Nick Wolff, a potential NHL blueline strongman, signed as a college free agent with the Bruins in March and these days is playing for a different breed of bears in eastern Europe.
Wolff, 24, hooked on early last month with the DVTK Polar Bears in Miskolc, Hungary, a member of the top professional league in Slovakia. Until further notice — the aspirational return of pro hockey here in North America early in the new year — the former Minnesota-Duluth backliner will be sharpening his pro skills not far from the hometowns of Zdeno Chara and Jaroslav Halak.
“Fortuitously, his junior coach from Des Moines, returned a call and said, ‘Yeah, I would love to have him,’” said Wolff’s agent, Tom Lynn, who reconnected his client with Dave Allison, his former mentor in the USHL. “Kind of a perfect situation.”
Wolff thus became a fifth Boston prospect to find a place to grow his game overseas while the pro leagues here, including the NHL, continue to do their dance around the COVID-19 pandemic. As the weekend arrived, the NHL remained in conversation with its players, via the Players’ Association, in hopes of hammering out a deal that would see league play resume in January.
Forward Jakub Lauko (Karlovy Vary) and defenseman Jakub Zboril (HC Kometa Brno) both signed on earlier with clubs in Czechia, while Finnish center Joona Koppanen found work at home with Ilves Tampere. Like Wolff, right winger Robert Lantosi landed a job in Slovakia as a regular with Nitra, where he carried a line of 1-7—8 through eight games into weekend play.
When COVID put an end to Minnesota-Duluth’s season in early March, Wolff signed a one-year/two-way deal with the Bruins, with the understanding that he’ll likely spend the season at AHL Providence. Now logging valuable ice time overseas, he is bettering his chance of making an impact whenever the Bruins, and the rest of the teams in the Original 31 NHL, finally get the go-ahead to open camps.
“He’s a hard-nosed kid,” said Bruins GM Don Sweeney. “I think the fact that he’s over there, working on his skill development, while other guys are just skating — be it with skating instructors or out there on their own — he just felt it was more conducive for him to continue to move forward. And we fully supported it and endorsed it.”
Sweeney said he has been able to keep tabs on Wolff’s play by watching Miskolc’s games over the internet.
“He’s getting a hell of an opportunity to play,” Sweeney said. “He’s playing a lot of minutes, handling the puck in game situations, on the bigger ice surface. It just affords him the opportunity to work on the individual skill side of it.”
The bigger ice sheets in Europe — 100 feet wide, an added 15 feet over the North American sheet — typically lead to games with far less contact. Wolff’s trademark in college, as well as in high school and the USHL, was making big hits. Such smacks are rare in the European game.
“The physicality and things that come pretty naturally to him,” Sweeney noted, “when he gets back to the smaller ice surfaces, those will bubble back to the surface. But I think in Nick’s case, being able to play in a little more of a skilled situation is probably helpful to him.”
A former college teammate of Bruins winger Karson Kuhlman’s, the 6-foot-4-inch, 217-pound Wolff wrapped up his Bulldogs career with a line of 14-39—53 in 156 NCAA games. The cancellation of NCAA play in March prevented Minnesota-Duluth from taking a run at a third consecutive NCAA title. Only Michigan, with championships in 1951, ’52 and ’53 ever has three-peated in the NCAA Frozen Four.
“I wanted to get [Wolff] playing,” Lynn said. “If we’re going to get delayed [in North America], and he hasn’t played since spring . . . a guy turning pro . . . it would just be a bad time for him not to be playing competitively.”
Deals for Chara, DeBrusk imminent?
Sweeney remains hopeful that he’ll finalize contracts with Chara and Jake DeBrusk, the lone regulars from last season to remain without deals for the 2020-21 season.
Chara, the team captain, is an unrestricted free agent, and has been approached by other NHL clubs during the offseason, according to his agent, Matt Keator.
Chara, 43, has remained non-committal, weighing such factors as Sweeney’s continued interest and the overall structure of league play, which likely now will be something less than the standard 82-game season.
Sweeney, in a phone interview with the Globe on Thursday, made clear that he’d like to retain Chara, provided the two sides agreed on a defined role for the Trencin Tower of Power.
“Am I inclined to have him back?” Sweeney asked. “We would bring . . . Z would return, again, in the role we would hope would be a good fit for both sides.”
And how would that role be defined?
“Again, I’m not sharing my individual conversations with Zdeno,” Sweeney said. “We’ve had a discussion about him being part of our group and playing for us.”
DeBrusk, meanwhile, has far fewer options as a restricted free agent. He does not have arbitration rights, meaning he must sign with the Bruins by a CBA-specified date (some 3-4 weeks after the start of the new season), or be forced to sit out the full season and playoffs.
DeBrusk’s agent, Rick Valette, did not return an email request seeking comment.
“I have full confidence that we’ll find a common ground,” Sweeney said, “and we’ll look forward to having him back under contract and having a really good year and continuing to move his career forward. He’s an important player for us.”
With the offseason signing of ex-Predators right winger Craig Smith, noted Sweeney, DeBrusk likely will not be asked to flip over to his off-wing. His role will be to remain on David Krejci’s left side on the second line, or ride at left wing on Charlie Coyle’s third line.
“We can move him over [to right side],” Sweeney noted, “but I think he’s developed chemistry with both Krejci or Coyle. It really just depends what lines are going well and what matchups we want to try to take advantage of.”
Right side projection for Smith
Smith, who signed on with a three-year deal totaling $9.3 million, projects to play right side either with Krejci or Coyle. He could see the odd shift on the PK unit, noted Sweeney, but it’s more likely his special teams work would be on the power play. He scored 162 total goals in his nine seasons with the Preds . . . According to Sweeney, Charlie McAvoy (knee), Brad Marchand (sports hernia) and David Pastrnak (hip) all have progressed as expected following their September surgeries. McAvoy, he said, already is a full go, whenever camp opens. Marchand was given a target date of mid-December and Pastrnak mid-January. No hitches for any of them, said the GM. “We’re balancing things a little bit with not knowing what the start date [for a new season] is,” Sweeney said. “We’re not going to rush any of these players to try to hit some date we don’t know right now.” . . . Sweeney also said defenseman Kevan Miller, who missed all of 2019-20 after fracturing a kneecap before the 2019 playoffs, also is “on target to be a full participant when we’re up and going.” . . . Sweeney still has upward of $7 million in wiggle room in regard to the $81.5 million salary cap. A large portion of that is designated to cover the projected salaries of Chara and/or DeBrusk . . . Allison, Wolff’s coach in Hungary, had a lengthy playing career in the minor pros (AHL/IHL), and coached for more than 30 years at various levels in North America, including four seasons at Des Moines, before taking the job in Hungary. He spent his junior career in Cornwall, where he piled up a whopping 407 penalty minutes his final season (1978-79), the same year Ray Bourque also wrapped up his Quebec League days with Verdun . . . Sweeney, asked what intel he might have on when the NHL will be back in business: “I think you have to try a different area code than mine for those answers . . . Somewhere in the the New York City area rather than the Boston area . . . I do not have any inside knowledge of dates.” . . . Miskolc, with a population of about 160,000, is some 35 miles from Slovakia’s southeast border. The Polar Bears home rink, the Ice Hall, has a seating capacity of 1,304. Back at home, Minnesota-Duluth on Friday closed all it athletic facilities for the remainder of the semester, in keeping with recently-imposed state mandates concerning COVID-19.