The IIHF World Junior Championship, typically of niche interest in the Hub of Hockey, particularly those who view the game strictly through an NHL lens, could be far more intriguing around here in the weeks ahead if the Bruins were to loan rookie Matt Poitras to Team Canada for the tournament in Sweden.
Poitras, 19, has cooled off of late, after landing a full-time job with the Bruins’ varsity straight out of training camp. As of Saturday morning, following the Black Friday matinee vs. the Red Wings, Poitras had posted two assists over his last eight games. He also has struggled at the dot, losing nearly three of every five faceoffs.
Amid the Bruins’ sizzling start, there has been no heat on Poitras to produce offense, but numbers like those won’t help him make a case to keep him on the varsity if the Bruins sink back in the standings — unthinkable now, yes, but these things have been known to happen.
Poitras is a smart, promising pivot, one whose offensive skill set might be best served if he were to center one of the top two lines, but coach Jim Montgomery rightly has him working in a bottom-six role while Pavel Zacha and Charlie Coyle grow more comfortable each game in their 1-2 roles. Poitras looks like he be can be a long-term, productive contributor.
But right now, with the Bruins parked No. 2 in the NHL standings after Saturday’s 7-4 loss to the Rangers, he looks like a prime candidate for a midseason boost of confidence. The WJC would be the perfect platform.
Team Canada, perennially a gold-medal favorite, will hold its camp Dec. 10-13 just outside Toronto and depart for Sweden the next day, nearly two weeks prior to the start of tournament play Dec. 26. The gold medal game in Gothenburg will be Jan. 5.
The Bruins play 11 times in that Dec. 10-Jan. 5 stretch, face the Lightning in Boston on Jan. 6, then depart for a four-game swing through Colorado, Arizona, Vegas, and St. Louis. There’s a tricky balance there, finding just how much time away would benefit Poitras, the potential drain of international travel/play, then reinserting him to the Bruins’ lineup for a big trip west. Oh, and the salary cap. Making the dollars work, often casually dismissed, is a constant, underlying bugaboo, one admittedly that could render moot this sort of lend-lease program.
If the Bruins and Poitras were to decide this is the right move, he could skip Canada’s camp and parachute in to Sweden just prior to the tournament. That alone would cut his lost NHL time in about half.
We’re assuming, of course, a Canadian team with Poitras aboard has a better chance of winning gold. It’s a fair assumption. With 2½ months of NHL tuning, he should be a dominant force among his junior peers, maybe not at the level Connor Bedard (9-14–23 in seven games) was a year ago, but perhaps like Patrice Bergeron (a team-best 5-8–13) once was in the same tourney, riding with linemate Sidney Crosby, when Bergeron was 19.
Bergeron, remember, already by that time had played a full NHL season and was loaned to Team Canada from AHL Providence in December 2004 while the NHL was in lockout. Bergeron covets that gold medal, often crediting the experience and the confidence he gained as key boosters to his success. He plugged right back into the Boston lineup the following season and piled up 31 goals and 73 points at age 20.
It can be a difficult choice for a young player, already immersed in his NHL dream, to exit the big time for a 2-3-week stay at the kids’ table. Exhibit A: a 19-year-old Hampus Lindholm, who made the Ducks’ roster as a full-timer in September 2013 and decided that December not to join Team Sweden for the WJC. Making the choice all the harder, the tournament that year was in Sweden.
“It was a little bit, yeah, you want to go,” mused Lindholm, who was injured the previous season, while in the AHL, and had to skip his first shot at the WJC. “To miss your spot here, after making an NHL team, it’s a little bit of a step down in that way. It was a no-brainer for me to stay. I know, you hear from a lot of guys, ‘It’s a special tournament … ’ ”
Lindholm acknowledged that international tournaments such as the WJC, the World Championship, and especially the Olympic Games, traditionally have meant a lot to European players — often more than to North American players. He’s hoping to get his kick at the Olympics if the NHL finally decides to return to the Games. Meanwhile, he’s happy with his decision of nearly a decade ago.
“I don’t think it even was a decision,” Lindholm said, chuckling. “Any time you can be in the National Hockey League, I don’t think you should ever try to leave.”
In December 2016, just as he turned 19, Charlie McAvoy joined Team USA midway through his second and final season at Boston University. College scheduling, by and large, accommodates WJC play. It was his second WJC appearance. The Yanks twice rubbed out two-goal deficits in the final and trimmed Canada, 5-4, in a shootout. Player of the game: McAvoy.
