Charlie Coyle

Getty Images

Should Bruins break up top line next season?

10 Comments

The Boston Bruins and their fans are likely still smarting from falling one win short of a Stanley Cup victory against the St. Louis Blues, but the bottom line is that this was an impressive run. Really, it cemented the notion that Bruins management has done a lot right in finding ways to extend this group’s window of contention, where other teams would age out of elite play.

Still, there was one thing that bothered me about the Bruins: their lack of experimentation toward the end of the regular season.

Most teams don’t get the chance to tinker without big consequences

For a long time, it was clear that the Bruins would meet the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. There was also plenty of advance notice that the Bruins were unlikely to slip from the second seed.

While other NHL teams can be dinged for a lack of experimentation as well, the Bruins (and Maple Leafs) were in a rare position in this age of parity: they basically knew where they were going to land in the playoff branches, and didn’t really face much of a threat of dropping out of their position for some time.

In other words, if the Bruins wanted to try a bunch of different things – treating the rest of the regular season as a virtual hockey science lab – they wouldn’t have faced severe consequences, even if those experimentations blew up in their faces in the form of losses.

Instead, the Bruins more or less played things out.

If there was one question I would’ve wanted answered if I were in Bruce Cassidy’s shoes,* it would be: “What if we broke up the line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak?”

* – And, make no mistake about it, this would be a bad deal for the Bruins, because Cassidy is overall a very bright coach, and I’d struggle to keep a team under one Too Many Men on the Ice penalties per period.

[More: How will the Bruins look next season?]

Hitting a wall at the worst possible time

Overall, it’s fine that the Bruins leaned toward not messing with a good thing. For the most part, that trio absolutely caves in opponents with their mix of smart defensive play, blistering passing, and dangerous sniping.

Unfortunately, that group hit some serious roadblocks during the postseason, particularly as the St. Louis Blues’ defense found ways to short circuit that top line, and the Blues’ own best players feasted to a surprisingly lopsided degree. This tweet really captures how one-sided things often were during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final:

Yikes. Yikes.

While wear and tear cannot be ignored during the grind of a deep playoff run, it’s fair to ask if the Bruins didn’t have enough of a Plan B for if the top line sputtered. To some extent, you can understand why: because they basically never ran into that problem during the regular season.

Yet, lacking alternate options might have made the Bruins easier to “solve.” Consider this striking excerpt from the latest edition of Elliotte Friedman’s “31 Thoughts.”

When it came to the Patrice Bergeron/Brad Marchand/David Pastrnak line, one Blue said they were determined “not to be fooled by their deception.” Those three are excellent at creating havoc through the neutral zone via the different routes they take. The Blues focused on where they wanted to get to (especially Marchand’s and Pastrnak’s preferred one-timer locations) instead of how they got there.

Attached at the hip

The Bruins certainly provided the Blues and other opponents with a lot of “tape” on the top line, so to speak, as they kept them glued together during the regular season.

Via Natural Stat Trick, Patrice Bergeron played more than 729 minutes with Brad Marchand at even-strength during the regular season, while Bergeron was only away from Marchand for less than 46 minutes. David Pastrnak saw a little bit more time away from that duo, but still spent far more time with them.

It’s striking, actually, that Pastrnak spent almost as much time away from Bergeron and Marchand during the smaller sample of the playoffs (123:12 without Marchand, 134:07 without Bergeron, in 24 games) as Pastrnak spent away from them during the regular season (202 away from Marchand, 182:27 away from Bergeron), and injuries exaggerated those regular season numbers.

You could argue that Pastrnak was moved around because of desperation, rather than inspiration, during the postseason, as things weren’t clicking. So it wasn’t exactly as if those swaps were happening in ideal circumstances.

But what if the Bruins had more combinations in their back pocket?

Roads less taken

Cassidy had the luxury of finding out a little bit more about how other duos or trios might click, but he chose not to do so. Could Marchand and Bergeron really propel their own lines, and how much does Pastrnak need at least one of those guys to thrive? Might Marchand find chemistry with David Krejci, and could Bergeron really click with Jake DeBrusk? If the drop-off from spreading the wealth vs. going top-heavy was small, then the Bruins might have been able to throw different looks against the Blues, rather than playing into their hands.

So, with all of that in mind, how much should the Bruins consider breaking up the top line for 2019-20, or at least portions of 2019-20?

