Jaroslav Halak

Key questions for Bruins in 2019-20

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Boston Bruins. 

Let’s bat around three burning questions for the Bruins in 2019-20 …

1. Is the Atlantic Division going to be even tougher?

Consider some scenarios that could await the Bruins:

  • The Lightning stand as a powerhouse again, and maybe avoid a playoff disaster this time around.
  • For all the drama, the Maple Leafs remain potent, and perhaps find another gear with Tyson Barrie giving them more defensive balance.
  • Sergei Bobrovsky stops pucks like one of the best goalies in the world, and Joel Quenneville brings together a Panthers team that already boasted considerable talent.
  • A Canadiens team that was sneaky-good last season takes another step forward.
  • The Sabres capitalize on a strong offseason and threaten for one of the top three seeds.
  • The Senators and Red Wings seem likely to struggle, although Detroit could at least be scrappy.

While the Panthers and Habs could just as easily stumble, the top-end of the Atlantic figures to be robust once again. You almost wonder if the Bruins might prefer life as a wild-card team in the Metro bracket, if possible.

[BRUINS DAY: 2018-19 in review | X-factor | Under Pressure]

2. What will they get from their goalies?

The goaltending position is about as unpredictable as it is crucial to an NHL team’s success.

On paper, Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak stand as one of the most dependable duos in the league. Both have shown the ability to put together elite, or near-elite stretches, as recently as 2018-19. If Rask falters or gets hurt, Halak’s been capable of stepping in and playing at a high level. Their career numbers are positively sparkling.

There is one thing “on paper” that’s troubling, though: their ages.

Rask is 32, and Halak is 34. It’s far from impossible for one, or both, to hit the aging curve hard, whether that comes down to suffering untimely injuries, athleticism or fatigue-related drops in play, or a combination of those factors.

I’d argue the Bruins are in a position to succeed goaltending-wise, but there are some red flags that things could also go wrong.

3. Will the Bruins’ offense be more versatile, or remain top-heavy?

Charlie Coyle‘s cold puck luck right after being traded to the Bruins made it seem like Boston would be as top-heavy as ever entering the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Coyle’s lot then turned red-hot for stretches there, allowing him to form a nice supporting duo with Marcus Johansson, and that was crucial during the rare lulls for the Bruins’ dominant top line of Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Patrice Bergeron. Supporting players like Coyle, Jake DeBrusk, and Sean Kuraly picked up the slack during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, as the Blues found ways to solve the Bruins’ top line.

As discussed in the x-factor post about the Bruins battling the aging curve, it’s possible that Bergeron (34) and Marchand (31) may both decline because of all of their mileage, and sometimes those drops are sudden and huge, rather than gradual.

In some cases, the Bruins’ top line might just suffer because of specific matchups, particularly during the playoffs, where a team like the Blues can break down tape and negate some of their strengths with comparable two-way players.

In other cases, like the dog days of the regular season, especially back-to-back sets, it might just be smarter for the Bruins to strategically choose nights to rest veterans like Bergeron.

Younger and/or supporting players can make that feasible if they show that they can handle bigger roles. That’s a pretty big “if,” though.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.

Can Bruins hold off Father Time for another year?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Boston Bruins. 

It’s a cliche, but it’s true: “Father Time is undefeated.”

To the Boston Bruins’ credit, they’ve found ways to zig and zag with the aging curve so far.

Patrice Bergeron is 34, yet aside from being limited to 65 and 64 games during the past two regular seasons, he remains a dominant two-way presence. Zdeno Chara‘s slowing down, but is still averaging more than 21 minutes per night, and often succeeding in making us forget that he’s 42. Instead of getting poor play from an aging goalie duo of 32-year-old Tuukka Rask and 34-year-old Jaroslav Halak, the Bruins’ save percentage stats were comfortably above league average. David Krejci continues to contribute at age 33, and it’s still confounding that Brad Marchand is 31 already.

The Bruins have unearthed some major youthful talent, particularly in David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy, but the bottom line is that this team remains reliant upon an aging core of talents whose productivity could plummet.

[MORE BRUINS: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three questions]

We’ve certainly seen this before with other teams who’ve had long runs as contenders.

The Los Angeles Kings’ decline wasn’t gradual — it was staggering. Their pals in Anaheim could see the same drop in their team play, or just observe the jarring downfall of Corey Perry, which ended with a buyout.

Maybe the Bruins thrive where those teams fight to survive because of style differences, such as Bergeron’s cerebral game. Or maybe the Bruins have just been lucky.

Whatever the explanation may be, the Bruins have sustained a window of true, elite contention for longer than expected, as it sure seemed like that window was closing during the end of Claude Julien’s run.

But what if Father Time shows up to collect those debts in 2019-20?

A deep, draining run within one win of a Stanley Cup probably didn’t make the Bruins feel younger. Boston battled through 24 playoff games during that run, including two Game 7s. As much as a “Stanley Cup hangover” narrative focuses on motivation (and recovering from literal hangovers), the holdover fatigue can’t be ignored. Being on the losing end might be the greatest testament to such a thought, as players like Chara and Rask might feel some lingering effects from battling through June 12.

