I am no rockets scientist. Heck, I didn’t even finish college. But even if I had, I don’t believe I’d be able to explain why Boston Bruins Defenceman Urho Vaakanainen has performed so well at the NHL level, yet in the AHL he leaves you wanting more.
That’s not to say Vaakanainen has not shown flashes with the Providence Bruins, because he has. What has frustrated me and many others is a lack of consistency from game-to-game and sometimes shift-to-shift. It’s been over four years since the Bruins selected him with the 18th overall pick and I figured we’d be past that point by now.
Let’s flash back to what one independent scouting service had to say about Vaakanainen prior to the 2017 NHL Entry Draft
Urho is a smart all around defenseman with great hockey sense. He has good puck moving ability and strong offensive upside. He is also a good skater and can rush the puck up ice with confidence. He has a decent shot from the point. Along with his offensive tools, Urho is probably best known and even more successful on the defensive side of the game. He is very solid defensively without playing a very physical style of game. He wins a lot of battles using his stick and body positioning down low. He has the skating to keep up with opponents down low who have possession. He is excellent on the rush and is extremely difficult to beat in one-on-one situations on the rush. He handles all game situations well and has skills that make him an asset, regardless of the situation.
Urho has good size, but could handle to fill out his frame a bit. He would also benefit from being a little tougher to play against physically. He has good offensive skills but projects a little more as a defensive defenseman who can contribute offensively when called upon, and really gives him an asset to his game that a lot of other defensive first defenders don’t have. We think he is one of the more NHL ready defenders in the draft. HockeyProspect Black Book
Not much Mark Edwards and his staff had wrong there except the “We think he is one of the more NHL ready defenders in the draft”.
Earlier in the season, I questioned whether Vaakanainen would remain in North America if he was trapped in Providence again for the 2022-2023 season, and rightfully so since he would be in his fifth year in the organization with only a cup of coffee in the NHL. His path is still blocked by bigger contracts.
Injuries and COVID-19 enabled Vaakanainen to get his chance in the lineup and just like Jakub Zboril made the best of his opportunities, Vaakanainen will have to do the same.
Forget the 3 assists in 4 games for now. When the coaching staff shows confidence in a player, it does wonders for their on-ice performance. Both Head Coach Bruce Cassidy and Assistant Coach Kevin Dean are showing nothing but confidence in Vaakanainen.
Need some evidence? He’s not being sheltered. His offensive zone starts ad defensive zone starts are split almost equally at 49.2% versus 50.8% respectively. And, only Charlie McAvoy (24:29) and Brandon Carlo (19:37) average more time on ice than Vaakanainen (19:21).
Need more? There really isn’t any better evidence in a coach’s trust than penalty killing time on ice. Derek Forbort leads the way with 3:11 penalty kill time per game. He is followed by Mike Reilly at 2:54. Vaakanainen is next at 2:46.
Vaakanainen is also averaging one take-away per game, far and away the leader on the Bruins blue line.
All the numbers point to Vaakanainen can be a defenceman you can count on to get the job done. The eye test will show the same. But it’s only been four games and if I see this Vaakanainen regularly, then I will join the masses that say you can’t take this guy out of the lineup. What I don’t want to see is him slip into one of those periods he has had lapses in Providence. It’s all about confidence, playing your game, and being mentally prepared every single game.
Why the difference?
Maybe he needed the big club to show some confidence. Or maybe he is just one of those rare players who are better in the NHL than the AHL.