Jakub Zboril and Thomas Chabot.
Jake DeBrusk and Kyle Connor.
Zach Senyshyn and Mathew Barzal.
Those names have been linked since June 26, 2015. At the NHL Draft that night in Sunrise, Fla., the Bruins took Zboril, DeBrusk, and Senyshyn with the 13th, 14th, and 15th picks of the first round. DeBrusk is the only established NHL regular of that group.
As any aggrieved Bruins fan knows, the next three picks made have had much greater impact.
Barzal, drafted 16th overall by the Islanders, won the 2018 Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year and has been the driving force behind his team’s rise to prominence in the Eastern Conference. Connor (17th overall, Jets) has scored at a 37-goal pace the last six years, and woke up Tuesday sixth in NHL scoring (11-8—19), tied with Brad Marchand. Chabot (18th overall, Senators) is in the second year of an eight-year, $64 million contract extension.
It’s fair to wonder where the Bruins would be if they had taken one of those three — or Joel Eriksson Ek, Brock Boeser, Travis Konecny, or Sebastian Aho, other quality NHLers drafted among the next 20 picks — over the trio they selected. Maybe one of them could have played a critical role in recent playoff success.
It’s unfair to fault the players chosen by general manager Don Sweeney for being high picks who didn’t immediately light up the league.
“I lived it,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, a first-round pick (18th overall by Chicago, 1983) whose career was hampered by knee injuries. “You can’t help but hear it. Especially nowadays with all the social media and the chatter. You can’t block everything out.
“These young guys, it affects them mentally. I think there is a little bit of that — or was.”
The draft likely feels like the distant past to DeBrusk, given his early success — 27 goals as a sophomore — followed by a tough couple seasons. Senyshyn hasn’t made any kind of NHL impact yet. Zboril, trying to earn regular varsity minutes after starting the year as the seventh defenseman, said he’s done thinking about his pedigree and the expectations that came with it.
“I’m over it now,” the 24-year-old Zboril said after Tuesday’s practice in Brighton. “It was especially hard the year after. I was on social media and getting roasted every single day.
“I got off social media. I deleted Instagram. I deleted Twitter. Now I’m just on Facebook, where I have just family members and people I know. I feel it’s really cleared up my head. My headspace is more focused on what I need to do and not all the tweets about me.”
Zboril, who made his NHL debut in November 2018, has appeared in 47 games, with 42 of them coming last season. It was a difficult rookie season (0-9—9). He said he suffered a concussion Feb. 12, when Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba hit him high, which hampered his play. He had another concussion in the last week of the regular season.
“I wasn’t going into battles the way I should,” Zboril said. “I was always cautious about my head: Is it going to happen to me again or not? [Now] I’m feeling really good. I just want to go out there and compete for pucks and do what coaches tell me to do.”
When Cassidy and the coaching staff scratched underperforming veteran Mike Reilly, Zboril put a couple encouraging games on tape. Against Montreal Sunday, he picked a spot well when he stepped up on a neutral-zone rush, leading to Charlie McAvoy’s tying goal in the second period. Other times, his attempts to use his size (6 feet, 205 pounds) left him out of position; witness his missed check on Josh Anderson before the Canadiens took the lead.
Zboril’s offensive game could lead him to a secondary power-play role in the future. His size and willingness to get dirty could help him contribute on the penalty kill. With Reilly considered a regular, and Connor Clifton in the mix, can Zboril stay in the lineup?
“In the big picture, you have to have some plans in place — where can this player get us to, can he help us in crunch time if we give him X amount of games?” Cassidy said. “We’re still deciding that with Jakub. There’s only so much room.”
Charlie McAvoy pointing in right direction
The one knock against McAvoy in last year’s Norris Trophy voting was his offensive production, but concerns there are diminishing. He sits 3-9—12 in 13 games, tied for sixth in points per game (0.92) among defensemen. As usual, analytics love him. Of the 118 defensemen who have played 200 minutes at five-on-five — essentially those who play important matchups and minutes — McAvoy has the second-best expected goals share (62.01 percent) and the 13th-best shot attempts share (Corsi, 55.06), per Natural Stat Trick … Cassidy suspects Craig Smith will return from his undisclosed injury Saturday in Philadelphia, but he noted that Smith “has been on target” before, “and something crept in.” Smith skated before practice … Rest is helping Curtis Lazar, who missed Sunday’s game against Montreal. He was at practice Tuesday and is likely to play in Philadelphia. It’s unclear whether his latest injury is related to the preseason elbow injury that cost him the first four games … Cassidy said Trent Frederic, who took a loud hit from Ottawa’s Josh Brown last Tuesday, remains off the ice and isn’t close to a return: ”There’s a few more things he has to take care of.”