Thursday, December 2, 2010

Game 23: Where The Bruins Stand

I've been waiting for a moment to sum up the season so far when I had both something to say and the time to say it. So here we are after game 23. Where do the Bruins stand?

The word today is that Marco Sturm has been traded to LA. Hunwick was traded last week to clear cap space for Savard. So when it comes to the roster it looks like things are pretty much set--at least until the trade deadline should Chiarelli need to shake things up or add a rental for the playoff push.

So far the team play has been a roller coaster. Two years ago at this time they were building momentum toward an incredible run that would end at the top of the Conference, only to lose in the second round of the playoffs. Last year they started out as if they thought the regular season wasn't worth their effort. Injuries mounted. They came on strong at the end but lost again in the second round. It looks like this time around we are going to get a season of highs and lows, with streaks of both the winning and losing variety.

I've heard it said that a team that doesn't play hard every game is more prone to injuries than one that's on a roll. That seemed to be the case for the Bruins last year. I suppose it makes sense: it is better to be the one making the hits than receiving them. Nobody wants to make excuses, but there were so many key injuries that one can only wonder what would have happened had the Bs been even just a bit less banged up in the playoffs. The way I see it to go deeper in the playoffs the Bruins will need the following core players to be healthy: Chara, Savard, Thomas, Bergeron, Lucic and Krejci. Of these Chara and Lucic are absolutely key. Without both of them near 100% come playoff time there will be no cup. Their physical play is crucial not only as a direct impact but in a leadership role. Witness Lucic last summer against Philly: the Bruins lost four games straight only after he was no longer able to play with that dominant physical style he brings at crucial moments.

Some of the highlights so far this season: Chara storming the offensive zone, going on the forecheck behind the net and tossing defenseman aside like ragdolls, resulting in an important goal. Tyler Seguin scoring off the give and go with a huge drive toward the net early in the season. Tim Thomas with a perfect record on the road, six shutouts, and that big grin getting wider with each passing game.

What are their chances in the post season given what we have seen so far? I think they should at the very least make the Conference Final and if things go their way this team is fully capable of winning the Cup.

My concerns so far? Lack of depth at defense--if Ference or Seidenberg aren't available for the playoffs it may mean another second round exit. Lack of big bruising forwards--Lucic is crucial in this regard come playoff time, but he can't do it alone. This team is at its best when they turn up the heat and overpower other teams physically. Lack of speed may hurt them in the regular season but their playoff chances depend on physical domination. Wheeler needs to become a heavy hitter. The rest of the wingers need to be ready to throw their bodies around--with purpose--when the time comes.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Why We Watch

Years ago I knew a real jerk. He was my boss. He had discovered that since he could fire those working for him that he could get away with being abusive and intimidating. One day the Olympics were starting and he walked into the lunch room and loudly and disdainfully announced that he didn't get why anyone cared about the Olympics. For once I had an answer for him. I told him that people watched the Olympics because even though the athletes were put under enormous pressure the champions responded by digging deep down and somehow doing their very best; to witness this triumph of the human spirit was why we watched. I was thankful when a co-worker backed me up by saying, "that's something that needs to be said," because it was such a cliche. Taken aback, he slinked out of the room.

So the question I am posing is, why watch hockey? Why be a fan? For me the answer is the same as for the Olympics. I enjoy seeing the team as a whole and the players individually overcome adversity. There's nothing sweeter than seeing someone triumph even though the whole world seemed to think they couldn't cut it.

When a hockey player dons that storied and sacred spoked-B and earns our respect both on and off the ice by doing his very best he earns my loyalty. Tim Thomas is one of those players. He earned my loyalty years ago when fans kept saying he wasn't a true No. 1 yet he played better than any goaltender I had seen in years. He proved worthy of my loyalty when the media and many fans smugly claimed that he'd been replaced by Manny Fernendez--a proven No 1. goaltender--yet went on to not only win the starting job but the Vezina too.

So it was painful to me to see people wearing "It's Tukka Time" T-shirts at Bruins games last season and lauding Rask as if he was somehow born into the starting goaltender position, like royalty. And it was painful to me to read about fans wanting to trade Thomas for cap space over the summer. Hell, some still are. Even with the best start for a Bruins goaltender in 73 years some fans claim he's being played just so the front office can show him off to set up a trade. These people know no shame and even less about loyalty.

So lets get some things straight. Rask has not yet earned either the starting job or our loyalty--not in the way Tim Thomas has. The truth is that the team played so inconsistently for the first half of last season they made both goaltenders look bad. When they finally got their act together Timmy responded with a shutout. But his next game ended with his being pulled off the ice and after that Rask played the bulk of the season. The media anointed Rask as having stolen the starting job from Thomas. But we now know what really happened. Timmy was injured in that game and that injury required surgery over the summer before he could recover. Rask didn't steal the starting job--he defaulted into it. And sure, Rask played well right up to the middle of the second round of the playoffs. But make no mistake: he was seldom "great."

Over the last fifteen years we have seen so many goaltenders come and go. Some were hailed as the next great goalie who would lead us to a cup yet fell flat on their faces. Many people believed that the Bruins lacked the necessary goaltending to go far into the playoffs. Bill Ranford didn't have what it took and only lasted two seasons. Byron Dafoe looked like a future great but never really left his mark, either in the playoffs or the record books. Does anyone even remember Jeff Hackett? And what about the chosen one--Andrew Raycroft--the celebrated goaltender of the future who won the Calder as the best rookie in the NHL? After the lockout he was never able to get back into form. Now he bounces around the league as a journeyman backup. So forgive me if I expect Rask to actually earn his lauded position as the Bruins "goaltender of the future."

Even going back further in time the Bruins have had few great goaltenders. In truth even Gerry Cheevers, one of my all-time favorite Bruins, wasn't the greatest goaltender in his time. He had a hell of a team in front of him and don't let anyone tell you that doesn't matter.

