"This is another team we don't really like."
- Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa on his team's opponent in Round 2, the Chicago Blackhawks.
"This is another team we don't really like."
- Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa on his team's opponent in Round 2, the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Bruins have dropped back-to-back games to non-playoff teams, resulting in calls for coach Claude Julien’s job. But Julien has continuously put the Bruins in a position to win, and firing him now could be a big mistake.
Claude Julien has been here before. When the Bruins missed the post-season in 2014-15, there were calls for his job. Again, narrowly missing the playoffs in 2015-16, it was believed he was on the hot seat. And now, with Boston dropping back-to-back games to opponents who are deeper in the lottery hunt than they are in the mix for post-season play, the talk of the Bruins showing Julien the door has started to heat up again.
It’s not hard to understand the argument from a pure wins and losses standpoint, which is what the game boils down to at its very core. The Bruins are 48 games into their season and only barely holding on to the second spot in the Atlantic Division. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators are nipping at Boston’s heels and faring better than the Bruins when it comes to points percentage.
And looking at recent results, the argument stands. Boston has lost to the New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators, New York Islanders and Detroit Red Wings — five non-playoff teams — in their past 10 games. Winnable games are turning into head-shaking losses and none have been quite as confounding as the Bruins squandering a three-goal lead heading into the second period against the Red Wings on Wednesday.
Despite back-to-back defeats, which have been paired with poor performances, the Bruins would do well to take a deep breath, look at the bigger picture and keep moving forward with Julien at the helm.
While the results have left much to be desired, Boston has been anything but poor in terms of putting themselves in the best position to win games. The hockey world has come to learn over the past few seasons the importance of controlling play and grinding teams down with puck possession, and it’s by those metrics that the Bruins have been almost inarguably one of the league’s strongest teams.
Consider that this season, no team has been as outright dominant in the possession game at 5-on-5 as the Bruins. They currently boast a 55.3 percent Corsi For percentage, sitting even ahead of the same Los Angeles Kings who have built a reputation of being the league’s most savvy possession team. When breaking it down game by game, too, the Bruins have been incredible in terms of winning the possession battle. In 39 of the team’s 48 outings, Bruins have completed the game with a possession rate over 50 percent at 5-on-5. They’ve been remarkably strong at owning play at even strength.
So, what’s gone wrong? Well, you can start with the team’s shooting percentage, which is downright atrocious. As of Thursday, Boston sits 29th in the league with an abysmal 6.17 shooting percentage at 5-on-5 through 48 games. The only team who’s fared worse is the Florida Panthers, and that’s by a mere seven-hundredths of a percent. To put that into context, when it comes to shooting percentage, only five teams in the past five seasons have finished with a shooting percentage lower than the Bruins’ current rate.
One need look no further than Patrice Bergeron for an idea of how poorly things have gone in Boston when it comes to actually finding the back of the net. Bergeron, a 10 percent shooter throughout his career, is on pace to fire more shots on goal this season than in any campaign prior. At his average shooting percentage, one would expect him to net close to 30 goals. Instead, he’s 45 games through his season with 10 markers to his name and is shooting at 6 percent. Bergeron’s struggle has been indicative of the roster’s trouble as a whole.
Julien’s detractors may posit that possession doesn’t exactly mean the team is getting scoring chances, and that a number of these pucks could be fired from the outside or low-scoring areas. And while that’s somewhat true — Boston is averaging only 7.4 scoring chances per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, good for 22nd in the league — it’s not as though they’re allowing enough chances against that it should be coming back to bite them as hard as it has. The Bruins are allowing 6.62 scoring chances against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, and the only team with a better mark is the Minnesota Wild. The difference between the Wild and Bruins in scoring chances for? Little more than half a chance per 60 minutes, yet Minnesota has nine more points in the standings with five games in hand.
Patience is often difficult to have in situations such as the one facing Boston, but there’s no reason to believe this won’t right itself over the back half of the season. There’s even recent evidence to suggest the Bruins are playing in a way that still makes them as much a Stanley Cup contender as any other club. Both the 2011-12 and 2013-14 Kings had great possession numbers — 54.7 and 56.8, respectively — with 5-on-5 shooting percentages that either were the league-worst mark or close to it. Both seasons, the Kings turned things around come playoff time and proceeded to win the whole thing. The same went for scoring chances, too, as the Kings were among the leaders in scoring chance percentage at 5-on-5 in both of their Stanley Cup years. That’s the same company the Bruins are keeping, sitting seventh in the league at 52.8 percent.
