By Kirk Luedeke
Fresh off of the Boston Bruins’ run to the 2013 Stanley Cup Final series, there isn’t a lot of room for new additions to the team’s defensive corps, but a trio of prospects in Matt Grzelcyk (Charlestown, Mass.), Rob O’Gara and Linus Arnesson show significant long-term promise.
O’Gara, a fifth round selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, is the veteran of the group at the tender age of 20, while Grzelcyk (third round- 2012) and Arnesson (second round- 2013) are right behind him in terms of age and development. All three bring a variety of skills to the mix, and while expecting all three to develop into impact performers for the big team might be a stretch, stranger things have happened. With no rush or sense of urgency, each of the prospects is on the long road to Boston, and eventually could provide the organization talent and flexibility when their time to compete for jobs comes.
“Part of this business is trying to bring in the new,” said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli on the last day of development camp. “You want to develop your talent and bring them in and let them play. Sometimes there’s not room for them and sometimes you use them as chips in deals. You always have to develop and to be at a position where they’re ready to play."
If Arnesson (pictured right) and O’Gara both bring more of a steady presence defensively with good skating chops and the ability to move the puck effectively, Grzelcyk is more of the dynamic, game-breaking puck rusher who leads the offensive charge and can put teams on their heels.
The only thing working against the Boston University sophomore is his size, but after a seamless freshman campaign a year ago en route to Hockey East All-Rookie honors, the 85th overall selection and graduate of the U.S. National Team Development Program is proving himself to be cut from the same kind of mold as current Bruin Torey Krug.
“Obviously, the highlight was getting to be coached by Coach (Jack) Parker,” Grzelcyk said from his home in Charlestown earlier this week. “Especially with it being his last year of a legendary career, that our freshman class was a part of it was huge. I’m grateful to have experienced all I did under him. I’ve heard nothing but great things about Coach (David) Quinn and I can’t wait to get started on the new season.”
The final cut for Team USA’s eventual gold medal-winning under-20 squad last winter, Grzelcyk put up what could easily be said was the best blue line performance of any American in Lake Placid at the World Jr. national evaluation camp earlier this month. Bringing his trademark speed and natural ability to jumpstart the transition game by making difficult outlets look routine, or skating the puck out of his own end himself, Grzelcyk was both productive and effective. His play sent the message that after experiencing the disappointment of just missing out last season, there is no way to deny the 5-foot-9, 180-pounder this time around.
“I think it was a pretty tough situation all in all,” said Grzelcyk of being sent home after traveling to Russia with the team before Phil Housley and his staff opted for the more rugged Pat Sieloff on the final roster. “It’s kind of funny, though—when it happened, I was actually happy to be going home. I consider myself a very competitive person, so there was obvious disappointment (at being cut), but coming out of that experience, it was nothing but a positive thing for me.
“I was able to get back with my college team, and even though we had a bit of a tough stretch with the ‘U’ around that time, those experiences brought us all together. Looking back on everything that happened at the World Jr camps and exhibition games, it all gave me a lot of confidence."
Grzelcyk has done all the right things in his first full year as a Bruins prospect, and he’s on track to raise the bar in his second NCAA season at BU.
“He’s a very dynamic guy,” Providence Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy, who put the prospects through the paces on ice at development camp, said. “There’s room for those guys in the game now. It used to be undersized defensemen were tough but you see more and more of them guys that can move the puck. So he’ll continue to develop there. It’s a great program. When his time comes, then he’ll move on. I’m sure the Bruins are excited about (Grzelcyk).“
Arnesson was also in Lake Placid, skating with Team Sweden’s WJC hopefuls. The 6-foot-1 rearguard played six scoreless world jr. games a year ago in Ufa, Russia after injuries opened the door for the youngster. Although he did not quite live up to expectations that he set as an impressive prospect during the 2011-12 season, one in which he missed the cutoff for the NHL draft in Pittsburgh by about a week, Arnesson came off the board at the end of the second round for Boston, about where projected.
