There is little Claude Julien of the Bruins does not know about his team. Like every good coach, Julien is tuned in to variables ranging from his players’ moods to which neutral-zone breakouts would work best against a certain opponent.
What Julien can’t understand is why his team can’t buy power-play opportunities.
“We’re not blessed with too many power plays,” Julien said after the Bruins’ 4-2 win in New Jersey on Tuesday, their 10th straight victory. “It’s a part that we still can’t figure out why. We see reasons we should be on the power play. Our penalty kill has to be good because every night we’re killing more than we are on the power play. That’s just the way it has been for years. It’s a good thing we’re a disciplined team. We don’t take a ton of penalties. We just don’t get a ton of power plays.”
Some teams are excellent at drawing power plays. Through 71 games, Washington had gone on the power play a league-leading 255 times and had scored on an NHL-best 23.9 percent of its chances. Their power play is a major reason why the Capitals aren’t with the Islanders, Panthers, and Sabres at the ground floor of the Eastern Conference.
Boston is not one of those teams. Through 69 games, the Bruins had drawn only 192 power plays, the fewest in the league. They finished at the bottom of the NHL last season, too. They had 122 power plays, 81 fewer than the league-leading Canadiens.
It’s been this way ever since Julien took over the bench in 2007-08. In 2011-12, the Bruins had 250 chances, the fifth-lowest total that season. They were 27th overall in 2010-11 (265 opportunities). They had the second fewest in 2009-10 (265). They were 27th in 2007-08 (319) and 2008-09 (313).
In 2006-07, general manager Peter Chiarelli’s first year in Boston and coach Dave Lewis’s only season with the Black and Gold, the Bruins had the sixth-most power-play opportunities (412).
Seven seasons of consistent results prove that Julien’s presence has something to do with the Bruins’ failures to go on the power play.
In theory, the Bruins should be good at drawing power plays. Players usually take penalties when they’re out of position and chasing puck carriers. Think of hooking, holding, interference, and tripping. Players with the puck on their sticks don’t take such penalties.
This season, the Bruins have been one of the league’s best puck-possession teams. Via different advanced stats (Corsi, Fenwick), the Bruins, Blackhawks, Kings, and Sharks attempt more shots than they allow, which is an accurate measurement of how they usually control the puck.
This has worked out well for San Jose and Los Angeles. Through 71 games, the Sharks had 254 power-play opportunities, just one off Washington’s league-leading pace. The Kings had 248 power-play chances through 70 games, fourth most in the NHL. The Blackhawks had 222 chances, ninth-fewest after 70 games.
One of Julien’s pet peeves is embellishment. He has regularly railed on players who act like soccer players to draw calls. It’s possible Julien’s preference for clean, honest play is keeping his players from flopping and diving. It hasn’t stopped Brad Marchand, however, from trying to draw penalties. Marchand’s reputation has probably kept him from earning more calls (see the James Neal knee to the head, which went uncalled on Dec. 7).
“Who’s your poster child? It’s Marchand,” said former NHL referee Paul Stewart. “He’s a guy like [Ken] Linseman. He plays on the edge and [ticks] people off. It gets to a point where a referee will make decisions based on his judgments — how many coffee filters do you strain to get the quality penalty? Marchand may not get the break the other guy’s going to get.”
However, my theory leans more toward roster composition. Under Chiarelli’s watch, the Bruins have been a big, strong, sturdy team. It’s hard to knock players such as Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron, and Zdeno Chara to the ice. In turn, it’s hard for referees to call penalties when they see players powering through holds and hooks and staying on their skates.
This season, the Bruins are slow and big.
“The first thing is speed,” said Stewart, when asked why some teams draw more calls than others. “There’s more concentration by the officials on hooking, holding, obstruction-type fouls. The speed factor brings into account why some teams are used to standing around and not being as quick to impede progress.”
Their fastest skaters are Marchand, Daniel Paille, and Ryan Spooner. Perhaps not by coincidence, they are three of the four Bruins most successful at drawing penalties, along with David Krejci.
Of the four, Paille, Marchand, and Spooner have high-end jets. Because of their speed, they force opponents to take penalties.
