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Get to know your (likely) playoff opponent: Boston Bruins

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How do the Leafs match up against their rivals?

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Boston Bruins Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

We’re just over halfway into the season, and the Leafs are in a period of stasis. Already, there is a better chance than not that the first round of the Atlantic division playoffs will see the Leafs take on the Bruins, in a rematch of the Series-That-Must-Not-Be-Named.

Of course, this Leafs team isn’t all that similar to what they were 4.5 years ago. On the Leafs side, only Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, and Jake Gardiner were Leafs for that series. The Bruins have a little more continuity - Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Brad Marchand, Anton Khudobin, Tuukka Rask, David Krejci, Torey Krug, and Adam McQuaid are the holdovers.

So with that said, let’s get to know our likely playoff opponent a little better:

Key Stats

Bruins 5v5 Overview

5v5 Measure CF60 CA60 CF% xGF60 xGA60 xG% GF60 GA60 GF% Sh% Sv%
5v5 Measure CF60 CA60 CF% xGF60 xGA60 xG% GF60 GA60 GF% Sh% Sv%
Boston Bruins 52.04 (8th) 45.39 (2nd) 53.1 (1st) 2.36 (12th) 2.02 (4th) 53.84 (2nd) 2.59 (4th) 1.79 (1st) 59.16 (2nd) 9.08 (6th) 92.78 (5th)

Well, uh... that’s imposing. By these measures, the Bruins are one of the best 5v5 teams in the league. They control a huge portion of shots, a huge portion of expected goals, and a huge portion of goals. They have elite defensive results, backstopped by an excellent goalie. They’re running a bit hot both in terms of goals scored above expectation, and goals conceded below expectation. Given Rask’s background, I’m not inclined to chalk much of the latter up to luck. The former seems a little more flukey to me, but even if you regress their finishing skill to that of an average team, they are good enough offensively to cause some damage.

Bruins Special Teams

Measure 5v4 xGF60 5v4 G60 4v5 xGA60 4v5 GA60
Measure 5v4 xGF60 5v4 G60 4v5 xGA60 4v5 GA60
Boston Bruins 6.9 (19th) 6.91 (15th) 5.93 (2nd) 5.56 (6th)

This is a little less impressive. The Bruins have a killer penalty kill and a mediocre power play. If I were Tyler Dellow, I would split this up into how they do versus 4F1D and 3F2D, but I don’t have that data, so we have to live with this for now. Boston is in the middle of the pack in terms of drawing and taking penalties, so they don’t typically beat themselves the way a team like Anaheim would.

Key Players:

Patrice Bergeron: Bergeron has very few weaknesses as a player. He drives shot share, perhaps more than anyone in the league, and he does it by making his team better offensively and defensively. He faces tough competition, and by and large, dominates them. Yes, he has good linemates, but a quick glance at his WOWYs tell you that he’s the one driving the bus. He’s straight up incredible. Bergeron’s only real weakness is that he’s not an elite 5v5 scorer.

Brad Marchand: Marchand is more than an uber-pest. He’s also an elite scorer. Along with his two-way game, this has turned him into one of the very best forwards in the league. He’s better now than he was in 2013, when the Leafs last saw him in a playoff series. Away from Bergeron, his shot share isn’t fantastic, but with him, they’re borderline unfair.

David Pastrnak: As if it’s not enough that the Bruins have Bergeron and Marchand, they get to add a 21-year-old with a 70 point season to his credit to that. Pastrnak elevates Bergeron and Marchand, and turns this line from elite, to the best line in the league, without doubt. This line has a ridiculous 62% CF% this season, and an even more ridiculous 94% GF%. Yes... 94%. They’ve allowed one 5v5 goal all year. You can quibble with Pastrnak’s defensive ability, or how well he can carry a line away from the above two, but the fact is, he’s part of the best line in the world.

It’s not like he’s a passenger either. Over the last two seasons, he’s 26th in 5v5 primary point rate, among players with more than 500 minutes. With these three, the Bruins are one of the only teams where I can comfortably say that their best three forwards are better than Toronto’s.

Zdeno Chara: Yep, he’s still around, and still playing top-pair minutes. He’s double the age of his most common defense partner, and he’s not the possession driver he once was - in fact, he has a negative teammate-adjusted CF%. He might be the most exploitable part of the Bruins top-end players, given his age and diminished foot speed. But as much as he is a shell of his former self, he is still part of a top pair that controls 54.5% of the shots and 57% of the expected goals when they’re on the ice, while facing tough competition. Not bad for a 40 year old.

Charlie McAvoy: The other half of the Bruins top pair, McAvoy is a 20-year-old who is playing big minutes, without getting sheltered, and playing them well. He elevates almost every player he plays with, which is borne out by his +3.19% teammate adjusted relative shot share. He can quarterback a power play, contribute offensively, and drive play well. He’s the real deal, and the Bruins 1D of the next decade.

Torey Krug: Krug has struggled a bit this year, at least in terms of shot metrics. His relative Corsi is down five percentage points, despite roughly similar usage. He’s gone from +5 in penalty differential to -6, largely driven by an inability to draw penalties this year. His individual scoring has improved, powered by a shooting percentage spike. He’s spent much of this year with Brandon Carlo, who is not particularly great, so that might be a factor.... except last year, he played with Adam McQuaid, who is also not very good. It’s hard to see what exactly has changed to cause his drop-off, but it is somewhat notable, because it makes the Boston second pair more exploitable. All this said, their second pair is (like the rest of their team) above 50% in shot share and goals share. But relatively speaking, it’s been weaker than the other two pairings.

