As a head coach in the American Hockey League, he gets paid to deal with a lineup in flux. This year, however, the first-year bench boss has had to balance a lineup with an unseemly amount of turmoil.
With Boston ravaged by injuries early this season, a number of key players were summoned from Providence. Among them were Danton Heinen, last spring’s postseason points leader; Kenny Agostino, last season’s AHL MVP; Matt Grzelcyk, one of the P-Bruins top blue liners; as well as Peter Cehlarik and Jordan Szwarz, among Providence’s top scorers a season ago.
But through it all, Leach and the P-Bruins – much like their big brothers to the north – have managed to stay afloat, riding a blend of youth and experience to the top of the Atlantic Division standings, 2 points clear of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, as the midway point of the season approaches.
“It is a challenge in that the lineup is different every night,” said Leach, 38, who was recently named the Atlantic Division coach for the upcoming AHL All-Star Classic. “I think we try to be as open as possible with the guys with regards to the ups and downs of the call ups. I think it is important to kind of acknowledge that these things happen, and that guys are going to be in different spots…they have kind of bought into the collective group, and I think that is the way we have tried to spin it with the interchanging parts that we have had really since the start of the season.
“They really like to play with one another, so they really don’t get discouraged. They don’t get down; they just seem to be positive and know that there is a way to get things done, and for the most part, they have.”
Despite a whopping 56 roster transactions since Oct. 6, Providence reeled off a run of eight straight wins beginning at the end of November, a stretch that has helped propel the P-Bruins into the top spot in their division.
“I think we’re used to it, plugging guys in, whether it’s injuries down here or injuries up there,” said longtime Providence captain Tommy Cross, who was recalled to Boston last spring during the B’s postseason series with Ottawa. “When there’s the up-and-down we’re watching guys go up to Boston and do a good job. Then if they come back we’re happy to have them. It’s just good to see the movement and good to see both teams playing well.”
Cross credited strong goaltending – from Zane McIntyre and All-Star Jordan Binnington, who is on lone from the St. Louis organization – as well as some timely scoring as the biggest reasons for the P-Bruins success to this point. Austin Czarnik, who paces the team with 32 points (9 goals, 23 assists), leads Providence up front and was recently named to the AHL All-Star Classic.
“We’ve had a good start, our record is in a good spot right now. I think we’ve just played hard,” said Cross. “We’ve found ways to win a lot of games we’ve played just OK. Some of it’s been goaltending where they’ve stolen a couple games for us – and some timely goals. We talked about it this morning, we’re just focused on playing really good hockey and we know if we do that we’ll get even more wins.”
The 28-year-old blue liner also pointed to Leach, who was an assistant under Kevin Dean last season before taking over the head job when Dean was added to Bruce Cassidy’s staff in Boston over the summer.
“It’s been some new energy and a lot of carryover from Butch and Deano, obviously playing the same system as Boston,” said Cross. “A lot of players up and down, but he’s brought some new energy and some new concepts.”
Leach, meanwhile, deflected any credit, instead heaping praise on Cross and the rest of the P-Bruins veteran core. With a laundry list of high-profile prospects taking up ice time – the likes of Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Zach Senyshyn, Jeremy Lauzon, Jakub Zboril, Rob O’Gara, Peter Cehlarik, and now Anders Bjork are playing heavy minutes – Leach acknowledged it can be a difficult balance for the more experienced players on the roster.
“They set the tone, and also in saying that, the kids, obviously, are here to develop and sometimes they play over those veterans. I can’t say enough about the way our veterans handle that, because it is not an easy thing, especially as a professional athlete,” said Leach. “You don’t want to lose your job anyways – but especially give up your opportunity for a younger kid, but our guys recognize that this is obviously a developmental league.
“They are here for many different reasons, and they are able to handle it in a professional way that is very beneficial for our group, for our kids, and for our organization…humans are humans, and sometimes there is good and bad, but I think it is a really nice mix, and you are seeing benefits on both sides.”
For Boston’s young talent, there is plenty of opportunity to act as sponges, as they collect invaluable experience and learn what it means to be a professional hockey player, both on and off the ice.
“We have a good group of young guys, but the older guys, our captain Tommy Cross and everyone else, they’re the ones who are kind of pulling the train and taking the young guys under their wings,” said Forsbacka Karlsson, who is third on the team in scoring with 24 points in 35 games. “All respect to those guys, they’re doing a great job.”