Through 69 games, Paille had drawn 13 penalties: three holding, two hooking, two interference, two tripping, two slashing, one boarding, and one holding the stick.
Krejci doesn’t have Paille’s speed, but he is slippery and regularly handles the puck, which make him good at drawing penalties. Krejci has been high-sticked four times, including three double minors. His other penalties drawn: four hooking, three cross-checking, two holding, two roughing, one diving, one tripping, one interference, and one delay of game (faceoff violation).
Some of these characteristics are manifested in the NHL’s best at drawing penalties: Dustin Brown (2.1 penalties drawn per 60 minutes), Nazem Kadri (2.1), Alexander Steen (2.0), Evgeni Malkin (1.9), and Cory Conacher (1.9). They have good wheels or are clever with the puck.
They’re also evident in the teams that go on the power play most often. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom put teams in position to take penalties. So do skilled burners such as San Jose’s Martin Havlat, Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl, and Brent Burns.
The Bruins take advantage of their power-play opportunities. They scored on 20.3 percent of their chances through 71 games. That’s far better than their 11.4 success rate during the 2010-11 Stanley Cup run. Unless they change their team-building approach, they just won’t have that many chances to practice it.
beginning to show
Entering Saturday night’s showdown against Montreal at the Air Canada Centre, the Maple Leafs were 4-5-1 in their last 10 games and had lost three straight to Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Washington. Coach Randy Carlyle wasn’t satisfied with goalie James Reimer’s performance. Reimer shot back by saying he thought he played well against the Red Wings. Ray Petkau, Reimer’s agent, posted the following on Twitter after the loss to Detroit: “As is customary in Toronto, when your team plays poor defensively game after game, you blame your goalie.”
None of this should be a surprise.
The Leafs have played with fire all season by not playing with the puck. They score in two ways: off the rush with their first line and on the power play.
There are few wingmen more dangerous than James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel. They are dynamic on the counterattack and off turnovers. Both Kessel (35-39—74 in 71 games) and van Riemsdyk (27-29—56 in 69 games) do not back off in the danger areas.
On the power play, the Leafs score at a 20.4 percent rate, putting them inside the top 10.
These might be the only times the Leafs consistently possess the puck.
Petkau did not help matters with his tweet, but he is right about Toronto’s defense. It is wretched.
Toronto allows a league-high 36.2 shots on goal per game. The number underscores how often the Leafs are on defense instead of offense.
Lights-out goaltending from starter Jonathan Bernier masked the team’s retreating ways. Bernier is 25-16-7 with a 2.61 goals-against average and .925 save percentage, all while under assault in every outing. Over 44 starts, Bernier has faced an average of 37.1 shots per game. In comparison, the Bruins’ Tuukka Rask saw only 28.2 shots per game in 50 starts.
But Bernier strained his groin March 13 against Los Angeles. Reimer, the rebound-happy No. 2 goalie, was in goal for the last three losses.
Reimer is an average goalie. Only great puck-stoppers can hang in when playing behind the league’s third-worst penalty kill (78.3 percent) and on a team that refuses to play with the puck.
The Leafs remain in the Eastern Conference’s top eight. They should make the playoffs as a wild card. The Bruins and Penguins can’t wait.
Norris voting more
difficult than it looks
There is no player better than the Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith at turning defense into offense. At a pace that would make a Porsche 911 Turbo look like a garbage truck, Keith retrieves pucks and triggers the attack with a crisp outlet pass or a blazing rush up the ice.
Keith does this against second and third lines.
Zdeno Chara, meanwhile, is the best shutdown defenseman in the NHL. He plays against all the top forwards. Through 67 games, he had 16 goals, third most among all defensemen.
Chara scored nine of those goals on the power play. By its nature, the power play is an easier situation to score than during five-on-five battle.
These are two of the variables that make voting for the Norris Trophy, given to the league’s best all-around defenseman, a challenging task.
It is up to each voter to determine his or her interpretation on “all-around defenseman.” Some voters place more emphasis on offense. P.K. Subban, last year’s winner, tied for the lead among defensemen with 38 points. Erik Karlsson (78 points) led D-men the year before. Nicklas Lidstrom (62) had the second-most points after Lubomir Visnovsky (68) in 2010-11. Keith (69) was second in 2009-10.