“His type of game really sets up well for the North American game,” Bruins assistant GM Don Sweeney said during development camp. “He’s a combative kid in 1 on 1 situations. He wants to be aggressive in his gap control. He gets pucks. He moves it. He doesn’t look to do the high, high end plays. It’s the really simple, effective plays. You don’t spend a lot of time in your own end as a result. So I suspect he’ll make a good transition when that comes.”
Compared by Bruins European scouting director Juha Holtari to Dennis Seidenberg at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft in Newark, Arnesson’s playing style won’t win him many beauty contests. However, with his smarts, quick footwork, active stick and first-pass ability, he keeps things safe and simple. Winning teams need defenders of his caliber to round out the roster, and so while there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of offensive upside there, less is more with Arnesson.
“The biggest thing that struck me about (Arnesson) was his consistency,” Grzelcyk said of his experiences skating with him at development camp and against him in the various international tournaments and competitions. “I remember that whenever I went up against him, he was the same player, which is a good thing. He kind of reminds me of Pat Sieloff, not in terms of being as exciting with his physical play, but certainly in the way he shuts down forwards and is always in position to make the play. Off the ice, Linus is pretty quiet. He’s not a flamboyant guy in the room, but just goes about his business of playing a steady, hard-working game.”
O’Gara (pictured right) helped lead the Yale Bulldogs to the 2013 NCAA championship, demonstrating a poise and maturity beyond his years after captaining the Milton Academy Mustangs and assisting on the 2011 prep championship-clinching goal. The Long Island native has made impressive progress in his developmental track since the B’s made him the 150th overall pick just 10 days after winning the team’s first Stanley Cup championship in 39 years.
“Yeah I like Robby’s [Rob O’Gara’s] game,” Chiarelli said. “He’s getting stronger. He’s getting stronger and more confident and I saw him play a few times last year. He’s improving. That run that they had to the championship will help him. (He) sees the ice well (and he has) good range."
Grzelcyk was most impressed with O’Gara’s showing at the team’s development camp in July when compared to the rest of his prospect peers. Having skated with him a year ago, Grzelcyk noted that not only had the rising Yale sophomore’s on-ice confidence markedly improved, but he was more assertive and took on a bigger leadership role off-ice for the newcomers in his third iteration of camp.
“He’s someone you want to follow,” said Grzelcyk. “He sets the right example and just seemed to be a lot more comfortable in every situation, whether during drills, the scrimmages and off-ice work.”
At 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, O’Gara still has room to fill out. He has always brought fluid skating and solid four-way directional mobility to establish superb shutdown capability, but as he increases his comfort zone in the ECAC, watch for him to do more at the offensive end. He won’t likely develop into a point producer at the highest level, but O’Gara’s all-around game and impressive physical attributes to go with outstanding character has his stock going in the right direction.
“The first camp Robby [O’Gara] came in and, as any kid coming out of prep school would probably be,” Sweeney said after camp concluded. “He shot up and he grew a lot and now he’s sort of maturing. You can tell, he’s played a year of college hockey, won a national championship, he’s confident in himself, his games continued to evolve. He’s getting stronger and growing in to that size."
With improved organizational depth at the position with the addition of Joe Morrow in the July trade of Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars, none of Grzelcyk, O’Gara, or Arnesson will realistically emerge as options for another two seasons at least, but all bring the kind of attributes that the club values to varying degrees. By virtue of being in the NCAA, O’Gara and Grzelcyk are not signed and will not do so until ready to turn pro. The B’s have until June 1, 2015 to come to terms with Arnesson on an entry-level contract or he becomes a free agent (by virtue of his September 1994 birthdate).
Assuming they all continue to mature and trend upward in their progress, watch for all three to make for some difficult organizational decisions down the road. For now, however, the B’s are content to keep them in the fold and let them be a part of the winning formula for their respective teams.
“It’s a dream come true to be a part of the Bruins organization,” Grzelcyk said. “I never thought I would say this, but all I want to do right now is go back to school and start playing hockey again.”
At some point, the classrooms and Swedish rinks will give way to a more practical education with the B’s. Until that moment comes, Grzelcyk, O’Gara, and Arnesson can all take their time getting there.
Photo credits: Dave Arnold Photography (O'Gara); Getty Images (Arnesson)