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.