The remainder of the American Hockey League season was officially canceled last week, news that wasn't surprising but was still a bummer for the first-place Providence Bruins.
"It was tough," P-Bruins coach Jay Leach said on a Zoom call with reporters Monday. "I'd like to start and just say that I fully recognize the situation we're in with this country and the world, and by no means is us making a run at the Calder Cup more important than that. I want to make sure I make that clear. But with regards to our season, it was definitely disappointing. We were just clicking right at the right time. I think we had won 12 in a row. And more importantly, our players, our younger guys, were really coming along and kind of just hitting their stride."
Despite that news, Leach and his players recognize that there still may be hockey on the horizon this season for some of the P-Bruins. Every year when the AHL season ends, NHL teams call up so-called "Black Aces" -- anywhere from a handful to a dozen or so AHL players who then practice and train with the NHL team and provide depth in case of injuries.
It's not yet known what kind of guidance NHL teams will get in terms of Black Ace call-ups if and when the season resumes. It's possible it could be expanded given the possibility of injuries after a long layoff as well as the chance of a player or players contracting coronavirus. On the other hand, the league could put a limit on it to reduce the number of bodies around the team as a means to limit exposure.
Regardless, Leach said his players know they have a responsibility to stay in shape and be ready if and when that call comes from the Bruins.
As far as which P-Bruins might get that call, Leach highlighted forwards Jack Studnicka, Trent Frederic and Karson Kuhlman and defensemen Jakub Zboril, Urho Vaakanainen and Steven Kampfer as the ones who would probably be first in line. Kuhlman and Kampfer have both seen extended stretches in Boston over the last two seasons. Studnicka, Frederic and Vaakanainen all had brief call-up stints earlier this season, while Zboril had one last year.
Leach talked about what he's seen from Studnicka, Frederic, Vaakanainen and Zboril, as well as 2015 first-round pick Zach Senyshyn, this season. Here are some highlights.
On Senyshyn: "We were very excited for where Zach was going the last stretch, the last five, six weeks. We've talked about Seny quite a bit. Sometimes I think, our staff included, you tend to forget how young some of these players. He's just turning 23. Players develop in different ways and at different times. Seny found a home with (Brendan) Gaunce and (Brendan) Woods. They were really an up-and-down line that could do a lot of things. They had some speed with Seny and Woody, and Gaunce was able to complement them with some heady play. Seny was starting to score and he was getting to the dirty areas. They were a heavy forechecking line. For me, he was finding an identity. He's a big guy who can get to places quick. He gets to the front of the net to get those opportunities. He was really starting to put it together, like I said, the last five to six weeks. I saw speed. I saw willingness to get to the net. I saw willingness to be an F1 on the forecheck. And with that came some offensive opportunities and he started to cash in a bit. I know it's tough. It's his third year pro and I think people tend to, and I get it, it's professional hockey and there's expectations there. But in our mind and in Seny's mind, he's exactly where he needs to be and that's that he's starting to really develop."
On Studnicka: "Studdy, for all intents and purposes, he had a terrific year. Twenty-year-old kid, jumps right in, plays every scenario. Down the stretch I was really leaning on him and Cameron Hughes as the guys to seal some games out for us. His competitiveness, his speed, his hockey sense has really shone through and he was able to be very productive on both sides of the puck. I think he had a terrific year."
On Frederic: "I've said it many times, he has so many different attributes that not many have. Obviously a bigger guy that has a heck of a shot, can get up and down the ice. And then you add the physical component that he has with really confrontation more than anything being a part of his game, he really I thought was able to gain some huge strides, especially with his consistency night-in, night-out, of being that guy to play against. When you can get to that point, you're relentless, and he certainly showed that."
On Vaakanainen: "Vaaks, always the competitor, but started to really show signs of some offense. I think he had five (goals) this year, all of them on the rush. He's starting to get a little bit more comfortable there. ... This year I found him to be significantly more confident on the blue line in the offensive zone, really activating from the blue line. He's not back there pounding pucks, per se, but he'd be very active on retrievals, any sort of rebound into the corners, he's able to get down there and then make a play out of that. And then I think he also has the ability to walk the blue line, allowing him to get pucks to the net. That's one area where I saw some offensive improvement. And then the other would be to join the rush and really getting his shot off this year on the rush. He's got a really effective wrist shot and he was able to beat goalies multiple times coming down on his strong side. So definitely showing some signs of some offense in his game. It comes from his feet, it's always come from his feet because of how well he skates. He wants the puck a little bit more now. ... He's always going to have that defensive aspect to his game, he's always going to be competitive, but I think the offensive stuff is starting to come a bit more."
On Zboril: "Very much like Senyshyn, the last 12 games or 15 games, became probably our best defenseman overall. His ability to move the puck cleanly is just, really there's not many who can do it at our level. He was paired with (Josiah) Didier most of it and I think Dids' competitive juices wore off a little bit on Z. Before you knew it, he was a real force down low."
On younger guys who showed leadership qualities this season: "Seny, to be honest, has always had a likability to him. If you don't know him, he's a very likable guy. As he matured here, he started to have a little more voice in the room. I would also say Cameron Hughes, a second-year guy, he has just a natural knack to lead, and you started to see that. Vaakanainen, whether it's a leadership role or whatever, he's certainly showed a big leap from year one to year two just in his maturity and his comfortability with being in the room and really having a bit of a voice and also just a real presence. He's a Finn, and a lot of Finns, they tend to be a little quiet to start, but he really opened up this year and really embraced the group and I think they reciprocated and he had a lot of fun."