“It was in Canada, Toronto and Montreal, here’s big buildings and I’d never played in big buildings before,” he recalled. “Here’s 16,000 [fans] packed on New Year’s Eve against Canada, here’s all the things that you grew up dreaming of, watched every single year, and now you get to do it. And you think, ‘OK, this is our one chance to do it.’
“It’s always fun to look back at that, not only the way it went, but just how much fun we had doing it and doing it there, enemy territory, you come together closer because it’s you against everybody.”
Just months later, fresh off the BU campus and a quick tuneup in Providence, McAvoy made his NHL debut with the Bruins in the Round 1 playoff series against the Senators.
“Gave me confidence, for sure,” he said, reflecting on the WJC experience. “Without that, I came into those first games at Ottawa, it was like, ‘OK, I’ve played in front of a lot of people before,’ and not thinking I’m going to light the world on fire, but, yeah, it helps a lot.”
No decision has to be made for another 2-3 weeks. The final call here, on both sides, has to be based on what best serves Poitras’s overall development, rather than his game at the moment or how the Bruins stand in the thick of their 82-game schedule. Which is to say there is probably no wrong answer, and only varying degrees of right. A pretty good spot for both sides.
Great times at Frederic’s house
Trent Frederic grew up in the Ladue-Brentwood area of Missouri, the western suburbs of St. Louis, all but walking distance from the city’s renowned zoo.
Had NHL scouts been aware of the hockey talent that gathered regularly inside the Frederic family basement, the talent birddogs could have saved themselves considerable time, mileage, and meal costs if they’d just rung the doorbell, trudged downstairs, and pulled up a folding chair to watch the array of roller hockey games.
“Let’s see, yeah, both Tkachuks were regulars,” mused Frederic, thinking back some 15 years ago when neighborhood pals Brady and Matthew Tkachuk were fixtures in the basement lineup. “And we had Logan Brown, Clayton Keller, Luke Kunin, and my brother [Grant] had some pals who made it to the American [Hockey] League.”
Frederic, now the right winger on the Bruins’ No. 2 line (with James van Riemsdyk and Charlie Coyle), was a first-round draft pick (No. 29) in the 2016 NHL Draft. The Tkachuk brothers, sons of former Blue Keith Tkachuk, were primo first-rounders — Brady to Ottawa (No. 4, 2018) and Matthew to Calgary (No. 6, 2016).
In fact, Matthew Tkachuk, Frederic, Brown (Ottawa, No. 11), Keller (Arizona, No. 7), and Kunin (Minnesota, No. 15) all were first-round picks in that ‘16 draft. They also were part of the same crew, beginning in grammar school, that would gather routinely in the Frederics’ basement and play deep into the night and early into the morning.
One house rule: No one was allowed to make their way up the basement stairs in their rollerblades, no matter what the circumstances, such as the night Brady Tkachuk’s stiff check of Frederic into the basement boards left the future Bruin with a deep gash over his left eye.
“Mom was asleep, and she wasn’t happy when I woke her up,” noted Frederic, a scar of roughly one inch still visible above his eye. “Had to go to the hospital. It was late, obviously, Mom and Dad were asleep. Might have been midnight, pretty sure it was a Friday because we had a practice the next day.”
The basement was also where Frederic and his brothers designed other games, hybrid forms of football and baseball and whatever form of competition they could imagine with a ball or puck. It often got rough.
“I bet I carved my head open three of four times down there,” recalled Frederic, his smile widening as he recounted the smacks.. “I remember one night, one of my buddies cracked open his head during a baseball game we had. We ran up to tell the babysitter, and she was young, didn’t have her driver’s license. She thought we were kidding her, but we’re like, ‘No, he’s hurt, he’s bleeding, we’ve got to get him some help.’ ”
All great memories, said Frederic, adding, “You know, even the injuries are great memories, sort of, I guess.”
Losing pucks in the cellar ceiling, where they’d have to be fished out from between insulation or pipes, was a constant issue, he said. Eventually, after too many broken windows, Trent’s father boarded them up. There was a roller hockey rink just down the street, and that was OK, but the Frederic basement was the place to be.
