. With his stellar play during the season, and due to the NHL deciding not to send its players to the Olympics next year, McIntyre could very well be in contention to be one of Team USA’s netminders.
Malcolm Subban was not necessarily as sharp. The 2012 first round pick had a 11-14-5 record with only a .917 save percentage, but did sport a 2.41 goals against average and had one shutout on the year. Subban finished the season in Syracuse after relieving McIntyre twice and then started in Game 5.
Although Subban and McIntyre were the two main netminders used, Dan Vladar and Anton Khudobin also saw some time and performed well. Vladar went 4-0-2 with a 2.62 GAA, and a .921 save percentage along with one shutout while Khudobin went 7-3-1 with a 2.69 GAA, a .896 save percentage and two shutouts. Together, the four goalies surrendered 188 goals, tied for fifth-fewest in the league.
If there is one area of improvement for the Providence Bruins, let it be this: more production on the power-play. Providence was 11th in the league in power-play percentage at 19.1 percent and 17th in power-play goals with 53. It did not seem to be any better in the postseason, as Providence only cashed in on 15.3 percent of its opportunities with the man advantage.
On the flip side, the P-Bruins gave up the second-fewest shorthanded goals, yielding only 38, and was second in the league in penalty-kill percentage at 86.4 percent. They also netted 10 shorthanded goals, tied for sixth in the AHL.
After being now-Boston head coach Bruce Cassidy’s Assistant for the last five seasons, Kevin Dean steered a team that stumbled a bit out of the gate all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. And with the team in front of him that is only improving, things could very well be looking up for Providence. With the signing of Anders Bjork and Jakub Forsbaka-Karlson and with the arrival of Grzeclyk, DeBrusk, Zach Senyshyn and Ryan Fitzgerald, the young talent will only improve. Acciari, Czarnik, Kuraly, Blidh and Danton Heinen all saw significant time in Boston and will be gunning for full-time spots with the big club.
But with so many players going for only so many spots, Providence will indeed be bringing some talent back next season, barring any trades. Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon could very well be in the mix in the defensive pairings next season, joining and already deep group. Cross will be a free agent this season, so the question remains whether the captain and all-time games played leader will return. And how about the goaltending situation? Is McIntyre ready to be Tuukka Rask’s backup, or will he spend another year in Providence? Has the Bruins front office seen enough of Subban or are they willing to give him at least one more opportunity?
Regardless, not only is their parent-club heading into an interesting offseason, Providence could very well be too.