Chicago Blackhawks right wing Marian Hossa (81) celebrates his goal in the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings in Detroit, Friday, April 8, 2011. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
Author: The Hockey News
Blackhawks feel fortunate to defend Stanley Cup title, get ready for Canucks
CHICAGO - Patrick Kane quickly called his barber and got his playoff haircut of choice, a mullet. Team captain Jonathan Toews and defenceman Duncan Keith were starting post-season beards.
With a sigh of relief and a big thank you for the Minnesota Wild, the Chicago Blackhawks were ready to board a flight for Vancouver on Monday with a chance to defend their Stanley Cup title.
For a while, it seemed the only travelling they'd be doing would be heading out on vacation.
The Blackhawks were a dejected bunch Sunday after losing to Detroit and failing to pick up a single point that would have put them in the post-season. A few hours later, Minnesota did them a big favour by upsetting Dallas and giving Chicago the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Now it's time to see what they can do with this second life. They'll face the top-seeded Canucks, the team with the league's best record, in a best-of-seven series beginning Wednesday.
Toews was still so upset after the 4-3 loss to Detroit he didn't even watch the early part of the Stars-Wild game. Just couldn't. Then he tuned it.
"You go from the feeling of having the idea that your season is over and you're not going to know what to do with yourself for the next couple of months to Minnesota playing a great game and giving us a chance to play in the playoffs again," Toews said.
"And then the whole dream of winning a Stanley Cup comes right back in. So it was kind of one of the weirder days I've been through in a long time."
And a pleasing one for the Blackhawks' young captain. Chicago made it through a season of bumps and travails, struggling after a salary cap-induced roster overhaul that created the exit of several key players from last year's championship team.
There were injuries to players like Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland and Brian Campbell. Coach Joel Quenneville was hospitalized with an ulcer. And there were bouts of inconsistent and erratic play with missed opportunities and points that the Blackhawks felt they left on the ice, all bringing them to the final day before they could get in with 97 points.
"It wasn't an easy season, it wasn't as smooth as it was last year, but we're here," Toews said. "I think all you need to do is get in. Whether you are 1 or 8, it doesn't matter. You still got to win four games to advance."
For Keith, who logs major minutes and was voted the NHL's top defenceman a year ago, watching the Stars-Wild game was nerve-racking.
"We definitely feel fortunate they didn't win but at the same time looking at the standings we deserved to be in," he said. "You go by points and we had more points than Dallas. We want to make the most of this opportunity."
The Blackhawks are playing a Vancouver team they've had great success the previous two playoffs, ousting the Canucks in the conference semifinals in six games in each of the last two years.
But Vancouver, behind goaltender Roberto Luongo, finished with 117 points and led the NHL in goals scored (262) and fewest allowed (185). The Sedin twins were the Canucks' top scorers.
"I think we're familiar with that team. ... they had a great season, obviously," Kane said. "We've had some luck against them and hopefully that can continue."
The teams split four games this season and one of the Blackhawks' goals will be to get traffic in front of Luongo, something that Dustin Byfuglien did so well the last two post-seasons. But Byfuglien was one of those players lost in the off-season purge and now Chicago will have to find someone else to try and bother one of the NHL's top goaltenders.
The Blackhawks, who are underdogs in this opening series, say the pressure is on the Canucks after such a stellar regular season.
"We're in a good position. It really feels like we have nothing to lose, especially after what happened yesterday—maybe being out of the playoffs and getting a second life," Kane said.
Notes: Quenneville said both Bolland (concussion) and Troy Brouwer (shoulder) made the trip and he was optimistic they might play. Bolland, a centre who is one of Chicago's most versatile players and a key on the checking line, missed the final 14 games.
Joe Thornton is two assists away from becoming the 13th player to reach the 1,000-assist milestone, and it should have him considered among the greatest playmakers the league has ever seen.
Two assists. That’s all Joe Thornton needs to hit 1,000 for his career, and there’s a chance he could be celebrating the milestone helper in less than one week, earning an undeniable spot as one of the greatest playmakers the game has ever seen.
