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What happened to Boston?

Did they finally age out of the playoffs?

Boston Bruins v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Remember the Boston Bruins? Remember when we dreaded them, and everything they stood for? What’s happened to this once fearsome team?

The Leafs only play the Bruins three times this season, and while we might have expected, like a curse that never goes away, to play them in the playoffs, they are grimly hanging on to a wildcard spot (by points %) with some serious competition for it.

We’re only one-third of the way into this season, however, and it’s not like last year where fates were pretty much set at nearly 30 games played.

We just saw the Lightning sleepwalk through part of a game against the Leafs, and the Leafs themselves have had their moments of accidental wins lately, so surely the Atlantic is a little more open than it appears, right?

Well, maybe. It’s, like a lot of things in hockey, all about the goalies and the percentages.

Everything But the Goalies

At five-on-five, the Bruins lead the NHL in Expected Goals % with 57%. That’s not even that unusual a number for them. They’re arriving at that number by being good but not great offensively and first in the NHL defensively — a mirror image of the Leafs. Their power play is actually good, though, and their shorthanded play has been okay in result, and excellent in skater performance.

There’s absolutely nothing about the Bruins’ results so far that says they shouldn’t be contending for a top spot in the East, threatening the top three teams in the Atlantic and being really annoying in the playoffs.

They sit last in shooting % at five-on-five, and maybe some of that is deserved, but it’s at least part of their troubles. HockeyViz shows their offence clustered along the right wing, far from the net. They shoot a lot from the right point, and the right circle, and they barely outperform league average. In short, everything they do offensively leads to low chances of goals being scored.

Their defensive pattern is stupendously good, however.

Mike Milbury

Normally, I’d agree with the sentiment above, that anything Milbury said should be ignored, but I listened to the segment, and it’s not terrible. He makes a correct and boringly standard case that as ageing stars decline teams have to know when to act, assess the risk and move out the big contracts before they become millstones. Just look at how long it took NBC to fire Milbury? Maybe if they’d made cultural changes sooner, they wouldn’t have lost their broadcast rights to NBC.

For our small American audience, if you go to ESPN+, via this sponsored link, you make the publishers of PPP happy.

But what Milbury conveniently ignores, in order to talk about both trading Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand while calling the Canadiens horrible, is that the Bruins themselves aren’t bad.

I’m sure he’s said many disparaging things about analytics over the years to make himself feel better and support the status quo, as a guy like him does, but if he could read even the simplest data, he’d know the real score in Boston.

The Goalies

In All Situations, Jack Campbell and Igor Shesterkin lead the Eastern half of the NHL in raw Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAX). They’re key reasons the Leafs and the Rangers are doing as well as they are without defensive prowess like the Bruins have. If you rate that out per 60 minutes, Sergei Bobrovsky, Frederik Andersen and Andrei Vasilevskiy all figure in the top 10 for goalies with at least 10 games played.

Boston is playing a tandem of Linus Ullmark with 0.9 GSAX in 10 games and Jeremy Swayman with 1.5 GSAX in 14 games played. Ullmark makes $5 million, and they signed him for four years because last summer teams had to go term or big AAV to get a goalie who might be a starter. What the Bruins got has been league average so far. Swayman, who is only 23, is still on an ELC and is a bargain against the cap, but is rapidly turning into someone about as good as Ullmark after a hotter start.

For believers in save %, the Bruins numbers don’t look terrible. They’re worse at five-on-five, but they do okay overall. Not stupendous, but good enough for a playoff team, and even allowing for their fewer games played, they have a very good Goals Against figure.

The trouble is, of course, most of that is coming from their disciplined defensive systems, and no matter if that’s directly responsible for their tepid offence or not, you can’t win one-goal defensive games without excellent goaltending all the time. Good isn’t good enough. Average will just see you lose most of the time.

Their Choice

Boston either need to score more goals or give up fewer. They’d need a Vezina calibre performance to prosper with their current goal-scoring rate, and they aren’t going to get that in-house.*

Many people would suggest that their shooting % will regress, they will score more, they will rise in the standings, and at the very least, own a wild card spot for sure. I’d agree with that if their actual play on the ice wasn’t limiting most of their best forwards.

David Pastrnak is the poster child for Boston shooting.

HockeyViz

He always shoots like this. He just shoots so much that it ends up at a good overall Expected Goals rate. He’s one of the players with a depressed shooting % this season, and he might start scoring. He’d score more if he stopped shooting from the right point, however.

Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand (who is carrying the offence) are the other two players performing well. Taylor Hall is good, but is underperforming in shooting % to an extent it might be time to ask if that’s a lot more him than the vagaries of variance.

Jake DeBrusk wants out — maybe to a team less stifling — and that’s really it for quality offence. The rest of the forward corps is grind-city.

Boston could, with their small amount of cap space that’s banking up every day, find a forward to swap for DeBrusk who might score goals. It’s hard to imagine them actually looking for a guy like that, though. They’re so obsessed with identity and culture that they seem to have forgotten offensive skill is a necessary component of hockey. It’s possible the Hall signing was a sign of things to come, but they’ve not exactly added a lot of scoring since his deal got done.

The other thing the Bruins could do is hope regression takes care of the offence and fix their goaltending instead. That’s never a gamble, right? You can totally predict how that will go, and goalies are totally easy to find, right, you can just look around and find a good one anyplace.

*:

Every year, I think the Bruins are finally coming apart under the stress of too little offence, too much expectation put on the ageing Bergeron’s shoulders, too little margin for error, and every year, they hold on and defend their way into the playoffs.

Eventually you have to score some goals, though. And Rask isn’t going to do that. He might just be up to backstopping the best defence in the NHL enough to let them loosen up a little and take a couple of offensive chances, though.

Boston seems like yesterday’s rival, old news. And they are, but [hibernating bear metaphor goes here] they might be our worst nightmare again come spring.