So, the Bruins probably can’t totally avoid absorbing body blows from fatigue and the aging process, yet they’d be wise to mitigate the damage.

  • Having aging veterans take one game of a back-to-back set off seems prudent.
  • Rask has already said how much it helped to have Halak carry some of the workload, so more of that?
  • Easing burdens even while players are on the ice is worthwhile. Not only do you make things less grueling for Bergeron/Chara/etc., but you might get some useful intel. Perhaps you can break up Marchand – Bergeron – Pastrnak during certain series where you’d be better off spreading the wealth? Getting a better idea of who works well with those stars could boost Boston’s versatility.

On paper, this could all run smoothly, but we’ll see when this team actually hits the ice again. After all, Father Time isn’t always polite enough to knock before barging in and messing everything up.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.

Bruins’ Don Sweeney wins GM of the Year Award

Don Sweeney took over as the Boston Bruins’ general manager in 2015 and has guided them to three straight playoff berths and a 49-24-9 record in 2018-19. On Wednesday night during the 2019 NHL Awards, his efforts were acknowledged with the GM of the Year Award.

A panel of NHL exclusives, print and broadcast media, as well as the 31 GMs annually give the award “to the general manager who best excelled at his role during the regular season.” Though the award focuses on the season, the voting does take place after the second round.

Sweeney made two significant moves before the trade deadline, acquiring Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle. Though the two had a limited impact during the regular season, they provided valuable secondary scoring during the Bruins’ run to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

One of his big moves though came before the campaign when he signed goaltender Jaroslav Halak to a two-year, $5.5 million contract. That move played off beautifully for the Bruins as Halak was an ideal backup in 2018-19. He took the pressure off Tuukka Rask during his early season struggles and allowed Boston to use their starting sparingly enough that he was fresh for the postseason.

Here is the full results for the 2019 vote:

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

John Gibson deserves to be Vezina candidate, if not the winner

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If there’s one travesty come June when the NHL’s awards are handed out, it’s that John Gibson won’t be up on stage receiving the Vezina Trophy for the NHL’s best goaltender.

Yes. John Gibson. An NHL goaltender on one of the worst teams in the league, a team that’s fighting for the right to pick first overall rather than raise a second Stanley Cup banner in Anaheim.

It might seem like insanity. Maybe it is.

The Vezina’s three finalists will probably look something like this: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Ben Bishop and Frederik Andersen.

Vasilevskiy, of course, because he’s an incredible goaltender playing on perhaps the best regular-season team in NHL history in the Tampa Bay Lightning. There’s a solid case to be made for a guy with six shutouts, a .927 save percentage and 37 wins entering Friday.

Bishop, because he leads the league with a .933 save percentage and has given a low-scoring Dallas Stars team every opportunity to be in the playoff position they’re in.

Andersen, because despite the milk carton defense in Toronto, has put together an impressive season sans help from his Maple Leafs teammates.

Their numbers are the shiny ones you see when you Google goalie statistics. Their names are atop the rankings of basic goaltending statistics.

They’re all elite goalies, don’t get me wrong, and this is taking nothing away from what they’ve accomplished.

But what John Gibson has done trumps them all.

Gibson’s numbers, on a surface level, look pedestrian. He’s posted a .915 save percentage and a 2.89 goals-against average in 56 appearances this season. There are several guys ahead of him in that category and likely where the wheels begin to fall off in his Vezina case.

Are the NHL’s 31 general managers, who vote on the Vezina, going to dig much deeper? Probably not, and that’s where Gibson’s case comes to a screeching halt.

Here’s some truth: Gibson has saved more goals above the league average than any other goalie in the NHL this season. His goals-saved above average is 17.8, nearly a full goal and a half above Jaroslav Halak and more than a goal and a half more than Bishop. Andersen? Gibson’s got him beat by over 10 goals. Vasilevskiy? 16.

More truth: Among the 37 goalies this season that have played 1,500 minutes or more, Gibson ranks lowest with an expected save percentage of .913 in 5v5 situations when you factor in the type of shot quality he’s faced. His adjusted save percentage when look at the difference in his actual save percentage of .927 and the expect numbers, you arrive a 1.37, fourth best in the NHL, meaning that Gibson is well above the average of what he should be given the quality of shots he’s faced.

Speaking of quality and the number of shots faced, Gibson has seen more high-danger shots fired his way (299) than any other goalie in the league, and despite this, he’s managed a .823 save percentage, good for ninth best — higher than Andersen and Vasilevskiy. Bishop (.854, 207 shots against) is third, but has seen 92 less high-danger shots.

One more thing: Gibson has seen the fifth-most shots against per 60 minutes played, just slightly behind Andersen, both of whom are well ahead of Bishop and Vasilevskiy.

All these numbers aren’t just for show. They’re important statistics that show just how incredible Gibson’s season has been with the Ducks.