When he reaches the milestone mark, and there’s no question he will, it only stands to add to what are some already stellar Hall of Fame credentials. Thornton has a Hart Trophy and Art Ross to his name, a first all-star team nod and two times he was voted to the league’s second all-star club. But forget the awards and look past the nearly 400 goals, because reaching the 1,000-assist milestone is the most impressive of all of Thornton’s feats. It’s a statistical achievement the likes of which has seldom been recorded.
It may seem like the 1,000-assist mark wouldn’t be so rare given there are two assists handed out for every goal scored, but there are only 12 players to have hit 1,000 assists for their career. By comparison, 19 players have at least 600 goals and there are 45 with 500 or more tallies in their career. The all-time assists leader, as one would expect, is Wayne Gretzky, with the likes of Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque and Jaromir Jagr among those who round out the 12-man 1,000 assist club.
That’s indicative of the type of savvy playmaker Thornton has been throughout his career. His puck distribution skills have been and remain some of the best in the league, and that he’s still managing to dish out perfect tape-to-tape passes as he inches closer to his 38th birthday is telling about the dedication he has to his craft. This season, only 15 players have more assists than Thornton, and the list includes a number of the league’s current greats, from Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby to Brent Burns and Duncan Keith.
It’s not as if Thornton has maneuvered his way to 1,000 assists by way of being in the right place at the right time, either. Some contest that he’s racked up a boatload of secondary helpers over his career, but stats.HockeyAnalysis.com has data on primary assists over the past 10 seasons. No one has registered more overall assists than Thornton’s 548, and no player has more first assists than the 314 Thornton has compiled.
But with Thornton close to the end of his career, it’s worth wondering how far up the all-time assist chart he can rise. Once he hits the 1,000-assist milestone, he’ll be 16 back of matching Joe Sakic, 33 behind Lemieux, Marcel Dionne will sit 40 assists ahead and Howe 49 up on Thornton. Realistically, he could make a dent in the chase to tie Sakic by the time the season ends, possibly by as much as another 10 to 12 assists. That would put Thornton up to 1,010 in his career. What happens next season, though?
First and foremost, the concern has to be about returning to a lineup where he can produce. There has been speculation that Thornton, a free agent come July, wants to hang around for at least another couple seasons, playing into his 40s and possibly beyond. That’s not out of the realm of possibility, especially with him continuing to contribute, and we’ve seen the likes of Jagr, Shane Doan and Matt Cullen contribute as they enter the “over the hill” stage of their career. If Thornton does come back, as it seems he will, the question then becomes the rate at which he is actually able to contribute.
At his current rate, he’s registering .57 assists per game, down from last season’s .77 rate and slightly down from his .63 rate during the 2014-15 campaign. Over the past three seasons, that’s a pace of .66 assists per game, which means over the course of an 82-game season he’d register roughly 54 helpers.
It’s likely, though, that Thornton’s assist rate drops as he continues on. Let’s say he nabs 43 assists in 2017-18, 39 in 2018-19 and 34 in 2019-20. That’s a consistent dip of .05 assists per game from his current rate over the next three seasons. It’s only an estimation, of course, but that would net Thornton another 116 assists over the following three seasons. Add that to the 1,010 he projects to have by the time the post-season rolls around, and Thornton would have 1,126 assists in his career. He would sit seventh all-time, ahead of Adam Oates and Steve Yzerman and only slightly behind Bourque and Paul Coffey.
The thing about the all-time list, though, is that it doesn’t take into account the era the player’s career occurred in. The first seven seasons of Thornton’s career came in the low-scoring pre-lockout years, and he’s spent 12 in the post-lockout, more free-flowing game that we see today. Scoring isn’t up all that much, however. Thankfully, Hockey-Reference has done the legwork in adjusting scoring for the separate eras, and on that list, Thornton is already top-five all-time. The only players he trails are Gretzky, Howe, Jagr and Ron Francis.
As far as catching the foursome at the top of the adjusted assists list goes, it’s not going to be easy. He sits 87 back of Francis, and it’s going to take much of the rest of Thornton’s career to surpass him, and there’s about no chance he reaches the same heights as Jagr, Howe or Gretzky. Even still, that’s company even more exclusive than the list of players with 1,000 assists. Being mentioned alongside arguably the three greatest offensive players in the league’s history, and three veritable legends of the sport, would put into perspective the type of assist machine Thornton has been.