Biggest Strength

The Bruins’ biggest strength is definitely their top-end talent. This is an advantage that is magnified in a playoff series, as teams start riding their stars harder. As mentioned, Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak is the best line in the league. Period. Chara is diminished, but his pairing with McAvoy is still great. The Leafs don’t have a single line or pairing I’d be comfortable matching up against that five-man group. Simply put, the Bruins have the better stars. Their depth is good too (more on this later), but in a playoff series, stars can have an outsized impact, and the Bruins have the best stars in the East this side of Tampa.

Biggest Weakness

The Krug/Carlo pair is somewhat exploitable, at least relative to the other two. The Bruins top pair has been covered, and they are very impressive. Interestingly, their third pair, which has consisted of Kevan Miller and Matthew Grzelcyk recently, has the best shot results of any pairing on their team. Recently, they’ve even started to siphon enough 5v5 time away from Krug/Carlo to become the 2nd pair, by 5v5 ice time.

Krug has seemingly lost some stock with Bruins coach, Bruce Cassidy, as his ice time has declined quite notably over the course of the season. It could be an injury he’s nursing, but combined with his reduced effectiveness, I’m betting it’s a performance thing.

Anyways, both of the Bruins non-Chara/McAvoy pairs get similar usage with respect to opponents — they tend to face low-end forwards more often than average. However, this sheltering isn’t that extreme; it’s not like the Bruins shelter two pairs to the degree that the Leafs shelter their Polak/Carrick/Borgman.

Here, you can also see that Krug/Carlo tend to play more with the Bruins higher end forwards. It seems that these two pairings are somewhat untested against elite players. The Leafs may have some success if they’re able to exploit Matthews’ line against one of these units, and Bozak’s line against the other.

Worthy of Note — Depth Scoring

The Bruins of this year are similar in many ways to the Bruins of last year. They had stars who could run the show and stupidly high possession numbers all throughout the lineup. There are a few key differences, however.

The first is that Tuukka Rask has been notably better this season. Obviously, that has helped the Bruins significantly. The second is that the Bruins have added a top-pairing defender for free in McAvoy, though this is somewhat offset by Krug’s poorer play this season. Again, this has helped them significantly, and will continue to do so for the next decade.

The last key difference that I can see is that this year, the Bruins are getting scoring from their depth players. Last year, they struggled to do so, to the point that they were considering breaking up their big line to get secondary offense from other groups.

They haven’t needed to. Their depth this year is incredibly impressive. Their top three lines all have xGF%’s in the low 60s. So while they have the best line in the league, their other lines are almost as good in terms pushing play! Scary stuff. And as mentioned, this year, these depth players are actually turning chances into goals. The contrast between this year and last becomes very clear thanks to these shot share and efficiency charts from HockeyViz.

League average for forwards in 2016/2017 was about 5.3%. The Bruins of last year had only five forwards above that, two of whom were Marchand or Pastrnak. Stafford only played 18 games for the Bruins, so really, we’re looking at only Krejci and Czarnik as non-top-line players who converted at an above average rate last year. While their depth players aren’t known as adept finishers, this is abnormal.

This year, it’s a different story.

League average so far this season is 5.4%. The Bruins now have 11 forwards above that mark. Obviously, this isn’t totally sustainable. I’d expect all of those players to come down a little bit in their shooting efficiency. However, the fact that they are scoring means the weakness that doomed the Bruins last year is no longer applicable. A dry run is always possible, but there’s no real reason to think that the Bruins depth players are particularly bad at converting anymore, and their shot numbers are so good that even average shooting percentages will have them contribute enough to be a good team. If they run hot, the Bruins are one of the very best in the league.

Masthead Thoughts

Fulemin: They have the best line in hockey and if we don’t get better it’s going to eat our brains.

Species: Chanpiars. That is all.

Kevin: Determining the favourite in this series is largely based on what each team does at the trade deadline. The Bruins top line is incredible, and adding another piece behind them would make this team downright scary. Boston would benefit from adding a defenceman.

The Leafs carry a few weak links in their lineup, and if they can fix this at the deadline, this matchup becomes more of a toss-up. Replacing Roman Polak and calling up Kasperi Kapanen would make this a tight series, and I expect both to happen. I doubt the Bruins will continue playing at this level, and the Leafs look bound to improve.

Hardev: Just make sure you give Mitchy his Mountain Dew.

Prediction

I hate to be pessimistic, but it’s hard to see the Leafs being the favourite in a series against Boston. Boston has the better top-end talent. They have just as good a goaltender (I would say better, but Andersen has been phenomenal this year). They don’t take a million penalties and beat themselves, and their excellent PK can partially neutralize Toronto’s strong PP if they do. They have depth who control the flow of play when they’re on the ice, and that depth is now converting that control into goals too. They’re one of the best teams in the league, period.

I tend not to put much stock in the Leafs riding a notable win-streak against Boston. Toronto swept the season series last year, and is in the process of doing so this year. I’m not terribly optimistic that we match up particularly well against the Bruins; I think it’s one of those weird things that happens sometimes. For that reason, my prediction is that Boston wins relatively comfortably, as they’re simply the better team.

Bruins in 5.

Acknowledgments: All graphics are from HockeyViz. All stats are 5v5 and adjusted, from Corsica, unless otherwise stated.