Bruins fans should look back on Urho Vaakanainen‘s second season in Providence as a turning point if he lives up to his potential at the National Hockey League level.
Yes, his offensive numbers (four goals and nine assists in 45 games) aren’t anything to write home about. But those who have watched the 21-year-old this year will tell you that he is slowly but surely morphing into a decent shutdown defenseman.
Vaakananinen’s willingness to block shots and engage physically — in corner battles and puck possession fights — has sparked the P-Bruins to allowing the second-fewest goals in the AHL (138).
“It’s basically adapting to the smaller, North American rink. So I think I’ve gotten better at that and have gotten stronger and quicker,” Vaakanainen said. “Overall [I’m] just trying to get better all the time.”
The young Finn showed flashes of maturity in his first season of North American hockey in 2018-19. He collected a respectable 14 points (on four goals and 10 assists) in 30 games, but his biggest on-ice impact that season came in the World Junior Championships where he played a vital role in Finland’s gold-medal run that ended with a victory over the United States.
His progression has finally caught the attention of Boston’s front office. Thus far, Vaakanainen has made the trip up north for seven games with the Bruins, including five this season. While he is still looking for his first point, Vaakanainen has proved he can compete at the highest level, notching 23-25 shifts in four of his five games with the big club.
“He was a 19-year old kid coming over to this league. That’s a tall task but he handled it nicely,” head coach Jay Leach said of Vaakanainen. “This year, he’s certainly matured. He’s taken a step in the right direction and I’m sure he will continue to do so.”
He continues to inch closer toward earning a full-time roster spot in Boston. His next big step toward that goal: matching the offensive production with his puck-moving skills. The P-Bruins sit third in a tight Atlantic Division playoff race heading into the home stretch of the 2019-20 campaign.
But Providence created a little separation from the pack following its impressive six-point weekend. The Baby B’s earned a 4-2 win over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Valentine’s Day and followed that up with a 3-0 shutout of Laval on Sunday before completing their perfect weekend with a 3-2 win over Bridgeport one day later.
“We’ve played pretty good hockey the last few games,” Vaakanainen said after the win over Laval. “I’d we keep playing like this. We can beat anyone so we just have to keep this going.”
Boston’s front office will continue to watch Vaakaninen as he continues to progress in Providence. He received an extended look this season after appearing in his first two career NHL games the year before. Vaakanainen’s positive experiences in his two stints made him eager to work toward another future callup up I-95.
“This year, playing in those five games, it went pretty well,” Vaakaninen said. “Obviously there are faster guys, stronger guys [in the NHL], so you have to be good at all the small details like puck battles, strong in the corners and making the easy play. But most importantly, just keep your feet moving and keep skating.”
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