The Vezina trophy is awarded to the best goaltender in the NHL. Tim Thomas won it for the '08/'09 season. You have to go back to Pete Peeters in '82/'83 to find the last time a Bruin won it and Peeters, like Timmy, was the real deal. Before that you have to go all the way back to the greatest Bruins goaltender, Frank Brimsek, in '38/'39.

Stats are even more telling. No Bruins goaltender has led the league in save percentage since they started keeping the statistic in the 1950's--except for Tim Thomas.

Tim Thomas is the real deal people. It's not Tukka Time yet and history tells us that day may never come. Once again the Thomas-doubters have written him off and once again Timmy has risen to the occasion. This is Timmy Time and we should enjoy it because this is as special as it gets. This is why we watch.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Fantastic Article by Jack Edwards

If Jack Edwards ever has to give up play-by-play he'd make a great print journalist; much better than those hacks they have writing for the Boston papers. Jack utterly destroys this summer's persistent Savard trade rumors in

Marc Savard's Merit, Peter Chiarelli's Plans Quash Anonymous Trade Rumors


Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Contract Loophole

Many hockey bloggers seem more interested in the running of the hockey business than the game itself. I usually stick to the hockey, and Bruins hockey at that. But from time to time there are some "business" issues that affect the game itself.

I am sure most fans have heard about the recent rejection of Ilya Kovalchuk’s 17-year, $102 million contract with New Jersey. I have read numerous stories on the subject. Most look at the mechanics of the so-called "loophole" used by New Jersey or at owners vs. players association politics. Many look at the possible consequences for similar contracts. But nobody seems interested in the larger picture. The question I would pose is this: are these "loophole" contracts good or bad for the NHL from the fans perspective.

First let's understand the issue. As I understand it some elite players are being offered unusually long term contracts where the salary drops to near league minimum for the years near the end, usually around the time the player has turned 40. The rules set out in the CBA compute the team's salary cap hit as a yearly average for these contracts. By extending them into "old age" at a lower pay the yearly cap hit goes down, allowing the team to supposedly circumvent the salary cap. This has almost universally been called a loophole.

In truth the NHL has little to hang their claim on that this is a circumvention of the salary cap. If the case were to go to a court of law (which it will not) I doubt the NHL would win. The GMs are simply playing by the rules of the game as set out in the CBA. If the NHL does not like it they should change the rules rather than reject contracts on what is clearly a highly subjective basis. After all, where do you draw the line? Kovalchuk’s contract is merely the most extreme example. Under the current rules there is no clear line for the GMs not to cross; there is no cut and dried way to determine which contracts circumvent the CBA and which don't. There has been a lot of talk about Savard's contract, but even Tim Thomas' contract could be viewed as a less in-the-face version of the same loophole. In my opinion the NHL has opened a can of worms. League officials have to look at each contract and decide, rather subjectively, which ones are to be rejected. Throw in the fact that some of these contracts are being looked at retrospectively and you have a highly ridiculous situation that is sure to make some teams and fans feel that they have been unreasonably singled out. This is bound to lead to acrimony and further embarrassment for the league.

But back to my question. Forget about all the politics and claims of subverting the idea behind the salary cap. What are the pros and cons of this type of contract from the perspective of the fans?

One thing the salary cap has done is to force teams to use more young (read cheap) talent on their teams. This has made it easier for young players to break into the NHL and to break into the league earlier than before. On the other hand it has made it more difficult for established "stars" to find large salaries in free agency. Typically each team now has 1-4 highly paid players. The rest of the team's salary is divided among mid-level and entry-level contracts. This puts pressure on GMs to "dump salary" by trading or walking away from their star players to make room for the inexpensive up and comers. The end result from the players point of view is likely to be shorter careers, particularly for the more lucrative period. That and they will likely end up playing for many different teams. We have seen a phenomenon of "revolving stars" and more long term "rental players" in recent years. Just look at the Montreal roster. It's dominated by a bunch of hired guns. Where is their storied history now? Is this really good for the game?

For the fans the salary cap means that their stars--their so-called franchise players--are more likely to be traded away or not re-signed than in previous generations. That is, except for these "loophole" contracts. The players sign these contracts because it guarantees them some measure of job security as they age and the possibility of being one day remembered as one of the teams "greats" because they played most of their career for the same team. For this same reason I too see these contracts as a good thing. I don't want my Bruins to end up like Montreal with a bunch of free agents with no ties to the organization and who are likely to be gone in a year or two. I wrote about that in my last blog. As a fan of the team for almost forty years, rather than a Bostonian who just wants to party over a cup win, I would find a cup victory like last year's in Chicago to be empty.

For these reasons I hope the NHL resolves the issue of this "loophole" in way that continues to allow star players to sign contracts that will keep them with their teams into their declining years. Otherwise in a decade we may wonder why numbers are no longer lifted to the rafters.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

That's Not the Way I Want It

It was only three weeks ago that the Chicago Black Hawks won the Stanley Cup. In the short time since they have traded away Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Ben Eager and Kris Versteeg. All of them played important roles in their cup win. If I were a Hawks fan I'd be just a bit heartbroken.

Player movement is inevitable, particularly with a salary cap in place. But is all this turnover really good for the game? Sure, if the Bruins win a Cup the "sports fans" in the region will suddenly rediscover hockey and jump on the band wagon, buying merchandise and maybe even going to a game or two next season. The front office will be thrilled. But those guys don't fill the season seats. They don't follow the team when it has a losing season. Once the team stumbles they will all go back to their whining and complaining. In the end they aren't true hockey fans. They just want to puff out their chests and join the celebration when the team that happens to play in their city wins it all.