It’s trickier to gauge a defenseman’s defensive work. Mainstream numbers don’t capture their performance. Eyeballs and advanced stats are better guides.
To these eyes, Chara is at the top of mix. Contenders include Drew Doughty and Shea Weber. They all play against first lines. Keith doesn’t. Chicago uses Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya as its shutdown pair. By my interpretation, the best all-around defenseman requires that your coach demands your presence against opposing top players.
With each season, Johnny Boychuk looks more like Boston’s equivalent of Dan Girardi, the right-shot, stay-at-home Rangers strongman. Boychuk, who has one season remaining on a three-year, $10.1 million contract, will certainly look to Girardi’s recent deal as a comparable. Girardi, who is four months younger than Boychuk, landed a six-year, $33 million extension with the Rangers. Through 71 games this season, Girardi had a 4-16—20 line while averaging 22:58 of ice time. In 63 games, Boychuk also had 20 points (three goals, 17 assists) while logging 21:10 per appearance. Girardi might be better than Boychuk, but not by much. The Bruins would have a hard time giving Boychuk that much term on his next contract. He could get it on the open market. The organization’s decision on Boychuk’s future will be critical.
The chatter around the Hurricanes is that general manager Jim Rutherford might be entering his final stretch at the helm. Rutherford is close to owner Peter Karmanos, but the Hurricanes haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 2008-09. The 65-year-old Rutherford must assume some of the blame for that drought. Rutherford has been too liberal with his owner’s checkbook. Bad contracts include Eric Staal ($8.25 million annually), Alexander Semin ($7 million), Cam Ward ($6.3 million), and Jordan Staal ($6 million). Rutherford didn’t make Edmonton and Boston happy by re-signing Jeff Skinner to a six-year, $34.35 million extension prior to the start of his third NHL season. This allowed Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, fellow 2010 draft picks, to seek and receive similar pre-lockout extensions. These big-ticket contracts don’t offset Rutherford’s shrewd moves, such as acquiring Andrej Sekera from Buffalo or signing Anton Khudobin. The Hurricanes can’t afford to make big mistakes. Ron Francis, the team’s vice president of hockey operations, was being groomed to replace Rutherford. That could happen sooner rather than later.
Ryan Suter can handle a heavy workload. He averaged 29:48 of ice time through 70 games. That’s two-plus minutes more than Brian Campbell, the league’s second-busiest defenseman. Suter’s expanded chores show up in his play. Technically, Suter is as good as there is in the league. He is usually positioned correctly. He has an active stick and uses it well. Suter will lean on forwards when necessary. But even freaks such as Suter bend when they’re asked to do too much. On Monday, the Wild had Suter on the ice for a shift against Boston’s third line. Suter couldn’t do much to slow down Carl Soderberg’s advance around the net. Moments later, Soderberg set up Loui Eriksson for a net-front goal. Suter plays too much. He would have a greater impact with fewer shifts. The Wild play with pace and skill up front. Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle are long-term citizens of Minnesota’s top two lines. But the Wild need defensive reinforcements to take some of Suter’s shifts.
Ted Nolan will receive a three-year contract extension, according to TSN, but it’s hard to see Nolan staying in Buffalo to see the end of his deal. The players are competing better under Nolan than they did for former coach Ron Rolston. But GM Tim Murray deserves an opportunity to hire his own man. There is no relationship more important in a hockey organization than between GM and coach. If Murray believes there’s a better person for the job, he should have the chance to bring in that guy . . . Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff bought himself some time by sacking coach Claude Noel and replacing him with Paul Maurice. But the Jets will likely miss the playoffs yet again. Aside from rookies Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg has a veteran roster. Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Evander Kane, and Zach Bogosian should be in their sweet spots. If the Jets can’t gain traction early next season, Cheveldayoff will feel the heat . . . Winnipeg’s Anthony Peluso challenged Colorado’s Patrick Bordeleau to a fight on Wednesday. Peluso didn’t like how Bordeleau dumped Matt Halischuk. Bordeleau accepted the offer, but only if Peluso, who wears a visor, took off his helmet. Peluso agreed. Bordeleau responded by also taking off his helmet. Fighters have the best manners in sports.