The Numbers Game: Winning in Spite of Claude Julien

In spite of who, bitch? - Bruce Bennett

With player personnel decisions that run counter to logic, Julien is riding on some good fortune in this post-season.

The Boston Bruins are sitting in the enviable position of controlling their Eastern Conference Final destiny after a pair of exemplary road games. On the horizon lie just two wins before their second Stanley Cup Final in as many years. Under such conditions, it is not often you hear criticism of a team's coaching staff. Even against this backdrop though there remain causes for concern.

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Good to be Lucky

For a moment, lets consider the luck that's gone into the Bruins performance to date, buoying it's coach's good name. First, show me a good coach and I'll show you a good goaltender: Tuukka Rask is presently outpacing his career numbers putting up a .935. That's a full .013 above the current playoff average, which sits at an all time high .922. That's a difference of six goals over the past 14 games. While he's just third in among playoff goalies, this is a stellar figure that's gone a long way to ensuring the Bruins' competitiveness. At even strength, Rask clocks in at .941, also good for third in the playoffs.

Beyond impenetrable netminding, we presently have a number of players riding unsustainably high shooting percentages. Outside of Chicago's Bryan Bickell, the three highest percentages still suiting up reside in Boston with Horton, Krejci and Krug leading the way at over 20%. Among the depth scoring, Gregory Campbell is also firing at double his career average. Boychuk is exceeding his average by a whopping 10% and has already scored as many goals as he's ever scored in a full season! Granted, there are a number of outliers on the other side as well, with Seguin, Jagr and Peverley dragging down the team numbers, but the biggest contributors are doing so on the backs of percentage-busting performances. At even strength, the Bruins land second in shooting percentage behind only Pittsburgh - who it should be noted have been enjoying Toronto-esque shooting highs to date and seem to be crashing from that unsustainable production entering this series, if rather suddenly thanks to Boston's D and goaltending.

Regular readers probably know where I'm going with all of this. Combine shooting percentage and save percentage and guess which team is rocking the highest PDO in the land? Congratulations, Bruins, it's you! Your 1029 exceeds all but the aforementioned Leafs in comparison to regular season tallies, with only the Rangers coming within spitting distance in the post-season. You're riding lady luck! Lets hope the Leafs comparison continues and fails to regress in time to bite us in the ass.

None of this is to take credit away from the team or the coaches, but is merely intended to highlight that it is highly unlikely that the present performance can be maintained. Can it be maintained for six more wins? Possible, but not probable.

The coaching staff's goal with personnel decisions is to ice the most competitive team possible. I acknowledge that what comprises this best possible unit can be a rather subjective matter, but based on recent performance history there are some headscratchers among Julien's roster that contribute to a team that isn't fully utilizing assets that correlate with success. If we're facing down the inevitable end of our improbable output, shouldn't the team be taking advantage of any influence predictive of improved performance?

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Personnel - Defense

Presently sitting on the bench in favor of at least one underperforming veteran is the team's absolute best possession player in the post-season, no slouch in the regular season either. Dougie Hamilton presently holds the best CorsiOn on the team and lead all regular defensemen during the shortened season. When he's on the ice, the Bruins are resolutely in the driver's seat. That he's surpassing even Krug's impressive 21.82, otherwise a leading figure for active defensemen, while lacking Krug's 14% advantage in offensive zone starts is doubly remarkable.

Sitting one's best puck control player is probably inadvisable, and it's not for lack of production. On the powerplay we are presently wasting a point slot with Dennis Seidenberg, he of a single ES assist, instead of the second highest-scoring-on-D and third best-on-team producer Hamilton. Both he and Krug are being criminally underused by only serving on the 2nd PP unit in the first place, as both are leading the D in P/60 with their miniscule minutes. Both have proven very effective weapons in limited deployment but have yet to be even experimented with in heavier minutes. Boston, to the utter surprise of its fans and dismay of Geoff Ward's enemies, is clicking at a perfectly acceptable middle-of-the-pack 18.9%, so it's unlikely that much will change but the fact remains that the most effective players are seeing questionable use, adjustment to which might yet improve the output.

