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Kalman: Vatrano's Early Opportunity, Success Latest Proof Youngsters Can Play for Julien

By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston

WILMINGTON (CBS) -- Bruins coach Claude Julien "hates" young players so much he didn't hesitate to put rookie Frank Vatrano in Boston's top six on a line with David Krejci and Loui Eriksson for Vatrano's NHL debut Saturday in Montreal.

Vatrano rewarded Julien's confidence with a goal in the Bruins' 3-2 loss and then played a solid all-around game playing on the same line in a win against the New York Islanders the next night.

Once again, the myth about Julien's relationship to those players with less than a quarter century on Earth has been debunked. From teenaged Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton, to David Krejci to first-year pro Torey Krug, Julien has entrusted the fortunes of the Bruins in young players throughout his reign, assuming those players have produced and approached the game the right way.

And that's why Vatrano has averaged 13 minutes of ice time through his first two NHL games and was given a long look during training camp. Vatrano isn't already in Julien's good graces because the left wing has an NHL-caliber shot and is willing to use it. The 21-year-old out of UMass isn't relying on that shot alone to keep him in the NHL. He's not a one-trick pony like Matt Fraser, who you'll remember also scored a crucial goal in Montreal as a rookie. Fraser is one glaring example of a player unable or unwilling to improve the other areas of his game so that he could utilize his shot more at the sport's highest level. Alexander Khokhlachev, Vatrano's predecessor as a David Pastrnak fill-in, has also struggled to round out his game in order to become a full-time NHLer. Pastrnak didn't crack Julien's lineup last season because he's a great defensive player, but he showed the willingness to improve in that area while providing his speed and offensive production.

In the smallest of samples, Vatrano has proven that he's more than just a pretty shot.

"I think when you look at his game – and some players are so good at catching on quickly – I think his responsibility in all areas of the game is good," Julien said. "We like the fact that he's a good shooter. That's why we've got him on one of our top lines. I think he can produce there. But at the same time I like the fact that he's been really taking the other areas of the game seriously. And he's done a great job in our end, he's done a great job through the neutral zone. Coming back the backcheck has been good. So all those areas that are not necessarily always fun to do but are important, I think he's caught on to that."

Vatrano proved he could be a reliable player while scoring 10 goals in 10 games for Providence in the American Hockey League this season. Since joining Boston, he's shown not just a respect for all three zones but the type of confidence you'd expect from someone who departed college after two seasons as an undrafted free agent. As one would expect, the rookie deferred a lot of credit for his fast start to his linemates.

"You know it's great getting the opportunity to play with such high-class players like Loui and Krech," Vatrano said after practice Tuesday at Ristuccia Arena. "They just make the game easy for me, especially coming in for my first couple games, it just makes it easier and easier."

It's OK to be humble as long as Vatrano also knows he's had a major impact. His work along the walls helped the Bruins clear the puck and avoid long shifts in their own end. His knack for getting to open areas and driving to the net has opened space for Eriksson, and especially Krejci, to roam a little freer and put their playmaking skills to work.

There might be some screw-ups in Vatrano's near future. Who knows when he'll score his next goal. But Julien isn't likely to bench or demote Vatrano as long as the East Longmeadow native continues to learn from his errors and devote his energy to making up for his mistakes. Julien said that his message to Vatrano upon arriving with the Bruins was to play his game and don't worry about making mistakes.

Once again, there's no age limit to play for Julien. There's just a level of performance and commitment that has to be reached to get the playing time. Vatrano has met that quota in a short time, and if he keeps it up he'll make it difficult for the coach to take him out of the lineup.

Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for and also contributes to and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.

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