What Went Right: Boston Bruins

13 Comments

The Boston Bruins run to the Stanley Cup, the franchise’s first since 1972, had more than its share of ups and downs and drama. From winning three Game 7s through the playoffs, twice fighting off 0-2 holes to start a series, to the tough injuries through the playoffs to Patrice Bergeron and Nathan Horton, there were moments when things looked bleak. Through all that though the Bruins persevered and proved that a team can work as a unit of 20 players and conquer all.

While it’s easy to say that everything went right for Boston on their march through the playoffs, there’s a few things that standout in particular. No, they don’t all start with Tim Thomas either.

1. But seriously, Tim Thomas

We’re not going to keep you waiting to read about how Tim Thomas’ playoffs were the reason why the Bruins overcame everything and won the Stanley Cup. You know it, we know it, everyone knows it: Without Tim Thomas playing out of his mind the Bruins are likely dead in the water in the opening round of the playoffs.

He broke Kirk McLean’s records for shots faced and saves made in one playoff season and broke Johnny Bower’s record for most saves made in the Stanley Cup finals. Thomas’ 1.98 goals against average and .940 save percentage through the playoffs are remarkable numbers considering the amount of action he saw through the Bruins’ 25 playoff games. While he had his struggles against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals his team helped bail him out. He repaid them by saving their bacon in the Stanley Cup finals in every way possible. Thomas’ playoff performance coupled with his regular season play will go down as one of the single greatest goaltending seasons of all time.

2. Production from everywhere

The Bruins finished the playoffs with 12 players in double figures in points. Of those 12, nine were forwards. Doing the math that I know you can all do so well that means three lines worth of players producing goals and half of the defensemen getting in on the action as well. A steady, balanced attack that saw virtually everyone end up being dangerous in one way or another.

David Krejci led the way with 12 goals and 11 assists to lead everyone in the playoffs in scoring with 23 points. Despite missing two games, Patrice Bergeron racked up 20 points (6 g, 14 a)  and Brad Marchand finished with 11 goals and eight assists of his own. Nathan Horton missed the final four games of the finals but scored series clinching goals against Montreal and Tampa Bay and wound up with 17 points in the playoffs. Michael Ryder despite all of his critics in Boston also finished with 17 points.

Even on defense the Bruins got great production. Dennis Seidenberg and Tomas Kaberle each had 11 points while Andrew Ference had 10 points. Seidenberg providing the points on his pairing with Zdeno Chara (nine points of his own) made their twosome all the more fearful as they were shutting down top lines and adding offense on occasion as well. For all the slings and arrows Kaberle took from fans and media alike, he turned out to have a great playoffs. Perhaps Boston won’t be so quick to let him walk this summer after all.

When a team rolls out that kind of production across such a wide range of players on different lines it makes matching up against them difficult. The work Boston’s fourth line did in disrupting opponents flow and providing a spark was intense as Gregory Campbell, Dan Paille, and a combination of Shawn Thornton and Tyler Seguin did wonders to mix things up. Their ability to do all that was made possible thanks to some fantastic tutelage.

3. Claude Julien can coach him some hockey

Claude Julien’s tenure in Boston hadn’t always been a pretty one. From his choices to let Tyler Seguin be a healthy scratch at times during the season and in the playoffs to his insistence on keeping Michael Ryder in the lineup despite his mercurial play, to his not always joyful demeanor he was a guy Boston fans didn’t always warm up to. In the playoffs though he showed what he’s all about.

In the face of struggles against Montreal, Tampa Bay, and Vancouver he faced questions over how to handle the lineup and the strategy employed against those teams and made the slight tweaks and adjustments necessary to help turn the tide. The Bruins series against Montreal might stand out as his crowning glory as the Bruins headed to the road for Games 3 and 4 down 0-2 in the series and battled back to even things up and ultimately won in seven games. With all the drama and hysterics involved in that opening round series, it would’ve been easy to let things get away. Julien never wavered in how to handle things.

While the Bruins stuck to their plans, he figured out ways to tweak Montreal, found ways to bust up Tampa Bay’s 1-3-1 defense, and juggled his set up against Vancouver enough to make them wildly uncomfortable throughout the series. The strategies employed weren’t always obvious but the subtle work he did in keeping things rolling ahead is impressive and needs to be better appreciated.

4. Turns out special teams weren’t so bad after all

Sure the Bruins power play was savaged all playoffs long for being poor. At 11.4% that power play success isn’t much to write home about in the playoffs but their work all around including how to play shorthanded was incredible, especially in the Stanley Cup finals.

Facing a Canucks power play that was scoring at nearly a 30% rate, the Bruins stifled them forcing them to go 2-33 in the series (6%) all the while they scored three shorthanded goals in the series. When you’re able to turn the tables on a team that thrived on scoring with the man advantage like that it’s like punching someone in the gut. In the case of the Canucks it was more like Brad Marchand punching a Sedin in the face like a speed bag. For all the Bruins shortcomings on the power play, they made sure to more than make up for it when killing off the opponents power plays.

