Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Reason for Hope at the Trade Deadline

Many people have forgotten, but there were struggles in the 2010-2011 cup season and Peter Chiarelli made a lot of roster moves.

In June of 2010 the Bruins traded one of their top 4 defenseman for an under-performing winger and a 4th line forward.

In December they dumped one of their star forwards for nothing more than "future considerations."

In January the team lost its best offensive player to an injury that he would not return from.

The team was inconsistent, had a terrible power play, and had a young budding superstar who was not performing to expectations. Prior to the trade deadline they had lost every game against the Habs and were unable to beat Detroit and San Jose, even when they brought their best effort.

As the trade deadline approached Chiarelli was under pressure to go for that big blockbuster trade for a "name" player. Instead he made a sweeping mid-level trade consisting of three players going out in return for three coming back. He gave up a promising NHL forward and defenseman, plus a promising prospect, for a veteran puck moving D-man and a speedy 3rd or 4th line center. They also traded a draft pick for another speedy 4th line forward who possessed strong two way play.

After the trades the team was energized and went on a winning streak.  They even beat the Habs in their last meeting 7-0. They ended up with a 46–25–11 record, winning their division and finishing third in the conference.

Even though they had the least effective power play ever, and went down 0-2 with home ice to start the Cup Final, the Bruins somehow managed to win a record three game seven's and the Stanley Cup.

Of course, the parallels between this season and 2010-2011 aren't perfect. Overall the Bruins played better up to this same point in the season and they did not suffer from the same kind inconsistent play that we have seen. On the other hand, the criticism of the GM is much closer. Many of his trades were met with criticism and he was called incompetent more than once.

The main takeaway is that Chiarelli found small ways to improve the team by moving mid-level players while staying under the cap. He pulled it off before, so perhaps he can do it again. After all, we know that this team is much better than they have been generally playing this season. Just look at the game against the Hawks.

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Very Bad Day

Some games will always stay with us. Sadly, tonight's game against the Saint Louis Blues may be one of them. The Bruins finally came out and played their game, and played it well. The first period was textbook Bruins hockey. They skated hard, hit hard, made good decisions, and dominated in a way I cannot recall this season. It seemed so natural. Everything seemed back to normal and all was good. It looked right. Even Bartkowski seemed to be having a career night. In the interview after the period Marchand seemed relaxed and confident like I had not seen him in months. 

Then came the inevitable collapse in the second right? No! In fact there was no collapse. We have come to expect the second period to be where the Bruins don't show up, but that's not what happened. Despite giving up three goals the Bruins played very well. In a minor tragedy, Malcolm Subban, the promising 21-year-old goaltender playing in his first NHL game, turned out not to be ready to play in the NHL. In quick succession he let in three soft goals, each softer than the next. Somewhere in there Davd Krejci decided to make a big open ice hit, with the result that he went down the tunnel and did not return. With Rask back, a questionable penalty led to a good bounce and a power play goal. Just like that it was 4-1 Saint Louis.

This was a hole the Bruins could not climb out of--not against a good team like the Blues. It's tempting to say that they didn't deserve to lose; after all they were playing so well. It was simple bad luck. Maybe that would have played in December, but not this late in the season, and not after so many poorly played games. The Bruins deserved this loss not because of the way they played tonight, but because of the way they have played all year.

In the end, this game may be seen as a turning point. With the trade deadline right around the corner Chiarelli has to make a decision, and the outcome of this game may have sealed the deal.


As an aside, last time I wrote that the Bruins appeared to be changing their game, and I'm not quite ready to give up on that yet. They really did seem to be playing differently, and it makes me wonder. Is it possible that they adjusted their playing style in an attempt to play a quicker game against those Western Conference teams? Coach Julien often changes up his lines only to go back to the way they were before, and somehow the team plays better when the lines are restored. I wonder if what we saw was something like that, only with the way the players were told to play. It's either that, or they had lost their way to the point where they were no longer willing to go into the corners and hit. I'm finding the latter to be difficult to swallow.

Are the Bruins Fundamentally Changing Their Playing Style?

Everyone seems to have their own pet theory for why the Bruins are under performing this season. So far none of the ones I have read are based on inside information, nor are they all that compelling.

I think it's safe to say that the problem with this team isn't age. It's not speed. It's not Chiarelli mismanaging the cap. I think the problem with this team is that they no longer play like Bruins. They no longer beat people down. They no longer intimidate. They seldom make the big bone-crunching hit that makes the crowd roar and the other guy sore.