Interestingly, there might be a political element to consider, too: would they grumble at being broken up? In particular, it could be a tough sell to pitch that idea to Bergeron and Marchand, specifically.

Expanding Marchand’s even-strength minutes from 2015-16 to 2018-19 with Natural Stat Trick, the results are pretty comical. Marchand spent 2,461 minutes and 40 seconds with Bergeron during that time period, and just 368:46 without Bergeron. That’s the hockey equivalent of a common law marriage.

If there’s no argument for breaking up the veterans, then maybe continued experimentation with Pastrnak is in order. Theoretically, Bergeron and Marchand could carry a lesser linemate, as that’s the general pattern around the NHL, as teams just don’t often enjoy the option to load up with their three best forwards and still have some talent left over not to get bombarded when their other three lines are on the ice.

Consistency vs. versatility

Again, the Bruins have done an impressive job finding other players, and this post is mainly asking the question regarding whether they can get even better, or at least more versatile.

This interesting piece by Steve Conroy of the Boston Herald discusses David Krejci wanting a more stable partner on the right wing to go with Jake DeBrusk on the Bruins’ mostly effective, but occasionally hot-and-cold second line.

To be fair, Krejci wants stability, where I would argue that the Bruins should try a number of different looks:

“We did touch on that a little bit, but that’s not really something I can control,” Krejci said. “We have lots of good players here who can play on that side, so I’m not worried about that. We have lots of players. But what I would like to have is consistency of the lines so you create some chemistry. You always go through some ups and downs. Everyone does. But if you stay together as a line, in your difficult time of the year, the two other guys can lift you up, or the other way around.”

Conroy brings up some options as right-handed shooters, from Pastrnak to interesting young forward Karson Kuhlman. I’d also throw Charlie Coyle‘s name in the hat, as while he’s mostly served as third-line center for the Bruins, Coyle also played at RW at times during his Wild years.

The thing is, coaches do what Krejci doesn’t like, and get the line blender going for reasons. During an 82-game season, you’re going to experience streaks, but also injuries. You also must battle stagnancy and predictability.

But, really, finding different looks comes down to the playoff contests after the 82-game season.

***

Would the Bruins have won it all if they could have kept the Blues a bit more off balance? Maybe, maybe not. You could also argue that staying the course helped the Bruins get as far as they did, in the first place.

Either way, these are the questions the Bruins should grapple with, and experiments they should undergo more often than they did in 2018-19. Chances are, their cap situation won’t allow them to add much and will probably force them to lose a nice asset like Marcus Johansson, so it’s about getting the most out of what they already have.

Cassidy & Co. deserve credit for getting a whole lot out of this group, already, yet maybe there are a few more answers that simply haven’t been explored, or explored enough to truly know?

LOOKING BACK, AND AHEAD, FOR BRUINS

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Power Rankings: Win or lose the Conn Smythe should belong to Rask

30 Comments

This much should be obvious: If the Boston Bruins win Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream) starting goalie Tuukka Rask is going to be the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.

If that situation plays out, it is simply going to be his award.

Brad Marchand has been great. Patrice Bergeron has been outstanding. Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy have carried the defense. Charlie Coyle has turned out to be a huge trade deadline pickup. All of them would be a worthy contender (or winner) in any other season. But for as good as they have all been none of them have played a bigger role in the Bruins’ postseason success than Rask, and he has done it from the very beginning of the playoffs with a consistency and level of dominance that should have erased any doubts his harshest critics may have ever had about him as a big-game goalie.

He is the biggest reason the Bruins have reached this point and the single biggest reason the St. Louis Blues have not already won their first Stanley Cup.

His performance this postseason is as good as we have ever seen from a goalie, highlighted by a .939 save percentage that ranks among the NHL’s all-time best.

He is just the fifth different goalie in NHL history to play in at least 20 playoff games and have a save percentage higher than .935, and he is the only goalie that has done it twice.

In his 23 appearances this season he has recorded a save percentage below .912 just five times. He has had zero games with a save percentage below .900. Just for context on that, every other goalie this postseason has had at least one such, while 15 different goalies had at least two.

His Stanley Cup Final counterpart, St. Louis’ Jordan Binnington, has had eight such games.

His save percentages by series have been .928, .948, .956, and .924.

No matter the metric, whether it is in any one individual game or the postseason as a whole, he has been sensational.

So sensational that the Conn Smythe Trophy should probably be his whether the Bruins win Game 7 or not.

