Frank Vatrano the shooter now a shot-blocker, too
Frank Vatrano, last seen here as a would-be 30-goal scorer, has added a little something to his game since the Bruins dealt him to Florida last February. Now don’t be misled. He is still first and foremost a shooter. Witness: the 20 goals he carried into the Garden Thursday night with the Panthers.
But he is also a bit of a grinder now, having evolved as perhaps the club’s best shot blocker, according to coach Bob Boughner.
“Physical for his size . . . goes out there and competes hard,” noted Boughner, who commands a team that needs to add to its overall grit and edginess. “He’s really added that element to our team, a little bit of sandpaper along with that ability to score.”
Being a bit of a grinder should not be considered all that novel for Vatrano. It’s not simply a family trait, but the family business. His mom and dad own . . . wait for it . . . Antonio’s Grinders, Inc. in downtown Springfield, all of maybe a 10-minute car ride from Vatrano’s hometown of East Longmeadow.
Not that mom and dad’s goal-hungry son learned any of his skills — shooting, grinding, or otherwise — while sweating things out around the Antonio’s pizza oven.
“Never worked there a day in my life,” said a smiling Vatrano, following Florida’s late-morning workout at the Garden. “My dad hired me for 20 minutes and he told me to go home. Done. That was that.”
The Bruins once had high employment hopes for Vatrano, as they did for Ryan Donato, the ex-Harvard standout and would-be 30-goal scorer they dished away two-plus weeks ago to Minnesota virtually a year to the day after bidding adieu to Vatrano.
Intrigued especially by their scoring touch, the Bruins projected both kids, born only two years apart, to become Bay State-raised NHL sharpshooters. Time will tell if they gave up too early. They swapped Vatrano for the third-round pick that was used on another scoring hopeful (Jakub Lauko), while Donato, along with a conditional fifth-round pick, brought back Charlie Coyle from the Wild. Entering Game No. 67 this season, the Bruins had yet to recoup a single goal in the transactions.
For whatever reason(s), it didn’t work here for either of them. For whatever reason(s), their auditioning time was brief. Vatrano was gone after only a 108-game test sample (20-11—31). Donato, who made his NHL debut only last January, wore the Spoked-B for only 46 games, including but 34 this year as he toggled between the varsity and the Providence WannaBs. His line here this season: a meager 6-3—9.
Scoring is the hardest thing to find in the deep, craggy, oft-times perilous coal mine that is the NHL’s talent pool. It will be painful for the Bruins, particularly their talent scouts, if both Vatrano and Donato (2-5—7 in his first seven games with the Wild) grow up to be polished diamonds who pump home, say, 25-30 goals a season over the length of their careers.
The Panthers figure Vatrano, who once potted 36 goals in 36 games for Bruce Cassidy’s Providence Bruins, has become a bonafide candidate to produce in that range. After signing him to a one-year spacer deal last summer for $925,000, they nearly tripled his pay recently with a three-year extension that will pay out a total $8 million.
A little bit of grit mixed in with that scoring touch — something Donato needs to incorporate in his game — made for a very nice payday for the Springfield Rifle.
“When you sign a decent contract for a few years, one that’s not your entry-level contact,” mused Vatrano, “you feel like you’re a big part of this team. You’re a piece that they want going forward. On your entry level, you haven’t established yourself yet. But just because you sign another contract, that also doesn’t mean you’re going to stay, right? You have to make sure . . . you know, your job is never safe . . . so you have to make sure you’re bringing that same kind of effort you had even before you signed that contract.”
Vatrano signed the new deal on Feb. 23. Prior to the game here, he had gone a meager 0-1—1 in his seven games since — yet another reminder that the consistency factor is often the hardest for young kids to master. The Panthers also were a meager 2-4-1 in those games, all but assuring they again will finish as a postseason DNQ.
“When he’s on, that shot of his is impressive, especially his quick release,” noted Hall-of-Fame defenseman Denis Potvin, the longtime Panthers broadcaster. “We put some video together recently, and when you compare his shot, it’s really striking how much he looks like Phil Kessel.”
The Bruins liked Kessel, but not his financial demands, leading then-GM Peter Chiarelli to wheel him to Toronto for a package that included first-round picks that became Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton. In his nine-plus seasons since leaving here, Kessel has scored 285 goals and has 396 assists. Unlike Vatrano and Donato, he gave up on Boston before Boston gave up on him.
Back in East Longmeadow, the Vatrano family home on Millbrook Drive took a beating from Frankie and his two older brothers. The Vatrano brothers were fixtures in the driveway, shooting pucks into the night after school and all summer long. In those early years, the future NHL millionaire was forced to wear goalie pads in the driveway games.
“Two older brothers, right?” said little Frankie, “so that’s what you get.”
All the Vatrano boys have since grown up and moved elsewhere. The garage door, riddled with puck scars, was replaced when the last of them moved out. But lift up that door, said Frankie, and the garage walls still show that shooting was a family staple.
“I have nothing but good things to say abut Boston,” said Vatrano. “I got an opportunity to play on some good lines here. Obviously, things didn’t work out. The change of scenery was the best thing that could happen for me. I’m in Florida now, and Boston’s in the past. But they did a lot of good things for me.
“They gave me a chance to play in the NHL — from management to coaching staff, from Claude [Julien] to [Cassidy], they gave me the opportunity to play, so I am grateful for that.”
Grateful, but also elsewhere, with his game still filling out in step with his ability to fill up the net.