I look back over the last 40 years of Bruins hockey and what stands out are the great players. Whether it be Borque, Neely, Cheevers, Espo, Chief, or Bobby. The cups were great, but it is the unbroken line of Bruins players going all the way back to 1924 that makes Bruins hockey what it is. It's not just the league-wide stars like Orr, but the role players as well.

The pre-lockout B's were a mess. I used to wonder which of those guys would have their jersey raised to the rafters. Thornton seemed a lock. But who else? Muzz? Samsonov? No way. To me, those teams were the low point for the Bruins going back to when I was a kid.

A cup would be terrific and great teams need to prove their greatness by winning a championship. But in the end it is only a vehicle for the next generation of Bruins greats. It is those greats that true hockey fans celebrate. Who are we going to celebrate tomorrow? What number is going to sent to the rafters next? I know the Boston "sports fans" will scoff at this. But that just proves that we don't have the same interest in the team.

If in the end we win the Cup only to see our "rentals" move on, then what will we have to remember? Who will we celebrate in a decade? I look over the current roster and see a few potential candidates for the rafters. I really do. Chara. Savard. Lucic. Thomas. Maybe Bergeron. Yet I read the paper and two of those names are reportedly on the trade block. Yeah, I know that Tim Thomas is in a tough spot with a young (read inexpensive) kid apparently playing just as well. But Savard?

In my opinion this is where it all starts to fall apart. When the dust from the lockout had settled and Peter Chiarelli established himself as the architect of the team the cornerstones were Chara and Savard. In my opinion if he has backed himself into a corner that requires that he trade one of those two then it all unravels. It's not just a matter of another expendable center or a shrewd disposal of a player who may have his best years behind him. Savard is a cup final away from the rafters. That may be difficult for some to see when caught up in the moment, I know. Worse yet, it would be a sign of failure. In hindsight the last two seasons could be remembered as the "glory years" as the team rebuilds again. I've been following this team's ups and downs for almost 40 years now, and that's what I think. This is a pivotal moment. Does Savvy stay or does he go?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wideman Shipped to Florida

If history is any example, Dennis Wideman should be celebrating his trade to the Florida Panthers. Wideman is the latest in a string of Bruins defenseman who have been much maligned by fans during their time in Boston. Hal Gill (1997-2006) was considered slow and absolutely detested by many. So too was Nick Boynton (1999-2006). Boynton just won the Stanley Cup. Gill won it last year.

I'm just sayin'.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Stanley Cup Final is Ridiculous

Yeah--I said it. Why? Because having the cup final in June is idiotic. Schools are out. People are going on vacations. The overriding theme is warm summer fun, not anything to do with ice or hockey. Hockey means next to nothing in June! I've been a hockey fan long enough to recall when the cup final was in April. Then May. Now June. Where does it stop? August? Are we headed for a year-round season?

Something that's equally ridiculous is the 82-game schedule. It's bad enough that the regular season has become a sort of meaningless pre-season, but to have it drag on for 82 games is just too much. I know the franchises make money on every game, but I find it hard to believe that there is no downside to spreading the season so thin. There are exceptions, but most NHL arenas are not filled to capacity for every game. I'd bet that if they played fewer games most of the lost revenue would be made up by higher per-game attendance.

I think the cup final should be played no later than April. To accomplish this, I'd remove at least 10-12 games from the schedule and start the season earlier. Hockey in September makes way more sense than hockey in June. If nobody cares about hockey in September, fine. That's way better than nobody caring during the cup final.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

No Deep Analysis Required

In the end the Bruins did play with heart in game 7 of their series with Philly. But like the series itself, they were unable to sustain it. Many will claim the team doesn't have enough talent. Some will make the excuse that Krejci, Sturm and Seidenberg were out with injuries. Others will suggest the Flyers were the better team. But I believe the bottom line is much like last year. The series against Carolina was really lost not in game 7, but when they failed to show up for game 1. This year the series was lost when the Bruins failed to put the Flyers away in games 4 or 5, as a great team would have done.

Like a cat toying with a mouse, if he doesn't kill his prey when he has the chance sooner or later it will escape.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

It's All About Heart

I've read a lot about the Bruins/Flyers series but I haven't read much that matches my point of view, so here it is. In the first three games the Bruins totally dominated the Flyers. Now, I know a lot of people looked at the score and said otherwise (particularly Flyers fans) but it's true. This is one of those cases where the scoreboard and the stats don't really tell the whole story. In game 1 the B's came out and heavily dominated the play until they took a two-goal lead. Then, like a cat toying with a mouse, they sat back. When the Flyers responded with a goal the Bruins turned it up again until they got their lead back. This continued on through the second game. In game three the Bruins actually improved their game. This time once they got the lead they played much better defensively and for the most part avoided the cat-and-mouse . But the bottom line of the first three games was simple: when the Bruins needed the lead they were always able to turn up the heat to get it.

But that's when it all fell apart. With a 3-0 series lead I saw an interview with Looch and I knew from the grin he was trying to hide that the team was in trouble; he clearly thought they had already won the series. In game four they dropped the dominating offensive play and it didn't resurface until there was only 2 minutes left in game 6. Even though they scored, there wasn't enough time to overcome a two-goal Flyers lead.

Now we find ourselves going to game 7 and the big question on everyone's mind should be whether or not the Bruins are going to bring it like they did in game 1. If they don't this season is going to end like the last one.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Some Thoughts Going Into the Second Round

What I have wanted to believe all season is that what the B's took away from the previous year is this: the regular season doesn't matter as long as you make it to the playoffs in the end. But that takes a lot of faith, doesn't it? I like to see some hard evidence. To me the B's strong play in the first round is just that. Suddenly things get changed up here and there and everything improves across the board, including their struggling power play. Coincidence? I think not. I think this team has been laying in wait all season. They have their sights on the Conference Final.