***

The Bruins did so many great things in the playoffs it’s no wonder they came away with the Stanley Cup. In their quest to repeat next season, they’re in stunningly good shape as they’ll only have a couple of minor roster decisions to take care of regarding free agents. Add to that that they get yet another high-end draft pick from the Maple Leafs and things are looking awfully nice in Boston.

Provided Boston gets a healthy Nathan Horton (and maybe Marc Savard) back next season and then perhaps more minutes and improving play from Tyler Seguin things are looking awfully good once again for the Bruins in 2011-2012.

Matt Beleskey and the risks of NHL free agency

Getty
Leave a comment

Four years ago Matt Beleskey came out of nowhere to score 22 goals for the Anaheim Ducks.

It was a perfectly time breakout season because it just so happened to take place in what was a contract year for Beleskey and made him one of the top free agents on the open market the following summer. Not only was he a big forward that could play a tough, physical game, but now there was some offensive production to go along with it. He was the type of player that general managers were going to love.

He ended up signing a five-year, $19 million contract with the Boston Bruins.

On Monday, with still two-and-a-half years left on the deal at $3.8 million per season, he was placed on waivers.

Clearly, things have not gone as either side had planned.

Since signing that contract with the Bruins, Beleskey has not been able to consistently match that production from his final year in Anaheim. He came close to it in his first year, but things have rapidly declined in the two years since.

This season has been especially tough for Beleskey as he has yet to record a point in the 14 games he has played.

Given how much is remaining on Beleskey’s contract, as well as his lack of production the past two seasons, it seems highly unlikely that anyone will claim him, opening the door for him to perhaps be sent to Providence of the American Hockey League once he clears.

Beleskey’s situation in Boston does give us another reminder to the risks of free agency and signing players to long-term contracts off of what amounts to one big season.

Had he been able to repeat his 2013-14 performance, or at least come close to it, his $3.9 million salary cap hit would have been a perfectly reasonable deal for that level of production and play.

But the issue was always whether or not he was going to be able to repeat it, and there were a lot of red flags that he probably would not be able to.

Prior to his 22 goal season with the Ducks (which came in only 65 games) he had only once scored more than 10 goals in a singe season and never scored more than 11.

His breakout season with the Ducks was the result of a career-high 15.2 percent shooting percentage  Based on that he was a clear candidate for a significant regression and there was a significant amount of risk with such a long-term contract. It’s one of those areas where analytics can play a big role in helping to avoid a costly mistake and why they can be a great complement for scouting and the eye test. When you have a player that performs that far above his normal career levels it’s worth taking an extra look at that to determine if it’s something that can be repeated or if it’s something that was simply a one year outlier.

In Beleskey’s case, it is becoming increasingly clear that one year in Anaheim was an outlier.

The problem with free agency is that by the time players hit the open market they are often times in one of two situations: They are either past their peaks years of production and teams end up getting into bidding wars and paying top dollar for players that have already played their best hockey for somebody else, or they are players in Beleskey’s situation that had a well-timed career year that may not be repeated.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Watch the first episode of Sabres-Rangers ‘Road to the Winter Classic’

Winter Classic - Sabres vs Rangers
NHL
Leave a comment

We’re less than two weeks away from the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers meeting on a hockey rink at CitiField in New York for the 2018 Winter Classic.

This is the 10th anniversary of the game, typically played on New Year’s Day, and features one of the teams that took part in the inaugural event against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008. The Penguins would win that one 2-1 after a shootout during a snowy day Ralph Wilson Stadium. Memories were created that afternoon in Buffalo, but so was a staple event on the NHL’s annual calendar.

With participation in the Winter Classic comes the requirement of starring in the all-access show that follows both teams leading up to the New Year’s Day game. This season, “Road to the Winter Classic” has moved to NBCSN. The first episode premiered Wednesday night and will air each week NBCSN, Sportsnet and NHL Network.

You can watch the first full episode here

“Road To The NHL Winter Classic” presented by Honda on NBCSN (all times Eastern)

Premiere – Wednesday, Dec. 13 at 11:30 p.m. immediately following Boston Bruins-Detroit Red Wings
Episode 2 – Wednesday, Dec. 20 at 11:30 p.m. immediately following Detroit Red Wings-Philadelphia Flyers
Episode 3 – Wednesday, Dec. 27 at 11:30 p.m. immediately following Washington Capitals-New York Rangers
Episode 4 – Sunday, Jan. 7 at 11 p.m. immediately following Boston Bruins-Pittsburgh Penguins

“Road To The NHL Winter Classic” presented by Honda on Sportsnet (all times Eastern)

Premiere – Thursday, Dec. 14 at 7 p.m.
Episode 2 – Friday, Dec. 22 at 7 p.m.
Episode 3 – Thursday, Dec. 28 at 7 p.m.
Episode 4 – Friday, January 5 at 7 pm (SN1)

“Road To The NHL Winter Classic” presented by Honda on NHL Network (all times Eastern)

Episode 1 – Sunday, Dec. 17 at 10 p.m.
Episode 2 – Sunday, Dec. 24 at 10 p.m.
Episode 3 – Sunday, Dec. 31 immediately following live World Junior Championship coverage (approximately 10:30 p.m.)
Episode 4 – Monday, Jan. 8 at 10 p.m.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Chris Neil retires an Ottawa Senators lifer

Getty Images
2 Comments

Chris Neil announced his retirement from the NHL on Thursday after 1,206 games, all with the Ottawa Senators franchise.

