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Ranking the top 10 Bruins prospects ahead of the 2023-24 NHL season

Ranking the top 10 Bruins prospects ahead of 2023-24 NHL season originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Bruins are still in win-now mode despite going all-in last season to win the Stanley Cup.

If they weren’t in win-now mode, we wouldn’t have seen general manager Don Sweeney plug a lot of the holes on his roster by signing five veterans in the first 48 hours of NHL free agency earlier this month.

The Bruins could still integrate a few young players/prospects into their lineup next season, though, especially in the bottom six forward group. The Athletic’s latest prospect pool rankings came out in January, and the Bruins were ranked 30th out of 32 teams.

The B’s have drafted better in recent years after a couple lackluster drafts, but the real issue for Boston is the lack of picks. They’ve traded a ton of first, second and third-round picks since Sweeney took over as GM in 2015. It’s hard to have a top-tier prospect pool when you’re not consistently picking in Round 1 and Round 2.

There is talent in the system, though, including a few really exciting prospects. Here are the Bruins’ top 10 prospects ahead of the 2023-24 campaign.

10. Frederic Brunet, D, Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL)

Brunet set career highs with 10 goals and 38 points in 30 games for Victoriaville last season. He is a quality offensive defenseman who is consistently improving in many areas. Brunet signed a tryout agreement with the Providence Bruins in April and tallied two assists in his first and only AHL game. He is eligible to return to the QMJHL next season. Playing in Providence would be better for Brunet, but the P-Bruins already have a lot of left-shot defensemen on their roster. Wherever he plays next season, improving defensively should be a priority for him.

9. Dans Locmelis, C, UMass (NCAA)

Locmelis was a fourth-round pick of the Bruins in 2022, and after a very good 2022-23 season in Sweden, he is coming over to the United States to play for UMass in the fall. The Latvian center tallied 59 points (25 goals, 34 assists) in 44 games in the Swedish Junior League last season. He also represented Latvia at the 2023 World Championships and helped lead them to the semifinal, where he scored in a loss against Canada. Latvia ultimately finished with the bronze medal.

He was actually one of Latvia’s best players at the tournament, where he played against a bunch of NHL players.

Locmelis is expected to play center at UMass. Don’t be surprised if he’s a few spots higher on this list at this time next year. He has exciting potential.

8. Marc McLaughlin, C/RW, Providence Bruins (AHL)

McLaughlin’s first full season in the AHL was a good one. He posted 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists) in 66 games. He’s a candidate to see some time in Boston in a bottom-six role next season. McLaughlin has some scoring pop, he can fight, he plays with energy and he is versatile enough to play at center and on the wing. He doesn’t have a super-high ceiling, but he’s a solid player.

7. Brandon Bussi, G, Providence Bruins (AHL)

Bussi enjoyed a stellar rookie season in Providence with a 22-5-4 record. He also ranked second in the AHL with a .926 save percentage and sixth with a 2.40 GAA. Even though Bussi lost three of the four playoff games he played last season, he still posted a .926 save percentage versus the Hartford Wolf Pack.

Bussi’s excellent AHL debut makes him a strong candidate to be an NHL backup in the not-so-distant future, especially if he continues to develop on the right path in Providence. The Bruins appear to be going into the 2023-24 campaign with Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman as their goalie tandem, but depending on what Swayman’s new contract looks like, it might not be feasible to use up $9-10 million in salary cap space at that position long term. If one of them is traded at some point in the next year or so, Bussi is a prime candidate for the backup job.

However, it’s important for B’s fans not to get too excited about Bussi’s 2022-23 season. Goalie development can take many twists and turns. It’s a hard position for young players both physically and mentally. But it is a very good sign for the Bruins that Bussi appears to have genuine potential. And if there’s one position the Bruins are consistently good at drafting and developing, it’s goaltender.

6. John Beecher, C, Providence Bruins (AHL)

Beecher is one of only two Bruins first-round picks (the other is Fabian Lysell in 2021) in the last five drafts. The Bruins selected Beecher at the end of the first round in 2019, and he did not meet expectations at the University of Michigan, particularly offensively. He completed his first full AHL season in 2022-23 and posted 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in 63 games. Beecher doesn’t have top-six potential, but he could be a decent bottom-six center in the NHL. He has made great strides defensively, specifically as a penalty killer and on faceoffs. He also has great size (6-foot-3, 215 points) and skates well. Patrick Brown is the most likely candidate for the fourth-line center role to begin the season, but it wouldn’t be shocking if Beecher took some shifts in that spot over the first couple of months. It’s time to see how Beecher can perform against NHL competition.

5. Brett Harrison, C, Providence Bruins (AHL)

Harrison took another step forward in his development last season by tallying 69 points (34 goals, 35 assists) in 57 games between the OHL’s Oshawa Generals and Windsor Spitfires.

