What to do, what to do…
The Boston Bruins were eliminated from postseason contention on Saturday, marking the first time in the Claude Julien Era – the first time in eight years – the club won’t be playing meaningful hockey into late April.
There’s certainly a fair share of doom and gloom surrounding the club with very few voices preaching patience. But after a season that can only be classified as an abject failure, where (and if) change is needed is the most pressing question Boston’s higher-ups will face. And the view is nothing if not murky.
The first step towards making the decision is to find out if 2014-15 was a fluke, the first step in a downward trend, or something else entirely. To do this, we can examine the B’s shooting and save percentages relative to the league in recent years; Boston’s injury issues compared to other clubs; the Black and Gold’s luck in close games; and other clear indicators of luck (or a lack thereof).
Boston ranked twenty-fifth in overall shooting percentage, almost three-quarters a percentage point behind the league average of 8.7 percent. In net, Tuukka Rask’s .922 Sv% was the lowest of his three-year reign as Boston’s starter, and Niklas Svedberg’s .918 was the lowest by a Bruins’ backup tender since 2010-11.
Verdict: Moderate Suggested Bad Luck
Boston’s 5-on-5 PDO (a measure of shooting percentage plus save percentage) was the lowest since 2010. While PDO is usually offered as a player or team’s luck – Boston has ‘driven’ that stat in the past five seasons at a rate higher than any other club in the game.
Either the team’s been riding a five-campaign-long run of good fortune, abruptly ending in ’14-’15; or their ability to convert and deny good scoring chances was impaired in the recent season. However, because one might consider the Bruins’ previous run unsustainable and luck-based; this leveling-off to the median could be seen as nothing out of the ordinary.
As for injuries, the Bruins lost some of the fewest man-games (but frequently lost impactful players) in 2014-15, putting them in the middle of the injury-impact curve. This is in stark contrast to their recent run of excellent health-luck over the past five campaigns, as elucidated by the folks at mangameslost.com.
The asterisks to this is – Boston’s management should have seen this coming. Their young forward core plays a physical game and has been unsustainably healthy the past few seasons. Their much older defensive core had a top-4 player coming off a significant knee injury and a six-foot-nine physical freak turning 38. The understandable absences of David Krejci and Zdeno Chara – combined with the decrease in mobility from Seidenberg (and, later, Chara as well)
Verdict: Modest (if predictable) Bad Luck
The Bruins were 22nd in the NHL by point percentage in one-goal games. While narrative-pushers like to point to teams’ “killer instincts” or lack thereof when considering such stats, consider this: Only once since 2010 has a Cup winner finished even in the top third of the League in one-goal game point percentages.
Shootouts also were an Achilles’ Heel of the Bruins. In fourteen contests that went to the skills-competition decider, Boston won just four. If the Bruins win 50% of their shootouts (which are about as much a predictor of team talent as a coin flip) instead of 28.6%; they make the playoffs.
Verdict: Definitive Bad Luck.
We finish with a look at possession-stats. Over the previous three seasons, the Bruins had the highest ratio of even-strength shots-attempted (Corsi For %) of any Eastern Conference team, and trailed only Los Angeles and Chicago overall. In 2014-15, that number dipped well into the middle- third of the League (12th overall). While this shows the Bruins weren’t awful… because they weren’t simultaneously buoyed by close-game luck, an injury-free campaign, excellent special teams or a high PDO – their SAT (Corsi) points to a club that wasn’t great and probably wasn’t ‘good’.
In my opinion, these facts simply serve to inform that while the Bruins were unlucky not to get a postseason berth, they fell a ways short of being ‘worthy’ of one, regardless. But was this just a blip on the radar or a sign of things to come? I’d lean toward the latter.
Zdeno Chara wasn’t nearly as bad as some suggested this season but he’s clearly lost more than one step over the past eighteen months – whether this is primarily due to his injury or age is up for debate, but the Bruins will still need to lean on him, and young defensive guns Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug – who ended up as the only B’s defensemen with positive SAT percentages at even strength. The rest of the defensive corps hover slightly above replacement-level as puck-possessors and Boston would do well to keep the cheap and move the pricy.
At forward, the case is not so clear. Patrice Bergeron’s incredible possession stats buoy his linemates’ so significantly that it’s difficult to discern how they would act in a vacuum. Youngster David Pastrnak looks like an absolute keeper but the expensive combo of Milan Lucic and David Krejci might be on the outs. They’re not possession monsters like Bergeron and if Boston’s going to have more than $14 million committed to the pair in the years going forward from Lucic’s next contract extension; they’ll be looking for more than the prorated 114 points per 82 from the pair that they’ve received the past three seasons.
As the ‘Big Four’ Bruins forwards (Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci and Lucic) head into the second half of their primes, one wonders if the team should commit another forty-plus million to a first/second-line ‘tweener’ forward who – while remaining as one of the few true top-six ‘power forwards’ in the game, is a risky bet, especially in the light of the rapid declines of forwards with similar skill sets as they age into their late twenties and early thirties.
The problem, then, is that Boston’s pipeline isn’t shining with dynamic youngsters ready to take over for outgoing, overpriced vets. Joe Morrow and Zach Trotman certainly appear ready to step into the holes created by probable outgoing D like Adam McQuaid and Matt Bartkowsk… but to exceed them? Probably not in their first full seasons.
Similarly, while Ryan Spooner and other forwards were adequate in their call-ups to fill in for Krejci and various bottom-sixers; one cannot help but feel a vacuum there. Even if the youngsters performed above expectations, the Bruins would still be in need of help.
This leads to another uncomfortable conclusion. The Bruins no longer sit on the fulcrum of success. It would take a dramatic step forward from the youth movement (perhaps some ping-pong-ball luck on Lottery Day) to keep Chara’s ‘Championship Contender Window’ open. But the Bruins can’t count on that for 2015-16. If the luck pendulum continues to swing in the wrong direction, they’ll have wasted another year with nothing to show for it but the depreciation of several valuable assets – assets that could be used to retool this franchise while Bergeron’s window remains propped open wide.
Boston may have had a run of bad luck in 2014-15 which contributed toward their postseason-miss; however, in this author’s mind they should be looking towards the long-term and not the immediate future when making their personnel decisions in light of the evidence.
Follow Bob Mand on Twitter at @HockeyMand