An old saying suggests the grass isn’t always greener.
For Manchester Monarchs defenseman Andrew Bodnarchuk, it most definitely is.
After four seasons in the Boston Bruins system, where he grew from an eager rookie to a vocal assistant captain, the 24-year-old defenseman signed a one-year contract with the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings last July.
The Providence Bruins’ team-voted best defenseman two years earlier, Bodnarchuk was coming off a career-year with five goals and 17 points in 63 regular-season games in 2011-12 when he wasn’t given a qualifying offer from the B’s. The reason, said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli at the time, was to afford Bodnarchuck the opportunity to play elsewhere rather than have him spend yet another season as a minor-league depth defenseman in a system stocked with young and talented blueliners.
“There were quite a few teams that showed interest right off the hop and L.A. was one of the most aggressive teams pulling for me,” recalled Bodnarchuk, who admitted it was kind of strange joining a new organization, if for no other reason than having to learn who his new contact people were. “I was lucky enough to get the deal done early in July, which is a treat. I saw a lot of players and friends who waited all summer and some don’t even have a job now because of the lockout.”
Bodnarchuk, with a calm confidence in his abilities that certainly doesn’t approach cockiness, says he was not worried about finding an NHL contract after his time with Boston had ended, but it was important to latch on with a club that had a good role for him in the American Hockey League, one that would hopefully provide him the chance to play more than the mere five big-league games he’d been limited to in 2010.
The Kings organization has been that fit.
A transition to Manchester proved easy immediately, in part, because the squad changed its systems entering this season, which put all players, returning and new, on the same page. There’s also been a lot of outside guidance, courtesy of L.A. assistant coach and former Philadelphia head coach John Stevens, as well as Monarchs GM and longtime goalie Ron Hextall.
The dividends have been noticeable. In only 19 games through November, Bodnarchuk had scored twice and added eight assists, well on his way to a personal best in points. Sure, the Drumheller, Alberta, native didn’t have the chance to prove himself in an NHL preseason camp or get to know L.A.’s coaching staff and upper management before reporting directly to the Granite State, but that doesn’t mean his play hasn’t attracted some attention.
“Kings management is very happy with what they’ve seen so far,” said Manchester head coach Mark Morris. “He’s certainly turned heads. He’s such a class individual that he doesn’t have a whole lot of issues in his game that would raise big concerns. His energy, his strength, his drive and determination will certainly bode well for his future opportunities.”
When it comes to Bodnarchuk’s strengths, Morris didn’t have to see him in a Monarchs sweater to break them down. The coach has been watching the young defenseman since he entered the league on an amateur tryout agreement on May 14, 2007, and faced Manchester as a member of the P-Bruins in the decisive sixth game of a second-round playoff meeting.
“He’s such an explosive skater,” acknowledged Morris. “In a foot race, there aren’t too many guys who have the breakaway speed he has. It’s a great asset. As he continues to mature, his confidence in other aspects of his game will grow.
“They say that some of the best defensemen don’t really hit their peak until they’re 26 or 27 years old,” Morris continued, “so he’s still got a pretty good-size window to grow his game. Based on what I’ve seen, there are still lots of areas where he’ll continue to get better.”
So, with all these positives, all this upside, why didn’t it work out in Boston?
“It was a depth issue and at certain points when there was an opportunity to go up, there was maybe a player who was a little bit hotter,” identified Bodnarchuk. “(Steve) Kampfer came in his first year (in 2010-11) and had a great start. When he got the chance to go up to Boston, he showed himself really well and put the Bruins in a situation to keep him, which kind of bumped a lot of us down the depth chart.
“If you look back, too, they never had a lot of major injuries where a guy was called up for a couple months and got a bunch of games in,” he remembered. “It wasn’t so much how guys were playing in Providence as there wasn’t really the opportunity at the time in Boston, which happens. They were a winning team so they didn’t have to really fix anything that way. It’s not always that a team doesn’t like the way you play or doesn’t want to see you succeed. The opportunities just never came.”
Bodnarchuk was well-respected and got along well with management over the course of his four years in Boston’s system. He still keeps in touch with many of his old friends and roommates and, given that the B’s drafted him 128th overall in the fifth round of the 2006 draft, he certainly would have liked to embark upon an NHL career with Boston, just as childhood friend and former teammate Brad Marchand has done. But the defenseman says he wasn’t disappointed not getting qualified by the Bruins and that, like Chiarelli, he viewed it as an exciting fresh start.
“I think I would have been more nervous, sour or hurt if I hadn’t felt like I’d had a couple really good seasons to finish off my time in the Bruins organization,” said Bodnarchuck. “I just think the opportunities weren’t there as far as getting up top and it was time for me to get some new scenery.”
Coach Morris knows that for his veteran blueliner to make it to Hollywood for more than just a guest-starring role, it will take a number of factors. Opportunity. Timing. Patience. Confidence. Continued growth. You name it. He says everybody deserves a second chance and you can never count out a guy who believes in himself.
How about Bodnarchuk? What’s his focus midway through his first season with a new club?
“I’d love nothing more than to be playing for a winning team here and to hopefully help Manchester get into the playoffs. I’d love to see some playoff hockey again,” he said, having last enjoyed postseason play in 2009. “Short-term, you’ve got to keep working on your game and make sure you’re sharp, because there are always people watching you. With the lockout, there are even more people watching, whether it’s from your own organization or another. Every time you step on the ice, you want to put your best foot forward.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.