Thornton’s chase to the 1,000-assist milestone is something to pay attention to and worth even more recognition than it’s sure to get. While the Stanley Cup may have eluded Thornton to this point, the longer he plays, the more he cements his legacy as one of the greatest set-up men the league has ever seen. And when the time comes, he’ll be more than worthy of enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The Maple Leafs suddenly have as much as $15 million to work with at the trade deadline which they could use to make a big deal; Avalanche stars could stay put.
The rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs are among this season's most-improved clubs. After finishing at the bottom of the standings last season, the Leafs are jockeying for a post-season berth in the Eastern Conference.
Despite this improvement, the Leafs still have some roster weaknesses to address. Their most-pressing need is a skilled puck-moving defenseman. With the playoffs in sight, perhaps the Leafs could address that need by the trade deadline.
That possibility increased when Sportsnet's Chris Johnston last week reported the Leafs quietly placed injured players Nathan Horton, Joffrey Lupul and Stephane Robidas on long-term injured reserve. The moves give the Leafs flexibility in the form of an additional $15 million in salary-cap space.
With that kind of space, the Leafs have room to pursue a big-name player at the trade deadline. They've been linked in recent weeks to St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. Despite the Blues' recent resurgence, TSN's Darren Dreger claims the 28-year-old Shattenkirk remains in play.
The asking price for Shattenkirk is thought to be at least a first-round pick and a top prospect. While the Leafs have the depth to meet that return, they could be unwilling to do so unless Shattenkirk, who's eligible in July for unrestricted free agency, is willing to sign a long-term extension.
If Shattenkirk proves too costly for the Leafs, more affordable options include Buffalo Sabres defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and New Jersey Devils rearguard Kyle Quincey. If they want additional depth at forward, Johnston suggests Tampa Bay Lightning left winger Brian Boyle, Dallas Stars right winger Patrick Sharp or Arizona Coyotes center Martin Hanzal.
DUCHENE, LANDESKOG COULD STAY PUT IN COLORADO AFTER DEADLINE
The Colorado Avalanche reportedly continue to entertain offers for Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog. While the notion of one or both moving before the March 1 trade deadline provides a much-needed spark to the trade-rumor mill, they could still be with the Avalanche when the deadline passes.
It's not as though there isn't any interest in the pair. For several weeks, the 26-year-old Duchene was linked to the Montreal Canadiens. Reports out of Boston earlier this month suggested the Bruins could make a push for the 24-year-old Landeskog. The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch reports there's talk the Senators kicked tires on both players.
As always, the issue is the asking price. It's believed the Avs seek a good young defenseman, a first-round pick and a top prospect for either guy.
In a recent mailbag segment, CSNNE.com's Joe Haggerty said the Bruins shouldn't give up a promising young blueliner such as Brandon Carlo or Charlie McAvoy for Landeskog. TSN's Bob McKenzie reports Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin has no intention of sacrificing his future. His colleague Pierre LeBrun believes the Sens interest in Duchene is pretty much dead unless the asking price is reduced.
LeBrun suggests the Carolina Hurricanes possess considerable depth in young blueliners and need a scoring center. However, he's not convinced Hurricanes GM Ron Francis will pony up for Duchene. LeBrun suggests Francis try to tempt the Toronto Maple Leafs into parting with William Nylander.
Avalanche GM Joe Sakic apparently isn't under pressure to move Duchene or Landeskog before the deadline. It's expected he'll wait for the off-season, when general managers usually have more salary-cap room and a willingness to deal.
FLAMES COULD LOOK AT GOALIES AGAIN
Prior to the 2016 NHL draft, the Calgary Flames created a stir when it was reported they contacted the Pittsburgh Penguins about goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The discussion apparently ended when the Pens asked for the Flames first-round pick (sixth overall). Calgary used that pick to select left winger Matthew Tkachuk.
The Flames eventually acquired Brian Elliott from the St. Louis Blues, but he's failed to play up to expectations as a starting goaltender. With Chad Johnson also struggling of late, Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos reports the Flames could revisit their interest in the 32-year-old Fleury, who's lost his starter's job to rookie Matt Murray.
