The Marc Savard soap opera took another turn this morning, as Savard announced that he is "not close" to 100 percent, and not providing a time table on his return to action, as post-concussion syndrome is still a problem for him. Earlier this week, ESPNBoston.com reported that Savard might miss the whole season. Peter Chiarelli refuted this report, and Savard said he is not thinking about that possibility.
The question is, what does a prolonged absence for Savard, now very much a possibility, mean for the Bruins?
The initial fears that Savard was rushed back to action too soon appear to have been well-founded. Savard himself said that he pushed himself to come back too soon, and that when David Krejci went down in game 3 of the conference semi-finals, the extra ice time hurt matters.
A missed season looks like a remote possibility at this point, but right now, nothing can be ruled out. Concussions, as we are seeing, can be tricky things. Savard played pretty well in the Philadelphia series, scoring the game winner in game 1, and yet, he is now out for an indefinite period.
One immediate effect of this is that Tyler Seguin likely becomes the most high-profile third line center in the NHL, with the questions about whether a move to wing would retard his development tabled for the time being. There are dueling schools of though with Seguin, and whether he should start at center or wing. One school of thought says that Seguin projects as a center, and therefore should play center as soon as possible and take his lumps there. The other school of thought says that, as a winger, Seguin would have fewer defensive responsibilities, and thus could learn the game at a somewhat more relaxed pace. It seems almost certain that Seguin will be playing center until Savard comes back.
The only way around the "Seguin to center" scenario is if the Bruins believe that Savard's absence will be a short one, and thus have no desire to yank their mega-star prospect between two positions. Zach Hamill has impressed in camp thus far, and since he (unlike Seguin) can be sent to the minors, perhaps Hamill centering the third line until Savard comes back might make sense, with the Bruins giving the kid his first prolonged taste of the pros. I think this is unlikely, but if Hamill plays well enough, and if you buy the idea that starting at wing makes more sense for Seguin, it's possible.
Back to Savard's absence, the Bruins were, overall, 18-16-7 without him last year, hardly an impressive record. That would mean they were 21-14-6 with Savard. If you look at those two records in a vacuum, you are entirely justified in panicking and worrying that the season is lost. However, there are reasons to believe that fairly significant record disparity is flawed. The switch to Tuukka Rask was a major reason (probably THE major reason) for the end-of-season resurgence that carried the Bruins to the 6 seed in the East, and to within 1 game of the conference finals. When Savard missed time early in the season, Thomas was still entrenched in goal, and not playing anywhere close to the standards of his magnificent 2008-9 season. Savard had precious little to do with that, but the point is that as a defense-first team, the Bruins needed excellent goaltending to be successful, and they weren't getting it until Rask became entrenched as the starter.
Another problem is the question of shooting percentage. I've touched on this before, but the 2009-10 Bruins had a shooting percentage that absolutely fell off a cliff. In 2008-9, it was 10.9%. Last year, 7.5%. There is absolutely no possible way that Marc Savard missing 41 games accounts for that decline. None. If it accounts for more than a minuscule percentage, I'd be surprised. The Bruins went from a team with an unsustainably high shooting percentage to a team with an unsustainably low one, without a whole lot of turnover. Regression to the mean alone dictates that the Bruins' offense will be better in 2010-11, with or without Marc Savard.
Just to illustrate this point, let's assume Boston's team shooting percentage goes up a single point, from 7.5 to 8.5%. That's a modest increase, and probably a slightly conservative estimate. They took 2599 shots last year, so an increase of 1% means an additional 26 goals. 26 additional goals takes the Bruins from 206 (only Calgary was worse) to 232 (good for 13th in the NHL).
Of course, an offense without Savard isn't going to be as good as one with Savard. If we assume that Tyler Seguin essentially replaces Savard (or more accurately, replaces most of his ice time), the Bruins offense will suffer a relative decline (that is, relative to what they would do with Savard, even if they are more productive in an absolute sense), that much is all but certain. The list of rookies who have come to the league and put up point-per-game seasons is a short one, and one that I doubt Seguin is going to add to. The biggest blow will be on the power play. Presumably, David Krejci will center one power play unit, with either Patrice Bergeron or Seguin centering the other one, depending on how quickly the kid comes along. That's a big step down. The 5-on-5 production Savard brings just isn't as crucial as what he does on the power play. Savard's biggest deficiency as a player, defense, is one that's all but irrelevant on the power play, while his biggest strength, passing, is magnified greatly.
A long absence for Savard is thus going to hurt Boston's power play more than anything. At 5-on-5 hockey, they won't notice a huge difference, nor will it matter from a penalty killing perspective. The good news is that you probably won't notice much, as the offense will be better overall. If Rask and the defense hold up, the improved offense should ensure that the Bruins are just fine without Savard.