AUSTIN — The best part about late July for Steve Howard is that his annually renewing puzzle is nearly pieced together.
The conclusion of the Austin Bruins’ main tryout camp late Friday night left Howard, the team’s fourth-year head coach and General Manager, with the bones of what the 2020-21 roster will look like.
The camp started last Tuesday with 160 players and was cut down to 44 by Friday night’s All-Star Game. Another dozen or so players were let go after that game and the remainder will be back to Austin early next month to start the season with the Bruins, who finished 28-16-7 and in third place in the North American Hockey League Central Division last season.
And those puzzle pieces that Howard gets so excited about? He look forward to fitting the new pieces into place, just as much as putting the familiar pieces into new places.
“Guys like (Carson) Riddle, (Nate) Solis and (Connor) Crawford, too, they all have looked really good (last) week,” Howard said of the veteran forwards. “All three are just … they look like they’ve taken that step into thinking ‘all right, I’m going to be in a top role here this year.’”
On the blue line, veteran defensemen Cullen Rush (a former Rochester Grizzly) and Travis Shoudy also stood out throughout the four-day camp, as did 17-year-old Jackson McCarthy, the Bruins’ first pick in the 2020 NAHL Supplemental Draft. McCarthy missed Friday’s All-Star Game with a minor injury, but the Bruins coaching staff is excited about what they saw from him.
“He scored, like, seven goals in the first three days this week,” Howard said, “and he’s a defenseman who’s not really known for his offense, but he can shoot the puck hard. He has a rifle.
“Shoudy, he looks like he’s running shop on the back end. The puck’s always on his stick, he’s making guys look away, he has poise, he has patience. He’s that offensive defenseman I knew he would be, he just had to grind it out here for a year first.”
A DIFFERENT FEEL TO CAMP
Everyone in the Bruins’ organization and the 160 players who reported to tryout camp last Tuesday were thrilled to be back on the ice for the first time in four months. But the Bruins’ coaching staff had to alter the way it evaluated players last week, knowing that many of them didn’t have access to ice or, in some cases, workout equipment.
“We’re having to rely a little more on scouting and video that we’ve done on these guys,” Howard said. “If we were high on a guy (before camp), that’s where I can’t write him off because he doesn’t look great at camp.”
The Bruins’ players will report back to Riverside Arena the first week in September for an orientation and team-building camp. They’ll take 10 days off after that, then report back to Austin again for the start of training camp, in advance of the season opening on Oct. 9.
“When we get to the nitty gritty in September and start playing preseason games, some guys will fall off and some guys will pop,” Howard said. “That’s what you want to see; it happens every year.
“This year is just a little different for us, not having Ben Almquist, Dante Sheriff and Hugh Larking coming back up front, or (Josef) Mysak and (Jed) Pietila on ‘D.’ We’re in a different stage now.”
Though the Bruins lost three three-year players to Division I colleges this year — Sheriff (Mercyhurst), Mysak (Niagara) and Pietila (Michigan Tech) — as well as two-year regulars Larkin (Western Michigan) and goalie Brett Miller (RPI), Howard likes the makeup of the ’20-’21 team.
“We have a good mix,” he said. “I was excited to come in here three years ago and I thought we’d take some lumps my first year with a young team, but we ended up really running with it and finishing second (in the division).
“I’m optimistic that this year’s team could do the same thing and we have the team to run with it again, but right now I can’t put the cart ahead of the horse.”
Bruins' veterans Gallagher, Rush and Solis scored once each in Friday's All-Star Game. ... Other goals came from former Rochester Grizzlies captain Peyton Hart and Sutter Muzzatti (both of whom have been tendered by the Bruins for this season) and roster hopefuls Jake Jensen, Jens Richards and Tyler Fittro.