By: James Swindells | Follow me on Twitter @jimswindells68
With the AHL’s All-Star festivities in Laval, Quebec wrapped up and the Providence Bruins arriving at the unofficial midway point of the season, I figured this would be an excellent time to look at some standout players at the AHL level in the Bruins organization, where the P-Bruins stand and what the second half of their season holds in store.
Providence and the Hershey Bears have spent the entire season as the class of the AHL’s Atlantic Division. The AHL affiliates of the NHL’s Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals have been locked into either first or second place in the AHL’s Atlantic Division. The remainder of the Atlantic Division has been tightly contested, with only nine points separating third place from eighth place.
Due to a lack of roster call-ups to Boston, Providence’s roster has remained unchanged for most of the season’s first four months. Brief stints by forwards Jakub Lauko, Chris Wagner, Joona Koppanen, Mark McLaughlin, Vinni Lettieri, defenceman Dan Renouf and goaltender Keith Kinkaid generally were necessitated by injuries in Boston and had short-lived stays with the NHL club.
Veteran additions to Providence’s roster from Boston highlighted high-profile moves made by the parent club. As Boston welcomed Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy, and Matt Grzelcyk back from early season injuries, defencemen Mike Reilly and Anton Stralman and forward Craig Smith became victims of a numbers game and were loaned to Providence. Reilly has seen action in 20 games while posting 14 points (4G, 10A) and has added his puck-moving and strong offensive zone skills to complement Jack Ahcan and Connor Carrick, giving Providence a trio of offensive-minded blue-liners.
Meanwhile, Stralman was loaned to Providence on November 29th, played his first AHL game for the P-Bruins on January 22nd, and has appeared in three games. Craig Smith’s waiver move to Providence was a cap relief move for Boston and saved them $1.125 million with Smith’s assignment; he was returned to Boston on December 27th after the NHL’s holiday roster freeze.
Roster stability in Providence enabled head coach Ryan Mougenel to immerse players in a system that Mougenel’s staff and Bruins’ management believe puts players in a position to succeed in Providence and Boston. The stability allowed Mougenel to move players through line pairings as he bolsters a player’s strengths and develops awareness with players as they work to improve weaker aspects of their game.
Providence rode the strength of a talented roster and mixed a veteran netminder in with a pair of young goaltending prospects to charge out to a 27-9-7-2 record at the All-Star break. The stellar start saw numerous standout performances by developing prospects, high-profile draft picks, and seasoned veterans.
Keith Kinkaid, a 12-year pro, gives Providence a veteran presence in goal and serves as a mentor to developing young netminders Brandon Bussi and Kyle Keyser. Kinkaid and Keyser started the season white-hot and gave the P-Bruins a fantastic one-two punch in goal.
Keyser rode a five-game undefeated stretch before suffering an injury in Springfield on November 5th that shelved him until mid-January. Upon his return on January 15th, the Coral Springs, FL native maintained the dominance displayed leading up to his injury. He has yet to lose a game in regulation time with Providence and has compiled a 6-0-2 record with a 1.88 GAA and .931 SV%. Ever-improving strong positioning highlights Keyser’s skill set and pairs that with excellent puck-handling skills.
Brandon Bussi started the season with Boston’s ECHL affiliate, the Maine Mariners. After posting excellent numbers in Portland, he got the call to the AHL when Keith Kinkaid was dispatched to Boston to serve as backup to Linus Ullmark on November 2nd. Since his recall, Bussi has taken the opportunity to prove he may be a valuable chip in Boston’s future depth at the goaltender position.
With Kinkaid in Boston, spelling an injured Jeremy Swayman, and Keyser down due to injury, Bussi began an eye-popping ascent to the top of the AHL’s statistical leaders for netminders. Bussi started his stint in Providence with eight straight games without a regulation loss and currently holds a seven-game stretch without a regulation loss. The rookie netminder is second among AHL goalies with a 2.19 GAA and leads the AHL with a .934 SV%. and holds a 14-2-4-1 record. For his efforts, Bussi was rewarded with his first AHL All-Star selection on January 11th.
Another player having a standout season and earning an AHL All-Star selection is veteran forward Vinni Lettieri. Lettieri maintained a point-per-game pace through mid-December and is Providence’s leading scorer at the All-Star break with 16G, 21A in 41 games. He leads the team in goals, assists, points, short-handed goals, shots, game-winning goals, and power-play goals. Lettieri’s 9 PPGs account for almost 30% of Providence’s power play tallies. As Providence’s PP unit has resided at or near the bottom of the AHL’s PP rankings, it is clear that he is an integral cog in the success of what is the lone component of Providence’s game that needs significant improvement.
Leading the prospect pool of forwards in Providence is the 2021 first-round selection Fabian Lysell. Lysell is seen as a can’t-miss prospect and an important component in Boston’s efforts to keep their supply of forwards in the pipeline filled at the NHL level. He has been mostly as advertised and is a player with a special set of skills offensively with a raw defensive game that needs polish and development before he can become a reliable player that can move onto the NHL roster.
