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Joseph Ochs The Hockey Writers

Published on Friday, March 2, 2018





Bruins ‘Seventh Player’ Award Candidates

For the past 48 years, fans of the Boston Bruins have selected the winner of team’s “Seventh Player” Award, identifying the individual whose performance most exceeded their expectations. Being a fan vote and thus open to interpretation, the results have historically been all over the place. Like Tim Thomas somehow winning the award in back-to-back seasons, or David Pastrnak doing so twice in three years.

Previous winners have come in all shapes and sizes: The hot-shot rookie who blasted onto radars across the league, or simply “arrived” earlier than expected. The plucky, understated veteran who enjoyed a career year. A player who returned from grievous injury and provided a major boost to the team…

As a team, the Boston Bruins have significantly exceeded expectations this season. As such, picking a winner in a season such as this is sure to be even more challenging.

Without further ado, here are the five most deserving candidates to be this season’s “Seventh Man,” in order of current deservedness.

Riley Nash

From my perspective, Riley Nash embodies the the true, intended spirit of the award.

In order to exceed expectations, the initial expectation placed on the player in question must be at least tempered. Having spent the first 300-plus games of his NHL career quietly going about his business within a team’s bottom six (primarily as a fourth-liner), it’s safe to fans weren’t expecting fireworks this season from the 28-year-old Nash.

Riley Nash, Bruins

Riley Nash (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

But fireworks are exactly what he has given the Boston faithful, seemingly finding a new way to contribute nightly.

Prior to the current campaign, the Alberta-native had never exceeded 25 points in any given season, nor had he scored more than 10 goals. Nash has already eclipsed both figures with 20 games still remaining on the schedule; he’s on pace for roughly 15 goals and 42 points.

But he has brought oh-so-much more to the table this season for the Bruins than career-best offensive numbers. His versatility and ability to play all three forward positions have seen him play every conceivable role, from fourth-line center and winger to centering the team’s top line between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak while Patrice Bergeron nurses his fractured foot.

His work as the third-line pivot has played an integral role in Boston’s surprising and seismic rise through the league’s ranks. Alongside David Backes and Danton Heinen, the line’s 200-foot, three-zone reliability has enabled Bergeron to take a much larger portion of his face-offs in the offensive zone, contributing substantially to “Bergie’s” point-per-game scoring rate.

Though not a traditional checking line, the trio’s ability to shut down an opposing top six while chipping-in offensively has turned the Bruins into a matchup nightmare for most opponents.

riley nash, bruins

Riley Nah’s smothering defense on display (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

Furthermore, Nash’s 1:52 of shorthanded time-on-ice per contest and 57 blocked shots both rank first amongst Bruins forwards.

His career-year has coincided with the last year of his contract, meaning there’s a solid chance that Riley Nash is pricing himself was out of Boston. Though the Seventh Player Award is not the particular award he has his sights on at season’s end, it would be fitting recognition for a player who has gone above and beyond in his second season with the team.

Danton Heinen

Though a recent slump sent Danton Heinen to the press box versus Pittsburgh on Thursday, the rookie out of Langley, British Columbia has already surpassed the initial expectations placed on him for this season.

With his eight-game cameo last season yielding zero points and much-ballyhooed rookie wingers Jake DeBrusk and Anders Bjork arriving on the scene this year, it’s not that Heinen was forgotten, but rather that he was being marginally overlooked. While DeBrusk and Bjork were emphatically announcing their presence to the Nashville Predators on opening night, Heinen was once again playing his trade in Providence, waiting for an opportunity.

Danton Heinen Bruins

Danton Heinen, Boston Bruins, Dec. 2, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

After recording eight points in just four games with the Baby B’s, the former University of Denver standout was recalled to the parent club and has played so well that it’s hard to believe he didn’t make the team out of camp.

His 39 points are good for fourth on the team, behind only the three members of the best line in the NHL. His current drought (one point in his last nine games) has taken a toll on his standing amongst rookies, but Heinen still has the sixth-best scoring rate of all first-year players and remains on pace to eclipse 50 points.

Like his linemate (and fellow seventh-player award candidate) Riley Nash, Heinen’s worth extends beyond the stat sheet.

When Brad Marchand was serving his recent five-game suspension  it was Heinen who stepped into his role as a two-way presence on the team’s top line. His attention to detail and ability to win board battles are quite advanced for a player of his age (and size), making him practically untouchable during trade negotiations this past week.

The total package at just 22 years old, Danton Heinen would be the “correct” choice for fans who interpret the award as “most surprising rookie.”

Anton Khudobin

Six different Boston Bruins goaltenders have claimed the Seventh Player Award since its inception in 1969, including current starter Tuukka Rask. However, Anton Khudobin would be the first backup to do so.

He’s also the first to have mounted a legitimate case for it.

