Thursday, December 3, 2009

Shootout Abilities Could Determine Bruins' Season Fate

Boston Bruins' games are turning into glorified skills competitions rather than hockey games. Forget about team defense and a deep roster - too often this season Boston's fortunes have swung on the ability of a single, lonely player to deke an opposing goalie. Mano a mano hockey if you will.

Heading into Wednesday's game against Tampa Bay, the Bruins had three straight games decided by shootout, bringing their season total to nine. Already. In only 26 games. That's over a third of Boston's games (by far a league high) being decided by a few individual players rather than the full team. To put that into perspective, last season the Rangers led the league in shootout appearances with 16 over a full season (19.5%).

As a result, the Black-and-Gold could have their highly anticipated 2009-10 season decided by their success in the shootout. Given the team's questionable one-on-one scoring abilities this doesn't bode well for the emotional health and frayed fingernails of the Causeway Street faithful.

That may, at first glance, seem like unnecessary worry since the team won two of their last three shootouts and five total on the season. However, don't let the high win total fool you - that also means they have lost four shootouts (fourth highest in the league). With a pedestrian 5-4 record in Bettman's Breakaway Bonanza, the Bruins are giving valuable points away in a tight conference if they don't win in regulation or overtime.

Didn't Bruins fans have higher hopes than that for a team that finished with the top seed in the East a year ago?

The teams ahead of Boston in the Eastern Conference standings - Pittsburgh, Washington, New Jersey and Buffalo - are a combined 13-3 (81.25%) in games decided by the shootout. The comparison is night-and-day. If the Bruins want to be considered an elite team they need to improve their success rate drastically. Particularly if so many of their games are going to be decided that way.

Their stellar goalie tandem of Tim Thomas (last year's Vezina winner in case anyone has forgotten) and Tuukka Rask both excel when facing just a single skater. Their combined 75.9% save percentage is much better than the league average of 69.03%. Thomas alone is stopping an eye-popping 84.6% of his chances. The shootout wins the team does have are almost solely because of that goaltending.

With such reliable goaltending, the Bruins should be coming away with wins more often than just half the time. Therefore marked improvement needs to come from the shooters.

The skaters that coach Claude Julien sends out are simply not holding up their end of the bargain. Boston is currently a mediocre 16th in the league in shooting percentage. Given that shootouts are usually decided by a one-goal differential, imagine how many more wins they would have with better production from their shooters.

This isn't a new problem under Julien. The last two seasons they ranked 26th and 28th in shooting percentage in the shootout. Sadly, their current below-average season relative to the rest of the league is actually a step in the right direction for them. It just isn't a big enough step.

Last season, they could get away with a poor showing in shootouts because they very rarely were in that position. They won their games long before the clock ticked to zero. Only ten of their games were decided after overtime. This season they could match that number with two-thirds of the season still remaining. With an anemic, inconsistent overall offense resulting in so many close games, it is more important than ever for Julien and the shooters to get their acts together.

Julien often falls into the coaching mistake of choosing his more veteran players for his shootout lineup. Doing so defies logic. During the course of a traditional game it makes sense to use your veteran players in big moments. They've been there before and you trust them not to make catastrophic mistakes like taking a stupid penalty, failing to get back on defense or turning the puck over. In the shootout all of that goes out the window. The only negative result for a skater in the shootout is not scoring. That's it.

Having experience in the team game does not necessarily make you a better, more experienced one-on-one performer.

The two glaring examples of Julien's over-reliance on his veterans was his continued use of P.J. Axelsson last season and his perplexing use of Mark Recchi against the Canadiens in early November of this season.

Axelsson did a lot as long-time Bruin and earned a gritty place in every fan's heart. What he never did was demonstrate scintillating one-on-one skills. Julien threw him out there to try his hand at the shootout in November 2008 against the Chicago Blackhawks and, miracle of all miracles, P.J. scored using a move that had no chance of working again. Julien, thinking he had caught scoring lightening in a Swedish bottle, kept sending P.J. out there after that. Time after time he was denied.