I've really been struck by this in watching the games from the recent road trip. We've seen evidence that the Bruins are playing differently staring us in the face all season, but it was easy to write off due to changes in personnel and injuries. Now that they are healthy and things have settled down, it is becoming difficult to ignore.

People have often complained that the Bruis are slow, and big Z is sort of their poster child. But as a team, they aren't that much slower than others. What makes them appear slow is their playing style, which has traditionally been heavy body checking. In past years Bruins would go into the corner and take the man, often blowing the player off the puck. But watch carefully what happens now when they meet in the corners. The Bruins appear to be trying to play a much quicker game, where stick play takes the place of body checking. Rather than hit the other player hard, they try to take the puck away and then quickly move it up the ice.

The reason why they might change their style is fairly obvious. This team, as previously configured, was no longer able to beat Chicago, and more importantly, Montreal. People say that these teams use their speed, and they do, but it seems to me that what they really do is play a quicker game. If the guy Lucic is about to hit has ducked away or already gotten rid of the puck, then the hit no longer has the same impact, if you will.

If this is really the case, if someone in upper management has decided that the Bruins need to change their style to keep pace with the changes to the game, then there are no doubt going to be serious repercussions, particularly given how poorly this transition is going so far. More on this next time...

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Bruins Woes (Part 3)

Does this team have the talent to win another cup, or even make the playoffs?

Even with the poor play this season, there are many individual players who still get high marks, even players who give their all on every shift. I watch all of the games, so ignoring stats, what follows is my assessment of individual effort.

Brad Marchand is having his best year ever, and is often the best player on the ice. Milan Lucic still brings it the way he always has--a little inconsistent--but overall a big plus for the team. David Krejci spent much of the season injured, but he is coming back strong. Zdeno Chara has also been injured and has struggled somewhat getting back up to speed, but he still plays big and mean and he was sorely missed. Patrice Bergeron was somewhat invisible on the ice early in the season but this is changing. He is winning faceoffs like a monster. Dougie Hamilton stepped into Chara's shoes with ease, and has played extremely well given his relative inexperience. Rask has been as competent and reliable as ever, and if you look past the statistics, I think he may be having his best year yet. He's no Tim Thomas when it comes to stealing games or winning shootouts, but who is? He is still one of the best goaltenders in the game today.

All of these players seem to be playing well individually, but they often seem to be out of step with the others. For example, Bergeron isn't connecting with Marchand like he used to. Krejki is back, but he isn't yet connecting with Lucic. When these guys are skating with the puck they often seem alone out there.

Perhaps the biggest frustration is with the young forwards: Spooner, Griffith, Caron, and Cunningham. They have been given tons of ice time, but not one of them have been able to break out. Add Fraser to that list, even though he was lost to waivers. Every one of them is on the negative side of the ±. Pastrnak has great potential, but at 18, he's simply not ready yet, and it would be a mistake to let him play enough games to count as a full season against free agency.

On the blue line, McQuaid has looked ok, when he has played. They have definitely missed his size and grit. Krug and Miller have been solid, and even Bartkowski is looking fairly competent. Seidenberg has yet to return to his form from last season. He plays hard, but makes mental errors, and overall he's -2 -- the only defenseman below zero.

Most of the individual pieces seem to be doing well. For a team that's not winning, they have a lot of guys on the plus side of the +/-.

This means that it must be a team problem. The Bruins have stopped playing at times, particularly in the last minutes of a period, or after a penalty kill. There is no killer instinct on the power play. Overall they have suffered from poor second periods. When they get the lead, they don't keep it. All this comes down to inconsistent effort.

And here's the thing: it's not new. In game seven against Montreal last year the Bruins came out flat in the first period. In game seven! In the 2013 playoffs this same team allowed the Leafs to get a three-goal lead in the 3rd period in yet another game seven. It was a monumental come back when they won that game, but really, WTF? In game six of the 2013 cup final, the Bruins were leading by a goal in the second period and were handed a power play. Rather than bring it and try to put the game away, they looked like they were on vacation. In the cup final. Again, WTF?

Inconsistent effort, inability to put the game away, loss of focus; these are failures of the mind; failures of leadership. Whether the problem be the leaders on the ice or behind the bench, I don't know, although it does seem clear that they are truly missing Shawn Thornton.

Maybe they will get their butts in gear and make the playoffs, perhaps even going deep. Like the series against the Leafs, it will all be forgiven and forgotten. But I fear that this slump is merely a distraction from the real question.

