A Need for...Speed??

Alex Trautwig

Our newest author investigates.

Over the past several days, I've seen a few articles commenting on the disparity in speed between the Bruins and Canadiens reflected in the 7 game series won by the Habs. For simplicity's sake, I'll pick on a particular one from the Bleacher Report to sound off on what I think is becoming an almost hysterical reaction by some members of the media to the Bruins' defeat.

The article begins by quoting another article from Boston Globe scribe Fluto Shinzawa in which he also covers the Bruins apparent lack of speed by......confusingly suggesting the Bruins seek to trade two of their speedier players in Brad Marchand and Matt Bartkowski for other players who can skate and move the puck. Great stuff so far.

Fast forward now to the middle section where a gosh-darn crazy comparison is made between the top forwards of each team:

The Bruins presented a first line whose wingers were the hulking (235-pound) Milan Lucic and the aging (36-going-on-37) Jarome Iginla. They either lacked sufficient speed to begin with or had subpar stamina, which precluded all significant measures of speed in the end.

Montreal’s minute-munchers in the second round included Brendan Gallagher, Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, Lars Eller, and Tomas Plekanec. All five, with the exception of Plekanec, are in their 20s and all are known for their speed or an equivalent quality.

Let's go back and look at the production of those Habs players. And for the hell of it, let's also throw in Captain Smurf himself, Brian Gionta, who is also a minute-muncher and possessor of superb speed. In 7 playoff games against the Bruins, these SIX PLAYERS combined for a paltry score line of 6-15-21. To put that in perspective, Subban on his own scored 4 goals and registered 3 assists in the series. Comparing Montreal's top 6 production to Boston's top 6 forwards yields somewhat similar numbers (9-10-20), bearing in mind that this was a historically poor playoff performance from David Krejci and Milan Lucic. However, I'm not sure how speed helped a Montreal forward corps who were outscored by the top 2 lines for Boston.

Maybe I'm just not looking hard enough?

So just to be sure I wasn't imagining things, I actually went back and looked through the highlights of each game in the series. With the sound off. And I can neither confirm nor deny there were adult beverages present to help me get through the ordeal. What I searched for was how Montreal scored their goals, and what I found was vindicating!...

Marchandcup_medium
Well, maybe not that vindicating.

There were goals scored on blown coverages in the the defensive zone, on turnovers at or near the defensive or offensive blueline, on empty nets, on P.K. Subban shooting from the point on the PP, on P.K. Subban stepping out of the penalty box on a breakaway, on Thomas Vanek tipping pucks in front of the net, on Brendan Gallagher acting as if he'd been shot and then making a miraculous recovery in time to tip a puck in front of the net, and most memorably, on a puck bouncing off the foot of Zdeno Chara and going straight into the back of the net. However, I saw no goals scored by Montreal where they simply blew by a Bruins defender straight to the net with the blazing speed like they were powered by a warp drive. I would challenge anyone to find a goal scored in that series by Montreal which was a direct product of their supposedly dominating speed. The closest argument anyone could make for a speed-related goal would be Max Pacioretty's goal in Game 6 (Montreal's 2nd goal of the game). But even there, we see a puck bounce wildly off Loui Eriksson's skate and through the neutral zone to find its way to Pacioretty, who is in a foot race with none other than the slowest player on the ice: Zdeno Chara.

Let's jump to the whopper of a finish on this baby:

Western Conference crown or not, the Kings have done plenty to prove that they learned from last year’s shortcoming. They have proven themselves ahead of a few fellow contenders in the game of evolution.

How exactly has L.A. evolved? What precisely have they demonstrated that indicates they learned from last year's shortcomings? They still had massive issues scoring during the regular season. They still didn't win their division. How about the playoffs? Did dropping the first 3 games against San Jose illustrate how much they learned from last year? How about nearly blowing a 3-1 series lead to Chicago? To me, the difference between L.A. this year versus last year is three things, (1) a healthy Jeff Carter, (2) timely goal scoring and (3) a flier on the injury-riddled Marian Gaborik which worked out just as L.A.'s front office hoped it would. Their roster is virtually identical to the 2012-13 version, and unless the Kings players all collectively decided to just start skating faster, I'm not sure how their current postseason is indicative of some revelation they had to include more speed in their game.