Anton Khudobin, Bruins

Anton Khudobin (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

With a record of 13-4-4 on the season, Khudobin’s performance has finally brought Boston’s backup carousel to a halt after three-plus seasons of futility at the position.

In doing so he has afforded Rask ample time to rest and recharge while giving his team an excellent chance to win when he’s between the pipes. With one more victory he will have doubled his win total from a season ago. A season in which he was so erratic and unreliable at times that he was waived in favor of untested rookie Zane McIntyre.

A recent downturn in play (he has allowed six goals on his last 44 shots faced) has dented his once-superlative numbers, but the Kazakh-netminder still sports a .919 save percentage and 2.41 goals-against-average.

His biggest contributions to the campaign came in the early-going, when his Finnish counterpart was struggling mightily behind an injury-hampered lineup. From November 10 though November 24, Khudobin started five of the team’s seven games following their 6-5-3 start. He posted a 4-0-1 record over those contests, with a .938 save percentage and 1.96 GAA, helping to right the ship and set the stage for a points-streak that would eventually reach 21 games.

If your interpretation of this award has more to do with bounce-back seasons and reclamation projects, Anton Khudobin is your guy.

Matt Grzelcyk

In spite of his father’s 50 years as a member of the Garden’s “Bull Gang,” his own storied four-year career down the street at Boston University and a two-game cameo with the parent club last season, rookie defenseman Matt Grzelcyk was somewhat of an afterthought for many Bruins fans heading into the 2017-18 Season.

Matt Grzelcyk Bruins

Matt Grzelcyk, Boston Bruins, Dec. 2, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The position group appeared set in stone, with Zdeno Chara, Brandon Carlo, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, Adam McQuaid all having started at least 58 games last season. Fellow rookie (and former collegiate defense partner) Charlie McAvoy had taken New England’s collective breath away during last season’s playoffs, jumping into the fray and exuding the composure and playmaking ability of a player ten years his senior.

Paul Postma was signed on the first day of free agency to serve as veteran depth, while prospects Jakub Zboril, Jeremy Lauzon, Ryan Lindgren and Urho Vaakanainen garnered headlines as being the future at the position, leaving the 2012 Third-Round Pick seemingly caught in between the present and the future.

Boston’s well-documented early-season injuries opened a door for the Charlestown-native and he has yet to look back.

With eleven points through 43 games the diminutive Grzelcyk has performed admirably on the team’s third pairing and second power play unit. His ability to break pucks out of the defensive zone cleanly and consistently has been a boon to a unit which had struggled to do so over the previous three or four seasons. His decision-making  has been arguably the sharpest part of his game, as the 24-year-old seems to have a preternatural feel for when to pinch, when to retreat, et cetera.

Matt Grzelcyk, bruins

Matt Grzelcyk (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

He has performed so well that Adam McQuaid, a veteran of 400-plus games and one of the few remaining members of the 2011 team, could not get back into the lineup after missing 36 games; Grzelcyk was simply playing too well to ignore or scratch.

When considering the fact that Grzelcyk has jumped from organizational afterthought to lineup mainstay in a span of just three-plus months, it’s impossible to not include him in the discussion for Boston’s Seventh Man.

Charlie McAvoy

Despite missing two weeks of action due to an arrhythmic heartbeat, McAvoy has cruised to 32 points in 58 games. He ranks second on the team in average ice time (22:34), blocked shots (75) and plus-minus (plus-26), while sitting just one hit away from ranking second in that category as well. At 20 years of age he’s already a top-pairing defender on a Stanley Cup contender; pretty remarkable stuff.

As one of the top rookies in the NHL, Charlie McAvoy figures to be in the mix for the Calder Trophy at season’s end. Capable of dazzling end-to-end rushes, devastating body checks and everything in between there seems to be no ceiling to his game and no end to what he can accomplish.

Charlie McAvoy Bruins

Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins, Dec. 2, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Not since Joe Thornton 20 years ago has a Boston Bruins rookie begun his career with such lofty expectations.

It’s because of those lofty expectations that McAvoy shouldn’t be in the running for the Seventh Man.  After all, he was the 14th Overall Selection in the 2016 Draft and is the most-hyped Bruins defenseman since Ray Bourque back in 1979…how could he be exceeding the already-astronomical expectations that have been placed on him?

However, considering it’s the fans who decide such a thing, the lengthy precedent in place suggests he’ll be at the top of many lists. The Seventh Man in essence is supposed to be more of a “Most Improved” award than “Most Valuable,” but the latter has superseded the former more often than not of late.

That’s how David Pastrnak was able to claim the award last year for the second time in three seasons over Dominic Moore, who had put together one of the best statistical seasons of his career at age 37.

Will a 20-year-old phenom overtake a veteran “Jack-of-All-Trades” role player for the second year in row? Only time will tell. Riley Nash deserves the award, but the smart money might very well be on Charlie McAvoy.



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