Recency bias won’t help his cause. People will say his season was front-loaded as the Ducks surprised a lot of people with their playoff positioning early on. Does Andersen get the same treatment? Does Vasilevskiy get dinged for the fact he’s blessed by an offensive and defensive juggernaut in front of him?

But don’t blame Gibson because his back broke from carrying the team so hard. Without him, the lowest scoring team in the NHL might be giving the 1974-75 Washington Capitals a run for their money for worst record ever.

Look, all four of these goalies deserve Vezina recognition. There are others, too. Robin Lehner on Long Island, Pekka Rinne in country music’s capital, Marc-Andre Fleury in Sin City.

The point of this exercise is this: often we write off great players on bad teams. Connor McDavid not deserving the Hart Trophy because he plays for the Edmonton Oilers is just one example. The problem with this mindset is we miss the exceptional that gets neglected because of it.

People will brush off a season like Gibson is having, saying his surface statistics are nothing to write home about and will continue along their merry way.

And that’s a shame, because if the Vezina is truly an award for the best goalie in NHL, then Gibson deserves to be, at the very least, in the room in Las Vegas later this June, if not on the stage saying his thank yous.

(Stats courtesy of Corsica)

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

The Buzzer: Make your Mark

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Three Stars

1. Mark Scheifele

The last time the Winnipeg Jets took off for a huge victory, it was Blake Wheeler who was stealing the headlines with a rousing five-point night. Scheifele wasn’t half-bad on that Friday, either.

On Sunday, the roles were reversed. Wheeler extended his point streak to 10 games, collecting two assists. Scheifele was even better, generating a helper to go with two goals, with one of his tallies being the game-winner.

Scheifele, like Wheeler, often stacks the stat categories, and Sunday was no different. The star-on-a-bargain-contract enjoyed a +3 night, fired four shots on goal, blocked a shot, and went 12-8 in the faceoff circle.

(It would be surprising if Paul Maurice changes the third member of that line anytime soon, as talented young winger Nikolaj Ehlers provided a goal and an assist; his speedy transition game makes this top line horrifying … and oh yeah, the Jets also have Patrik Laine for weaker defenseman and Dustin Byfuglien stomping around as if he realizes that no one can contain him. Gulp.)

2. Joe Pavelski

This is a tough one, because while Pavelski ties Scheifele as the only Sunday scorer to collect three points, it’s inflated a bit by his goal being an empty-netter.

That extra point feels like a fair tiebreaker, though, especially since Pavelski paralleled Aleksander Barkov and others by contributing a strong all-around night. Along with that goal and two assists, Pavelski was +3, generated three SOG, delivered four hits, and blocked four shots while going 9-5 on draws.

People don’t really hammer scorers for failing to get assists in the same way they pick on someone when they haven’t managed their first goal of a season, but it has to be a relief for Pavelski to grab his first two assists of 2018-19. Considering that he’s in an uneasy contract year situation, he – and his agent, and the Sharks – are likely counting these things.

3. Darcy Kuemper

Again, this is a spot where you could argue for Barkov, or maybe Jaroslav Halak, who finished Sunday with only one fewer save (37). How much do you weigh Barkov’s strong overall performance/two goals over Kuemper’s nice work and 38 stops?

To me, Kuemper gets the edge for a few reasons:

  • Kuemper was facing a rested team in Washington, while Arizona was wrapping up a back-to-back following frustrating 4-0 loss to the Penguins on Saturday.
  • That rested team was the Capitals, a squad that can manufacture goals even when it’s playing 50-50 hockey, and even if they are the one dealing with more fatigue.
  • Other goalies with similar stats didn’t face that rest disparity.
  • He likely came into Sunday with fire in his belly, yet low confidence, as he had allowed a total of 13 goals in his past three starts.

Maybe you prefer the work of Barkov or someone else, but you have to admit that Kuemper enjoyed quite the performance.

Highlights

A player as smart and skilled as Barkov can make you pay for a mistake and/or unlucky bounce in a matter of seconds:

The Minnesota Wild are red-hot lately, and Devan Dubnyk usually is at the forefront of their hot streaks. Making saves like these reminds us that he’s one of the better goalies in the NHL during the (rather frequent) spans when he’s on his game:

Lowlight

Former Bruins goalie (prospect) Malcolm Subban will like to forget the first goal of Jeremy Lauzon’s career (which he, of course, will never forget):

Factoids

Hot take: David Pastrnak having 16 goals before we’ve even reached Nov. 16 is quite impressive.

Pavel Bure wasn’t a member of the Panthers all that long, yet he authored some astounding moments in Florida, so Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov flirting with one of his club marks is impressive. Also: scary, since the Panthers also employ that Barkov fellow. Oh, And Vincent Trocheck. And Keith Yandle. And …

Scores

MIN 3 – STL 2
FLA 5 – OTT 1
ARI 4 – WSH 1
WPG 5 – NJD 2
BOS 4 – VGK 1
SJS 3 – CGY 1
COL 4 – EDM 1

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.