Recchi, at 41-years-old, had only participated in ten shootouts in his career prior to this season. He ranks as the fourth worst in the NHL with a career shooting percentage of an abysmal 9%. Even Pauly Shore's movies didn't bomb that badly. Throughout his long career, Recchi has made his living in front of the net chipping in rebounds and creating traffic. Those skills do not translate in the shootout. Yet, for some reason, Julien pointed a finger at his veteran and asked him to decide the Canadiens' game for his entire team. How did Recchi repay his coach for this trust? He skated directly into Montreal goalie Carey Price and didn't even get a shot off. What do you expect from a guy who has been taught to create traffic in front, I guess. Too bad it look more like a car wreck.

This season, Marc Savard is the only Boston player to crack the league's top 60 in shooting percentage (on just two attempts due to his injury). Patrice Bergeron is their next best option having scored three goals on nine attempts. However even those two don't garner a lot of confidence. In fact, the Bruins veterans can all pretty much be found populating the list of worse active career shootout performers. Recchi, Savard, Michael Ryder, David Krejci, Marco Sturm and Bergeron all rank among the top 60 inept players for those with a minimum of ten shootout chances.

Does that list look familiar? It should since - along with Blake Wheeler (who has had an off-year after flourishing in the shootout as a rookie) - that makes up the list of players to whom Julien turns first. He must have better options than that. We all know Phil Kessel is gone, taking his 11 career shootout goals (36.67%) with him. Despite that departure Julien could very well find answers on his own bench.

Players like Vladimir Sobotka, Brad Marchand, Mikko Lehtonen, and even defensemen Matt Hunwick and Johnny Boychuk all enjoyed shootout success for the Providence Bruins of the AHL. Wednesday night, both Marchand and Lehtonen scored in the shootout for Providence, earning a win against Bridgeport. All of them have spent time on the Boston roster this season. Why not give them an opportunity to win a game for Boston too? They can't be any worse.

The AHL has not only used the shootout format longer than the NHL but its rules call for the use of five shooters per round compared to the NHL's three. Additionally, unlike the NHL, those are the only five skaters used, making it possible for a player to shoot more than once in the same game. (Next season the AHL will adopt a change to their format similar to that of the NHL in which no player can shoot twice until all eligible players have shot.) Those two current rule differences between the AHL and the NHL means the players who have played at that level of the minors have significantly more experience shooting one-on-one. Give these younger guys a chance.

Additionally, I would suspect that the younger guys on the roster are more likely to stay on the ice following the end of practice trying trick shots and competing to outdo each other. How can that extra practice not be rewarded with success when it counts? Remember - the number of NHL minutes played isn't going to help in this specialized situation. The only things that really matters is your ability to play one-on-one and your individual creativity with the puck. It's about the ability to play as an individual. The last guy on your bench could be better at those things than your team captain even though you might not otherwise trust him with team responsibilities like killing penalties.

None of this even takes into account the Bruins' offseason decision to let center Martin St. Pierre leave for the Ottawa Senators. Not only could they have used the 26-year-old when Savard broke his foot in October, but St. Pierre is a master of the shootout. For Providence last season it was a rare to see St. Pierre stopped in their many shootouts. In fact, March 20 against Albany was the one time I remember him getting denied and that was on his second chance after already scoring on his first. It really says something about talent when the fans are noticeably shocked when a player doesn't score. Apparently Rask, who was in goal that night, was shocked as well since he made YouTube history a few seconds later by maniacally flinging a milk crate onto the ice after the loss.

The Bruins' shootout streak had a good chance to extend to four games last night since the Lightning are currently fourth in the league with 24% of their games decided in that fashion. They are on pace for 27 shootouts for the season. Given that pace, shouldn't Julien be doing everything in his power to give his team its best chance to pick up a win?

Aside from what you may think of the polarizing issue of the shootout being a part of hockey, it appears to be here to stay. The Bruins need to accept that it isn't going anywhere and prepare for that aspect of the game just as they would any other. Traditionalists might not accept it as "real hockey" but it could have a very real impact on Boston's chances for success this season.


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