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The Boston Bruins Look Good On Paper, So Why Do They Suck?

The Boston Bruins’ recent stretch of uninspired hockey — they’ve won only five games since Christmas and have been outscored 16-6 in their past four games — has prompted talk that head coach Claude Julien is about to be fired. Julien’s track record suggests that a firing would be unjust — his 416 wins are the most in franchise history, and he’s one of only six Bruins coaches to win the Stanley Cup. But it also speaks to the mounting frustration over a team that has badly undershot expectations over the past few seasons.

Boston does the little things well. It currently leads the NHL in Corsi and Fenwick,1 the most popular possession metrics, across all situations, and it ranks third in faceoff win percentage. Boston’s penalty killing unit is nearly impenetrable (its 86.6 kill percentage is second only to that of the Carolina Hurricanes), and its 34.1 shots per game is second in the league, behind the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 34.7. But despite all that, the Bruins are in serious danger of missing the playoffs. Again.

How can a team that takes more than 34 shots per game rank in the bottom third of total goals scored? Answer: The Bruins currently rank dead last in shooting percentage, scoring on an anemic 7.1 percent of the shots they take. By contrast, the Penguins, who lead the league with 167 goals scored — and who eviscerated the Bruins on Sunday, 5-1 — score on 10.5 percent of the shots they take (fifth in the league), and the New York Rangers, who take less than 30 shots per game (they rank 18th), score on a league-leading 11.7 percent of the shots they take.

The Bruins have taken almost 300 more shots than the Rangers2 and yet have scored more than 40 fewer goals. On average, the Bruins take 7.4 more shots per game than their opponents — the largest margin in the league — and yet they’re still getting outscored 2.54 goals per game to 2.42.

Some of this could be explained away by bad luck (or facing hot goalies); it’s difficult to account for a 1.9-point dip in shooting percentage from last season, especially when this year’s Bruins roster and last year’s aren’t significantly different. But lack of depth has also hurt the Bruins in recent seasons. After losing Loui Eriksson (who scored the puck on an astounding 16.3 percent of the shots he took last season) to free agency and Matt Beleskey (who added 15 goals on 8.9 percent shooting in 2015-16) to injury,3 Julien has had to make do with a somewhat decimated roster of not-quite-ready-for-prime-time players.

Boston’s stars are still as good as any team’s. David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron (despite a down year) would be No. 1 centers on half the teams in the NHL — they rank 29th and 33rd, respectively, in points per game among active NHL skaters — and Tuukka Rask is statistically among the 10 best goalies in the history of the NHL. (For goalies with more than 250 career games, Rask’s .924 save percentage is the best all-time, while his goals against average of 2.23 ranks ninth).

But the rest of the Bruins’ roster is strapped for talent. Indeed, when Rask isn’t between the pipes, the Bruins might be the worst team in the league. Their backup-goaltending tandem of Zane McIntyre (who was a fine college goalie but has struggled mightily since arriving to the show) and Anton Khudobin (a guy the Bruins tried to release on waivers but who has been so terrible that no team claimed him) have posted a combined save percentage of .875 (which, if it were generated by a single netminder, would rank 73rd if it were added to a list of the NHL’s 84 goalies), and the duo has won just a single game combined.

Of course, it’s not easy backstopping a team that skates only six players with plus-minus numbers in the black. It’s also tough to win championships after key weapons are traded away, something that Boston GMs Peter Chiarelli and Don Sweeney have been wont to do since 2013. Gone are Tyler Seguin, who’s scored 123 goals since being dealt from Boston to Dallas; Johnny Boychuk, who chews up blueline minutes and can score from the point (something this Bruins team misses desperately); Dougie Hamilton, another point-producing defenseman; and Milan Lucic, a perennial 20-goal threat (and a player whose career shooting percentage of 14.4 ranks eighth among active skaters). All Boston ended up with for their trouble was an AHL defenseman (Joe Morrow, who has played in just 65 NHL games over the past three seasons) and a low-scoring right winger (Jimmy Hayes, who has just 3 points in the 36 games he’s played in this season4), both of whom would struggle to get ice time for the Quad City Mallards, much less one of the NHL’s oldest, proudest franchises.

Even with their stars-and-scrubs roster, the Bruins aren’t particularly bad. They’ve accumulated the 14th-most points so far this season, and by Hockey-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (which adjusts a team’s average goal differential for its strength of schedule), they’re the 17th-best team in the NHL. Which is to say that the Bruins are a center-of-the-pack, perfectly mediocre team.

But mediocrity doesn’t lead to postseason berths. According to Hockey-Reference’s playoff simulator, Boston has only a 25 percent chance of making the playoffs. For the Bruins to get in, the Maple Leafs would have to dry up and crumble during the second half of the season. (The Leafs have a history of collapsing down the stretch against the Bruins, so it’s possible.)

More likely, Julien’s days behind Boston’s bench are numbered. A third consecutive missed postseason would be damning for the franchise — that hasn’t happened in nearly 50 years. A departure by Julien would spell the end of a Bruins golden era that never quite materialized.

Julien has won a cup, and that’s no small feat. But Julien has also presided over a Bruins team that’s consisted of Bergeron, Krejci and Rask in their primes, and so it could be argued that he should have won more. Instead, the Bruins have only managed to make it past the second round of the playoffs once since 2012-13, when they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final. Although the Blackhawks’ dynasty endures, the Bruins continue their march toward the middle of the road.

Footnotes

  1. Updated through the games of Jan. 22.

  2. To be fair, the Bruins have played two more games than the Rangers, but I doubt the boys in blue are going to average 150 shots a game over their next two games to close the gap.

  3. Beleskey returned to action on Jan. 20 after missing 23 games.

  4. Not many more than you’d expect a bag of pucks wearing a Jimmy Hayes mask to score.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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