Can this team, when healthy and playing at its best, beat Montreal or Chicago in the playoffs? Now that -- that's the real question.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Bruins Woes: Mismanagement? (Part 2)

Some have suggested that the current Bruins woes are due to mismanagement by Peter Chiarelli. Complaints range from overpaying individual players to being unprepared for changes in the cap.

Sadly, capgeek.com has ceased operation, so salary data is no longer available. Fortunately I did a preliminary analysis before they closed; the figures below are based on those numbers.

Let's look at how the Bruins stack up to two undeniably successful teams: the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings.

Starting from the top, the Bruins have one player making over $7 million this season: Tuukka Rask. LA also has one (Doughty) and Chicago has none.

In the $6-7 million range the Bruins have 3 players: Bergeron, Chara, and Lucic. Chicago also has three, and LA has only one.

In the $5-6 million bracket the Bruins have one player: Krejci. Both Chicago and LA have four.

In the $4-5 million bracket the Bruins have three players: Marchand, Eriksson, and Seidenberg.

The only player the Bruins have in the $2-4 million bracket is Kelly. The Kings have four and Chicago has five.

The Bruins have a whopping 16 players with a salary under a million dollars. LA has 12, and Chicago has 8.

Let's look at just players with salaries over $5 million. The Bruins have 5, LA has 6, and Chicago has 7. Of these three teams, the Bruins have the least total salary for players above $5 million this season. Based on this comparison, the Bruins are not top heavy in salary.

Let's take a detailed look at the Bruins players in the $5+ million salary range. Rask is expensive, but he is also tied-up long term. His cap hit will look better with each passing year. He is a solid, extremely reliable goalie, and last year's Vezina winner. Goaltending is the foundation of a winning team. I think the case can be made that this is not a contract that is killing the team, particularly in light of the comparison to LA and Chicago.

Bergeron is the best two-way player in the league, and it would be difficult to make a reasonable case that he is overpaid. Players like him are not a dime a dozen.

Chara is the very foundation that the team was built on, and after he retires I expect his jersey to end up in the rafters. He is a unique player who has made a living out of shutting down the top forwards in the league. Again, it is difficult to make the case that he is overpaid.

At under $6 million David Krejci is a steal. He has developed into one of the top forwards in the game. Krejci was always smart and creative, with great hands, but in recent years he has added grit and strong three-zone play to his resume.

That leaves us with Milan Lucic. "Looch" is one of the players who people either love or hate, so he has many detractors. He can disappear at times, only to charge the net like a rabid rhino on the next shift. When he does charge the net, or make a big hit on the boards, he can change the game. Players who can do that are rare and priceless. Like Chara, Lucic is a unique player. He is one of a kind, and a Bruin's Bruin. I find it hard to believe the Bs would be better off without him.

Ok, then, so what about the Seguin trade? In return for Seguin the Bruins got Eriksson and Smith. The impact of Eriksson is difficult to measure because he spent most of last season injured or recovering. So far he has not lived up to expectations, although he is doing much better this season. Of course, there was no way for Chiarelli to know about his injury ahead of time. Smith has played surprisingly well. Seguin is a superstar for sure, but he did not fit the mold of a Bruin. It was probably just a matter of time before they traded him. The Bruins prize heavy-hitting two-way players who are willing to go to the dirty areas. The difference in salary against the cap is a wash for this deal, and I think that's the key. For the $5.7 million they would be paying Seguin this season, they got two good players in return. If they had not traded Seguin, they would have had to give up Rask, Chara, Bergeron, or Lucic in order to stay under the cap, and they would be looking at filling two roster spots rather than one. While some might think it more fun to watch Seguin play than Bergeron or Lucic, it seems to me that their chances of winning another cup are better without him. Teams with all their talent in a few players are too easy to shut down in the playoffs.

The argument is exactly the same for keeping Iginla. Which of the top Bruins players would you have given up? Who would Iginla have played with? And would that have really made the team better, particularly in the long run? They might have afforded Iggy by giving up Marchand (easily the best Bruins forward this season) along with Eriksson, Seidenberg, or Kelly (pick two). But again, such a team would lack the depth needed to go far in the playoffs.

Should the Bruins trade one of their top players for a talent like Taylor Hall? As much as I'd love to have him on the team, or for that matter, Seguin or Iginla, it would mean too much talent (and salary) in one "basket." If the Bruins made such a trade it would mean they were no longer intent on winning a cup.