That Wade Redden was in line ahead of Hamilton in the first place is damning enough. Redden has performed acceptably with extremely sheltered minutes, while all year Dougie surpassed him without the kid gloves. Krug has assumed the Redden role to a T and killed it, but yet Hamilton has proven himself in tougher minutes and hasn't been given a fair shot. Julien has shown in the past his insistence on experience with his roster moves, but there is little logic one can ascribe to this preference when it comes to the two players at hand.

All of this is not to say there aren't knocks against Hamilton, and these are surely at the forefront of Claude's reasoning for keeping him off the ice now that Seidenberg and Ference are back. By chance or by performance in this post-season, Hamilton holds the dubious honor of having the most Goals Against ON when he's skating, but as you might assume from his offensive pedigree his production cancels out this negative factor, giving him a +/- ON of zilch. His Rel +/-, measuring the goal differential when he's ON vs OFF, places him ahead of Ference, Boychuk and Bartkowski, who brings up the very rear.

Speaking of Torey Krug above, the freshman defensemen has been an absolute revelation, announcing his arrival to Boston fans in spectacular fashion. However, this is a story, destined to be repeated on NBC broadcasts future, that would not have happened given the coach's druthers. Had Seidenberg, Ference, and Redden remained healthy or not been coincidentally injured, Krug would have remained toiling in Providence, third in line for a spot on the Boston roster. Those three conditions had to be met for Krug to even see the light of day - a merely acceptable performance from Bartkowski or Hamilton, which both have delivered, would be sufficient to keep this promising offensive contributor off the ice. In this regard, Julien is no better than Randy Carlyle stumbling upon game-breaking defenseman Jake Gardiner upon Mike Kostka's injury.

Meanwhile still-injured Ference and his sometimes replacement Bartkowski continue to see up to four more minutes a game at ES than the team's top defensive point producer - both per/60 and per/game - in Krug. Neither have contributed significantly to the offense, Ference registering a single assist even while carrying an outsized PDO. Slightly to Julien's credit there is one alarming facet of Krug's game that may warrant him being used sparingly at 5v5: he has the worst zone shift of any defenseman still active in the playoffs, starting in the Ozone second most and ending in the Dzone second most behind only Deryk Engelland. Even so, the fact that there has been nothing scored in Krug's not-insignificant minutes and that puck control is overwhelmingly in our favor with him on, this zone shift hasn't had any ill effect. Can Krug perform as well with four more minutes and slightly tougher competition? I have the feeling we won't be finding out as long as his teammates remain healthy.

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Personnel - Forward

Player personnel choices don't begin and end with the defense either. The third line, while seeing a fairly defensive deployment, are an absolute scoring abyss. Pointless in 14 games, "defensive specialist" Chris Kelly has also seen the most Goals Against/60 of any forward on the team. You can't entirely measure contribution by results, but the negative outlier, with no countervailing production, is damning. He and Peverley also sit near the bottom of the possession chart (admittedly someone has to) though the fact that both of their sometimes wingers Seguin and Jagr have seen declines in this area when paired with them is less than encouraging. Julien does see the problem and has made an adjustment to fix it. Thus far, no improvement.

His fix to date has been to move Seguin to this line. Shooting at a higher rate than in the regular season, he's getting off 3.5 shots per game but converting on just 2% for one goal in the post season. Were he clicking at his career percentage, he'd have potted 5, good for third on team. Unfortunately he's hitting the shitty end of his distribution curve at the moment and delivering a below average conversion rate. This is not the first time he's hit such a spell, having done so for ten games straight last February. His rate will increase so long as his shooting rate maintains, but his demotion to the third line does nothing to aid this, nor do his new linemates. In quite limited minutes with Peverley and Kelly this year - a statistically inconclusive sample, it should be noted - they scored no goals and saw a significant drop in Seguin's Corsi together, by 10% with Kelly. Seguin actually elevated both of his linemates possession, but to no avail from a scoring standpoint, albeit in scarcely three aggregate games together. The logic of furthering this experiment in the playoffs to get a scorer off the schneid seems a tad faulty. Placing Seguin in a position where he will have less opportunity to shoot creates a self fulfilling prophecy with regard to his lack of production.