It is not completely unheard of for a member of the losing team to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as it has happened five times in NHL history with Detroit’s Roger Crozier (1966), St. Louis’ Glenn Hall (1968), Philadelphia’s Reggie Leach (1976) and Ron Hextall (1987), and Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastien Giguere (2003) all doing it. It is obviously extremely difficult to do, but it can happen when all of the right circumstances are in place.

It usually involves a goalie (as four of the previous ones were) putting together an incredible postseason where they help carry their team for the entire postseason and then loses to a team that does not really have a clear favorite of their own. That would pretty much describe the Blues if they win Game 7. Their success is not related to any one great individual performance that has stood out above the pack. At any given time it has been one of Ryan O'Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, or Jaden Schwartz carrying the offense, but none of them have done it consistently throughout the playoffs. Their goalie, Binnington, has really only been okay with moments of brilliance surrounded by obvious flaws and some downright bad games.

If the Blues win history and all modern precedent suggests one of their players will end up winning the Conn Smythe, but if we are being objective about this the true MVP of the playoffs has been standing in Boston’s net all postseason. The outcome of Game 7 is not going to change that. Without him playing at the level he has played at the Bruins have not already been eliminated in this series, they may have very easily been eliminated in Round 1 (against the Toronto Maple Leafs) or in Round 2 (against the Columbus Blue Jackets).

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take one more look at the 2019 Conn Smythe race where Rask is rightfully at the top of the pack on a tier all his own. Everyone else is (or should be) fighting for second place.

To the rankings!

The favorite

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins. He has simply been the best and most impactful player on the ice in the playoffs and is probably the single biggest reason this series is still going on. His numbers are among the best we have ever seen from a goalie in a single playoff run and he has been so much better than everyone else that even if the Blues win Game 7 it should probably be his to take home. The chances of that actually happening are slim (there is plenty of precedent that says the series winner will get the MVP) but that doesn’t mean we can’t disagree.

[Related: Rask the rock steps up for Bruins in Game 6]

If the Blues win

2. Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues. He has probably done enough in this series to get the award if the Blues take Game 7. He may not have consistently been the team’s most productive player or top scorer in the playoffs, but he is still probably their best all-around player and for much of the Stanley Cup Final has beaten Boston’s Patrice Bergeron at his own game as a top-tier two-way center. It is supposed to be an award for the entire postseason, but recency bias takes over in the Stanley Cup Final and O’Reilly has been a monster for the Blues in the series with four goals and three assists. He goes into Game 7 on a three-game goal scoring streak.

3. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues. He played better than his numbers illustrated earlier in the playoffs, then he went on a white-hot run at the absolute best time for the Blues starting with Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. As mentioned above the Blues do not have a clear-cut favorite at this point but the way Tarasenko put the offense on his back over the past month (six goals, five assists over the past 12 games) would make him a worthy candidate.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The long shots but still worth a mention

4. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. We have had Marchand at the top of the rankings for much of the playoffs, mostly because he has been awesome and probably their best overall player not named Rask. But we are dropping him down a few spots here for two reasons. First, he has had a quiet series against the Blues and that will no doubt impact voters when it comes time to cast their ballots (whether it should or not). Second, and most importantly, if the Bruins win Game 7 it just seems impossible to believe that anyone other than Rask will be taking home the MVP. That does not take away from the postseason Marchand has had, just that he has probably become a distant second on his team in the playoff MVP race.

5. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins. The Bruins’ defense was shorthanded for much of the regular season due to injury and that trend has continued at times in the playoffs. Zdeno Chara missed a game earlier this postseason and has played the past two games with a (reported) broken jaw. Matt Grzlecyk has been sidelined since Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Charlie McAvoy missed a game earlier in the playoffs due to suspension. While all of that has been happening Krug has been the one constant on the team’s blue line in the playoffs, appearing in every single game and putting up huge numbers offensively. He is the team’s third-leading scorer entering Game 7 with 18 points, including six in the Stanley Cup Final against the Blues.

6. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues. If the Blues win he would be a nice sleeper choice because of what he did prior to the series. He has gone quiet against the Bruins, but his hot streak in previous played a huge role in helping the Blues to reach this point. 