Of course, there’s no guarantee the Bruins’ fortunes are going to change. The Kings have continued to remain near the top of the league in underlying numbers only to narrowly miss the post-season in 2014-15 before getting ousted in the first round this past season. In a game where a single bounce can decide who wins and who loses, sometimes all you can do is put yourself in the best position to have that bounce go your way. Right now, though, those bounces aren’t happening for Boston.
None of this is to mention that Julien has done an admirable job with a roster that boasts a mixture of high-end talent and questionable depth. Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and David Krejci are a stellar group of top forwards, but a bottom-six that consists of Riley Nash, Jimmy Hayes, Austin Czarnik and Tim Schaller isn’t all that inspiring. Defensively, the team is still working to get back from the loss of Dougie Hamilton, even with Brandon Carlo looking increasingly like a future top-pairing guy. And it’s hard to fault Julien for being stuck with backups who have won one of 11 games when Tuukka Rask has gotten the night off. That’s simply not his fault.
All this is to say that firing Julien isn’t the answer. It wasn’t in 2014-15, wasn’t in 2015-16 and it’s not now. If there’s a change to be made and the Bruins are set on getting a new voice behind the bench, let that come in the off-season, because Julien’s coaching chops have earned him the right to see this one through given the job he’s done with a roster that could be much worse off without him. If the Bruins are going to get out of this hole, it will be Julien who leads them out of it, and if this Boston team wants to make noise going forward, keeping Julien at the helm is the way to do it.
(All advanced stats via Corsica)
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The Avalanche are on pace to have one of the worst seasons of any team post-lockout, but embracing failure can be the recipe for future success that Colorado needs.
There was a moment in Tuesday’s game between the Avalanche and Blackhawks where it appeared Colorado was going to pull off what would have been one of their most significant wins of what has been a troubling season. A three-goal second period had the Avalanche ahead 4-3 with an 18-14 shot advantage over one of the Western Conference’s best teams.
Then the wheels fell off. In the third, the Avalanche were outshot 12-5, Blackhawks rookie Vinnie Hinostroza potted two goals in three minutes before the midway mark of the frame and the game was capped off with an empty-netter from Chicago’s Tanner Kero. A once-promising one-goal lead was washed away. Colorado left the ice having suffered it’s 28th defeat in 42 games.
But was anyone all that surprised? This season’s Avalanche bunch has been arguably one of the worst teams the league has seen in the post-lockout era, and that’s not the least bit hyperbolic.
In the decade-plus since the lost 2004-05 campaign, the NHL record for most regulation losses by a team in a season in 51, which the Buffalo Sabres did back-to-back in 2013-14 and 2014-15. By comparison, the Avalanche are on pace to lose 55 games in regulation. The worst points percentage came when the 2013-14 Sabres picked up only 52 of a possible 164 points. As of Wednesday, the Avalanche are on pace to finish with a .321 points percentage, the second-worst post-lockout mark. That would give Colorado a grand total of 53 points, and that’s rounding up.
Then there’s the Avalanche’s sixth-worst post-lockout goals for per game of 2.05, 14th-worst goals against per game of 3.38 and the kicker — and the reason it could have been expected that the Colorado would blow the one-goal lead against Chicago — an 11th-worst win percentage when leading after two periods. For every three games the Avalanche have led after 40 minutes this season, they’ve lost two. That’s not a recipe for success.
With the Avalanche mired in the league’s basement, five points back of the Arizona Coyotes, there’s no hope of saving this season. It’s gone. It’s over. The only thing left is playing out the year, because the post-season is an impossible goal and climbing the standings doesn’t really serve to help Colorado all that much, aside from maybe selling an extra ticket here or there. Instead, the Avalanche should be using the remainder of this season to chart the course forward.
One of the best things that will happen when the season ends is the opportunity for Jared Bednar to have an entire off-season to work with his staff. Thrust into the coaching position only weeks before the start of the campaign as a result of former coach Patrick Roy’s abrupt decision to resign, Bednar was thrown to the wolves as a first-time NHL bench boss. That said, some improvements, albeit minor, can already be seen. For instance, the Avalanche have seen their league-worst possession rate in 2015-16 increase by nearly 2.5 percent. It’s a small step, but an important one with what we know about the impact of possession on positive results.
But the biggest step for Colorado has to be a fundamental change in mindset. Visions of the 2013-14 Presidents’ Trophy season continue to linger, but the truth is this team is nowhere near ready to compete and there’s not a trade or two that is going to change that fact. The Avalanche are a basement team with holes up front and on the back end. The best thing Colorado can do is accept that they’re a near-historically bad team in this era of incredible parity.