The initial option was Jagr, promoted to Bergeron's line in Seguin's stead. Outside of last game's two assist performance, this move has no more helped Jagr than his lineys, with Jagr performing better among the third line against Toronto. If the object is defensive, to apply Jagr's puck protection and possession skills to an already stalwart unit, then this decision is sensible and provides for a more defensively robust trio than the addition of Seguin would. However, if the idea is to milk some scoring out of Jagr, every regular season indication points to Campbell as the preferred partner. Out of all forward linemates Jagr shared more than a game with, Campbell proved his most successful all year with a shocking GF On of 1.4/20. Particularly with Campbell struggling in possession, a tested lineup adjustment such as this seems a no-brainer.

Further to Campbell, his struggles are such that he's the only player on the team whose CorsiOn is negative, the only red dot on our chart. That he's starting just 39% of the time in the offensive zone might excuse him to some degree, yet his defensive compatriots Kelly and Peverley are seeing roughly equivalent deployment and managing to keep up with the pack. Not a noted scorer, nobody harangued him for his 16 game goaleless streak prior to his breakout against the Rangers, but to expect him to maintain production that's suddenly doubled his career numbers is folly. The process isn't there - the shots aren't happening for anyone on the line - so we're relying on opportunistic counter attack to generate any production from the Merlot line.

Dan Paille, clicking close to his career percentages while providing welcome scoring depth, should be worth a look for promotion if Peverley continues to falter on the left wing side. In a multi-game promotion during the regular season Paille elevated both third liners' scoring rates and saw fewer goals against. The additional minutes would be welcome for Paille, who is popping off fewer shots per game than is typical for his output. Shawn Thornton, meanwhile has not been a liability since the Toronto series, having resurrected his possession stats and produced a handful of assists against the Rangers. Daugavins, based on his regular season efforts, would still appear to provide a better option though likely not a marked enough upgrade to motivate a switch mid-stream.

There are certainly arguments for keeping both struggling centers Campbell and Kelly around. Both are being used as defensive specialists, being allotted the PK time normally given to Bergeron and Marchand - enough to drop Patrice to number 5 on the PK charts. This is excellent strategy on Julien's part, freeing up his best all-around player for more 5v5 action. Both of the top two lines are seeing significant increases in their minutes versus their regular season deployment.

Even so, sacrificing production from the bottom two lines isn't a necessary side effect. Readjusting the lineup to improve their ES performance should be a priority, as the current attempt hasn't borne fruit. Breaking up the Merlot line is anathema to Claude, but doing so may help balance a struggling third line, aid a slumping former superstar, and plug the only hole in our possession game.

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At both forward and defense, one would be naive to think any changes are forthcoming. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, the results are there. But there are options available that evidence supports as improvements to our current configuration, as more likely to maintain or increase production.

There is much more to coaching than selecting the best tools for the job, though it is a significant part thereof. That the team defense top to bottom is performing so well against the vaunted Pittsburgh offense is to be commended. Julien's overall matchup choices have proven to this point stunningly effective. Furthermore, since the Toronto series we've seen little in the way of issues with game-readiness that plagued the regular season - though perhaps this cannot be attributed entirely to a figurehead behind the bench and more to a collective kick in the pants from in-game reality. That the team is largely remaining disciplined against a team bent on creating a powder keg, well that's yet another point to coaching.

Claude Julien is a good coach. He has proven himself time and time again a smart strategist and expert in systems. However, he is not without his flaws and foibles, most manifesting themselves in his predilection for certain players and playing styles. Riding high shooting and save percentages to date have fortunately rendered complaints largely moot, but the root causes remain. Percentages are going to fall, but how soon - and can we wait it out with only a handful of games remaining? And is the coaching staff doing enough to delay the inevitable?

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