Which brings us full circle back to the Bruins:

Boston needed a rerun of regret this spring. But what has followed in the third round has made one of the critical solutions as clear as a freshly Zambonied rink.

How the Bruins can and should pursue that solution is another debate. It could entail any combination of internal tweaking, external trading or free-agent moves to give more minutes to players brandishing blaze and stamina.

It will take anything that makes next May and June work for Boston the way this spring has for Chicago, Los Angeles, Montreal and New York.

Let's look at what we know about Boston. While the Bleacher Report article would have you believe speed translates into time spent leading in a game (how those two are related escapes me), that argument can't prove Boston is a slow team. Yes, during 7 games against Montreal, Boston spent the majority of time trailing. During the much larger sample of an 82 game regular season, Boston spent the most time of any team in the NHL 5 v. 5 leading, leading up by 2, or leading by 2+ by a wide margin. Boston also ranked between the top 4-8 teams in CORSI and just about every meaningful variation of Fenwick you could pick (5 v. 5, 5 v. 5 close, etc.). These numbers almost always translate to a championship caliber team, which Boston most definitely is.

Screen_shot_2014-06-04_at_4.19.25_am_medium

Clearly, Boston is a PUCK POSSESSION TEAM, who relies on scoring first, possessing the puck and dominating play in the offensive zone. If you can bring yourself to recall this series, some of the best moments the Bruins had were long stretches of play in the offensive zone, thwarting Montreal's breakouts and generating multiple scoring chances (which were of course often punctuated by a missed open net or hitting a post).

Now, is Montreal a faster team than Boston? Overall, 100% yes. Did that speed play a factor in this series? Probably, along with about 12 other things (puck luck, untimely goaltending, emotions, untimely disappearing acts from players and poor trade-deadline acquisitions to name a few). And if I ranked those factors in order of importance, speed would be pretty low on the list. Is speed the reason Boston lost to Montreal? Definitively not. As Peter Chiarelli explained, there is no one reason why Boston lost against Montreal.

Indeed, if speed was actually the predominant reason why the Bruins didn't advance, how is "tweaking the roster" going to address this issue? "Giving more minutes to players brandishing speed and stamina" is highly unlikely to occur, given the current roster composition. The players the Bruins had in this series are the players they will have going forward for the foreseeable future. They are locked into Krejci, Lucic, Iginla (likely), Bergeron, Smith and Marchand (who if they decide to trade, are parting ways with one of their speedier forwards). On the 3rd line, Carl Soderberg is definitely a lock, along with Eriksson. Daniel Paille is very likely to return. So even if the Bruins decide to part ways with the likes of Chris Kelly, Shawn Thornton or Gregory Campbell, are you honestly telling me the key to making the Bruins a faster team lies in changing a 3rd line winger and a couple of 4th line players?

On defense, the scene is just as crowded. Chara, Hamilton, Krug and a healthy Seidenberg aren't going anywhere. Neither is at least one or both of Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid. It would be a mistake in my opinion to give up on Matt Bartkowski, who despite having a playoff performance befitting a second year player is still a player with exactly the kind of skating and puck-moving abilities these speed advocates seek. Even if the Bruins decide to trade Boychuk (or Bartkowski), the player they land will be battling with 7 other legitimate defensemen for a starting slot in Boston's lineup.

Instead of dissecting this philosophical debate about speed any further (as I approach 1,500 words), [ed note: pass, not approach] let's just agree that the margin between victory and defeat in the NHL cannot be simplified into one reason/cause/statistic. Oh, and when you have an empty net staring you down, SCORE!

(Credit Extra Skater for stats)

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