Monday, March 23, 2009

Why Are The Boston Bruins Where We Want To Be?

As things currently stand, the Boston Bruins have clinched a playoff position and the division title, while our Canadiens battle for 8th. With the progress we made last season, one could be forgiven for thinking that the league mixed up the teams. Alas, the Bruins have overtaken us (for now) in their progression and throw another obstacle in the way of Bob Gainey's 5- (going on 8-) year plan.

Why is this? How did it happen?

The answer is fairly straightforward – through a combination of hard work, good decisions and lucky gambles, rookie Peter Chiarelli has outperformed our supposed ace GM. I've subdivided his victories over Gainey below:

Eyes on the play – Blake Wheeler

The Bruins made one of the best signings behind the Hossa deal on July 1st last season. Signing one of the youngest UFAs on the menu did not look like much at the time, but it has provided the Bruins with the +/- leader for the NHL. The Bruins met Wheeler's demands for a big contract by loading him up with bonuses. Of course, they'll probably have to pay those now, but I doubt Chiarelli will be complaining.

The Bruins were on the ball with this move, as it was a low-risk, high-reward maneuver. It has made a massive difference to their team this year, since Wheeler was great to start and has good chemistry with Krejci and Ryder.

When was the last time the Canadiens grabbed such a young player like this for free? I think the answer goes back a long way if you leave out Brock Trotter. The Red Wings picked up Ville Leino for free last season too. When you look at our young forwards coming through, the question about Wheelers and Leinos is certainly a pertinent one.

Don't mind the depths – Phil Kessel

The Bruins were absolutely terrible in 2005-06 following the Joe Thornton trade, losing an astonishing 53 games in all. Their reward, of course, for their futility was a place in the draft lottery. While it didn't pay off with a lucky first overall draw, they still had a top 5 pick in what looks in retrospect like a good crop.

The Bruins don't plumb the depths very often, but every so often they do. Unlike their middling Northeast rivals Montreal and Toronto, Boston has been able to survive as a franchise and get top 5 picks. The last time Montreal picked so highly with a pick of their own was, well, never (Price was a lottery win).

If you're missing the playoffs anyway, a high draft pick is another free way to improve greatly. Push for tenth and you get the 12th pick, a la Montreal/Toronto. It is possible to trade for those top picks, but the days where GMs are total buffoons trading with Sam Pollock are long gone – the price of a first from a bottom team is steep.
To say that gunning for the top draft picks is a proven strategy for rebuilding in the NHL would be an understatement – just ask Pittsburgh, Washington and Colorado. Thus it is no surprise that it has paid off for a team like the Bruins once again.

Trade return – Brad Boyes and Paul Mara

When the Bruins scammed Brad Boyes off the Sharks for Jeff Jillson in 2004, the Bruins probably thought they were putting a building block in place for the future. The first season after the lockout, their move looked genius as Boyes was clicking with Patrice Bergeron and becoming one of the best young scorers in the game.

The next year it was sophomore slump time for Brad and the Bruins were playing poorly as a team. Trade deadline 2007 came and had the Bruins looking to trade their young scoring star. In what could have been another steal in a long line of Brad Boyes trades, was made palatable for the Bruins as they picked up their now number two defenceman, Dennis Wideman.

That same trade deadline, the Bruins (anticipating Wideman's role on the team) opted to unload underperforming Paul Mara. Instead of picking up a measly second rounder or something from the Rangers, they instead picked up an upgrade on defence with three time Cup finalist (2-time winner) Aaron Ward coming back the other way. Ward, from my assessment of the team vs. the Habs is a key defensive stalwart for the Bruins.

Think of similar opportunities with the Canadiens and you may come up with Rivet for Gorges. there are many more in the loss or lost opportunity column. Souray could have been traded but wasn't. Huet was traded for less than his value. Ribeiro was traded as a cast-off in what looks like an awful waste. Gainey's trades haven't been bad by any standards, but in being conservative all the time as he is, he misses on the big jump that winning a trade big can bring.