Lucky thing is the Avalanche have the ability to jumpstart a rebuild. Unlike other teams who have had to start anew, such as the Sabres and Coyotes, the Avalanche have the benefit of a trio of young stars in Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog who could potentially fetch a solid return.
MacKinnon has been rumored to be an untouchable in Colorado and with good reason as the 21-year-old has game-changing ability. He is undoubtedly the star you build around, a 20-goal, 50-point player who's still years removed from his prime. His combination of speed and skill was made for today's game and it doesn't hurt that he's being mentored, at least in part, by Sidney Crosby, who he trains with in the off-season. Though MacKinnon has yet to match his 24-goal, 63-point rookie output, that level of production doesn't seem all that unattainable moving forward. And there's the little things MacKinnon does well, too, like win faceoffs, drive play and play big minutes up front as the team's top-line center.
With MacKinnon as the centrepiece, though, it's time for the Avalanche to part ways with one or both of Duchene and Landeskog.
At 26, Duchene has been mentioned from time to time in the rumor mill, but the time appears to be right for him to move on. He has two years remaining on his deal after this season with a $6-million cap hit, but coming off of a 30-goal, 59-point season and again in line to near the 30-goal plateau, that might not be too difficult to move. His value has never been higher, he’s in the prime of his career and, if dealt, he could fetch a considerable package in return. And while Landeskog, 24, won’t command quite the same return, a consistent 20-goal scorer with some fire to his game would draw some interest at the right price.
There also has to be consideration given to dealing away other current contributors. Tyson Barrie, for instance, would draw interest if he was on the block. Colorado doesn’t look to be in any position to compete during what could be some of the best years of his career and, in terms of a return, now might be the time to get the most out of Barrie. Regardless of who goes, though, the most important thing for the Avalanche to recoup would be a few picks and a prospect or two who has potential to be an NHL contributor in a couple seasons’ time.
One of the biggest problems the Avalanche have had over the past several years comes in building a supporting cast for their trio of young stars, and a big part of that has been the inability to hit on any of their draft picks. Since the 2009 draft, where the Avalanche landed Duchene, Barrie and Ryan O’Reilly, only three draftees have become NHL regulars. That’s MacKinnon, Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, who is the team’s top prospect and likely the only other untouchable on the current roster.
Loading up on draft picks and prospects is a tried-and-true method, too, and the more picks the Avalanche can compile, the more shots they have to hit come draft day. Look at this season’s Maple Leafs, for instance. Toronto had good fortune in landing the first-overall pick and an incredible talent in Auston Matthews, but even without Matthews, the grouping of William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly and Connor Brown is proof positive that targeting the draft and prospects is the way to turn things around in today’s NHL. With MacKinnon as the Avalanche’s central star — their Matthews, if you will — and a cast of other youngsters acquired over the next few seasons, there’s no reason Colorado couldn’t start to right the ship in two or three years’ time in the same way Toronto appears to be climbing.
Avalanche fans may scoff at the idea of blowing everything up, but there’s nothing left to lose aside from more games. And, realistically, things won’t get all that much worse. When you’re nearing 60-loss territory, a 50-loss season just so happens to be a step in the right direction, and a younger team could allow the Avalanche to find some diamonds in the rough while netting high draft picks to stock the cupboard. If one or two hit, it can change the organization in a hurry.
The truth is there’s no quick fix for what ails the Avalanche at this point, and things aren’t going to get back on track in a hurry. There will need to be fewer notable signings, no attempts to win now and more focus on a draft-and-develop mentality. If that means a few more lean years, so be it, because it’s likely one of the only ways for the organization to take a real step forward.
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Gabriel Landeskog (right) and Matt Duchene
The lowly Avalanche seem poised to make some big moves, but potential deals for forward Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene keep stalling.
For several weeks, Colorado Avalanche forwards Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene featured prominently in NHL trade speculation. With the Avs at the bottom of the Western Conference standings and considered out of playoff contention, GM Joe Sakic is reportedly listening to offers for his core players, with Landeskog and Duchene the most notable trade candidates.
Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reports Sakic's set a high asking price. On Jan. 3, Friedman said the Avs GM sought “legit young defensemen or defensive prospects.” Recent rumors linking the 24-year-old Landeskog to the Boston Bruins claimed Sakic sought promising defenseman Brandon Carlo in return, an offer the Bruins apparently rejected.
TSN's Darren Dreger reports Sakic's asking price for Landeskog is higher than originally thought. He said the Avs seek a “top-level defenseman, a first-round draft pick plus.” He adds that's generated a negative reaction from his peers.