Why is everybody taking Rask being snubbed for the Calder lying down? I saw some guy on the NHL network say that Rask had to play "one, maybe two more games" to be considered. Seriously? Just what is the magic number of games a goaltender has to play to be considered for the Calder? Is it written down somewhere? This kid not only ended the season with the best stats in the NHL, but the only reason he didn't play more games is that he had to beat out the Vezina winner for the job. Shouldn't that count for something?

It seems to me that when it comes to goaltenders, how good they are believed to be is incredibly subjective. We have seen this with all the Thomas hate over the years. If they win its because the team plays good defense. If they lose it's because he stinks. Nobody keeps tracks of wins/losses for any other position. Goaltending is important, but is it really that important? What people seem to be left with is the perception they had going in about the guy. Just look at all the Ryan Miller hype. He played well in the Olympics for sure, but not that well. You'd think he single handedly won the gold they way the US media fawns over him. Weird. And it seems to me that a lot of people are assuming that the only reason the Sabres did well this year was Miller. Now that they have lost its because Miller just couldn't do it alone. Personally I think the Sabres are pretty talented all around. It seems that people either blame or ignore the rest of the team when it is convenient to their preconceptions.

One last thought. The way I understand it the B's will either play Pittsburgh or Philly in the second round. I think they can take either team, but would prefer they play Pittsburgh based on how they match up. The Bruins could be the Pens worst nightmare. A Bruins/Flyers series could be a nightmare for everybody, with the winner winding up too wounded to go any further.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

It is what it is... but what is it?

Two years ago the Boston Bruins entered the playoffs with a "young" team that had bought into coach Claude Juliens's defensive scheme but had great difficulty scoring goals. Most every game was won or lost by a single point. I remember the first shift by Dennis Wideman against Montreal. He was shaky and tentative. To tell the truth the whole team was like that. They lost that first game and the series, but only after coming back and forcing game 7. In the end that team had heart. They knew how to stick in there to win a close one.

Over the summer that followed Julien stated that they were now going to turn their attention to offense. Many people wondered just how they were going to do that, myself included. There was the usual nonsense about signing that mythical high-scoring free agent that changes the whole team, but GM Peter Chiarelli thought the team already had that kind of talent. He was right. Somehow the team that couldn't buy a goal grew into a goal scoring monster the next season. They finished with the best record in the East and only one other team in the league had more goals. To tell you the truth I still don't understand how they did it, although I think it had to do with speed on the breakout. In that regard Phil Kessel was an important ingredient. But he was only out there on one line, so it is difficult to explain how every line last year was so successful on the breakout. Unfortunately, that team was almost too good. They peaked early in most games and cruised to easy wins. And they peaked early in the season and cruised to the playoffs. My big concern going into the playoffs last year was what would happen when they met a good defensive team that knew how to play playoff hockey. To make matters worse they cruised past a Montreal team in the first round that couldn't keep up with them. But they met their match in Carolina, a team that for the first time shut that fast-break offense down. Having forgotten their ability to win a close battle the Bruins stumbled and ended up losing in OT in game 7. I'm pretty sure today that had the Bruins won that series they would have gone on to win the cup because the remaining teams couldn't bring what Carlina had brought to the ice.

After their relative success Chiarelli worked to re-sign the core talent that had made it happen. Unfortunately the very act of keeping that talent may have been what hurt the team this year via complacency.

As the 2009/2010 season opened I made a wish: "In my mind the perfect season for the B's would have more struggle to it, perhaps even finishing 3rd or 4th in the conference. Or maybe fighting their way up through the pack at the end. I'd like to see fewer goals and closer games." Well, I got my wish. The Bruins finished the season near the top in defense and dead last in scoring.

All season long we waited for the Bruins to pick it up. But they seemed to be just getting by. I titled my last post here "The Bruins are Toast" out of frustration. I thought maybe they would pick it up after the Olympics. But no, they didn't. I thought as the season was nearing a close and all the attention was on them in that big game against Pittsburgh that they would finally show some heart. But they didn't. It was hard not to give up on them. Yet somehow, just as we thought it would never happen, as it came down to the final stretch the B's finally came alive. Their run to make the playoffs at the end of this season was nothing short of impressive, particularly as the injuries mounted. Not only did they hang on to make the playoffs as other teams fell by the side, but they ended up in the sixth seed.

So where does that leave us going into the playoffs? The good news is that, unlike last year's team, this one is made for playoff hockey. They know how to win a tough close game. They know how to keep grinding away when things don't go in their favor. And they look like a team again--like it doesn't matter who you put in the uniform, you know you are going to get the same type of play and the same effort. That could be important, because the bad news is that they are really banged up. The B's are going to really miss Marc Savard, particularly on the power play, which has proven to be terrible without him. And just when the defense has started to roll--punishing and frustrating opponents and getting into the scoring--key defenseman Marc Stuart, Andrew Ference, and Dennis Siedenberg are all hurt. Siedenberg likely will miss the entire playoffs.

So, again I ask, where does that leave us going into the playoffs? I don't really know. I believe this team has the talent to win a cup. But I worry that too much of that talent is watching from the stands. I guess this is why they play the games. At the very least I expect the B's to play the role that Carolina played against them last year, spoiling the playoffs for a high-rolling team that won't know what hit them.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Bruins are Toast

People are pointing to the 1971 cup team that was out on the ice last night and remembering the good old days when the Bruins played with passion and heart and didn't let other teams come into their building and push them around. It may come as a surprise to those fans that tuned in just for the carnage last night, but you don't have to look back that far for these things.