Earlier this month, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said he's open to dealing Fleury but prefers retaining him as insurance for the playoffs. Unless Fleury, who carries a modified no-trade clause, asks to be dealt, he could finish the season in Pittsburgh.
The Flames also nearly had a deal in place last June to acquire Ben Bishop from the Tampa Bay Lightning. If they can't pry Fleury out of Pittsburgh, maybe they can once again look into the 30-year-old Bishop's trade status.
Bishop's an unrestricted free agent this summer and isn't expected to be re-signed. If the Lightning put Bishop on the block, they could seek a young defenseman in return. It's doubtful, however, the Flames meet that price unless they get assurances that Bishop will re-sign with them.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
It's not often stars like Matt Duchene are on the trade block. It will take a king's ransom to pry him from the Avalanche but these teams have a shot at him.
Oh, the possibilities. Matt Duchene is the most fun trade-bait name to pop up in a while.
First off, his skill set tantalizes. He’s got blazing speed, elite hands and can play center or wing. Teams chasing his services have many different ways to slot him into their lineups. Secondly, Duchene isn’t a rental. He’s under contract for two more seasons after this one at a $6-million cap hit. While that means the lowly Colorado Avalanche and GM Joe Sakic have no reason to rush and force a deal by March 1, it does mean Sakic should receive some 10-bell offers. Sakic also might receive pitches from bubble teams or even non-playoff squads, as anyone acquiring Duchene, 26, can make him part of their long-term plans.
Still, chances are the rebuilding teams wouldn’t target Duchene until draft day. This month’s offers should skew heavily toward contenders. Which teams are the best fits for Duchene? Keep in mind the return must be significant.
6. BONUS TEAM: OTTAWA SENATORS
It wouldn’t do the Senators justice to bury them in the honorable mentions category. They deserve a few extra words, as they’ve been linked to Duchene often of late. The problem is Colorado needs good young defensemen more than anything else – and a Duchene trade likely can’t happen unless Ottawa includes prized prospect Thomas Chabot. That’s a borderline non-starter for Ottawa. With no Chabot involved, Colorado would want Cody Ceci, but trading him would be counterproductive for the Sens, as he logs more than 23 minutes a game. They need him too much for the playoff hunt. The Avs could also ask for promising two-way center prospect Colin White, but they’d want much more than just White, and the smarter return for Duchene should start with a defenseman. Duchene is also somewhat of a luxury for Ottawa, who is already solid up the middle and might put Duchene on a wing if it acquired him.
The mutual interest makes sense, as Duchene would bolster Ottawa’s top six no matter where he plays and the Sens have pieces Sakic would covet. But I just don’t see Ottawa coughing up what Colorado wants.
5. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
The Chicago Blackhawks need a left winger to play with Jonathan Toews yet again. A quick and dirty way to plug the hole this year might be to grab pending unrestricted free agent Patrick Sharp back from the Dallas Stars. If GM Stan Bowman wants to aim high, though, he could target Duchene. And we can’t underestimate Bowman’s ability to pull off massive deals. He surrendered a first-round pick and Marko Dano as part of the Andrew Ladd acquisition last winter. Bowman gave up a 2018 second rounder plus Philip Danault, who currently centers Montreal’s top line, to snag Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann. The year before, Bowman used first- and second-round picks as part of swaps for Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen.
It’s established that Bowman has no problem giving up future assets for playoff pushes. He knows his team remains in a Cup-contending window. Better yet, Duchene could become part of Chicago’s star core for years to come. Bowman would then have to sort out some serious salary-cap problems in the summer, but c’mon…we all know that never stops him from dreaming big.
What Chicago can offer: The Hawks lack elite prospects, though Alex DeBrincat has almost played his way into that status with OHL Erie this year. He could be part of a Duchene trade. Some goes for blueliner Chad Krys or NHL rookie Nick Schmaltz.
