For eight seasons, through personnel changes, adjustments, and trial and error, Claude Julien’s defensive system became one with the Bruins’ identity. The proof is in the results: 2.45 goals against per game in 2014-15 (No. 8 in the NHL), 2.08 in 2013-14 (No. 2), 2.21 in 2012-13 (No. 3), 2.43 in 2011-12 (No. 6), 2.30 in 2010-11 (No. 2), 2.33 in 2009-10 (No. 2), 2.32 in 2008-09 (No. 1), and 2.62 in 2007-08 (No. 11).
This fall, it will undergo its most significant transformation yet.
Since he became general manager on May 20, Don Sweeney has repeated that the Bruins’ defensive structure will remain in 2015-16. But last year’s ninth-place finish, the sacking of Peter Chiarelli, the roster turnover, and the nature of the game are demanding defensive evolution to take place.
A month out from camp and new players (Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes, Zac Rinaldo, Matt Irwin, Colin Miller) in place, Sweeney has a sharper idea of how game flow will proceed than when he was promoted. The questions are how far the transformation will go and whether the Bruins have the right mix to play this way.
“I think they have to,” said Sweeney, when asked if the defensemen will be skating more in 2015-16. “At times, we probably got a little bit too stationary on our breakouts. We need to be in motion a little bit. That means our forwards will be in motion a little bit, because teams were able to smother the walls, pinch, and pre-pinch.”
In previous seasons, forwards were instructed to execute the heavy lifting. They were taught to steer opponents into traps. Defensemen held their ground inside the dots. The idea was to eliminate all threats in the net-front house, construct multiple layers of defensive protection, and launch their rush game by forcing turnovers.
The problem last season was that the Bruins’ emphasis of guarding the house resulted in leaving the driveway, back door, and windows vulnerable to breaches. Defensemen were passive. Forwards didn’t backcheck effectively enough. What was once a dependable five-man phalanx crumbled into individuals working on islands.
The tweaks are meant to shift the danger level away from the net. Defensemen will be more active, perhaps up the ice and closer to the walls. Forwards will not have to retreat as far to funnel pucks into favorable real estate. There will be greater challenges to zone entries, similar to how MBTA police close down on fare evaders. The goal, as Sweeney likes to say, is to create anxiety for opponents up the ice.
In theory, advancing the puck battles will reduce the number of dangerous defensive situations. It will also lessen the burden on the forwards, which should leave them with fresher legs to go on the attack.
“Two hundred feet is a long way to go. One hundred ninety feet is a long way to go,” Sweeney said. “If we can create a few more turnovers without turning caution completely to the wind — not pinching and doing things completely out of character — if we can turn pucks over deeper up the ice as opposed to deeper in your zone, I think you’re better off.”
The trick will be to find the right balance. The Bruins have a history of in-zone defending more than up-ice heat.
Zdeno Chara is at his best as a one-man Occupy Boston unit on the left side of the defensive zone, not gapping up, holding the blue line, or launching body slams in center ice. Dennis Seidenberg is a fellow stay-at-homer. While Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller are good skaters, they’re more used to holding their ground. Dougie Hamilton, formerly the team’s most mobile defenseman, is gone. If the defense strays too far from what it’s done best, the Bruins will have to ask even more of goalie Tuukka Rask.
In the Stanley Cup Final, Chicago scored 13 goals in six games. Tampa Bay punched in just 10. They competed for the Cup by being stingy. But their respective top-four formations had Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, and Jason Garrison.
They could all move well. They transitioned rapidly because they pressured, recovered, and attacked with little need for resets. Back pressure from their forwards complemented their efforts.
It’s hard to say the Bruins are at that level.
Digital deal good for all involved
On Tuesday, the NHL announced its six-year deal with Major League Baseball Advanced Media. The company will have operational control of the league’s digital presentation. MLBAM will be responsible for operating NHL.com, each of the 30 teams’ websites, GameCenter Live, NHL Center Ice, and the NHL Network.
This is a good thing for all parties. The deal qualifies as hockey-related revenue, which means the salary cap will rise because of the agreement, although it’s unknown how much of an increase there will be. Teams and players will welcome any uptick given the decline in the Canadian dollar.
Long term, it’s even wiser.
Hockey will always have the advantage of being a crackling spectator sport. It comes alive for the customer on-site like no other game. Nothing will replace the in-person, nose-against-the-glass experience.
