BUFFALO — The Bruins’ kiddie conveyor belt continued to whir Saturday in the Prospects Challenge, with a couple dozen teens and young 20-somethings hoping to catch the eye of general manager Don Sweeney and the rest of management.
Yes, there are jobs, big-time, good-paying varsity jobs, up for grabs in advance of the NHL season. Opportunity. This is the time and this is the place, and that was precisely the message they all heard as they boarded the bus for the drive here Thursday.
“You can’t keep yourself out of the National Hockey League,” Sweeney mused Friday as the hopes-and-dreams weekend got underway. “If you’re good enough to play, you’re going to play, and you should play.”
Top centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci have retired. Fellow forwards Taylor Hall and Nick Foligno have moved on to Chicago via trade. Key defenseman Connor Clifton got himself a big, fat paycheck with the Sabres. The hands of time and change hit the Bruins like Marvin Hagler jabs and uppercuts this summer.
After a record-setting 65-win regular season, coach Jim Montgomery has spots to fill and Sweeney et al would be only too happy if someone here has kicked a hole through the dasher boards before the ride back to Brighton on Monday.
“That’s the message, ‘Just go kick it down,’ ” said Sweeney, sharing what he told his group of WannaBs prior to the tournament. “If you’re good enough, make yourself valuable enough. No one cares where you came from, where you grew up as a player. You’re here, and the question is, ‘Are you a player for me now?’ ”
On Friday, in a 4-2 win over a collection of Penguins freshmen, it was clear that Luke Toporowski and Brett Harrison got the message. Each forward potted a pair of goals, and camp invitee William Rousseau blocked 19 shots in net.
Here in the world of go-out-and-make-something-happen, all three took a tiny step toward perhaps getting an invitation to Wednesday’s varsity camp in Brighton. A long shot for all, true, but rookie camp is nothing if not for dreams.
Sweeney, now eight years on the job as GM, took some of the air out of the kids’ aspirational balloons around July 1 free agency when he signed veterans Milan Lucic, James van Riemsdyk, and Kevin Shattenkirk to one-year, low-budget deals. All three have been penciled into the opening night lineup Oct. 11 at the Garden against the Blackhawks.
The kids can afford to dream and many, if not most, perform here with the safety net of AHL Providence beneath their feet. But Sweeney, once the Harvard kid who did the door-kicking himself, risked a total freefall for the franchise had he not acted promptly in the UFA market to cover the inevitable roster holes with bona fide NHL talent.
Lucic, a fan favorite for his fire and fury when breaking in with the Bruins as a rookie, will bolster the bottom six. His legendary muscle, though needed infrequently in today’s game, brings aid and comfort to everyone up and down the lineup. Every night the Capitals are on the dance card, Lucic will be the guy to answer all Tom Wilson invitations.
Van Riemsdyk’s hands are of a different sort. He has the size (6 feet 3 inches, 210 pounds) and mitts to start in a top-six role and roll out on the No. 1 power-play unit. He has a particular knack for putting away pucks with a long stick from short distance around the crease.
Shattenkirk put his name on the Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2020, less than a year after being bought out by the Rangers. Now 34, the ex-Boston University point man could be the No. 2 power-play quarterback on the back line and could push fellow ex-Terrier Charlie McAvoy for No. 1 duty.
For more potential depth, veteran wingers Danton Heinen and Alex Chiasson accepted PTOs and will report Wednesday for what amounts to atwo- to three-week shot at remaining in the big time. While the kids here all believe they have time on their side, Heinen and Chiasson have seen the sand slip through the hourglass. They are Butch and Sundance, looking to grab a bag of cash, hoping their time’s not over.
So, yes, there are jobs here, and that’s been made clear to every kid. It’s that way every September. Their first task is to make an impression, get a ticket to Warrior Arena this coming week, then hope to bump the likes of Lucic, van Riemsdyk, Shattenkirk, or maybe Heinen and Chiasson off the job.
“You want people saying the right things about you,” said Providence coach Ryan Mougenel, in charge of the prospects bench. “Players get limited viewings in front of [the front office], so if you can leave a real strong impression with the brass ahead of camp, that’s real important. So I just stress to them: Every time you get an opportunity to build your brand, it’s important you play the right way. It might be something as small as hunting the puck on a backcheck that maybe [Sweeney] or [Montgomery] sees it and takes a shining to. Sometimes that gets lost when we’re talking about goals and assists.”
The kids come and go. The conveyor belt never stops.
“If you’re good enough to play . . . ” said Sweeney.
No time like the present to prove you’re part of the future.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.