Keyser doing his part in crowded Bruins crease

📝 by Patrick Williams

First in the Atlantic Division with 70 points, the Providence Bruins have something more akin to a goaltending rotation than the usual one-two or 1A-1B set-up that teams typically employ.

Think of it like a baseball club’s pitching staff.

Leading the way is the veteran, Keith Kinkaid. With 168 NHL games to his name, Kinkaid joined the Boston Bruins organization last summer as the ultimate insurance option, number 3 on the depth chart behind Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman.

Then there is rookie AHL All-Star Brandon Bussi, who has gone 15-2-4 in 21 games while ranking among the league’s leaders in goals-against average (2.18, third) and save percentage (.934, first). The 24-year-old Bussi inked a one-year contract with Boston after three seasons at Western Michigan University.

And then quietly continuing to prove himself is Kyle Keyser, another undrafted goaltender who is making his own strong case in the Boston organization despite an early-season injury. Keyser broke through last season in his first extended run in the AHL, playing 33 games alongside Second Team AHL All-Star Troy Grosenick with Providence. The 23-year-old Keyser a Second All-Star Team member who posted league-bests in GAA (2.00) and save percentage (.933). The 23-year-old re-signed with the Bruins for the 2022-23 season back on July 5.

Said Keyser, “I think last year was a situation for me where I needed to prove that I could handle more games and more time, and have the confidence of the coaching staff to put me back out there and give our team a chance to win every single night.

“And I think that was my main focus last year, building that confidence within myself and within my team to know that I’m more than able to handle the stress load of 30-something games, and prove that I could be the guy if they’re tapping my shoulder.”

Providence began this season with a Kinkaid-Keyser arrangement and raced out to a 6-1-1-1 start. Then came a play in Springfield on Nov. 5, a collision with teammate Vinni Lettieri that left Keyser prone on the ice and eventually out of action for nearly two months.

That provided an opportunity for Bussi, who had opened the season with the Maine Mariners, the Boston organization’s ECHL affiliate.

Keyser returned to the Providence net on Jan. 15 and turned in a standout 29-save effort in a 2-1 overtime victory over Hartford. He has barely slowed since. In 12 appearances, he has a 2.08 GAA and a .925 save percentage to go alongside his 7-1-2 record.

The unconventional goaltending plan again went to work this past weekend as the Bruins played three times in less than 48 hours. Bussi started Friday night, a quiet outing needing only 22 saves in a 6-2 win over Springfield. Kinkaid went on Saturday, making 30 stops in a 3-2 overtime defeat at Hartford. And Keyser took his turn Sunday afternoon, stopping 25 shots in a 3-2 setback against the Thunderbirds.

Providence’s 2.58 goals-against per game is third-best in the AHL even though the team allows 32.5 shots per game, third-most overall. And if goaltenders are a team’s best penalty-killers, as the old hockey adage goes, then that holds true in Providence, where the club ranks 11th at 81.9 percent.

“It feels great to be back,” Keyser said. “It’s every athlete’s nightmare to have an injury, have that much time off, and not feel like you’re contributing to the team and the success.”

Born in Coral Springs, Fla., Keyser climbed the ranks of the area’s minor hockey system, starring for the Florida Jr. Panthers. Eventually, however, he headed to Michigan at age 14 and played major junior in the Ontario Hockey League with Flint and Oshawa, earning a spot on the league’s Second All-Star Team in 2018-19 and making his pro debut with Providence during the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs.

He played just seven games during his first pro season in 2019-20, then was limited to seven combined AHL and ECHL games in 2019-20, and then spent the majority of the truncated 2020-21 campaign back in the ECHL before last season’s leap forward in Providence.

While his first three years had uneven moments, coming to Boston has set up Keyser well. He has worked with both Boston goaltending coach Bob Essensa and goaltending development coach Mike Dunham, a former AHL All-Star and Calder Cup champion.

“He has done absolute wonders for my game,” Keyser said of Dunham, “in the sense of really getting me to understand what works and what doesn’t, watching tons of film and video, using my strengths when I need to but not always defaulting to my athleticism and my speed.

“Learning the positional side of goaltending at the pro level because these guys are so fast, they shoot so hard and they move the puck so quick that if I’m relying just purely on athleticism and such, you find that holes open up in your game.”

Keyser has been learning to use his 6-foot-2, 186-pound size to his advantage and to be positionally sound, and he believes that working with Dunham and Essensa has changed his game.

“I want to play calm. I don’t want to be all over the place back there. I want my team to know that I’ve got everything under control, I’m not giving up leaky goals. It’s just being big, being patient, and then using my other attributes like athleticism and speed and flexibility when I need to make those saves that require that.”

Kinkaid’s spot on the Boston organizational depth chart is well-established at this point in his career as a 12-year pro. That means that Bussi and Keyser are both on prove-it deals to a certain degree. That three-way competition certainly has worked for head coach Ryan Mougenel and his P-Bruins. And it appears to be clicking as well for all three netminders who are nothing if not well-rested when each of their turns arrives on the club schedule.

“It’s tricky in the sense of getting everyone their starts and managing practices,” Keyser conceded.

“But we have three good guys… We get along, and we understand the situation itself. We try to help each other out and push each other competitively, but at the same time we’re on the same boat here and we’re just trying to help the team win.

“Regardless of whoever’s going, we’re going to support each other. We all have one common goal in mind, and that’s for the team to do well.”

Plenty of more playing time awaits for any or all three goaltenders, with 22 games remaining over the season’s final eight weeks. And with Boston positioned as a top Stanley Cup favorite and Providence a Calder Cup contender, the entire organization will need its goaltenders ready to go.

Where this three-headed monster goes is still to be determined. Any goaltender would like as much time in net as possible, but Keyser is grateful after going through his recent injury.

“It feels good to be out there playing the game that you love,” Keyser said, “and doing what you want to do.”