“Chris Neil exemplifies the best qualities of both our city and the Senators franchise,” said Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. “His career personified grit, drive and resilience; there was never a day that he was not there for his teammates. Chris earned everything he achieved in the league through his hard work and dedication to the game and he will go down in history as one of the great character players to ever wear the Senators jersey.”

It won’t be long before the 38-year-old Neil, a 1998 sixth-round pick, gets to put on a Senators jersey again. He’ll participate in this weekend’s Senators alumni game as the city celebrates the NHL 100 Classic at Lansdowne Park against the Montreal Canadiens.

While Neil had his offensive moments — he finished with 112 career goals and reached double digits in that category five times — he was known as an agitator and one not afraid to drop the gloves. HockeyFights.com has him at over 150 career regular season fights and he leaves the game as the franchise’s all-time leader in penalty minutes with 2,522.

Neil’s role diminished last season under Guy Boucher and the Senators decided against re-signing him over the summer. After seeking a new gig and turning down a reported PTO offer from the Montreal Canadiens, he chose to hang them up.

“I miss playing the games. Those are the fun times and that’s what you put all the hard work in for,” Neil said. “For me, I don’t miss the grind of the day-to-day that goes on behind the scenes, but I truly do miss being there with the guys. That’s the fun part. That’s something I’ll always have to look back on.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Prior’s knack with goalies put to test in Vegas

Getty Images
1 Comment

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Dave Prior has a knack for fast-tracking goalies to the NHL.

The analytical and strategic mind that helped draft and develop 2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby in Washington was brought to Vegas with hopes he would not only work with veteran Marc-Andre Fleury but also develop the fledgling franchise’s younger netminders.

Little did Prior know his expertise would be so thoroughly put to the test during the first two months of the season.

After Fleury went down with a concussion Oct. 13 and missed the next 25 games, the expansion Golden Knights have enjoyed a historic start thanks in part to four goalies who had seen action in two combined NHL games before this season.

Malcolm Subban, Maxime Lagace and Oscar Dansk saw most of the action, while Dylan Ferguson spent just over nine minutes between the pipes.

And though Fleury lost in his 696th career start Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes in his long-anticipated return, Vegas is still in second place in the Pacific Division with 40 points, three behind the Los Angeles Kings.

”It’s been a fascinating story for me as a coach because I haven’t been challenged in this way before,” Prior said. ”I don’t think I’ve approached it any different than I have tasks in the past. You’re not usually confronted with replacing one guy after another after another. I had a lot of input into the goaltenders that we signed here and took in the expansion draft.

”The goalies didn’t let me down. I steered them in the direction, but they’ve done all the work.”

The five goalies have a combined .905 save percentage, led by Subban, whose .924 save percentage ranks eighth among all goaltenders with a minimum 10 games played. Among goalies who have played at least four games, Dansk leads the league with a .946 save percentage and Fleury is ninth at .930.

Prior said the development of his goaltending prospects began with a philosophical approach in training camp. He knew the chemistry was far from what he wanted, but he was also pleased they had bought into the system and that he had earned their trust.

”When these opportunities came, it sort of was an opportunity to accelerate the process,” Prior said. ”You don’t usually get to train guys in this environment that are in the minors. I believed they had the upside to become NHL goaltenders. I was just hoping the step they were going to be good enough to make it to No. 1 in the American (Hockey) League first, let alone be thrown into being the guy who had to play in the NHL. They worked really hard and bought in and we managed to survive the loss of Marc-Andre.”

Without Fleury, the Golden Knights were 16-8-1, including a stellar 7-1-0 against Pacific Division opponents.

Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said he’s left the goaltenders alone, avoiding interfering with what Prior instilled during training camp.

”I don’t know how he does it. He spends a lot of time in video with these guys, more than I’ve seen in the past,” Gallant said. ”He’s just focused on them doing the right things and playing the right way. … He wants to get the best from every goaltender and he gets the best confidence of every goaltender.”

Prior acknowledged Gallant’s hands-off approach and said it’s made it easier to work with Fleury, develop Subban and teach the younger players.

”I still have always gone about my job with the fact that I am the person sort of establishing how we’re going to play,” Prior said. ”When you’re having someone second-guess your approach, it makes it more difficult. I appreciate his hands off. I think if we were failing he may be a little more involved, but the goaltenders have done a good job.”