Five point nine percent.
That's how often the Bruins are scoring on the power play these days. To a seasoned hockey fan, that number speaks for itself, but let's try to give it a bit of context anyway. The average NHL team scores on roughly one out of six power plays. The Bruins are averaging a score on one out of seventeen. That's lousy. You know it, I know it, and I'm reasonably sure Claude Julien knows it. But there's no point in beating a dead horse. Let's look a little deeper and see if a turnaround is imminent, or if this is more of a systemic problem.
Last year, the Bruins scored on 17.2% of their power plays, just a whisker below the league average of 17.3%. The year before, it was 16.2%. Before that, 16.6%. In 2008-9, it was a fantastic 23.6%. In short, even with an abbreviated season where there will be fluky numbers all over the place, it's pretty damned unlikely that they're going to be scoring at a clip that resembles Shawn Thornton's shooting percentage. This, at least, is good news.
So, is that 5.9% just rotten puck luck? One good way to tell would be to see if the Bruins are putting a ton of shots on net. Reasonable minds can disagree about the usefulness of shot quality metrics, but it's a pretty universally held belief that more shots = more goals. If the Bruins are putting a ton of shots on net on the power play, we can probably expect a turnaround sooner than later. Over 60 minutes, the Bruins are averaging 35.5 shots in 5 on 4 situations. This puts the B's at 28th in the NHL in shots per 60 minutes on the power play. For perspective's sake, the Blue Jackets lead the league at 85.3. That's surely not sustainable, but the Sharks led the NHL last year with 62.9. Last year, the Bruins were at 46.6, 19th in the NHL, but were 24th in shooting percentage. There was a decent case to be made that the 2011-12 Bruins were the victim of poor puck luck on the power play. But this group? They're not putting anywhere near enough shots on net.
The short version is this: Boston must put more shots on net, period. Whatever changes to the lineup or scheme need to be made to accomplish this must be made, and sooner than later. I doubt the Bruins will continue averaging 35 shots per 60 minutes on the man advantage, but if they do, perhaps that Thornton-esque shooting percentage isn't far off the mark.
Why are we here? The Bruins, of course, have no shortage of talented offensive players, and no strangers to the sage teachings of Jim Corsi. But, for whatever reason, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron are not cut out to be #1 power play centers. This makes little sense, especially in Krejci's case, but we have enough sample size to say with some authority that neither of these two are going to lead the power play to anything more than continued mediocrity. In time, Tyler Seguin will probably be that #1 power play center, and likely alleviate the problem, but we aren't there yet.
Looking at the current power play personnel, Rich Peverley and Milan Lucic are doing their part to put the puck on the net with good Corsi numbers, but everyone else is lagging behind. The acquisition of Chris Bourque, defended by many on the grounds that he's a power play specialist, has been of minimal value. He has 47 AHL power play goals in 398 games, an impressive tally. So, the idea of giving him significant power play time at least isn't crazy, but his Corsi numbers are unimpressive, like most of the other forwards. Back in May, I was pining for the Bruins to pick up a power play specialist. A career AHLer with a famous last name wasn't exactly what I had in mind, but the Bruins are bound and determined to give Bourque's NHL career one last shot to succeed. Bourque isn't part of the problem any more than the other mediocrities are, but those other mediocrities contribute elsewhere. Bourque's billing was as a power play specialist, and as such, he needs to be under the microscope more than, say, Nathan Horton.
It is here that I wonder why the Bruins didn't sign Jason Arnott. Arnott is a quality power play performer, who posted 4.4 points/60 minutes in 5 on 4 situations last year, a number that's relatively consistent with his recent performance. Arnott signed with the Rangers for $1.6 million, so salary wasn't an issue, nor do I suspect the well-traveled Arnott would have had an aversion to playing in Boston. He's got the size the Bruins love (6'5, 220 pounds), and while he's a bit long in the tooth (38), older skilled players tend to age extremely well as power play specialists, as the man advantage allows them to take greater advantage of the attributes that age well (hockey sense, size, passing) and not worry about the ones that don't (speed). As a career center, Arnott might have had to make an adjustment to the wing, and with his declining skating speed, that would have been a bit of an issue, but Chris Kelly is good enough defensively to camouflage some defensive shortcomings, as are the guys on the back half of the ice. And if they really, really thought Arnott couldn't shift to wing, then surely Kelly could slide to left wing without a problem, being a left handed shot and all. It's not as though Kelly is God's gift to the face-off circle, after all. He's a little better than Arnott, but not so much that it would create an issue, especially when Patrice Bergeron takes almost every important draw for the Bruins anyway.
(Update: After I published this article, I learned that the Rangers and Arnott have apparently called off their deal. It sounds like Arnott wasn't medically cleared. Obviously, if he's not able to go, that's a good reason not to sign him. If it resolves and he's back to full strength, he's a guy I strongly recommend they look at later this year.)
The defense is less of a problem. Zdeno Chara has a well-earned reputation as a power play monster, and Dougie Hamilton absolutely looks the part. Indeed, the Bruins have done one (and only one) smart thing on the power play: they've shortened the defensive rotation. Now it's Chara, Hamilton and Dennis Seidenberg. Any ice time that Johnny Boychuk or Andrew Ference sees on the man advantage is by accident. Hamilton has the best Corsi numbers of the three PP defensemen, and has displayed some outstanding offensive instincts. No, the B's are set here, they just need to keep feeding these three the minutes on the man advantage, and this part of the unit will, at least, be fine.
Ultimately, the Bruins need to do a much better job of putting the puck on the net, and if Bourque can't produce something close to his AHL numbers, they're probably going to have to upgrade the third line LW/power play specialist spot.