7. Charlie Coyle, Boston Bruins. After a slow start to his Bruins tenure after the trade from the Minnesota Wild Coyle ended up being everything the Bruins hoped he would be in the playoffs, adding a necessary secondary scoring boost to the lineup. Like Marchand and Krug (and anyone else on the Bruins) he has almost zero chance of taking the award away from Rask if the Bruins win, but he has still proven to be a huge addition that has helped drive the Bruins’ run.

MORE BLUES-BRUINS:
• Bruins push Stanley Cup Final to Game 7 by beating Blues
• Special teams an issue once again for Blues in Game 6 loss
• St. Louis newspaper gets roasted for ‘jinxing’ Blues before Game 6

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.

Stanley Cup Final: Blues have dominated even strength play

Getty
3 Comments

If you are a St. Louis Blues fan you have plenty of reason for optimism heading into Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC; Live Stream).

Not only is your team just two wins away from its first ever championship, but it has shown a tendency all postseason to up its game the longer a series goes on (we looked at that trend here). What should make that even more encouraging for the Blues is that through the first four games they have already demonstrated an ability to carry the play for significant parts of this series and be the better team. Yes, a lot of that time came when the Bruins were shorthanded on the blue line and limited to just five defenders, but even before those injuries the Blues have simply been the superior team at even-strength so far.

Through the first four games the Blues have dominated the shot attempt and scoring chance numbers, owning more than a 55 percent share of the attempts in each category and hold slight edge on the scoreboard, outscoring the Bruins by a 10-8 margin when the sides are even.

The Blues have not only managed to control most of the even strength play, they have completely shut down the Bruins’ top two lines through the first four games.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

As the Boston Globe‘s Matt Porter pointed out on Thursday, the Bruins’ six 5-on-5 goals in this series have been scored by Sean Kurarly (two), Charlie Coyle (two), Joakim Nordstrom, and Connor Clifton, while no player on their top-two lines or top-two defense pairings other than Zdeno Chara has a point during 5-on-5 play.

Brad Marchand‘s goal in Game 1 came in an empty-net situation.

That is it for the Bruins at even-strength scoring through the first four games where the Blues’ top lines are still winning those head-to-head matchups.

Where the Bruins have managed to hang around in the series and take control is on special teams, where they have been — by far — the dominant team. The Bruins have already scored six power play goals (on only 16 attempts for a 37.1 percent success rate) and added a shorthanded goal on top of that.

The Blues meanwhile have managed just a single power play goal.

Put it all together and that means when the series has shifted into a special teams battle the Bruins are owning a 7-1 edge on the scoreboard. That is significant.

We put so much emphasis on even strength play because that is the situation we see most often in a random hockey game and where most goals get scored. But special teams goals still count, and if you have one team that is dominating that portion of the game the way the Bruins are it can completely swing a series. It is probably the biggest reason the Blues are not playing for a chance to actually clinch Stanley Cup on Thursday and why the Bruins still have a chance to take control for themselves. If the Blues are going to put themselves in a position to clinch the series in Game 6 (or even a Game 7) it is going to be a necessity for them to keep these games at even strength for as long as possible and play as disciplined a game as they did in Game 4 on Monday night. Their lack of discipline got them in trouble early in the series, and could hurt them again if the revert back to their early series ways.

They have proven through four games they can be the better team when things remain even on the ice, and even if you again go back to the amount of time the Bruins played down a defender in those situations you still have to consider that Chara and Matt Grzlecyk may not be 100 percent on Thursday even if they do play. That could still be an area the Blues exploit.

The Blues have every reason to be optimistic about the way they have played, because they have put themselves in a great position to pull this off.

If they can avoid turning these next couple of games into a special teams game, there is every reason to believe they can actually win it.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs Thursday on NBC at 8 p.m. ET (stream here).

MORE BLUES-BRUINS GAME 5:
• Bruins’ Chara to be game-time decision
• Report: Chara has broken jaw
• Blues vs. Bruins: Three keys to Game 5
• The Wraparound: Bruins need more, especially from second line
• Looking at Bruins’ potential defensive options

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.

Binnington chases rookie record; Coyle looks to match Gretzky

Getty Images

A stranglehold on the Stanley Cup Final is what both teams will enter Game 5 aiming for. But for one player and one goalie, there’s a little added incentive to etch their name into the annals of NHL history.

Jordan Binngington can kill two birds with one stone if he’s to pick up the win on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream).

Binnington, who has 14 wins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, is one shy of matching the NHL record for most in a postseason by a rookie goalie.

