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, 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.