Red flag: Chicago has three Stanley Cups in since 2010. It hasn’t selected in the top 15 of an NHL draft since 2008. The Hawks have also traded away multiple high picks before using them at the draft. It’s no wonder, then, Chicago’s farm system isn’t studded with A+ prospects. The Hawks would be squarely behind the other suitors in terms of what they could offer for Duchene. Bowman has also publicly stated he doesn’t expect to be active approaching the deadline. Choose for yourself whether you believe that, though Chicago’s lack of in-season cap space alone would make a Duchene deal difficult to execute. Some veteran body would have to go Colorado’s way, and Bowman doesn’t want to upset his team chemistry.
4. ANAHEIM DUCKS
The Ducks average the fewest goals of any team in either conference currently holding down a playoff position. Right winger Corey Perry has just nine. The Ducks need an injection of scoring, and GM Bob Murray has made six deadline-day trades over the past two seasons. He knows Perry and Getzlaf are inching deeper into their 30s, slowly closing the franchise’s championship window, and Murray thus doesn’t mind making moves. It helps that Duchene isn’t a short-term asset, too. And Duchene wouldn’t have to play center to help the Ducks. Coach Randy Carlyle could try him on the top line with Getzlaf and Perry, using Rickard Rakell to create nightmare matchups from the third unit.
What Anaheim can offer: Defensemen. So many defensemen. Maybe even two. The Ducks are spoiled at the position, with Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Josh Manson, Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour leading the way, not to mention 2015 first-rounder Jacob Larsson marinating in the Swedish League. Murray could find himself in an expansion draft bind, too. Veteran Kevin Bieksa’s no-movement clause makes him a must-protect asset, and Murray would never expose Lindholm, Vatanen or Fowler as long as he has them. That could put Josh Manson in a precarious position, forcing Murray to lose him or, most likely, expose a decent forward like Jakob Silfverberg.
Long story short: dealing from their ‘D’ surplus helps the Ducks not just in that it could yield Duchene, but also because it would solve a roster logjam.
Red flag: We know Sakic seeks multiple useful pieces in a Duchene deal, so the return wouldn’t just be a Theodore or Montour. The Avs could easily demand, say, Vatanen along with one of the younger prospects, with a first-round pick to boot. Murray does have many D-men to spare, but surrendering one of his top-four guys for the stretch run would up the pressure on his youngest D-men. Are they ready?
My colleague Ken Campbell said it best in our podcast this week: the Canadiens owe it to their fan base to make a push. They lead the Atlantic, hockey’s weakest division, but have wilted in recent weeks. They don't want to waste goaltender Carey Price’s prime years. And any team forced to shoehorn Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen into top-six duty scares no one. The Habs need more high-end talent for their scoring lines.
What Montreal can offer: The negotiation starts and finishes with Mikhail Sergachev and/or Nathan Beaulieu. No way GM Marc Bergevin gets a foothold without dangling his best young blueliners. A steep price? Yes. But the Habs, unlike the Sens with Chabot, are at more of a win-now juncture. That’s what last summer’s Shea Weber acquisition told us. The question is whether the Avs would also ask for hulking winger Michael McCarron in a Duchene package. My guess is yes. And Montreal should meet the price. It’s time to go for glory.
Red flag: Is Montreal even a top-four team in the Eastern Conference? Would you pick the Habs over the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets or New York Rangers in a series? I’m obviously playing devil’s advocate here, but the point is acquiring Duchene carries risk, as Montreal has stiff competition and would have to empty its farm system in a Duchene deal. The good news, of course, is that the Habs would naturally become a much stronger contender in the East with Duchene.
2. CAROLINA HURRICANES
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman raised an excellent point: it helps the Hurricanes to acquire players with term because they aren’t big players in the free agent game. The Canes are trending in the right direction, with strong analytics numbers. Sebastian Aho would be a Calder Trophy contender in most years but happens to be up against a fantastic rookie crop. The Canes have Julien Gauthier on the way, too. But as they mature into a pretty competitive club, they could use a boost in veteran scoring, and Duchene would provide just that. He could immediately take over as Carolina’s No. 1 center.
What Carolina can offer: The ’Canes are up there with Anaheim as the best pure hockey fit for a trade from Colorado’s perspective. Carolina boasts an impressive stable of young defensemen. Justin Faulk is untouchable in a Duchene negotiation, as is Noah Hanifin, but Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin should be in play. Neither of them would constitute nearly enough to land Duchene, which is where picks and high-end prospect defensemen Jake Bean and Haydn Fleury come in. Carolina has enough defensive depth to spare a couple in a Duchene package, and GM Ron Francis is swimming in cap space, too.