As the 2007/2008 season opened the B's were on one of their long road trips out west. They started in Dallas and passed through Phoenix on their way to Anaheim, where they would face the Ducks. The Ducks had just mugged their way to a Stanley Cup just months before. The Bruins came in all charged up and determined to prove themselves. They finished every check, laying out bodies right and left. Every man threw is body around, not just a few designated hitters. In the end the Bruins won. Just like the Ducks in the playoffs, they wanted it more and were willing to play physically to get it done. I have always thought of that game against the Ducks as the game that started it all.

In the 2008/2009 season we all remember the night the Dallas Stars came into town and tried to intimidate the Bruins. Steve Ott and Shawn Avery turned the game into a cheap shot circus. But the B's rose to their challenge and destroyed them, pummeling them in every sense of the word. As the game ended even Mark Savard was throwing punches. The Bruins won that game too and the Stars went home to Dallas in search of who they were. That was the game that made the Bruins the monster team they were last season.

It's hard to believe, but this is still much the same team. With success and the fat contracts that followed came complacency. This season they wanted hockey to be all about being in position and making the first pass. Sure, those things are important, but that's not what hockey is really all about. It's wanting it more, finishing all of your checks, and punishing the other team into submission. It's about passion. It's about heart. Two things the Bruins no longer have.

I don't give a crap about the fights in last night's game against the Penguins. Individually Thornton and Chara did their jobs last night. But it all meant nothing when the team failed to rise to the occasion. Just as the games against the Ducks and the Stars defined those previous seasons this game against the Penguins defines this one. They didn't need to win that game, but they did need to show some heart, and they didn't. Like Dallas last year, the Bruins must now hang their heads in disgrace and try to figure out who they are.

Grape said it all last week: "If he (coach Julien) can't get them to hit..." then he isn't getting the job done.

I'm angry and I'm not alone.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

No Place For It in the NHL

It seems that Marc Savard may be out for the rest of the season after the concussion he sustained after a cheap shot to the head by the goon Matt Cooke. Lets just hope his career isn't over along with the season. If you haven't already seen the video below then you should.

Forget what anybody says about this and the other hits by Cooke. Forget that his own teammate basically called him out on it. The video speaks for itself. Two things are abundantly clear: (1) these hits by Cooke are no accident, and (2) the striking similarity between the Savard hit and the two previous hits, for which Cooke was suspended, make the decision by Campbell not to suspend Cooke again indefensible, at least on its face.

Either Campbell is a complete idiot, as a lot of people are assuming, or he is playing politics. A new rule against hits to the head by the shoulder is not a forgone conclusion. It has to be okay'd by the nebulous competition committee which apparently only meets in the summer, when much of this will be forgotten. It may well be that Campbell, in stating that he would not suspend Cooke because there was no clear rule against the hit, is using this as a means to pressure the committee into surely adopting a new rule. If so, this could be a good thing in the long run.

Now as for Cooke, I keep hearing the same phrase over and over from players and management alike. They all say, "there is no place for that in the NHL." People are blaming the NHL for not enacting a rule against this sort of hit sooner. They are blaming Campbell for not suspending Cooke. But I think both are off the mark. The bulk of the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the Pittsburgh Penguins management. As GM's around the league fear that their own scoring superstar may be the next target of such a hit, who has the most at stake? The Pittsburgh Penguins and Sydney Crosby. So why does it take a suspension from the NHL to stop this guy? Hell, after all he's been suspended for this same thing before and he keeps right on doing it. Why should the Pittsburgh management be allowed to pretend they have no control over their own players? If there is no place for this in the NHL, then there is no place in the NHL for Matt Cooke. It's time the people who are really in charge--the Pittsburgh management--took the responsibility to do something about it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Dennis Seidenberg Leads Bruins to Win with Big Hit From Behind

In a season of twists and turns, if the Bruins end up going much deeper into the playoffs than most people expect the sages will point to this game as the beginning of it all. For the first time this season they played like last year's team; they played hard and tough, overwhelming the Flyers. With each goal they seemed to hunger for more, which was once the mark of this team.

But the game itself had some twists and turns. They story of this game starts two games before, on March 7th in Pittsburgh. A goon by the name of Matt Cooke blindsides the Bruin's Mark Savard with an intentional hit to the head with his shoulder. Savard falls to the ice like a rag doll and is taken off on a backbaord. It turns out that he has a level 2 concussion and will be out indefinitely. Patrice Bergeron, who was himself the victim of a cheap shot to the head that lost him an entire season, stands there next to Sydney Crosby and they both shake their heads. Begeron has become a voice of reason among players to stop dangerous hits to the head.

The hit happened away from the play and no replay is shown in the arena. Cooke receives no penalty on the play, but never returns to the ice. At that moment the Bruins were down a goal late in the game and they want to win it. There is no retaliation and the Bruins end up losing. Most people, the players included, expect a suspension for Cooke. In the days that follow fans are outraged at their lack of retaliation. Even the GM expresses his disappointment. Media attention focuses on the NHL meeting about stopping this exact type of hit. To literally add insult to injury Cooke is not suspended after all. This announcement is made the day the Bruins play the Flyers--a team known for its rough play.

The game starts with the Bruins playing hard and sharp. They get a one goal lead. Mark Stuart steps up and has a good fight against Daniel Carcillo. Only 40 seconds into the second period, it happens. Dennis Seidenberg, the newest Bruin, finishes a hit smack on the numbers on the back of a Philly player, sending him violently head first into the boards. His head bounces off the glass and he falls to the ice. Fortunately his helmet took the blow, rather than his face, and the glass is more forgiving than the boards. But had he laid there hurt Seidenberg would have been looking at a suspension for sure. I was shocked. But he got up and Seidenberg only got 2 minutes for boarding. On the penalty kill the B's took to the ice completely deflated. I wonder if they were thinking what I was thinking: "Who is this Seidenberg guy? Is he the kind of player who takes cheap shots to the head?" It took the Flyers all of 4 seconds to score.

