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Heading into Thursday night's game in San Jose -- a 7-4 loss to the Sharks -- the Boston Bruins were slumping. They'd won just one of their last five games, and their offense had been anemic. Six goals in 310 minutes of hockey, while allowing 11.
If you allow 11 goals in 310 minutes, you should reasonably expect to come out with a lot more than three points, but alas, the Bruins cannot muster any sort of meaningful run support for poor Tuukka Rask. This, in a nutshell, has been the Bruins' problem all year.
Last year, the Bruins finished third in the league with 3.15 goals per game. During the lockout-shortened season they finished 13th at 2.65 per. The year before, they were tied for second at 3.17. And before that they were fifth at 2.98. For years, then, the Bruins have been a dominant offensive force over any given 82-game period. Ahead of the San Jose game, though, the offense was just 23rd in the league at just 2.35 goals per game, one spot and two-hundredths of a goal ahead of the pitiable Carolina Hurricanes.
This came even as the team was still ninth in goals against per game at 2.42, marking a slight step down from the previous four seasons (in reverse chronological order: second, third, sixth, second) but still among the best teams in the league. And that's with a slow start from the reigning Vezina winner, and with one of the best defensemen in the league injured.
Which, okay, you can blame at least some of the Bruins' struggles in recent weeks on the fact that Zdeno Chara has been sidelined for some time now. He's missed 17 of the team's first 26 games, having been out of the lineup since Oct. 23. The Bruins' possession numbers have suffered greatly as a consequence, falling from 55.1 percent with Chara, to 52.1 percent without him. That's not a small difference, obviously, but the Bruins have the personnel to keep pushing the puck in the right direction.
What they don't have, near as anyone can tell these days, is someone who can actually put the puck in the net with any kind of reliability.
Yeah, they're shooting less than 5 percent as a team at even strength, and that number is bound to come up, but the question is, “How much?”
The fact of the matter is that the Bruins aren't scoring because what they've done, pretty systematically over the past several years, is put themselves in a position where they're just out of options.
With David Krejci on the shelf, as he has been for some time, this is a team that's pretty shallow down the middle. It really is lacking in any sort of offensive punch. You'd expect a team to struggle without its No. 2 center, obviously, but what the Bruins are flailing with here is more than a little extreme. The loss of a Krejci-type doesn't account for a decline of 0.8 goals per game, even if you want to say the Bruins have also had rotten luck. Which, again, they have.
But it really does go back to the systematic selling-off of parts, to some extent, that has painted the Bruins into so desperate a corner. The cap has been mismanaged to an hilarious extent for a period of a few years at this point, and now even being able to write off Marc Savard's sizable AAV doesn't get them out of the woods; Peter Chiarelli pushed all in on last year's team being able to win another Cup, went bust, and now carries sizable penalties for this year. That's Problem No. 1.
And Problem No. 2 is that Problem No. 1 cost the team the ability to re-sign Jarome Iginla, who scored 30 goals last year playing alongside Krejci and Milan Lucic. The thinking was that they'd replace that scoring... somehow? There was never any actual plan advanced to make up for the loss of 30 goals other than, “We'll figure it out.”
They have not done so, nor were they ever going to.
The team's biggest goal contributors apart from Iginla last year — Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, and Reilly Smith; they combined for 99 goals, an average of nearly 25 per player — have flatly not been effective at all this year. All told, these forwards have just 20 goals between them this season, and Marchand leads the pack, and the team, with six. I guess you'd say that's balanced, but it's also rather poor. Dougie Hamilton has more than Smith at this point. Carl Soderberg paces the team with 17 points.
(Recall, too, that Smith shot nearly 14 percent last season, which is why he scored 20 despite taking just 146 shots. This year, his shots per game is up one-tenth, but the goalscoring has regressed to a more reasonable 8.2 percent. Funny how that works.)
And look, Iginla wasn't the answer to anyone's problems, really. Even if he'd taken short money, this would still be a team that was probably going to have a little difficulty scoring because of how they've more or less always played.
