AP NEWS

Bruins’ Frank Vatrano hopes to take next step

May 2, 2017 GMT

Frank Vatrano clearly has a gift. If you know one thing about the kid from East Longmeadow, it’s that he can shoot the puck — better, in fact, than a lot of veteran NHL players.

Vatrano demonstrated that skill in Game 1 of the Bruins’ playoff series against the Ottawa Senators when he took a short feed from Riley Nash and snapped a shot over Craig Anderson’s blocker to tie the game in the third period before Brad Marchand scored the winner.

But in Game 2, he received a painful reminder that there’s more to playing in the NHL than just scoring. With the B’s trying to protect a one-goal lead, Vatrano appeared mesmerized by a circling Erik Karlsson (not the first player to fall into that trap) and lost coverage on Derick Brassard, who scored the tying goal at the back door. The Sens eventually won the game in overtime.

That’s a hard lesson that could help shape Vatrano into the player he wants to be. It is a journey that got sidetracked a bit this season.

Last fall, the 23-year-old Vatrano was on the cusp of a fantastic opportunity. After a 2015-16 season in which he shined in the American Hockey League, scoring 36 goals in 36 games, and also showed flashes of greatness at the NHL level, Vatrano was about to enter camp with a chance to prove himself as a top-six forward. The B’s had a shortage of skilled wingers, and the left-shooting forward even seemed a possibility for playing on the top line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.

But on the eve of camp, he tore ligaments in his foot during off-ice training that required surgery and kept him on the shelf for nearly three months. Instead of immediately establishing himself as a regular NHL player, Vatrano started behind the 8-ball.

“It was not the start I wanted, but the day I got hurt, I was just thinking about the day could be healthy again, and I knew I had a time frame, and I was pushing for that time frame,” Vatrano said recently. “I started playing around Christmas, and I wanted to make an impact right away. Obviously when you miss so much time, it takes a little while to get back in the swing of things. Some parts of my game were there, and some weren’t. I think as the season went on, my game started to come around.”

He finished with 10 goals in 44 games, hardly the numbers of a pure scorer.

One of the reasons he was able to make such an impact in his first pro season was that upon signing as a free agent with the B’s, he was challenged by management to get in better shape. He met that challenge head-on, slimming down and picking up speed. But the jump was not quite there when he returned from the injury this season. He even was seen wearing a protective boot after Game 4 of the Ottawa series, though he will not require further surgery.

“I wouldn’t say it affected me at all,” Vatrano said. “Even if you’re in the best shape of your life off the ice, it’s a little bit different when you haven’t skated in a while. There’s such a thing as being in shape off the ice, but then there’s on-ice shape. For me, I was just trying to get in the best skating shape as possible. I knew my off-ice conditioning wouldn’t be a problem. It’s just when you’ve taken so much time off, it’s a little bit different getting your conditioning up that way. But I wouldn’t use it as an excuse. When I came back, I felt fine to be in the lineup.”

With Vatrano’s second pro season in the books, the B’s still are looking a top-six winger or two. The field of competition is getting more crowded, especially on the left side. Jake DeBrusk, a 2015 first-round draft pick, had 49 points and a plus-11 rating in his first season for Providence. Danton Heinen (44 points in 64 AHL games) will take another run at a roster spot. Peter Cehlarik (20 goals in 49 games for Providence) also proved an intriguing prospect in his short time with a big club. Outside help also is possible.

Vatrano wants to throw his hat into the ring again.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I learned a lot this year. Obviously being up the whole year has really helped me. You see what guys do on a daily basis, but to be around it the entire year and see the commitment that everyone has in this room is awesome. And everyone in this room, everyone has the same goals. For me, I want to be a complete player and become a top-six guy and show that I’m reliable in the defensive zone and not just a one-dimensional player.”