Finally, we have the matter of the extra $4.8 million charged against the cap this season for Iggy's bonuses last season. With that $4.8 million and a little maneuvering they might have kept Boychuk and found that solid top line forward with a right handed shot. This is how Peter Chiarelli went all-in on a cup last season. It is easy to claim that was a mistake in hindsight. But ask yourself if you really want a GM who is unwilling to do what it takes to win another cup. I find it difficult to fault Chiarelli. This was a gamble worth taking and if he has the chance to do it again, I hope he does.

So if there is mismanagement here, I don't see it. On paper, the Bruins have a strong core of proven players who are not significantly overpaid.

In part three I will look at reasons the team is doing poorly. Can we blame it all on injuries? Daniel Paille? Young defensemen? Or is it a team problem?

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Bruins Woes (Part 1 of 3)

The poor play of the Bruins this season is becoming difficult to watch. I have always said that I expected only one thing from my team: heart. If they lose every game, so be it, but they must play with heart on every shift of every period in every game. I'm not some wannabe sports writer or GM, I am a Bruins fan, and I will never be ashamed of that, no matter how many games they lose, as long as they hit hard, skate hard, and play hard. They can lose 10-0, but I expect the other team to be bruised and bloody. If you can't score, you can still hit! In short, I expect this team to play like Bruins.

Sadly, as of January 2015, this team is no longer playing with the heart that I have come to expect. Whether it be the lackluster first period against Carolina, or for that matter the lackluster play in nearly any second period, or the keystone cops routine that led to their loss in OT against the Senators, something is seriously wrong.

Perhaps even more painful than watching the games (and yes, I do still watch every one, as I have since 2005-2006) is reading articles, blog posts, and comments. There are always those malcontents out there who have been biding their time, waiting for the team to falter so they can air their anger. Many are still angry about Seguin being traded away. Others have always hated coach Julien--I had to laugh when I read that he wasn't playing the young players enough this season! Others simply don't like the Bruins style of play. They want a higher-scoring team that puts less emphasis on defense. Still others think the Bruins need to get rid of (insert any current Bruin here) or trade for Taylor Hall to solve all their troubles.

Many wannabe GMs like to claim that the current ills are the result of Chiarelli's poor player management. In some circles these claims are so often repeated that some take their truth for granted. But I have not seen any facts or actual analysis to back up these claims. In the next part of this three-part series I am going to investigate the Bruins salary structure and player quality to see if their woes really lie in player management or personnel.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Boychuck Trade Hard to Swallow

It seems I spoke too soon in my last post. It seemed reasonable to assume that the Bruins were done making major changes, given that they were under the salary cap (assuming Savard is once again placed on long-term injured reserve). My assumption was that the Bruins would shake out their best younger defensemen and either let the ones that didn't make the cut go, or find some clever way to keep them around.

Boychuck was not some last-minute pick-up who filled in on the third D pair. He was mostly a  product of the Bruins organization, he had come to fully understand the system, and he wanted to be a Bruin. Last season, with Siedenberg and McQuaid out, he was the second best defenseman on the team--a role he took on in the playoffs with enormous heart.

So not only are the Bruins a worse team without him, but they gave up one of our own. And for what? Why? That's the big question. I'm not going to presume to know the answer. Maybe Savard is planning to take a coaching job or something, and placing him on IR was iffy. Maybe capgeek simply has their numbers wrong and Chiarelli was still over the cap. We can only hope that there is some clever reason, rather than this being the result of Chiarelli putting himself into a corner.

I watched the press briefing one more time and Chiarelli did appear to explain why he made the trade; it was just in his usual understated style, which can easily be mistaken for being intentionally vague. It seems that Boychuck was traded because his contract was up at the end of the season and Chiarelli didn't want him to walk away to a big payday with the Bruins getting nothing in return. This, after all, something that Chiarelli has been criticized for in the past. There are a lot of players to sign at the end of this season, including Campbell, Paille, Soderberg, McQuiad and Bartkowski. I think his mention of making other moves will likely involve several of these players.

This is a new era with new and different challenges for Chiarelli. He showed that he could build a Stanley Cup team. Now he has to figure out the tricky balancing act between high-quality veterans, who are expensive, and the young inexperienced players who are coming up through the system.He has to do this, not only from the cold perspective of balance sheets, but with the understanding that the respect he shows players has an effect on how they play as a team.

Whatever the reason, it is difficult to swallow. I'm going to miss Boychuck and I can't help but feel that the Bruins chances for another cup just got longer.