Every GM sets an initially high price when shopping a core player, but Sakic's dreaming if he thinks he'll net that type of return for Landeskog. While he has four 50-plus points seasons on his resume, including a career-high 65-points in 2013-14, his production doesn't merit such a lofty return. His sub-par production this season (13 points in 30 games) won't bolster his trade value.
There's been no word on Sakic's asking price for Duchene, but one can assume it's similar to Landeskog's. The 25-year-old center has better stats this season (24 points in 36 games) than the Avs captain and exceeded 50 points five times in his career.
First-line center Nathan MacKinnon is the only Avalanche player who might fetch that big return. Given his age (21) and skills, he could reach his full potential on a deeper roster. Still, a rival GM must give considerable thought toward deciding if MacKinnon is worth a top defenseman, a first round pick and more.
Dreger's colleague Pierre LeBrun thinks Sakic could make a move involving Landeskog or Duchene in the off-season. Interested parties should have more salary-cap space to work, plus there's usually more willingness at the NHL draft weekend in June to swing deals involving established stars.
DROUIN COULD MAKE FOR GOOD TRADE CHIP FOR LIGHTNING
A year ago, Tampa Bay Lightning left winger Jonathan Drouin generated headlines with his demotion to the club's farm team, followed by a holdout and refusing to play and requesting a trade. Eventually, Drouin withdrew his request, returned to action and became a productive part of the Lightning roster.
But with the Bolts sitting outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture and in danger of sliding further out of contention, perhaps Drouin could be used as a trade chip. In his trade-season preview of the Eastern Conference, ESPN.com's Craig Custance suggests the 21-year-old could be the type of player that fetches some much-needed help for the Bolts' blueline.
Custance observes Drouin is a restricted free agent this summer, along with fellow forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. All will be in line for significant raises, leading Custance to suggest that “at some point the cap space is going to disappear.”
The Lightning's biggest need is another top-four defenseman. If there's one to be had via trade of the same pedigree as Drouin, Custances feels it would make sense to make that move.
Adding a quality rearguard won't be easy. GM Steve Yzerman repeatedly said he's making calls but there's not much happening in the trade market right now. So far, there's no indication out of Tampa Bay suggesting Drouin is available.
Yzerman could be forced to wait until the market improves, but that could be weeks away. By that point, it could prove too late to save the Lightning's season.
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.).
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Referees review a goal. Image by: Len Redkoles/Getty Images
The NHL as just introduced bye weeks for each team, an idea borrowed from the NFL. How about stealing more ideas like trading coaches and a wild card weekend?
You may have noticed something unusual about the NHL schedule in recent weeks: Certain teams have disappeared, taking up to a week off at a time. That's thanks to the new bye weeks, a concept negotiated between the league and NHLPA last year that kicked in for the first time this month.
The bye weeks – which are actually five days long, not a full week – are meant to give players on each team one league-mandated midseason break to rest and recharge. The idea borrows heavily from the NFL, which gives each team one week off during its 17-week schedule. But not everyone is a fan, with Toronto coach Mike Babcock calling the idea "100 percent wrong for player safety."
So sure, the jury's still out on this one. But that doesn't mean the league shouldn't be thinking ahead to the next inspiration they could draw from the competition. So to give them a boost, here are five more ideas the league could
steal borrow from the NFL.
1. Trading coaches
The big trade rumor in NFL circles these days doesn't involve a star player. Instead, it's a coach – New Orleans Saints' boss Sean Payton, who reportedly could be headed to the Rams.
That's not all that rare in the NFL, where more than a few big-name coaches have been traded over the years, including Bill Parcells, Jon Gruden and Bill Belichick. It happens in the NBA and MLB as well – Blue Jays fans may remember the deal that sent John Farrell to the Red Sox a few years ago.
The concept isn't completely unheard of in the NHL, but it's only happened once. That was in 1987, when the Nordiques sent Michel Bergeron to the Rangers for a first round pick. That deal didn't really work out for New York; Bergeron only lasted two seasons, never making the playoffs, and the deal ended up costing them the fifth overall pick.
Maybe that's why we haven't seen a similar move since (aside from the forced draft pick compensation the league briefly implemented and then abandoned a few years ago). But it would be fun to see it come back. Jon Cooper for Claude Julien, WHO SAYS NO?
2. Acknowledging referee mistakes
Referees make mistakes. It happens. In fact, if you got fans of various sports together in a room, it probably wouldn't be long before they were arguing over whose officials were worse. It's the nature of fandom – we always think the guys in stripes have found a way to screw things up.