But the technology explosion is putting television consumption of hockey at risk. Unless the TV conglomerates solve the issue of bundling, the number of cord-cutters will continue to rise. TV viewers and their itchy remote fingers have more channels to watch if the game goes dull. By its nature, TV is a passive, one-way experience.
The consumers of today and tomorrow want interactive experiences, through laptops, tablets, phones, and whatever future technology has yet to be designed. We like clicking, swiping, commenting, tweeting, and pinching more than sitting on the couch and watching without interaction.
Even if the NHL doesn’t know what the products will ultimately become, the league chose its partner well. MLBAM operates the digital experience not just for baseball but for HBO, the PGA Tour, World Wrestling Entertainment, and the YES Network. These are heavyweight brands.
“Imagine what BAM Technologies can do with the speed of our game,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a conference call announcing the deal. “In this partnership, BAM is getting access to our content, and we are getting their world-class technology today and as it evolves.”
Only imagination limits the possibilities. For example, fans could tap their phones to see a player’s heart rate rise and fall during a game. They could click onto a heat map to see how a goalie moves. Just a casual spin through the App Store shows how broadly a phone can transform.
“More and better than you ever imagined,” Bettman said of what this deal will mean for the consumer. “We’re going to collectively be as cutting edge as anything you can find in sports. The content will continue to be authentic. There will be more of it. There will be richer content. And we’ll be doing more things in more ways.”
DRIVING HARD BARGAINS
More cases need hearings in end
Jonathan Bernier and the Maple Leafs closed the arbitration season on July 31 with a hearing in Toronto. Before a ruling was issued, the sides agreed on a two-year, $8.3 million extension.
Bernier’s hearing concluded an arbitration summer that was more boardroom than beach. Of the 23 player-elected filings and two team-elected filings, eight proceeded to hearings: Bernier, Lance Bouma, Alex Chiasson, Erik Haula, Mike Hoffman, Braden Holtby, Marcus Johansson, and Craig Smith. Three required rulings: Chiasson (one year, $1.2 million), Hoffman (one year, $2 million), and Johansson (one year, $3.75 million).
In comparison, of the 20 hearings last year (17 player-elected, three team-elected), only two advanced to hearings: Vladimir Sobotka and P.K. Subban. Only Sobotka required a ruling, and even that was out of the ordinary. Sobotka already had committed to signing with Avangard Omsk of the KHL. Sobotka was awarded a one-year, $2.725 million deal. The hearing helped the Blues keep control of and set a price on the ex-Bruin, who is still committed to playing in the KHL in 2015-16.
Even if arbitration can help set the market for settlements, neither players nor teams prefer the process over standard negotiations. Both sides require time and resources to identify comparables and prepare briefs. When cases proceed to hearings, teams can defend their desired salary by pointing out negative aspects of their players’ performance. No employee likes to hear such things from an employer.
But this offseason underscored how teams are becoming more committed to watching their budgets, even if they are at opposite ends of the cap spectrum. The Senators, for example, are not a cap team. They’ve committed big bucks to Bobby Ryan ($7.25 million annually) and Erik Karlsson ($6.5 million). They require cheaper salaries to offset their high-end players. They used arbitration to score two team-friendly rulings on Chiasson and Hoffman.
In contrast, the Capitals are close to approaching the $71.4 million ceiling. Alex Ovechkin eats up more than 13 percent of the team’s cap space. Arbitration helped the Capitals with their fight for cap compliancy.
Balancing performance, pedigree
Justin Florek finished 2013-14 well. The second-year pro appeared in six playoff games for the Bruins. The left wing scored a goal in Game 2 against Detroit in the first round. He had seemingly pushed past Jordan Caron on the depth chart. But Florek did not perform well in training camp last fall. He was assigned to Providence on Oct. 4 and was never recalled. Florek signed with the Islanders as an unrestricted free agent on July 2. The Bruins determined that Florek’s camp was a clearer indication of his projected 2014-15 performance than how he finished the previous season. The challenge, however, is balancing camp’s three-week window and unique competition with a player’s previous body of work. Some players don’t perform well when hitting teammates, playing with and against minor league players in preseason games, or auditioning under the watch of coaches and hockey operations personnel. Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas described the process well when speaking at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in February. “We have years of data, information, and scouting reports on players,” Dubas said. “A player comes into camp, has a good training camp, and we put him on the team and take off a player who for years has proven himself to be better. We put [that player] in the minors, or we release him and somebody claims him on waivers.”
