Friday, February 3, 2012

What's Happening to the Bruins?

(This has also been posted at Aerys' Sports)

When winning the Stanley Cup last spring and going 21-3-1 between November and December of this season, the Bruins seemed to be almost perfect - the complete team: great offense (most goals scored in the league), solid defense (fewest goals allowed in the league), intense physicality, quality depth and strong bonds with one another.

As of February 2, 2012, the Bruins are 5-5-0 in their last 10, losing all 4 games of the season against the Eastern Conference’s most abysmal team, the Carolina Hurricanes, including a 3-0 shutout at home. Even in the games they have won since the calendar turned to 2012, the Bruins have not seemed like themselves. In every position, less-than-average play has prevailed with simple, lazy mistakes being made on seemingly every shift.

Chalked up to a “Cup hangover”, the Bruins started the season on the wrong foot, going 3-7 in October, but bounced back with an impressive record of 12-0-1 in November, including a 10-game winning streak broken only by a shootout loss to Detroit. Reflecting the slow decline of the Bruins dominant play, they went 9-3-0 in December and then 8-4-1 in January. In the infancy of February, they are 1-0-0 with zero goals scored in 1 game.

The Bruins have had a habit for as long as I can remember of losing to really awful teams. That trend hasn’t changed much this season, as the majority of their 17 losses have come against teams that likely won’t make the playoffs. They have only lost more than once to the same team twice – twice against Montreal, tied for last in the East, and four times against Carolina, also dead-last in the East. The other Eastern Conference teams the Bruins have suffered a loss to this year – Philadelphia, Winnipeg, Florida, Tampa Bay, New York Rangers, and Washington – are mostly currently out of a playoff spot. Aside from the Rangers, who are 1st in the East, and the Flyers, who have the same number of points (66) as Boston, and the Panthers who have 57 points but lead their division, the Bruins have suffered embarrassing losses to bad teams such as Tampa Bay, and teams struggling just to make the playoffs such as Winnipeg and Washington. In the West, the Bruins have lost a game apiece to the top teams: Detroit (71 points), Vancouver (69 points), and San Jose (64 points), as well as 9th-place Dallas.

In short, the Bruins losses have come 59% from teams ranked 9th-or-worse in their conference. As far as losses in regulation, 66.7% of those losses have come against these non-playoff teams.

In the last month, the Bruins have played alarmingly awful, giving up too many goals, scoring too few, missing golden opportunities to put the puck in the net, lazy passes, not moving their feet, turning the puck over, making mistakes in every zone, and appearing to be lacking depth they were praised for having during the playoffs.

Where did their depth go? The playoff run of 2011 was historic for the Bruins and the NHL in many ways – Tim Thomas made more saves than any other goalie in history, Nathan Horton had 3 GWG in his first playoff appearance, Rich Peverley stepped in to when Horton got injured and put the puck in the net, David Krejci led the league in scoring, all 4 lines were effective in scoring and producing energy and momentum, and their top 6 defensemen skated in every game except for just a few – Game 2 against Montreal in which Chara was sick and Shane Hnidy stepped in, and against Philadelphia when McQuaid injured his neck. The pairing of Chara and Seidenberg shut down every team, followed up by strong defensive and offensive play by McQuaid, Boychuk, Ference, and Kaberle. If that failed, then Tim Thomas was practically a brick wall in net, posting 4 shutouts and winning the Conn Smythe trophy.

The Bruins were lauded for their depth during the playoffs, but they were also lucky for the most part in that nobody was injured or missed extended time (save for Marc Savard, of course, and then Horton’s Game 3 SCF concussion). When a forward did miss a game or two – such as Bergeron at the beginning of the Conference Finals against Tampa Bay – a player such as Tyler Seguin was ready to step in, or a role player such as Shawn Thornton. The Bruins never had more than 1 forward missing per game, and never more than 1 defenseman per game. As a result, the strength of the 20 players on the roster shined.

In the offseason, the Bruins suffered the losses of Michael Ryder to free agency (Dallas) and Mark Recchi (retirement). To replace those forwards, Benoit Pouliot was brought in from Montreal, and that was it. That rounded out 12 forwards as follows:


That translated into solid offense for a few months, but then players were lost to injury and suspension for a few games here and there (Marchand was out 5 games for suspension; Campbell missed a few games with a broken foot, Peverley missed a few games with a secret injury that apparently will persist for the rest of the year). Aside from these 12 forwards, the Bruins had to dip into their Providence forwards, which would be either Jordan Caron or Zach Hamill. At first, Hamill’s play seemed promising and he remained with the team as either a healthy-scratch of replacement for any unavailable player. As time has passed, Hamill still has yet to score an NHL goal, rarely, if ever, contributes to goals in general, and is consistently unremarkable or just plain bad. The former 9th-overall draft pick has been with Boston long enough on call-up, however, that if he were to be sent back down to Providence, he would have to clear waivers. Because of this, I think he will be used in any trades.

Before I get to the imminence of Bruins trades, the lack of depth on defense should be discussed as well. The Bruins need to get a strong forward to add to their lineup before the February 27th trade deadline, but more importantly, they need a strong defensemen to add to their core. Kaberle left over the summer to sign with Carolina, and was replaced by Joe Corvo. Like Kaberle, Corvo is mostly useless but with less talent than Kaberle. With each game, Corvo’s lack of relevancy becomes more apparent. The Bruins other defensemen (Chara, Seidenberg, Boychuck, McQuaid, and Ference) round out their top 6. If they are all on top of their game, the defense isn’t bad, but lately – Boychuk, McQuaid, Ference, and Corvo especially – the simple but costly mistakes made by the blueliners are consistently devastating. What’s worse is that the 7th defensemen is Steven Kampfer, who was decent last season but has proven to be unworthy of quality NHL time. In the case of Ference’s recent 3-game suspension, or any injuries, Kampfer steps in and it shows the extreme weakness the Bruins have at this position. If 2 top defensemen go down, then Providence call-ups such as Matt Bartowski are the next options, and those thoughts are quite terrifying.

The Bruins know they need to add a strong defenseman, and it is almost certain that they will be making a trade for any number of available, soon-to-be-Free Agent’s throughout the NHL. To make a trade like that, they would need to give up a lot – probably one of their current defensemen – but it may be the difference between the Bruins winning a game or losing a game. Trading for a forward is also necessary for the Bruins before the end of the month.

As for who that would be, I have no guesses; as for who the Bruins would give up, I am again uncertain, but I can guarantee it won’t be Tuukka Rask – or Tim Thomas. While both seem to be struggling right now, it doesn’t help that their defense is awful. They are in a bit of a funk like the rest of the team. Whether or not this funk will pass with time is uncertain; I thought it would have passed by now, in fact. It seems apparent that outside forces of a trade are what is required to bring the Bruins back to Championship form. I don’t believe the Bruins need to or will make a major trade involving any of their core players, and I trust GM Chiarelli to make the right decisions as he did in adding Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley before last year’s deadline. As a Bruins fan, I sit patiently awaiting these changes, and I also sit patiently – albeit angrily – for the Bruins to get back on the right track.

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