Harrison’s best trait is his shot. It’s dangerous from all over the ice, and it’ll be interesting to see how it translates to the AHL, which is where he’ll begin the 2023-24 season in Providence. Harrison is a natural center, but he could actually start his P-Bruins career at left wing. If Harrison has a good season in 2023-24, it wouldn’t be surprising if he challenges for an NHL roster spot in 2024-25.

The Bruins are desperate for a center prospect to realize his potential given the possibility that Patrice Bergeron and/or David Krejci could retire this summer. Center is a position the B’s have drafted and developed poorly in for over a decade. That trend appears to be reversing, though, and Poitras is a major reason why.

Poitras took a huge step in his development last season, especially as a playmaker. He finished with 95 points (16 goals, 79 assists) in 63 games, which was a 30-point improvement from his scoring output in 2021-22. His 95 points were the fifth-most in the OHL.

The 2022 second-round pick is not eligible to play in the AHL next season, so the most likely scenario is a third season in the OHL.

Merkulov is a sneaky good prospect for the Bruins who could find his way to the NHL club at some point this season. The 22-year-old forward led the Providence Bruins with 24 goals and 55 points last season. His stellar stats earned him a spot on the AHL’s 2022-23 All Rookie Team.

He was a consistent threat to score at 5-on-5 and the power play. His shot is NHL caliber and he’s not shy about attacking opposing defensemen with his speed entering the offensive zone. He’s a really good passer, too.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Merkulov got a look in a bottom-six role early in the regular season if he has a strong training camp and preseason. The Bruins need more players with his kind of dynamic offensive skill set.

2. Fabian Lysell, RW, Providence Bruins (AHL)

The 2022-23 season was Lysell’s first in the AHL with the Providence Bruins, and while he played well overall, his performance was a bit inconsistent. He started fantastic with 19 points in his first 20 games. Lysell joined Sweden in late December for the World Junior Championships but failed to make much of an impact with zero points in seven games as the Swedes finished a disappointing fourth place. He tallied just 18 points in his last 34 regular season games for the P-Bruins before suffering a concussion in Game 3 of the playoffs against the Hartford Wolfpack. It was a dirty hit and forced Lysell to miss the rest of the series, which Providence lost in five games. Lysell ended up with 37 points (14 goals, 23 assists) in 54 games, which isn’t bad at all for a 19-year-old playing against the best and most physical competition he has ever faced.

“It’s a lot of new things, new things to take in. I feel like the beginning of the year was really good, the first four months. And then I had a dip there in January,” Lysell told reporters at Development Camp earlier this month. “I felt like I was kind of up and down the rest of the year. It’s a lot of new things to take in, but looking back at it, I learned a lot of new things that I wouldn’t know before last year. So, I’m really looking forward to this upcoming year and I think I have more knowledge now that I’m really going to be able to use for next year.”

Lysell has the highest ceiling of any Bruins forward prospect. He has top-six right wing potential with his speed, playmaking skills and excellent shot. The Bruins lost a lot of depth up front this offseason, and even though they signed several veterans in free agency, Lysell could play a bunch of games in the NHL this season.

He’s determined to seize the opportunity when it arrives.

“I think everybody coming into camp is trying to make the team and I’m no different,” Lysell said. “I know last year was really good for me and I think coming into camp this year, I’m really going to put all my energy out there to make that team. I’ve been doing the camp now two times and I feel like now the third time I’m going to be even more focused and I’m really going to battle out there to take my spot.”

1. Mason Lohrei, D, Providence Bruins (AHL)

Lohrei had a very strong sophomore season for Ohio State and led the Buckeyes to the quarterfinals of the 2023 NCAA Tournament. He finished the campaign with 32 points (four goals, 28 assists) in 40 games. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound defenseman has an exciting two-way skill set and is very poised with the puck on his stick. He skates well, exits the defensive zone with quick, accurate passes up ice and creates scoring chances with his playmaking ability.

The Bruins have quite a few left-shot defensemen at the NHL level, so it’s unknown when Lohrei will make his debut for Boston, but it will probably happen during the 2023-24 season. He has the potential to be a legit top-four defenseman someday.

“Mason has been right out in front that he expects to challenge for a spot this year,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney told reporters at Development Camp earlier this month. He’ll go through the progressions of Rookie Camp and play in some exhibition games, and we’ll see where he’s at.

“He’s healthy. A year ago, he was recovering from knee surgery and has made some nice gains in all the areas that he’s needed too to be back at full strength. You love the size; you love the puck poise. The execution and the pace of play are probably going to dictate when it translates, but we’re excited about his trajectory and what he can bring to our organization.”