Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
It's been about a year since we last chatted with Anthony Florentino. The Providence Friars defenseman and 2013 fifth-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres (143rd overall) was coming off of a solid freshman season where he posted a very respectable five goals and 11 points and was a plus-12. Providence went 22-11-6 that year and defeated Quinnipiac in the first round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament before bowing to eventual champion Union.
That turned out to be the set-up for what was about to transpire this past season.
While on the precipice of the big game in April, Providence head coach Nate Leaman told Nancy Marrapese-Burrell of the Boston Globe about the learning process his team went through over the course of the last year. "It was a great year of learning for our program. When I first took over the program, we didn’t have a guy who had ever played a playoff game. When we get ranked No. 1 preseason in the league, No. 3 in the country, you talk about a lot of things, but we didn’t have one guy in the locker room who had lived through any of those things.
“Obviously, there is a target on your back, but more importantly, what happened to us early in the year is we didn’t play to our identity for a long time. We got away from our identity and I think that is why we were up, we were down. I think that was the hard part."
Providence went into the tournament with an at-large bid then proceeded to win the 2015 NCAA Championship with a stunning 4-3 victory over Jack Eichel and the Boston University Terriers. Also of note is that the Terriers themselves had a remarkable turnaround going from 10 wins in 2013-14 to 28 wins last season thanks in large part to Eichel.
Both Florentino and Eichel would make their mark in the tournament and in that final game. They were selected to the All-tournament team, both were involved in the scoring that night and both were a part of NCAA men's hockey history as the Terriers would score consecutive goals a tournament record four seconds apart.
With the score tied 1-1, Eichel jumped the face off and barreled towards the Providence net with Danny O'Regan on his right in a 2-on-2. In front of him was Florentino. "It really came at us quick," said Florentino of the play. "My d-partner, Tom Parise, [and I] were flat-footed. We didn't expect it to happen so quick. It was one of those things where everyone kinda loses track of what's going on and doesn't realize how fast it's actually happening."
With Eichel flying in, Florentino did what his instincts and experience told him to do. "Eichel's so fast, it's hard to explain," continued the sophomore defenseman, "it looks so effortless but he's actually going a lot faster than people think he is. The biggest thing you can do is just keep your feet moving because of how fast he is.
"He came down on me and I just tried to stay in front of him and keep my stick in the shooting lane."
Which is what Florentino did. Eichel lost control of the puck but it ended up on the stick of O'Regan who buried a quick backhander from the slot to put the Terriers up 2-1.
That's the evolution of Florentino as a defenseman. From South Kent Prep School in Connecticut to Providence as a true freshman, Florentino has honed his craft to the point where a Hobey Baker winner like Eichel coming down hard on him in a matter of seconds didn't phase him.
"A lot of the freshmen who come to college now are 19 yrs. old and [Florentino] came in at 18," said coach Nate Leaman. "He was making the transition (as a freshman) and the pace of play was a lot different for him. The concepts--trusting his feet, gapping and closing the space as a defender--are some of the things he struggled with early. But he's gotten a lot better with those things so when a player like Jack [Eichel] is coming down on him, he's got a lot more confidence in his ability to defend."
In addition to the pace of the college game, Florentino also had to adapt to bigger and stronger players. Where once he was the big man on the ice who "hit like a truck," according to his former South Kent coach Matt Plante, he now uses his 6'1" 210 lb. frame differently. "In high school I was bigger than most of the other players and I was always looking for the big one, the hit that everyone was looking for," Florentino said. "Now I have to pick my spots better just because of the positioning and how crucial it is. But I can still have an impact. Just because I'm not knocking a guy down or throwing a big hit I'm still playing the body as much as possible. It doesn't matter how hard it is. Knocking a guy down, hitting him against the boards, getting him off the puck, it still has the same impact."