For the first few shifts after that the Bruins looked like deer in headlights. But then something happened. Man, I would have loved to have been a fly on the glass near the bench. Somebody said something. I don't know if it was Bergeron, Siedenberg, or a coach. But somebody must have said something, because after that the Bruins were an unstoppable force. Stuart won another fight. Rask made some huge Thomas-like saves, the kid Marchand played with fire in his eyes, and they scored 4 unanswered goals.

The Bruins are finally Big, Bad and Back. At least for now.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Gimme Three Goals!

We all know the Bruins have trouble scoring, but let's look at the actual numbers. Since the start of the year the Bruins have played 25 games. Their record is 4 regulation wins, 12 regulation losses, 5 OT/SO wins, and 4 OT/SO losses. They have managed a total of a mere 18 points, while allowing opposing teams 37. As you can see, if they go to overtime they win 56% of the time (almost always in a shootout). That part is ok, but itisn't good enough.

During this time the Bruins have managed just 49 goals (1.96 goals per game) while they gave up 67 (2.68 goals per game).

They played 10 games where they scored only one goal in regulation, 9 where they managed 2 goals, and only 6 where they managed 3 or more. When scoring 3 or more goals they have a record of 4-1-1. When scoring less that three goals their record is 0-14-5. Ahem.

The math here is quite simple: the Bruins need to score three or more goals in regulation to win.

By the way, last season the Bruins led the league by giving up a mere 2.32 goals per game. They are off from that this year, but that can be blamed on the higher number of blowouts and in losing in general. When you are behind late in the game you tend to take chances and that gets you scored on. So I would argue that defensively the B's are almost as good as last year. Almost.

The big difference won't come as any surprise: last year they managed a whopping 3.29 goals per game, 2nd overall. Again, it is clear that if they can score three, just one goal per period, they can not only make the playoffs but win most of their remaining games.

Ah, but can the Bruins be expected to score three goals per game with the talent they have this season? To answer that question I computed the goals/per game from last season for the Bruins who are still on the team (i.e. no Kessel). For some players, such as Sturm, Bergeron, and Paille I used their numbers from this season. The predicted number of goals per game for the current Bruins worked out to: 3.04. So yes, the Bruins have the talent to score 3 goals per game. Let's hope Savvy comes back soon. In the meantime the rest of the players have to step up. But yes--it's not asking the impossible to score 3.

So gimme three goals!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Circular Salary Logic & the Blame Game

When things go wrong for any organization and it doesn't meet expectations the blame game will surely follow. In hockey the major players in the blame game are: the GM, the coach, and the players themselves.

It's easy to blame the players. They are the ones playing the game after all. If you pay a top forward $4 million per year and he only scores you 6 goals then he is clearly to blame, right? Toss the bum on his butt (or if he's a Canadian toss the butthead on his bum). Ah, but what if all the forwards are failing to score? Can you really reasonably blame all of them individually? No, that would suggest a systemic problem: either the GM hasn't put the best team on the ice for the money spent or the coach hasn't properly prepared/motivated them.

The current thinking from the majority of the wannabe Bruins GMs of the world is that the problem with the Bruins is the GMs fault. The reasoning goes something like this: the Bruins GM rewarded the good play of many players last season with fat contracts. This season those players are under-performing. Therefore they are not really worth what they were paid; the GM overpaid for them. In overpaying these players the GM had his hands tied by the salary cap when it came time to upgrade. Thus, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the GM.

But I believe there is a major logical fault in that argument, and it goes back to the point I was trying to make in my last post. My counter argument goes like this: every player has a potential. When a player excels he reaches that potential. When he fails to excel he falls short of that potential. So how do you value a player? By his last game, which may have been a poor effort, or by his potential? I claim that the only reasonable answer is to value a player by his potential, at least when it comes to his contract. After all, when we look longingly at some superstar who plays for another team, and imagine him coming to Boston, it his potential we value. Put him with our guys, in our system, and he might not live up to it.

This leads us to the last player in the blame game, the head coach. The coach is responsible for preparing the players both mentally and physically. If one player fails to live up to his potential we can blame the player. But if the whole team fails to do so then perhaps we need to look at the coach instead. The job of the GM is to get the best bang for the buck in terms of player potential, based on previous performance (and in some cases expected performance growth). The job of the coach is to bring the level of play up to the potential that has been purchased by the GM.

If you look at last season we can see the potential of these players. Thomas was only the second Bruins goaltender to win the Vezina in over 60 years. Ryder scored 27 goals. Savvy, Recchi, Krejci and Wheeler each had more than 20. This season not one of these players is on track to score more than 20. Chara, Lucic and Wideman each had more than ten. This season the three of them together are only on track for 17 total.

People claim that Savvy needs a goal scorer to dish the puck to, with the implication that the GM failed to provide one. But wait a minute: that should be Ryder's job. After all he did score 27 last season. Or Sturm's-- the only Bruin currently pushing 20 goals. Hell, last year Savvy spent half the season with PJ Axellson on his wing! No, that argument just doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Come on, we all know what's wrong with this team: inconsistent play, such as not showing up for every shift or even every period. Not playing physically enough. Can you imagine a Bruins/Habs game without a fight? We don't have to... A severely broken breakout that has not been improved--or even changed--since the start of the season. Failure to finish. Two consistently poorly performing power play units.

The players are not performing to their potential the GM is paying for. If you want to play the blame game, then there it is.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Trade Deadline Idiocy

I see a lot of irrational ideas when it comes to the Bruins and there is nothing like a poorly performing team married with the trade deadline to bring them to fever pitch. One particular theory keeps coming back again and again that really irks me. After having a fantastic season a team comes back the next year and plays poorly. The bizarre explanation by some is that the team never really was that good in the first place; they somehow "overachieved." The previous year was a fluke. In fact, the team has little or no talent. If you buy into this idea then the solution to the problem is to go out and get more talent.