“One thing I’d change,” said Frederic. “If I’m ever married and lucky enough to have kids, I’d have a very deep basement, maybe 10 or 12 feet deep. I’d want my kids to be down there having fun like we did. And I’d change the walls a little. My dad owns a roofing business, and he had his guys put up wooden walls on one side — those were our boards. The other side was cement. I’d have plastic or something on the walls, I guess, you know, something a little more forgiving.”
Special nod for Sweeney
Ex-Bruin Bob Sweeney, the face of the Bruins Foundation for going on 20 years, will take an apt bow in the spotlight Wednesday night as a “Tradition” inductee during the Sports Museum’s annual gala at the Garden.
Sweeney, who will be 60 in January, was less than a year removed from Boston College (Class of 1986) when he made his debut in Black and Gold. The guy next to him on the bench that night was Ray Bourque, the same guy who’ll introduce him at The Tradition.
“I’ll never forget, Ray turned to me and said, ‘Relax, and just play your game,’ ” Sweeney recalled recently. “He said, ‘You’re here, you belong here.’ To hear that from him meant a lot.”
Raised in nearby Boxborough and a standout at Acton-Boxborough High, Sweeney was the Bruins’ sixth-round draft pick in 1982, just weeks before he began his freshman season for Len Ceglarski’s Eagles. Now 41-plus years later, more than 25 of those spent with the Bruins as a player or ambassador with the foundation, he’s proven Bourque right — he belongs.
No Boston-area kid has made such a lasting impact on the franchise, most notably his work helping the foundation to shape and expand its many charitable efforts and build the franchise’s good-will image
“Those early days,” reminisced Sweeney, the foundation’s president, “pretty much our one and only event was the Wives’ Carnival, you know, back to the old days of ripping paper tickets for the 50/50 (in-game raffle), averaging maybe $3,000 a game to now nearly $40,000 a game. A big difference.”
Bruins president Cam Neely began his charitable foundation prior to ending his playing career. Bourque now oversees the charitable foundation in his family name, which recently held its big fundraising “Captain’s Ball” to help fund ALS research in Pete Frates’s memory. The Bruins Foundation is a big slice of charitable pie.
“I love what I do now,” said Sweeney, originally hired by Charlie Jacobs in 2001 to help expand the club’s youth hockey involvement. “It’s hard to believe the number of years that have gone by, but it’s nice still to be part of the Bruins and be able to make a difference in organizations or in someone’s life. Knowing that you’re doing something good is very rewarding.”
For tickets to The Tradition, visit sportsmuseum.org
New depths for Sharks
No surprise, but the woeful Sharks reached Thanksgiving with the least amount of offensive pop from their defensemen. Just part of the reason they have sunk to the Original 32 seabed.
The 11 San Jose defensemen combined for one goal (Jacob MacDonald, ex- of Cornell) and 15 assists, all part of a mind-numbing start that factored into the Sharks having a league-worst minus-55 goal differential through 19 games. That’s a pace for minus-237 across a full season, which would rank second only to the 1974-75 Capitals, who hold the all-time mark of minus-265 for a season (then 80 games). Ex-Bruins forward Tommy Williams and defenseman Greg Joly posted minus-69s.
The NHL began keeping track of plus-minus figures at the start of the 1959-60 season. The worst individual mark on record is still owned by defenseman Bill Mikkelson, tagged with a minus-82 on that 1974-75 Capitals team that had three head coaches across the season: Jim Anderson (4-45-5), Red Sullivan (2-16-0), and Milt Schmidt (2-6-0).
Sharks defenseman Mario Ferraro (minus-21) is on pace to eclipse Mikkelson’s minus-82.
Larson a difficult loss
Sad news with the death on Wednesday of Tom Larson, who for years was the Channel 38 studio host for Bruins games, best known for the calm, smart, underrated narrative he unfailingly delivered during the club’s raucous run in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Amid the every night shattering of records and sometimes on-ice bloodbaths, the cut back to the WSBK studio would find the ever-composed, wry-witted Larson piecing it all back together for us the way a town librarian would return books to their shelves.
It was all POW! and ZOOM! from puck drop, and all “QUIET PLEASE” when Larson appeared on screen. Nothing like we see today, across all sports broadcasting, our senses stoked rather than soothed.
Larson, born Lanny Lee Larason in Webster Groves, Mo., at the onset of World War II, lived in recent years in Fredericksburg, Va. He was 84 years old.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.