The 15-win pace has been set four times previous — Patrick Roy (1986), Ron Hextall (1987), Cam Ward (2006) and Matt Murray (2016). Three of those goalies — Roy, Ward and Murray — went on to win the Stanley Cup in those respective seasons.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

If Binnington does help the Blues to the Cup, he’d have the record all to himself with 16 wins.

Furthermore, a win at TD Garden in Boston can break another record, this time for road wins by a rookie.

Hextall didn’t win the Cup in 1987, but he won eight times on the road to establish the rookie mark. Binnginton matched that with his eighth in Game 2 and can move past Hextall on Thursday.

According to NHL PR, Binnington would become the fifth goaltender in NHL history – regardless of status – to record at least nine wins as a visitor in a single playoff year.

On the other side of the center line, Boston’s Charlie Coyle can join the company of The Great One in Game 5.

Coyle has a nifty little three-game goal-scoring streak going at the moment, helping him to tie for the team lead with Patrice Bergeron on nine goals.

NHL PR says only 13 players in league history have posted a goal streak of four games or more during the Cup Final.

Six of those have come in the expansion era, and a goal tonight would be the first time since Wayne Gretzky did it 34 years ago in 1985.

Another interesting stat: Coyle can become the seventh player in NHL history to reach the 10-goal mark in a playoff year after being acquired during the regular season. He was picked up by the Bruins shortly before the NHL Trade Deadline at the tail end of February.

And just a friendly reminder on how important winning Game 5 is: When a best-of-7 series is tied 2-2, the winner of Game 5 goes on to win the series 78.4% of the time (210-58), including 72% of the time in the Stanley Cup Final (18-7).


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Stanley Cup photos inside Bruins’ dressing room serve as inspiration

Getty Images
3 Comments

ST. LOUIS — As he spoke, Charlie Coyle’s eyes darted around the Boston Bruins’ dressing room inside Enterprise Center. There on the walls in the team’s dressing room were photos of Zdeno Chara, Bobby Orr, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, and Tuukka Rask celebrating their Stanley Cup championships.

For Games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, the team’s equipment staff wanted to make it a home away from home and use some of the wall space to inspire.

“Just little reminders,” said Coyle, “what it could be like, what’s here for us at stake and the great opportunity in front of us. You always catch yourself looking around and just kind of taking it in. It’s a good touch.”

Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said that he did not want to hide what could happen after four wins against the St. Louis Blues in this final series. Five current players were on that 2011 Cup winning team. They know the joy of winning. They also know, along with Torey Krug, what heartbreak in the Cup Final feels like after those 17 seconds in Game 6 back in 2013.

“This is what’s at stake, why we’re blocking shots, missing games,” said Cassidy. “This is why you’re taking a hit to make a play. This is what it’s all about. This is, I’d say the start of your legacy, and this helps build your legacy. We’ve talked about that. We don’t want to ram it down their throats, but it needs to be out there. We’re grateful to be playing. We certainly earned our way, and this is the prize at the end of the line. So, I think it’s good motivation.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

This isn’t the first time the Bruins have used this method to inspire. The equipment staff did something similar during the 2011 Cup Final games in Vancouver using photos of the great 1970s teams featuring Orr, Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk, Derek Sanderson and others. It’s no surprise that the leadership on that team eight years ago — Chara and Bergeron — wanted to bring it back for the start of this series, making sure the photos traveled with the team to St. Louis for Games 3 and 4.

The photos are there to hammer home those famous words from former NHL head coach Fred Shero, who told his Cup winning Philadelphia Flyers team before Game 6 of the 1974 Cup Final: “Win together today and we walk together forever.”

David Pastrnak joined the Bruins two seasons after the team’s run to the Cup Final in 2013. This is the furthest he’s been in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and when he sees those photos he wants to be in the next set.

“You can see those guys having memories like that for life,” he said. “It’s definitely something you want to be part of. It’s what you work for your whole life. A picture like this is what you remember the most.”

The Bruins have made plenty of memories during their playoff run this spring. Two more wins and they’ll be able to be part of the next batch of dressing room inspirational photos.

“It reminds us of how close we are to reaching our goal,” said Coyle. “I like it.”

Game 4 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs on NBC at 8 p.m. ET on Monday (stream here).

MORE BLUES-BRUINS GAME 3:
Bruins blast Blues, take 2-1 lead in Stanley Cup Final
Blues special teams continue to be sour note 
Berube keeping the faith in Binnington after rough Game 3

————

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.