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.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Thank You Peter Chiarelli

This has been a tough summer to be a Bruins fan, unless you managed not to read any articles or blog posts about the team. It started when the salary cap numbers were released for this year and they were a lot less than some had hoped for. Anyone looking at the numbers knew that Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli was "between a rock and a hab place" (sorry). Ahem.

There was little chance that the entire roster could be retained, and many fans wanted to see superstar Jarome Iginla, who was at the end of a one-year deal, continue with the team. A vocal minority of fans seemed prepared to see much of the rest of the team gutted in order to do so.

The first move came when Chiarelli announced that the Bruins were not going to re-sign tough guy Shawn Thornton. This was sad, given the important role he has played for the team, and how he has put his health on the line time and again by being willing to fight. Bruins fans love a guy like that, and it would have seemed almost unimaginable for the Bruins to turn him loose just a year ago. But that was before he embarrassed the Bruins with his antics in the playoffs against Montreal, squirting his water bottle at PK Subban from the bench and then grinning like a fool. If these antics had worked and gotten under the Hab's skin, that would have been one thing, but the way it happened just made Thornton look  childish and stupid. It was poor judgement, just like earlier in the season when he embarrassed the entire league by taking down Brooks Orpik from behind and beating him senseless. It should have come as no surprise to anyone that he'd be let go, particularly when there are so many young players looking to break into the lineup.

The tension mounted as we got closer to Free Agency. Would Iginla choose to take a discount to stay with the Bruins, where he had fit in so well, and where he might win another cup? Or would he take the big bucks behind door number 12? In the end, Chiarelli would have had to give up one or two established players or young prospects, like Tory Krug, to keep him, and he seemed reluctant to do so. Iginla ended up signing a three-year contract with the Avalanche worth $16 million.

Even with Iginla out of the picture Chiarelli was still in a huge bind. It seemed to many that he had a clear choice: keep his veterans like Boychuk and McQuaid, or keep his promising upstarts like Krug, Miller and Spooner. Surely he couldn't keep them all; there simply was not enough room under the cap. Some vocal fans called for the Bruins to give up on long term project Jordan Caron, or even Chris Kelly, whose importance as a penalty killer seemed to have been forgotten. At this point I have to say that the state of sports "journalism" today is really quite pathetic. All summer I kept seeing stories from bloggers on sites such as  Bleacher Report  or Causeway Crowd, with misleading headlines that promised actual news, but delivered only uninformed speculation by amateur writers. Many of these guys seem to have forgotten that they are neither journalists nor experienced hockey experts. To make matters worse, the Boston Globe seems to have decided to try to beat these idiots at their own game by hiring sports writers with similarly big heads, such as  Eric Wilbur, who thinks he knows more about the game and Ryan Spooner than an NHL coach who has won a Frakin' Stanley Cup. At one time he wrote that the reason the Bruins lost to the Habs in the playoffs was that the Bruins, who had the third most goals in the regular season, have no scoring touch.  He also went on to expound that the main reason the Bruins won the cup in 2011 was Tyler Seguin. Like I said, it's been a long summer. (note: to their credit they seem to have taken the original story down and replaced it with a slightly less idiotic video).

And yeah, I blog about the Bruins too, and have opinions, but I try never to pretend to know better than the guys who are paid to run the team. Even if they totally sucked as GMs and coaches, and ran the team into the ground, they'd still know far more about the game than I do.

Anyhow, with the recent signing of holdouts Krug and Smith, Peter Chiarelli has somehow managed to pull a rabbit out of his hat and keep everyone. Not only that, but along the way he tied up David Krejci for the next 6 years. Pretty Impressive. From the fans point of view this is great news. Sure, Krug and Smith got screwed. They bore the brunt of keeping the team together and Chiarelli squeezed them hard. It may be that one or the other or both might resent the way they have been treated enough to end up playing somewhere else one day, but it also may be forgotten in the long run, particularly if Chiarelli makes it up to them in a future contract.

Next time: why I think the Bruins have an even better chance of winning the cup this time around.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Morning After

Ok, so it's not exactly the morning after the Bruins loss to the Habs in game 7. But that morning, I didn't really feel like thinking about hockey at all, much less writing about the Bruins. This loss hurt more than any in recent memory.

But I did just finish watching the final episode of Behind the B, so what I would have said at the time has all come rushing back.

I believe the Bruins lost their composure during this series, and in game 7 in particular. In the final episode of Behind the B Claude Julien is overheard yelling from behind the bench early in the series. "Come on! Have they got under your skin?" he asked. In the end, I think they did.

It's also pretty clear that the Habs wanted very badly to beat the Bruins. In a certain emotional sense, it seemed they wanted to beat the Bruins more than even win the Cup, and I am sure that by now they are taking some solace in their defeat of the Bs after their Conference Final loss to the Rangers. That's the problem with everyone expecting you to win the cup; the battles along the way are just that. For the Habs, who have been somewhat humiliated by the Bruins in recent years, this series meant a lot more than just another step toward the Cup.

I think the Habs did get under their skin. It showed in the Bruins' play, whether it be the missed opportunities in the offensive zone or the break downs in front of their own net. As an example, it's a very fine line between blocking a shot and screening your goaltender, and the Bruins crossed this line rather uncharacteristically. On one goal, even Big Z was caught standing right in front of Rask, something he hasn't done since the start of the 2013 season. Even worse, how else do you explain the Bruins coming out flat in the first period of game 7, at home, in front of a roaring crowd? Something was clearly wrong in their psyche.