Lysell played at a point-per-game pace in the first month, as his play strongly defended Boston’s selection of him. As the season progressed, Lysell became a known commodity among AHL teams and garnered the attention coming with a player of his caliber. Teams played him more physically, and his smallish size left him vulnerable to the more physical style of play. He left the P-Bruins to play for Team Sweden at the World Junior Championships in late December, and upon his return, his play failed to meet the early season standard and has been hampered by illness/injury.
The Göteborg, Sweden, native has produced 9G and 15A in 29 games with Providence. With the continued development of his overall game by Mougenel and his staff, the molding of Lysell into the complete 200-foot player coveted by Boston’s management and the coaching staff in Providence and Boston will ultimately make him a mainstay at the NHL level.
Finnish-born Joona Koppanen continues to grow upon his breakout 2021-22 season with another excellent campaign for the P-Bruins. The 6’5″ 210-pound forward excels with a strong 200-foot game and is a valuable asset on the Providence PK unit and at the faceoff dot. Koppanen was paired with Justin Brazeau and 11-year veteran Chris Wagner at the start of the season. Their pairing made a matchup nightmare for opposing teams as their size, and hard-working natures made them a formidable trio for AHL teams to prepare for.
An injury to Tomáš Nosek necessitated Koppanen’s call-up to Boston in January. With Nosek sidelined for four weeks, Koppanen gets a chance to showcase his skills for the big club and prove that he is NHL material. While not a big numbers player, his skill set is ideal to be penciled in as Boston’s fourth-line center of the future. With the clouded future of players such as Nosek, Koppanen has an opportunity to impress the Bruins’ brass and stick the landing on the Boston roster moving into next season.
Georgii Merkulov (11G, 19A in 41 games) signed a three-year entry-level contract with Boston in March 2022 after one season at Ohio State University. The 5’11” 180-pound forward from Ryazan, Russia, had a nine-game stint with Providence in 2022 and showed flashes of brilliance offensively. This season’s goal was to mine his game’s raw, untapped potential and work him into a complete 200-foot player. Equipped with blazing speed and a nose for making dynamic plays, Merkulov came out flying in October and maintained a point-per-game pace until mid-November.
Similar to Lysell, AHL teams have adjusted to Merkulov, and his production has peaked and valleyed with streaky play. With linemate Vinni Lettieri sidelined for the next couple of weeks, Merkulov’s production numbers have returned and mimic those from earlier in the season. With further seasoning at the AHL level, Merkulov could round into the type of potent forward that Bruins fans have become accustomed to.
The biggest surprise in the crop of Providence’s forwards has been Justin Brazeau. Brazeau has brought his game to a production level not seen previous to this season. The 6’5″ 245-pound native of New Liskeard, ON, is currently on an AHL-only deal for the 2022-23 season. Since joining the Boston organization and playing in 107 games split between the ECHL’s Maine Mariners and the P-Bruins, Brazeau has produced 77 points while seeing time primarily in 5-on-5 situations.
The big-bodied Brazeau has found his way into PP minutes and used his size advantage to gain a netfront positional edge and become a valuable asset to the Providence PP unit. His corner work and physical presence make him a tough matchup, and he was recently on a point-per-game pace spanning 15 games from December 30th to February 3rd, where he posted 8G, 7A. Brazeau could find himself having a longer-term future inside the Bruins organization with a strong second half of the season.
Jack Ahcan is a third-year blue-liner who is on an expiring deal and set to become an RFA at the season’s end. The former St. Cloud State product made his first AHL All-Star Classic and will represent the P-Bruins for the Atlantic Division. Ahcan played in nine games for Boston the last two seasons and, with further development, is seen as a potential bottom pairing on the defensive corp in Boston. This season he has been primarily used as a quarterback on the P-Bruins PP unit and is tied for second on the P-Bruins with 19 assists.
As an offensive-minded blue-liner, Ahcan can carry the play through the attack zone and leads all P-Bruins defenders in shots on goal. Along with Connor Carrick and Mike Reilly, Ahcan gives Providence depth along the blue line where playmaking and offense can come from. With his style of play and physical stature, Ahcan possesses a physicality to his game. With some uncertain futures beyond this season in Boston, Ahcan could be in line for a role at the NHL level in the 2023-24 season.
Providence kicks off the second half of their season on February 10th, and the emphasis for Mougenel and staff will be on furthering the development of his roster players. Also, the need to have players ready for an immediate recall due to injury or poor play in Boston is vital so that players on call-up can jump in and contribute immediately to the NHL club.
Providence’s goal is to continue improving their success over the season’s first four months and place themselves in a position to qualify for the AHL’s postseason. With the level of talent from the net to the forwards, Providence has a good chance of making a deep run in the Calder Cup playoffs and giving the players on the squad a taste of playoff hockey that differs wildly from regular season play and gaining a level of experience that is immeasurable and essential to their growth as players.