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Hockey Sense & Sustainability: Can the New-Look Bruins Score Their Way to a Deep Playoff Run?

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Do teams with excellent offenses and mediocre defenses fair well in the long run?

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

As I write this from my couch late on a Wednesday night, just after #RivalryNight on NBC has concluded, I glance at the standings & statistics on NHL.com and notice something that doesn’t seem right. Something that doesn’t compute, not with these Bruins, not with this coach. These Bruins are 1st in the league in scoring with 4.13 GPG. These Bruins are the best team on the powerplay, with a 32.1% conversion rate. These same Bruins, are 27th in the league in goals allowed per game.

They have a Center that is one single point back of the league leader in total points in David Krejci. They have four players scoring at a 30-goal pace, and four players registering at least a point per game. They’re doing all of this despite having traded away Dougie Hamilton last offseason, and Tyler Seguin two offseasons ago. Anyone who ever doubted that the team’s prior lack of scoring was heavily influenced by Claude Julien’s defensive system has had an abrupt wake-up call.

The Bruins haven’t been shut out thus far this season. They haven’t scored less than three goals in a game since October 10th. The team as a whole is shooting 14.2%, up five percentage points from their 8.2% last season. They’ve taken 9 out of a possible 10 points in their last five games played, and they’re 4-3-1 despite a goaltending tandem that—although will be much improved by the end of the season—has posted a 3.38 GAA and .879 SV% so far this year.

But it bears asking, if and when the offense, defense, and goaltending level out, how sustainable is this team’s performance?

Can a high-flying, puck-moving Bruins team succeed in today’s NHL? Certainly, this is the direction that GM Don Sweeney and President Cam Neely were leaning towards. In the offseason, they made moves to put pressure on the forecheck, make quick transitions from defense to offense, and push the attack on their opponents. At first, it was a tire fire. But now that we’re 10% through the season, and the system has had time to settle in, the team is looking how many of us hoped, but few believed it would.

For the last eight years, we were all witness to the shot-blocking, back-checking, D-to-D-to-D-to-D Claude Julien grit & grind system. Skate your lanes. Get back on defense. Dump and chase. Offensive-zone faceoff? Put out the 4th line. It was slow, and it was often painful, but the results were there in seven years of playoff appearances, two Finals, and one Duck Boat parade. This year, we’re drowning in a sea of goals, and while it’s incredibly fun, you can’t help but feel it’s just a run, and that this could all come crashing down at any moment. No? Anyone? Anyone remember 2009? Still no? Okay then.

Since the Bruins are currently in the Top 5 in scoring, but Bottom 10 in goals against, we wanted to look at how far you can really go trying to outscore your opponents. The old saying is Defense wins championships, but will offense get you to the dance? Here are the teams since 2007-08 that finished Top 5/Bottom 10 in scoring and goals against respectively, and how their seasons ended.

It turns out, that in the last eight years, only seven teams have been able to finish Top 5 in scoring, but Bottom 10 in goals allowed. Of those teams, three missed the playoffs entirely. Of the remaining four, two didn’t make it out of the first round, and none of the seven managed to get into their respective Conference Finals.

Season Team(s) GF GA Finish
2014-15 Islanders 252 211 Lost ECQF
2013-14 n/a
2012-13 Lightning 148 150 Missed Playoffs
2011-12 Flyers 264 232 Lost ECSF
2010-11 Red Wings 261 241 Lost WCSF
2009-10 n/a
2008-09 n/a
2007-08 Senators 261 247 Lost ECQF
Sabres 255 242 Missed Playoffs
Hurricanes 252 249 Missed Playoffs

Now seven teams is a small sample size, you might say. And you’re right. It’s clearly not very often that a team scores so well, and lacks so much skill defensively. If you were a GM, you’d be fired for building such a lopsided team. So let’s look at where the Conference Finalists have ranked over this same time period. After all, no one is betting on this team to win a Cup, but it’d be nice to make it into the Final Four.

Of the 32 teams observed, the average offensive rank (based on goals scored) of the Conference Finalists is 9.34. For the Cup Finalists, that actually rises to 9.37, and even further to 11.25 for the Cup Winners, thanks mostly to teams like the Bruins and Kings. In any case, it’s evident that a great offense isn’t crucial. Defense, on the other hand, is. Of those same 32 teams, the average defensive rank (based on goals against) was 8.06. For the Cup Finalists, that drops to 6.25, and for the Champions, sits at 4.

OFFDEFgraph

Let’s look at it a different way. Of the 32 teams, four teams finished in the bottom 10 in goals scored. Ten teams were middle of the pack (10th to 19th), 18 teams finished top ten in scoring, and 12 of those finished in the top five. While defensively, only one of the 32 teams finished in the bottom ten in goals against, ten teams finished middle of the pack, and an overwhelming 21 teams ranked in the top ten, with again 12 finishing in the top five. There’s much greater chance at making a deep run in the playoffs if you defense is ranked in the top ten in the league, as opposed to a top-ten offense.

Who were the anomalies? Last year, the Ducks finished 19th in defense and missed the Stanley Cup Finals by only one win. The 2011 Lightning managed to be a goal away from the Finals despite their 22nd-ranked defense. The Flyers got to Game 5 of the Conference Finals in 2008 with a 19th-ranked defense. And the 2008-09 Finals featured two teams in the Red Wings and Penguins that finished 19th and 18th respectively in goals allowed.

But of the last five Stanley Cup Champions, only one team has finished top five in offense (the 2013 Blackhawks). The closest team of the remaining four was actually the Bruins in 2011, sitting at 8th. Still, that season their defense ranked third in the league.

It really comes down to a solid defense, and defense first. While it’s nice to watch and a breath of fresh air for a team that struggled so hard to score last season, they’ll run into teams more often than not that will be able to take advantage of their shaky defensive practices, and limit their scoring chances.

Losing 4-3 as opposed to 2-1 will still count as a loss on the score sheet. The Bruins can plan on having quick transitions, breakout passes, aggressive forechecks, and the whole nine yards. But it won’t matter if David Krejci has a 100-point season, if the team has given up 250+ goals come April. Anyone can be the 2013 Tampa Bay Lightning, if you want to worry about scoring, only scoring, and then miss the postseason. But the Bruins will need to improve on the backend if they want any sustainability and success this regular season, and more importantly, a place in the postseason.