I think the key moment to the Habs victory in the series came off the ice, when Suban was asked about the racist tweets after game one, and he responded with so much class that even Bobby Orr would have stood up and applauded. But while that was going on off the ice, the usual shenanigans were occurring on it. I am sure that every Bruin felt that the Habs were the guys wearing the black hats in this series, but it seemed like the world -- and the referees -- saw it the other way around. This even continued after the game, when Weise took potshots at the Bruins for Lucic's unsportsmanlike behavior in the hand shake line. Lucic had every right to be angry at Weise for those comments. Weise should have laughed it off, been a good winner, and moved on. But he got away with it. It was Lucic who was ultimately seen as the guy in the black hat. Now, I'm not condoning what Lucic did. I'm just pointing out how thoroughly the Bruins lost the upper hand in the good guy vs. bad guy department. Some Penguin and Hab fans may be astonished at the idea, but despite the whole "Big Bad" thing, the Bruins are used to seeing themselves as the good guys. When they start to question this, somewhere in the back of their heads, that's when the other team has gotten under their skin.

Another aspect of this whole PR thing is the bizarre behavior of the referees, particularly in game 7. I'm not going to claim that the officiating lost the Bruins the series, because a great team will rise up to the challenge, kill off the penalty, or simply not be in a position for a penalty kill to end their season. But that said, the officiating in this game was the most influential I have ever seen in all my 43 years of being a fan. Given the way the series had gone, everyone who was paying attention knew that the first goal was going to be huge, particularly if the Habs scored it. So when Markov cross checked Marchand into Price early in the first period, it was monumental when the referee Dave Jackson called Marchand for goaltender interference. Watching the replay from any angle, it is wholly inexcusable that he did so. You could not watch that play, see the interference, yet not see the push. If anyone should have gone to the box, it should have been Markov. When the Habs scored on the ensuing power play, the Bruins very quickly had a hole to climb out of, and it also appeared that Marchand was thrown off his game by the incident.

After that the Bruins had to play catch up. Fast forward to the third period with 4:31 to go. The Bruins are down by a goal and swarming the Habs net. They had come back in this situation before earlier in the series; the game had opened up, and the momentum appeared to be moving in their direction. Yet again, at precisely the critical moment, Dave Jackson made an inexplicable call, this time on Johnny Boychuck. This was late in game seven, people. Every ref knows that they only call the big obvious game-changing penalties under these circumstances. Yet when Bournival chipped the puck past Boychuck and then skated into him, interference was called. With just over 4 minutes left, the Bruins were put in a deep hole, and it was one they could not get out of. You can claim that the Bruins didn't deserve to win this game, but that does not excuse the referee determining the outcome! By doing so he took something away from us fans. Now we will never know if the Bruins could have evened the game, and possibly won the series.

By the way, I'm not the only one who feels this way about how the game was officiated. After writing the above, I did a Google search and discovered that long-time referee Kerry Fraser was also very critical of the officiating.

Anyhow, this loss hurt. It hurt because the Bruins were good enough to win the Cup. It hurt because it was the Habs. It hurt because the poor officiating took away their chance to tie the game late. It hurt because a Conference Final against the Rangers would have been epic. It hurt because the Habs got under our skin a little too, and our team didn't always seem like the good guys, no matter how much we wanted them to be. But it was not due to any one player or coach. Rather, it was one of those human intangibles that affected the whole team, and I doubt it is something we will see repeated next season. So if you want to blame someone for the loss, don't blame Marchand, or Lucic, or Rask, or Krejci, or Bartkowski, or even Dave Jackson. There is one person more responsible than anyone else for this loss, and it was Malcolm Suban. Not only was he the best player on the ice, but he was also a class act off it. In the end, that combination simply proved to be a bit too much.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Bruins Fate Lies Out in Front of Their Net

How did the Bruins lose in the cup final last year? Yes, I know they were really banged up, but that's why they lost. The question is, how? What I saw happening was this: the Hawks threw pucks at the net, creating rebounds, and then beat the Bruins to the puck. It was that simple.

The regular season is a whole different game. In order to win in the playoffs, the Bruins are going to have to stop this from happening again. This is why the loss of Seidenberg and McQaid is such a big concern. They are two big guys who can clear the front of the net. Let's call clearing the front of the net "plan A.' Chara can't do it by himself. Without those two big guys, the Bruins are going to have to go with plan "B". Success is going to require strong back checking and Rask will need to limit his rebounds. That, and they will need to score a lot of goals, because they are going to be scored against.

Fortunately there is some reason for optimism. Remember that long winning streak the B's went on recently? It started with a game that was stolen by Rask. I think Rask is an excellent goaltender, but he has not stolen a lot of games in his NHL career. He's consistent and strong, but there aren't many times when you think, "this team should have lost, except for the amazing goaltending." In the game he stole, the puck kept ending up loose in front of the net, and the other team kept getting to it first. But Tuukka stood on his head and none of them went in. In the games that followed, this same thing happened again and again. After watching a few gazillion games you start to get a sixth sense about when a goal is going to be scored. Mine kept going off when there was a scramble in front of the net, yet time and time again the puck didn't go in. It seemed like some sort of magic. After a while it started to feel like the Bruins were invincible, and I think the guys on the ice felt that too. With a streak like this comes confidence, and with confidence comes strong, consistent, and resilient play.

The question now is, has the magic worn off? And if so, can Rask steal a game or two in the playoffs? Regardless, I think the Bruins fate lies out in front of their net.