As Florentino continues to mature and grow into the position, coach Leaman has him working his way up the ladder on defense. In Florentino's freshman year Leaman had him as a 4/5 d-man working the 5-on-3 powerplay, second unit powerplay and on the penalty kill. Last season 5-on-5 he was on the second-pairing and this season Leaman expects to increase his responsibilities. "This year he'll be more of a second-pair/first-pair for us," said the coach. "Our league (Hockey East) is pretty deep so he'll be playing against first and second line players, playing in all situations again."
What bodes well for him in the Sabres pipeline is his focus upon the defensive aspects of the game and as he grows more comfortable on defense, to the point where the best of his peers don't phase him, he can continue to work on his offense.
On the offensive side of the equation, Leaman said Florentino came to Providence with a heavy shot from the point. It was something Florentino used to bury a long rebound for the first goal in the championship game. This summer he wants to build on that and is intent upon adding a strong wrister to his repertoire.
Yet, with all the technical skills he has and is developing, his competitiveness remains top-notch while his leadership is beginning to make its way to the fore. "He's a competitive kid," said Leaman, "that's the biggest thing with him. He's a very competitive kid and he's a team kid. He's great in the locker room. Great leader. Great kid. Great teammate."
Those are some of the aspects Leaman likes in his players and they're also characteristics that can help drive a player to the NHL, such as former Friars forward Tim Schaller, who's knocking on the door of a spot on the Sabres roster, can attest to.
Schaller was a character guy for Leaman. He was a leader on the ice and in the locker room. He played a gritty game and was all-in for the team. Although he didn't play with Schaller, Florentino knows of him through coach Leaman and has also been training with Schaller at Ocean State Hockey, an off-season training center on Rhode Island. "He was a great player at Providence," said Florentino of Schaller, "but you can see how far he's come as a pro. He looks great and he's really working hard."
With Schaller, work-ethic and determination have always been a strong, driving force "and he's got plenty of both," chimed in Florentino enthusiastically. Schaller's senior season is somewhat legendary as he played most of it with a torn labrum in his shoulder. "This tells you what type of kid Tim [Schaller] is," said coach Leaman of that senior season. "The doctors said he had two options, he could play with it like that all year or get the surgery done and have it completely healed is seven months.
"But he didn't want to miss the season. He wanted to be there for his team. He was the (assistant)captain and it was his decision."
Schaller was named the 2013 Hockey East Defensive Forward of the Year.
Both he and Schaller seem to be "Leaman-types of guys," said Florentino, "The way [he] coaches and the way he expects us to play is, that's how Tim [Schaller] and I are as people and as players as well."
At the top of Leaman's priority list is compete. "I like guys who move their feet,” he told Marrapese-Burell. “I like guys who are mobile and I like to play up-tempo and in your face. That’s the way I like to play the game."
He continued that theme when I talked with him. "I like our guys competing hard. It's one of our main focuses here--our battle-level, our compete-level--because ultimately I think the game comes down to a lot of one-on-one battles, a lot of two-on-two battles, a lot of faceoff battles.
"The team that has the puck, the team that is competitive enough to come out with second and third efforts in those battles, and the battles in front of and around the net typically win the game."
Florentino knows he fits coach Leaman's style and he knows he's coming into the season as one of the veteran players on the team. Providence lost a key piece in goalie Jon Gilles (2013, 75th-overall, Calgary) and Leaman graduated five players including their top two centers, which will be pretty challenging for the defending national champs. As a junior with two years under his belt, Florentino will be in a leadership role as will others. In the tradition of a Leaman-type player, Florentino says that there will be a lot of players coming in and there are plenty who are expecting to fill those roles and grab that opportunity for more responsibility. And he's right there amongst them.
"Yeah. I want to be an important leader that people look up to. I'm really just trying to be a role player and do whatever I can for the team regardless of what the situation is. If I'm not on the powerplay I'll focus on the penalty kill and vise-versa.
When I asked him if that leadership role might involve having a letter sewn on his sweater, he was quick to shoot down any expectations. "I don't expect anything in any situation. I would love one, but I don't need one to be a leader. Regardless, I'm just going to do things the way I always have, think of what's right and what's best for the team."
Which is a pretty good way to approach things and one that's worked pretty well for him and the Friars so far.