Strategy teams should get behind
Jonathan Quick shared insight at The Players’ Tribune regarding the toughest shooters in the league. Quick’s sharpest observations centered on Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry — specifically, how the Anaheim top-liners like to work the puck behind the net. Quick noted the strain on his legs because of how deep he has to play when Getzlaf and Perry are grinding behind him. Quick’s discomfort shows how shooters should be spending more time behind the net. When a goalie has to look behind himself, swivel his head, and shift his weight multiple times, it introduces unpredictability to a predictable position. It’s not an easy place to work. Defensemen are good at taking away lanes to prevent puck carriers from approaching the area. But once there, an attacker can walk the puck either way, look for support out front, or even shoot at the goalie’s back, arms, or head. The goalie is uneasy when the puck goes back there. So are defensemen, who have to turn around and lose sight of what’s taking place out front.
Hurricanes are treading water
Bruins fans still think Scott Walker’s playoff winner on Tim Thomas happened yesterday. But Walker scored his Game 7 OT strike in 2009, the last time Carolina qualified for the playoffs. It will be hard for the team to break its six-year postseason drought unless Jeff Skinner rebounds, Jordan Staal stays healthy, Elias Lindholm continues to develop, and Eddie Lack grabs the No. 1 goaltending job. The small-market Hurricanes are fighting to get past the expensive purchases of former GM Jim Rutherford, including Jordan and Eric Staal, Cam Ward, and Alexander Semin (bought out at an annual cap hit of $2,333,333). James Wisniewski, Carolina’s biggest acquisition, was a healthy scratch for Anaheim’s postseason run. Lack, acquired from Vancouver for third- and seventh-round picks, will be critical in pushing Ward (22-24-5, 2.40 goals-against average, .910 save percentage last season) for the top job. “That’s what you want,” said GM Ron Francis. “You want competition at every position. It doesn’t matter if it’s forward, defense, or goaltender. You want everybody thinking he’s the No. 1 guy.”
No deal offers team opportunity
Marcus Kruger remains unsigned, although the Blackhawks want their fourth-line center back. This would be a good opportunity for a division rival to sign Kruger to an offer sheet to squeeze the Blackhawks. There would be two outcomes: Chicago would lose the left-shot pivot, or re-sign Kruger at a high price and feel the hit elsewhere on the roster. Colorado has enough cap space to pull it off. Not one player has signed an offer sheet this summer. The threat of an offer sheet, however, played a role in the Brandon Saad and Dougie Hamilton trades.
Skating isn’t a fast track to success
Last week, Adam Nicholas identified Noah Hanifin’s skating as NHL-ready. But Nicholas, the owner of Stride Envy Skating, noted how good wheels don’t automatically translate to NHL results. Some players with exceptional skating skill struggle because of how well they move. Nicholas cited Wild defenseman Matt Dumba as an example. Minnesota picked Dumba seventh overall in 2012, ahead of Jacob Trouba (No. 9), Cody Ceci (No. 15), and Olli Maatta (No. 22), partly because of how well he skates. In 2014-15, Dumba (8-8—16) played 58 games for the Wild, averaging 15:00 of ice time. He played 20 games for Iowa, their AHL team. “His skating is so good and he’s so powerful, sometimes he overplays things and gets into trouble,” Nicholas said. The skating coach pointed to Dumba’s explosive crossovers, which allow the 21-year-old to close on puck carriers rapidly. Dumba will improve as he relies more on angling than athleticism.
Scituate’s Conor Garland was one of six players released early from USA Hockey’s National Junior Evaluation Camp. The cuts left 32 players in camp at Lake Placid, N.Y., for games against Finland and Sweden. Noah Hanifin (Norwood), Colin White (Hanover), and Erik Foley (Mansfield) were the three Massachusetts players who remained in camp until the end. Hanifin is a lock to make the American roster for the World Junior Championship if he’s released by Carolina . . . On Tuesday, the Canucks promoted Judd Brackett to director of amateur scouting. Brackett had been one of the organization’s amateur scouts. Brackett, a Harwich native, was responsible for identifying Bruins prospect Brian Ferlin during a Florida camp, which ultimately landed the right wing in Indiana of the USHL . . . Shawn Thornton will hold his annual Putts & Punches for Parkinson’s golf tournament on Monday at Middleton’s Ferncroft Country Club. For more information, visit the website.