Bruins winger Jordan Caron celebrated his 20th birthday on Tuesday and, fittingly, his ability to seize opportunity early in his NHL career has been a gift to the B's.
It's been three and a half weeks since the Bruins opened the regular season in Prague against the Coyotes on a night that saw Caron in a suit rather than a sweater. Since then, it seems the memories have been piling up for the young second-line winger.
Caron entered training camp with plenty of buzz surrounding him. After he starred in the rookie games against the Islanders at TD Garden in September thanks to a hat trick in the first contest, the team's final first round pick of the pre-Seguin era had already made an impression the Bruins hoped he could build upon.
As training camp unfolded and the cuts came, Caron, like Seguin, stood out. The 25th overall pick in the 2009 draft eventually worked his way up to the second line, playing with Mark Recchi, a leader with seemingly offers an encyclopedic amount of knowledge, and Patrice Bergeron, who, like Caron, broke into the league as a teenage French-Canadian who was still learning English.
Things took a negative turn for Caron on the first leg of the team's European trip. He admittedly had an off-night in the team's 5-1 win over the Belfast Giants select team, and following the game his linemates were concerned that he may have been over-thinking things. His coach was more concerned that all the time in rookie camp and then training camp had caught up to him. Either way, he was out of the second line mix, with Blake Wheeler getting swapped in.
"What I’m feeling is that the fatigue is probably showing a little bit, so sometimes you pull a guy back a little bit and let him go back and maybe show us that he can regain that speed that he had earlier on," Claude Julien said five days before the season-opener. "I just felt like he’s slowed down a little bit, so we want to give him that chance to hopefully regain that. That’s up to him to show us that he can keep up the pace here."
Caron did everything he could to show that the Belfast game was simply a bad day, and put up a pretty compelling argument by playing well with both the third and second lines and scoring a goal in the preseason finale vs. Liberec HC.
As the team geared up for the highly anticipated opener, it seemed that the decision about whether Caron would dress for the first game would come down to the wire. Michael Ryder, Daniel Paille and Caron were all in the mix for two spots on Seguin's line, and when the team opened the season, it was Caron who was the odd man out, watching the game with the scratches rather than taking the ice.
"For sure, I wasn't happy that I was not playing, but there was not much I could do," Caron recalled of not playing in the first game. "I just had to wait my turn and get out there and do my best."
Fortunately for Caron, the Bruins had an unfortunate night. The team came out flat, losing a 5-2 game, but Paille was among those who made particularly costly errors. The next night, in the team's second game and last of the European trip, the B's mixed things up. In net was Tim Thomas (the team had planned on having each goalie start a game in Prague), while Recchi jumped down to the third line to play with Seguin and Ryder. Out of the lineup was Paille, and taking the vacated spot on the second line was Caron.
Caron didn't see too much of the ice in the game, a 3-0 victory, as he logged 9:42, the lowest of any player in the game. Still, he showed promise, contributing a pair of shots on Ilya Bryzgalov. Given how little ice time he had gotten, it may have been understandable to wonder how long it would be before the Bruins really trusted him.
Fast forward three weeks and change. Caron has played in every game since the opener as a second-liner and has averaged 15 minutes a night over his last four games. He's also got three goals (as many as Seguin).
"I think for him, it was just getting an opportunity," Julien said on Monday. "When we started the season, we had our lineup, and we didn't win that first game. We thought that we could make some changes, and this was an opportunity for him to step in and see what he could do. He played so well that he's been a hard guy to pull out of the lineup. If anything, he's been getting more minutes because he's deserving of it."
How has the rookie handled going from a healthy scratch in the opener to being a guy with limited minutes to a guy who is getting respectable ice time? On the ice, he's noticed the increased workload, but hasn't been fazed by it.
"It's five more minutes of ice-time. It's harder when you're not used to it, but once you get the flow, and once you get in the game it's almost easier playing 15 minutes than sitting for four minutes, then going one shift, and sitting back down for a couple of minutes," Caron said. "It's easier I think to play 15 minutes."
Caron has also shined on the penalty kill, something he takes pride in. He's a plus-3 on the season and has positively run with the opportunity he got back on Oct. 10. Julien doesn't know whether it's a testament to his maturity, but he likes what he sees and expects more of it, even if it is Caron's first year.
"There's a guy that's 20 years old, not 18," Julien said. "Someday when you see Tyler Seguin at 20 years old, then you can compare, but you've got to remember, he's got a couple of years on the other guy, even though they're both rookies."