But in the NFL, the league doesn't pretend that it never happens. The league reviews each game, and admits when the officials blew it. The league's head of officiating is also on Twitter, engaging fans with explanations of close or controversial plays. And if the refs miss one, someone explains what went wrong.
It's certainly not a perfect system. Obviously, those admissions come too late to change the results, and are of little comfort to teams victimized by blown calls. (Some players aren't shy about expressing that sentiment.) And there's no doubt that some officials would prefer the league stayed silent, rather than hanging them out to dry.
But the approach has one major benefit: credibility. When the time comes for the NFL to defend a call, they can at least point to other cases where they took the lumps. That creates at least a little bit of credibility in the eyes of fans, who don't assume that the league will just take a knee-jerk stance of defending everything.
Compare that to the NHL approach, where everything is fine, and the league has virtually never seen a mistake that they've publicly acknowledged. That just creates an atmosphere where everyone thinks every close call that went against them was missed, and that every hare-brained conspiracy has some basis in reality. The NHL can't defend its officials effectively, because it never acknowledges when they do screw up.
Nobody's perfect, and nobody should expect perfection from officials. But a little honesty from the league itself isn't too much to ask.
3. Wild card weekend
The NFL just held its wild card weekend, featuring four games that determined which teams would move on to the divisional round. Granted, last weekend's games ended up being duds, with all four home teams winning easily. But the weekend generally produces at least a few memorable games, much like MLB's similar play-in round.
The idea of the NHL adding a wild card play-in game of its own, or even a short best-of-three series, has been around for a while. The format would see one or two teams in each conference added to the playoffs, creating matchups between the #8 and #9 seeds (and perhaps also #7 vs #10) that would play out immediately after the season ended.
Many fans don't like the idea, since adding extra teams to the postseason could be seen to water down the importance of the regular season. But there's a flip side to that – the presence of a wildcard round makes finishing with a higher seed all the more important, since teams won't want to risk having to play a short winner-take-all series. Far better to get some extra time off to recuperate, while your future opponent has to fight through an extra round.
Look at this year's Metro Division, where four of the league's best teams are fighting for top spot. It's a fun race, but ultimately it won't mean much – all four teams are going to make the playoffs, and none will be rewarded with an especially easy matchup. But if those teams were fighting to avoid a wild card round, the regular season starts to take on some serious importance.
4. Actually explaining challenges
The NFL was the first league to embrace instant replay reviews, with the NHL following suit years later. And unlike football, the hockey world is still relatively new to coach's challenge, which were just introduced a few years ago. It shows. The NFL system is far from perfect, but the NHL could learn a lot from it.
Here's what happens when an NFL challenge occurs: First, the referee makes a clear announcement about what's being challenged, and what the ruling on the field was. Then he goes under the hood, reviews everything about the play and emerges with a ruling, at which point he explains what he saw and why the call is or isn't being changed.
Granted, some of those explanations are clearer than others, and some of the rules that the league actually reviews for are a mess. But as a fan, you're rarely left guessing about what went into a decision, even if you may not agree.
Compare that to a typical NHL scenario: The referee announces that a challenge is taking place, and probably forgets to tell us what the call on the ice was. He puts on the headphones, breaks out his iPad mini, and reviews the play. Then he makes a vague announcement which basically amounts to either "goal" or "no goal," with little or no explanation. Sometimes, he'll even repeat the whole process for reasons nobody understands.
Also, the NFL's microphones work. Let's look into how they manage that.
The whole thing is just a smoother process in the NFL, and a big part of it is due to league at least trying to explain what's happening. NHL refs probably wouldn't like it, since they make every announcement looking like terrified first-graders giving their first book report in front of the whole class. But they'd get used to it. And hockey fans would be better off.
5. Treating overtime losses like losses
OK, stay with me here. Sometimes, NFL games go into overtime. And when they do, something crazy happens: One team wins, and one team loses. That's it. The losing team doesn't get a half-win in the standings as consolation for coming really close.
I know what you're thinking: "Surely that results in terribly boring playoff races, since we all know that giving partial credit for losing is the only way to have parity even though that actually makes no mathematical sense when you think about it." Believe it or not, the NFL has somehow persevered. I'm told their games even occasionally get decent TV ratings.
It's true that the whole "every game is worth the same in the standings" approach isn't unique to football (and baseball, and basketball, and pretty much every other sport). But maybe hockey could give it a try some day, just to see what happens.
No? You say that's completely off the table, Mr. GM of a team that lost 45 games and still claims to have a winning record? OK, can't say we didn't try.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.