Goaltending – Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas

Tuukka Rask was the number one rated goalie in the 2005 draft. He was taken 21st overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Boston Bruins were lucky enough to acquire Rask as part of another JFJ special – Rask for Raycroft.

Tim Thomas bears little similarity to Rask in career path, prospect status in his youth, style or size. In fact, whereas Rask was touted, Thomas was written off completely. This season, Tim Thomas will win the Vezina trophy. He leads the league in GAA and Save%, has over 30 wins and 4 shutouts.

In addition to a top prospect and an all-star goalie, the Bruins have also chosen to carry a very expensive, yet effective back-up in Manny Fernandez. Though they probably had more reason to trade Fernandez for a second rounder than the Canadiens did to trade Huet, they chose to hold him – presumably because they want to take this chance while it is here.

The way the Bruins are managing 3 goalies as good or better than the Canadiens 2 goalies is interesting. For one thing, they seem to have learned the Price lesson already after a series of burnout goalie prospects like Raycroft and Toivonen. For another, it seems like they crave insurance at the back, almost knowing that goalies can go cold at times for seemingly little reason at all.

This strategy is certainly working well for them this season. And though the forward-looking among us might prefer to write off a season and develop a super-goalie at the top level through trial by fire; Boston seems to accept that playoff success is a tricky business and throwing away one year in the hope of 5 good ones in the future is not a plan they favour.

Here, Montreal has gambled and gone the other way. The problem is Gainey's planning vis-a-vis goalies does not coincide with his planning for other positions – scorers, for example. What's more, our team chose to fly in the face of a good situation one year by writing the playoffs off for a tutoring session. I don't know which technique will ultimately pay the most dividends (I suppose we'll need to count Cups in 20 years), but this piece does not try to answer that – only why Boston is 20-odd points clear of us now.

So, are the Bruins the better team?

Right now, yes. Going forward, probably.

Are these Montreal Canadiens that much worse than the Bruins?

The answer is probably a "no".

In fact, the whole reality to this answer is very clouded, I think. Sometimes, I feel the standings make you look better than you are (such as Montreal 2008 and Boston 2009), they may also make you look worse.

It is also difficult when you judge a team by results alone. I have watched the Canadiens 72 times this season – they have won games they should have lost, lost games they should have won and had many scores misrepresent their actual play. I have not watched the Bruins except for a handful of occasions, but I wouldn't expect their run to be any different. I don't think that any assessment I offer of the Bruins beyond the basics presented here could stand up to our assessment of the Habs.

If I'm to take a rather more positive stance on the Canadiens situation, I could say that I think the Bruins might have had a bit more luck on their side. Call it what you will, but the Bruins have a 10.9% shooting percentage, and it was even higher during the early months of the season. Their "good" players were those whose shots seemingly never missed (like Krejci). The Canadiens have a 9.6% shot accuracy. Our let-downs are players whose shots have been saved.

I bring this up because the Canadiens were the Bruins of 2008 – they snuck a few wins by everyone with some luck and good timing. However, when their timing ran out (in the playoffs). In the regular season, our shooting was a whopping 10.8%, but in the playoffs scoring dried up as we shot at the goalie nearly 92% of the time. The Canadiens made good teams look bad in the regular season and those same good teams look great a few months later in the playoffs.

The answer (and this text) may be rewritten in a month...

It's all in the complicated game of building a team in this ridiculously long competition. Once the rules are changed to suit the Western style of play in a few weeks, you can throw regular season stars out the window. Michael Ryder's 25 goals will most likely become a footnote on another playoff series in which he struggles to contribute. The Ottawa management hand a clear handle on how to dominate the 6 months of meaningless stuff, but only latterly got a grasp on adjustments to be made to get past Toronto.

That s why they say you need to make the dance (or Laraque did anyway). Players who float in and out in the regular season can be activated by simple utterance of the word playoff (we know of one), whereas Boston knows as well as anyone that regular season phenoms can wilt just the same.

The fact is, the Boston Bruins are where we wanted to be in March/April and that is in the playoffs. But this Canadiens team can still get there too. If that is the case, us Habs fans are exactly where we wanted to be too, if only waiting for Game 3 to express our adulation in person.

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