By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Boston Bruins still find themselves in need of a legitimate, consistent top-4 defenseman, if not top-2. Ideally, that player would man the left side next to Charlie McAvoy for years to come, and at the very least be able to step in and play top-4 minutes.
Top prospect Jakub Zboril would fit the bill as a left-shot defender, and the 2015 first-round pick still holds some upside as a potentially major piece of the Bruins organization down the road. But the 21-year-old still has yet to crack the NHL roster, which doesn’t bode well for his chances of making that kind of impact at the top level as soon as the 2018-19 season.
Still, after spending his first full pro season in the AHL with the Providence Bruins, Zboril will have an opportunity to earn a role on the Bruins blue line this fall. GM Don Sweeney hinted that this years training camp could be something of a “make-or-break” moment for the young defenseman.
While speaking to reporters at the pre-draft combine in Buffalo, Sweeney was asked if the Bruins’ top defensive prospects are close. That list also includes 2015 second-rounder Jeremy Lauzon, 2017 first-rounder Urho Vaakanainen, 22-year-old Swede Emil Johansson, and recently signed former Harvard D-man Wiley Sherman. But as far as blue liners who have yet to make the jump to the NHL, Zboril remains at the top of the list.
“Well we hope that, with the year that – a full year of the American Hockey League and the amount of games that Jakub [Zboril] played that he would be looking to take another step,” Sweeney said. “He certainly has peers that have played in the National Hockey League, so he is anxious to see where he fits, and training camp will be a great indication.”
As indicated by the signing of Vaakanainen, Sweeney confirmed that the Finnish defenseman would play in North America next season and that he and Zboril would both be present for the Bruins’ rookie minicamp later this summer. But realistically, Vaakanainen is still at least a year or two away from getting a chance to play full-time in Boston.
This fall, Zboril should be ready to at least rap the door, if not kick it open.
Defenseman of the Future?
Obviously, Sweeney wasn’t going to use the term “make-or-break,” or admit that this would be Zboril’s last chance to fit in on the NHL roster. But 2018-19 training camp could end up being the first sign of whether Zboril would eventually be able to carve a role for himself in Boston. It could also be the first sign of whether Sweeney would look toward moving on from the former first-rounder, and identifying another player or prospect as a stalwart left-shot defenseman of the future.
Zboril is on the cap for just $863,333 over the next two seasons as part of his rookie contract. So if any year is truly going to be his last chance to make his mark in Boston, it would be 2019-20. But at the same time, the Bruins have arrived at a point where the need for a dynamic young left-shot defenseman is as pressing as it’s ever been.
Zdeno Chara may be sticking around another year in Boston, but the 41-year-old has reached the year-to-year portion of his NHL career. The 2018-19 season may not be the final time Chara laces up, but how much longer can he play at a top-pairing level?
In a perfect world, Zboril can arrive in Boston next season as close to ready-made as you can expect for a 21-year-old. No player that young is fully formed as a player, especially not on defense. But McAvoy and other high-end prospects around the league have already proven that kids can still make an impact with their skills, despite being imperfect. The Blue Jackets’ Zach Werenski has posted back-to-back seasons of double-digit goals to start his career, and he’s still just 20 years old. The Flyers’ Ivan Provorov, 21, has played 82 games for two straight years and just scored 17 goals with a plus-17 rating while averaging 24:09 of ice time.
Realistically, McAvoy would be the Bruin to make that kind of jump next season. But can Zboril come close in his first run at the NHL level?
As far as the Bruins’ blue line is concerned over the next few seasons, Zboril continues to be the best option as a young prospect who can step in and make a real difference. If you read between the lines of Sweeney’s comments, 2018-19 will be the defenseman’s biggest opportunity yet. It’s going to be up to him to make the most of it when it arrives.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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