Five games into Urho Vaakanainen’s latest call-up, he is finally showing the Bruins that maybe they weren’t guilty of a reach when they chose him 18th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft.
The Finnish defenseman, who has had a brief stint with the varsity in each of his four North American pro seasons but has otherwise been baking in Providence, is beginning to look at home on the Boston back line.
Skating a regular shift next to Charlie McAvoy, he recorded an assist on the overtime goal in Saturday afternoon’s win over the Predators, snatching a dangerous pass out of the air and turning the other way for David Pastrnak and Taylor Hall to finish the job. Vaakanainen has four assists in five games.
Vaakanainen, who turned 23 on New Year’s Day, was a COVID-necessitated recall for the Jan. 8 game against the Lightning. He had an assist and played 16:06. Another assist, and more trust (16:56) the next game against the Capitals. Another assist, and more trust (21:03) against the Canadiens, when he nearly scored his first NHL goal but saw it overturned on a scoring change. He logged a season-high 23:17 against the Flyers.
“It’s really good to see a guy come in, play like he belongs off the bat,” Hall said. “A guy that comes into the lineup and plays to the best of his abilities, that’s all you can really ask for.
“He can see the ice, he’s a really good penalty killer, he’s physical when he needs to be.”
On Saturday, Vaakanainen (21:09, three shots, two blocks) earned coach Bruce Cassidy’s trust after tripping Matt Duchene with 6:26 left in a tied third period.
“He’s a good player,” Cassidy said of Vaakanainen. “He’s just got to understand it’s an every-night business at this level. We certainly will allow guys to make mistakes and understand their youth. We’ve done it over the years, with guys that are mainstays now — McAvoy, [Matt] Grzelcyk, [Brandon] Carlo, Pastrnak, Jake [DeBrusk] … there’s a number of different guys that have done it, and he’ll be another one.”
Outplaying Grzelcyk, McAvoy’s usual partner, will be a challenge. But Vaakanainen has shown he’s a legitimate NHL defenseman.
“We’re kind of at that point where you’re wondering after a few years,” Cassidy said. “He’s not a kid-kid anymore, where he’s a first-year pro. He’s seen it, it’s time to start doing it. An opportunity arose, and some guys kick the door down, other guys gently step through it. I think he’s somewhere in between there, and he’s doing a good job. He’s going to make [the staff make] difficult decisions when we’re 100 percent healthy.”
Getting it done
McAvoy led the way with 27:44 of ice time, assisting on Brad Marchand’s third-period goal and landing a few stiff hits. He’s filling the stat sheet, as usual, but not feeling 100 percent.
The No. 1 defenseman is still battling a lower-body injury, Cassidy revealed before the game. McAvoy missed games against Minnesota (Jan. 6) and Tampa Bay (Jan. 8).
“A little discomfort” remains, Cassidy said. “The Philly game [on Thursday], he had a few puck plays he typically wouldn’t make, but that happens through the course of the year. Whether that’s injury-related or not, I don’t know.”
No lingering problems for Tuukka Rask, who looked sharp in his return against the Flyers. While Cassidy didn’t reveal his goalie plans for Tuesday against the Hurricanes, he said Rask could handle trading the net with Linus Ullmark until one emerges as the bona fide No. 1. Cassidy: “They’re both very healthy right now” … After three games on the COVID list, Derek Forbort returned to the lineup and tangled with Nashville’s Michael McCarron (6 feet 6 inches, 229 pounds). Forbort, some 2 inches shorter and 15 pounds lighter, took the loss … Jack Ahcan sat as Forbort teamed with call-up Tyler Lewington on the third pair. Lewington dropped the gloves with Philadelphia’s Zack MacEwen on Thursday … Trent Frederic, hit high on Monday by his nemesis, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, has not returned to practice. The Bruins are off Sunday … Connor Clifton remained on the COVID list … Not a good day for the fourth line, which had been very good of late. Shot attempts were 11-2, Nashville, when Anton Blidh, Tomas Nosek, and Curtis Lazar were on the ice. The Predators scored the 2-1 goal when Lazar let Dante Fabbro get between him and the puck, leading to a turnover, quick pass, and Colton Sissons’s strike … It was a rare underwater game at the dot for Patrice Bergeron (44 percent, 14 for 32, including a 4-15 record against Ryan Johansen). The rest of the Bruins’ centers were even less sharp: Erik Haula was 3 for 7 (43 percent), Charlie Coyle 5 for 14 (36 percent), and Nosek 4 for 12 (33 percent) … Bergeron and Craig Smith led the Bruins with six shots. DeBrusk and Hall each put five on goal … McAvoy, Blidh, and Oskar Steen landed six hits each.