A team can be more than the sum of its parts. A team can come together in such a way as to reach its full potential. This intangible unity is what makes a championship team. But it is nonsense that a team can somehow reach beyond their full potential, particularly for an extended period of time such as an entire season. Logically, your best is your best; there is nothing better. This idea of "overachieving" is a myth.

Yet I have seen and read again and again the view that the Bruins overachieved last season. In this view the entire season was a fluke. The "real" Bruins is the team we see now. The B's don't have enough talent, so the obvious solution is to bring on more talent at the trade deadline. Or at least it seems obvious to the people I see commenting, such as in this article by the Hockey Genius Eric Wilbur.

Yet on its face the argument makes no sense. The Bruins are essentially the same. Their skill level remains close to what it was last year, even without Kessel. What has happened is that they are no longer playing up to their potential. In a word, they are underachieving. Sure, getting the right guy into the locker room might inspire the rest of the team to get out of their funk, but that's a gamble at best. No, we usually blame someone else when a team consistently underachieves. I'll go ahead and come right out and say it: if the underachieving continues the rational solution is to replace the coaching staff, not the players.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Why People Who Should Know Better are Complaining about Tim Thomas

Why? Because they don't know any better. I just watched this video and it would be funny if it weren't so wrong headed:

Was Tim Thomas's Contract a Mistake?

I make no secret of the fact that I'm a fan of Tim Thomas, and some people will no doubt assume that I'm biased by that. But that's not it. What I can't stand is when people are biased against Thomas, unfairly pointing out every soft goal yet only grudgingly giving him credit when he does well. You see that in the video when the guy on the left claims that Thomas is no Brodeur. That's what he thinks and nothing Timmy can do--even winning the Vezina--will change his opinion. The Vezina? That was merely Julien's defense-first approach at work. I mean, last year that guy could have suited up and won the Vezina! Yet of course this year the poor play of the team has absolutely nothing to do with it. Yeah, right. I have never seen a successful player so unreasonably maligned by the so-called "experts" in any sport (more on that in another post).

To put the idea to rest that I'm just as biased let me state unequivocally that Tim Thomas has not played well enough since the January 14th game against the Sharks. That's eight games that they lost--eight games that he was not able to steal. This was a period where the Bruins gave up 22 goals (2.75 goals per game). During that same period the Bruins managed only nine goals (1.13 goals per game). There should be no doubt that the low scoring was the real problem, but it is just as true that a Vezina-winning goalie should have been able to stand on his head and steal a few of them. Unlike earlier this year that didn't happen.

In the last five starts Rask has had one great game and four mediocre-to-good ones. He has allowed 12 goals (2.4 goals per game). In that same period the Bruins have scored 15 goals (3.0 goals per game). It's true that Rask had a terrific game against Montreal on February 2. But the same could be said about Thomas having helped steal the game against the Sharks. The main reason the Bruins are winning now is that they are scoring again. Had they scored 3 goals per game during Thomas's losing streak they would have won most of them.

So why are people claiming that Thomas is finished? It's simple. They don't actually watch the games. They just see some highlights from time to time and primarily look at the stats. Right now Thomas is 13-15-7 with a 2.52 GAA and a save percentage* of 0.915. Rask is 13-7-4 with a 2.09 GAA and a whopping 0.928 save percentage. Clearly Rask is by far the better of the two, right? By-the-way, in the 2005/2006 season Brodeur's GAA was 2.57 and his save percentage was 0.911. Does that mean he was no longer Martin Brodeur? Should the Devils have dumped him and his big contract?

But here's the thing: stats can lie. Take the last game against Tampa Bay--statistically Rask had a poor night, allowing 4 goals on 35 shots (a horrible 0.886 save percentage). So he stank right? No! In fact, watching the game we know that he was very sharp and didn't allow any soft goals. In a game where one team runs away with it early it is typical for the team to let down and allow some goals. But they did get the win and that's what counts. So here is a perfect example of how the stats alone lie. You have to watch the games. Those "sports guys" in the video have many other sports to be watching. There is just no way they watch every game. Having watched all but three games this season I can say that Tim Thomas has in fact played very well, often under extremely difficult circumstances. The stats alone don't begin to tell the story.

Look--all goaltenders have difficult periods. All of them. But it happens to Thomas and some small-minded fickle people are willing to give up on a good thing to satisfy their preconceived notions. Hey, if I'm just biased in favor of Thomas, then why have I won this same argument about how good Timmy is every single time since 2006? The fact is he has never let me down. As always, Timmy will be back and his detractors will shut their mouths, biding their time until they can once again show their unfounded disdain.

As for Timmy's contract, see my comments from the last post. Here are a few additional points to consider:
  1. Goaltenders have longer careers than players at other positions
  2. Not everyone hates Thomas--he could have signed for much more money as a free agent last summer. Some fans seem to have forgotten that goaltending is the foundation of a team.
  3. Thomas took a discount because he wanted to play for the B's and because they offered him the long-term contract.
  4. Thomas's cap-hit in his fifth year is very small.
  5. Five million per year for solid goaltending is a steal for a Vezina winning goaltender.

*Sports people are awful at math! A percentage, by definition, is where 100 is the maximum. The so-called "save percentage" isn't a percentage at all. It's a simple ratio. To make it a percentage you would need to multiply the number by 100. E.g. 0.915 becomes 91.5%. So for God's sake people, either multiply by 100 or stop calling it a percentage.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Trading Tim Thomas

The Bruins finally won a game. I don't have to tell Bruins fans how painful and upsetting the last few weeks have been as the Bruins went on a ten game "not winning" streak. It turns out that they did pick up four points in OT losses (regulation ties) so it isn't exactly correct to claim it was a losing streak. But it sure felt like a losing streak so it might as well be called one.