Red flag: The Hurricanes are in the midst of true rebuild. It’s trending in the right direction, with Carolina four points back of the Philadelphia Flyers for the second Eastern Conference wild-card position with two games in hand. The ’Canes are hardly guaranteed a ticket to the big dance this spring, though, and they aren’t in a rush. That doesn’t mean Duchene is a poor fit. It does mean a Duchene trade could go down at the draft in June instead of in the next few weeks.
1. NASHVILLE PREDATORS
You should’ve seen Duchene during all-star weekend in Nashville last year. He couldn’t stop smiling. As a country music fan and musician, he’s made for that city. Not that such an emotional connection makes him more likely to become a Predator, of course, but it’s nice to think about.
What makes Duchene most likely to become a Predator is that Nashville has the best blend of need and willingness. Mike Fisher shouldn’t be a top-two center on any team calling itself a Stanley Cup contender. That’s not meant to disrespect Fisher. It’s just that he’s 36. He’s still an effective two-way player and would be a wonderful No. 3 center on a powerhouse. Landing Duchene would put Fisher in that spot and give the Preds another dangerous scorer up front, which they desperately need. No Nashville player has more than 17 goals, albeit Filip Forsberg has heated up a lot lately.
GM David Poile is the king of blockbuster trades in the salary-cap era. He pulled Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen and Shea Weber for P.K. Subban in 2016. He’s made winter deals involving first-round picks over the years to land Peter Forsberg, Cody Franson, Paul Gaustad and Fisher. Poile treats every trade deadline like it’s his team’s last chance at a Stanley Cup push, and we thank him for it. The man is entertaining.
What Nashville can offer: Mattias Ekholm’s name has been tossed around in trade rumors this year. After dealing Jones away last season, though, Poile has to be careful not to weaken his depth too much. The more likely scenario: offering a first-rounder and a prospect such as Dante Fabbro. Maybe Kevin Fiala or Vladislav Kamenev, too. We know Poile is fearless.
Red flag: It’s taken the Predators all season just to climb back into a playoff position, and they’re a short losing streak away from slipping into ninth place. The smart money says they hold off their competition, but they’re no lock. At least Duchene isn’t a one-and-done commodity, though. So the threat of a playoff miss shouldn’t spook Poile.
OTHER TEAMS TO WATCH:
Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks
Any late season surge in Boston won’t be because of a new coach, it’ll be because a good team finally started getting some bounces.
When a team fires a coach mid-season and the guy barely lasts a week on the unemployment block, they’ve probably just made a huge mistake.
Back in 2011, the Capitals made that mistake. They fired Bruce Boudreau after the team hit a rough patch, and he was subsequently hired just two days later by Anaheim. It took two other coaches and three seasons for the team to find themselves another coach of his calibre, a waste of the their best players’s prime years.
Last week, the Boston Bruins made that same mistake firing Claude Julien. He lasted exactly one week on the market before another team scooped him up. The fact it was the division leading Montreal Canadiens makes matters even worse as it points to how clear of an upgrade they thought Julien was over the guy who led them to the top.
Boston’s decision came down to results and expectations. From that standpoint, it’s clear why they did what they did. After making the Cup final in 2012-13 and winning the President’s Trophy in 2013-14, the Bruins missed the playoffs twice and were sure looking like they would make it three with a 26-23-6 record under Julien. Someone had to take the fall and with this being Julien’s 10th season as bench boss, maybe his voice was getting a bit stale.
I’m not sure I buy that though and it all comes down to what the Bruins are doing under the hood this year. The year after the President’s Trophy win, the team took a step back dropping from third in score-and-venue adjusted Corsi to 12th and then dropped to 17th the year after. This year, they’ve shot all the way back up to first, ahead of the perennial kings of this stat, the Kings. Their mark of 56 percent is the ninth best mark of any team since 2007-08. Ahead of them are two Detroit teams, three Chicago teams, and three Los Angeles teams – and also three Stanley Cups. No fired coaches either.