Any time you bring up Tyler “Shouldn't of traded” Seguin to Bruins fans, set a stopwatch to see how quickly they say, “Well, he'd never put up numbers like that in Claude Julien's system.” If it's more than five seconds, they might have something seriously wrong with them. That's the party line to explain why everyone's production seems to be so spread throughout the team. The Bruins play a team game, etc.
But please recall Seguin scored 45 goals over 129 regular-season games for Boston before they shipped him out for the crime of hitting too many posts in the Cup run and not being well-liked by Shawn Thornton. Should it really come as a shock that a No. 2 overall pick started scoring more when he moved to Dallas, where he got more ice time with better teammates?
If Julien wanted, he could have put Seguin in a much better position to succeed, but because he didn't want to muck and grind in the corners like the low-talent, high-effort players the Bruins organization loves, undyingly, for years, and top-to-bottom (Chris Kelly! Gregory Campbell! Dan Paille! Shawn Thornton!), he had to go.
This is the same logic that got Phil Kessel, who still remains Public Enemy No. 2 in Boston behind PK Subban, shipped to a division rival. Kessel is fourth in NHL goalscoring (168, behind only Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, and Corey Perry) since the trade. In the last season-and-a-third, Seguin trails only Ovechkin and Perry in goalscoring as well.
At some point, the Bruins' ability to replace top-shelf goalscoring talent from within, or by committee, was going to run out. Maybe Iginla, who until this year had scored 30-plus in 12 consecutive full seasons, was the last straw there. Maybe he'd have turned in the kind of pitiable production he has in Colorado (four goals in 25) even with a better team.
This is an institutional issue: The Bruins have long smothered or outright rejected top-level offensive talent; anyone who would choose Lucic or Krejci over Seguin is a flat-out lunatic, both in terms of cost control (Seguin will be paid just $5.75 million against the cap until 2019, a deal Chiarelli brokered), and the kind of on-ice production one could reasonably expect over that time. Loui Eriksson, clearly the prime return in the Seguin deal, has been, shall we say, poor since his arrival, missing time and being more or less ineffective when he's been healthy. His points per game in 87 tries in Boston trails what he did in Dallas significantly.
This issue isn't one out of which they're going to be able to defend-and-check themselves. They are still very good at that aspect of the game, and it's not gotten them very far. They need to shoot, their way out. And with the team 16th in shots per game, you have to think they just don't have the personnel any more. Even when acknowledging the fact that they can't get the puck to go in as much as it probably should, even a reasonable improvement toward their shooting production doesn't make them any great shakes in this league any more.
And the problem is there's no real good answer here. David Pastrnak looks like he might be helpful in the short-term, but how much do you want to count on a kid that just turned 18 in May, and hasn't played in North America before this season, to drive your offense? That's especially concerning if you have some vague hopes of climbing back anywhere near the top of the East that has for so long been your dominion.
The Bruins aren't the Blue Jackets. Their scoring concerns cannot be explained away by injury alone. Chara, sure, that hurts. Krejci hurts too. But other than that you're looking at Adam McQuaid as being the only semi-notable Bruin on the shelf. This is a team that, in theory, should be better.
Maybe Lucic can't function without Krejci. Maybe they put too much stock in Soderberg as being an effective stopgap. It's hard to say.
What's not hard to say is that these problems have largely been brought on the team by Chiarelli and Julien's fetish for “grit” and “character” over “talent.” Cap mismanagement, continuing to have no real alternative to Chara on the blue line (indeed the gulf between he and, say, Dennis Seidenberg is massive), and a roster comprised of try-hards whose trying hard isn't ever going to be good enough to make a difference for a team falling deeper and deeper beneath the true class of the league and Eastern Conference.
The window is closing on this team's ability to dominate the league as it has in the past. Maybe it's already closed. But if you want to go looking for ways to keep it open, the evidence is mounting that the answer lies somewhere outside the Bruins' dressing room.