I have been saying all along that what they needed was to score three goals. It's ironic that when they finally scored three their goaltender also got a shutout. Turns out all they needed was one goal. But nevertheless three bodes well for the future. If they score three in just about any of the recent games they likely win.

Oddly, despite all this the Bruins are still in the thick of the playoffs. The question now isn't if they can make the playoffs so much as if they can be expected to win a series if they did. They certainly have the talent to go far, of that I am certain. This idea you see in the press that the Bs played over their potential last year is idiotic. A team can be more than the sum of its parts but it can never be better than its potential. Last year was no fluke. We know how good this team can be.

Rumors are swirling about Tim Thomas being shopped around. Even if true I doubt it means more than the GM taking stock of market value. After all, Thomas has a no trade clause. It seems unlikely he'd suddenly decide he didn't like the weather in New England. But more importantly, the Bruins have a sweet deal in their goaltending, arguably the best in the league. The tandem of the veteran Thomas and the up and coming Rask is a GMs dream--particularly when you consider their cap hit taken together is only $6.5 million, which is good through the 2011/2012 season. For comparison, Khabibulin alone has the same figure, as does Luongo. Giguere has a hit of $6 million, Kiprusoff $5.8 million. And those teams have to pay for a backup as well, because no goalie can play every game. Which would you rather have? Luongo or the Thomas/Rask tandem? Rask is unproven (Raycroft anyone) but with great potential and despite the Thomas doubters Timmy has always overcome any adversity sent his way, which has been considerable. If one needs to come up for air, the other can always take over. This is as close as it gets to a sure thing in the playoffs. All they need is a team that can play in front of them.

The bottom line is that no GM in his right mind would trade either of them right now. That is, unless he is forced to--and that's the great worry. There are only a few reasonable places to look for enough cap room to bring in a difference maker up front, and Thomas is the prime one. It may be tempting to move him to clear the space, but that would be staking the future of the team on a kid goaltender, which would be a big gamble. As I said before, he'd be crazy to do it.

Unless he was forced to.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Is This How it Ends?

What can you say about the 8 losses in the last 9 games? The Bruins actually played pretty well until very recently. They adopted a scrappier, faster game that created a lot more space and scoring chances. But most the time the puck still refused to go into the net--and lately every good scoring chance at the other end of the ice seems to result in a rush the other way and a goal. The fact is that if you can't consistently score more than two goals per game you aren't going to win a lot of them, particularly when your defense is stepping up in an effort to help. The last game against Carolina (on January 24th) was the final straw. Jack Edwards wanted to see some passion--and so did I-- but it didn't happen. They could have at least gone down fighting!

I had believed that after the Winter Classic the Bruins would go .500 until the Olympics. They have played like a team that was just getting by until the playoffs all year and I expected that to continue until all of the distractions were over. But this latest slide... it is starting to look like the end of this team as we know it.

So who's to blame? The GM for trading Kessel? The coaching staff? Too much success last season too soon? Is there someone poisoning the room?

The Thomas haters haven't wasted any time showing their hate again, claiming irrationally that the coach hasn't played Rask enough. What's wrong with those people anyhow? What ugly broken excuses for human beings they are. Anybody who isn't blinded by hate can see that Rask hasn't fared any better. One thing about Tim Thomas--if the team gives up in front of him he'll hang in there with the big saves in a game for only so long. After a while he gets "uninspired" by the play of the rest of the team and quits too. Some may fault him for that, but I say, "So what?" He's not the root cause of the problem.

We've got nine games to go before the Olympic break. They face the Caps, Canucks, Kings, Lightning and Panthers. They play the Sabers and Canadiens twice. The simple fact is that if they don't get a winning streak going before the break the season will be over. If that happens it's going to get really ugly. Julien may have to go, which would be a shame. And if you are thinking trade then think again--the only players who are truly trade able are the ones who are still playing their hearts out or have spent most the season injured, like Bergeron, Thomas, Rask, Chara, Stuart, Ference, or Savard. In other words, good luck trading Wideman (-12) or Wheeler (-8) for a good return!

I have watched nearly every game starting from the 2005/2006 season. That's almost 400 games. I have seen this team struggle. I have seen the rookies make mistakes and slowly come into their own. I have watched this team break out, and seen it run off the tracks in last year's playoffs. Throughout they have always improved. But now this season comes. Is this how it ends?

The next few weeks are going to determine if the Boston Bruins as we know them will survive intact.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Stick Salute

For several years now some NHL teams have borrowed a tradition from European Hockey: the stick salute. After a win the team skates out onto the ice and salutes the crowd by raising their sticks. I'm not sure how many teams have adopted this, but the Anaheim Ducks do it and so do the New York Rangers.

I think this is a classy thing to do. It shows a degree of humility and recognizes how the fans can make a difference in the game as they cheer their team on. I have wondered for some time if the stick salute would spread eventually even to the Bruins. After the overtime win in the Winter Classic I was struck by what I believe to be the very first Bruins stick salute. I wonder: was it planned ahead of time? Or did it happen spontaneously? Will it happen again?

Even though I like the salute, I do have to wonder if a team with so much tradition--one that has been around since 1924--needs to be adopting it, like some trendy new fad. Should the Bruins follow the lead of the New York Rangers? No! That leaves me somewhat on the fence.

I'd be interested in hearing what others think about the stick salute.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Magical Winter Classic

On New Year's day I spent the morning playing hockey outdoors with my kids. How cool is that? Afterward we settled in to watch the Bruins play in the Winter Classic. It was a fantastic, wonderful, and memorable day. As most people know the Bruins came from behind to tie in the final minutes and win in overtime. Seeing Tim Thomas selected to the US Olympic team afterward was very special to us. I only wish we could be in Boston for all of the festivities, but even so it was a very special and memorable day.