The team made a remarkable year-to-year jump, the results just weren’t there. The team has the lowest shooting and save percentage among those top teams, and that’s led to a dastardly low 46.3 percent goals ratio, a full 10 percent lower than their shot share and six percent lower than the worst of the eight juggernaut teams above them.
While goaltending is a concern, some of that is a result of how terrible their back-up goalies have been. You’d also figure that a world class goalie like Tuukka Rask will get his groove back. The real big issue is on offense where the team ranks 21st in goals per 60 at 5-on-5. While they may have the ninth best shot attempt rate since 2007-08, they’re also posting the sixth worst shooting percentage since 2007-08.
The obvious answer from most pundits is that the Bruins aren’t actually a good team due to their massive shot advantage because a majority of those shots are coming from the outside. It turns out they have a point. Take a look at this heat map from HockeyViz.com of all the shots the Bruins are taking this year to see for yourself. It might be a lot to take in, but basically, red means “hot spots” where the team shoots more than league average, while blue represents “cold spots” where the team is getting fewer chances.
Just as expected, a lot of red on the outside and a huge blue zone right in front of the –– wait, wrong picture. That’s actually the Bruins 2010-11 season where they won the Cup and had the second highest goal scoring rate at 5-on-5. My bad. Here’s this year.
Yep, there we go. A little better than 2010-11, but still, they’re not really getting to the front of the –– wait, that’s not it. That’s actually the Bruins 2012-13 season where they made it to the Cup final and had the ninth highest goal scoring rate at 5-on-5. My bad. Here’s this year.
Hmm, a lot fewer shots overall, but again, their biggest cold spot is right in front of the –– wait, I did it again. That’s actually the 2013-14 season where the Bruins won the President’s Trophy and had the third highest goal scoring rate at 5-on-5. My bad. Okay, here’s 2016-17, for real this time.
Remember that this offense is the 21st rated offence at 5-on-5. If anyone could point out how it differs from any time the Bruins had a top five or 10 offense the past few years, I’m all ears. There is a bit of a deeper contour in front of the net than other seasons, but not by much, and the red zone in front of the slot is a deeper red and much closer to the front of the net. That should all cancel out, and it does. By expected goals for, here’s how every season under Julien ranks.
This year, the Bruins should be having one of the most prolific offenses they’ve had in years, instead, they’re struggling. The idea they’re “not getting to the front of the net” is a bad excuse because it’s clear they either never really have, it’s never really mattered, or there’s a systemic bias in Boston to record fewer shots there. Whatever the case, it doesn’t hold water.
The Bruins offense hasn’t changed much, but the results have and Julien lost his job because of it. Some might say the Bruins Corsi doesn’t tell the whole story here, but even by expected goals they’re the league’s top team, and those teams rarely struggle to convert like this team has. I normally hesitate to use “luck” as a crutch to describe a team with poor results, but it’s hard to point the finger anywhere else.
If you’re still not convinced, here’s another way to look at it. I plotted every player’s personal shooting percentage (at 5-on-5) this season compared to the the three seasons prior. Unsurprisingly, nearly everyone is having a down year.
There’s a fair number of players here who were reliable scorers in the past that suddenly can’t put it in. These 19 players have 86 goals this year, but if they were as efficient as they were before this season, they’d be at 111 collectively. If you look at expected shooting percentage that number drops a little to 104, but their expected shooting percentage is actually higher than it was in the previous three seasons. It’s hard to imagine all these guys suddenly forgot how to score, but that’s the reality if you think these results have nothing to do with luck.
Eventually, things should revert back to normal and they’ll start scoring at their normal rates again. With the way the Bruins control play, that’ll likely mean more wins down the stretch and it may be enough for a playoff spot (we think they’ve got a 70 percent shot at the moment). If they make it, they’re a dark horse team in the East, especially in a weak Atlantic. That is, if they keep playing as well as they did under Julien.
Whatever happens though, any team success will come back to the coaching change as a turning point. Make no mistake though, they likely would’ve turned it around anyways. Any late season surge won’t be because of a new coach, it’ll be because a good team finally started getting some bounces. The Bruins won’t be a good team now because they fired Julien -- they already were one.