It was ten years ago today. The year was 2005, the month was July, the date was the 22nd, and the NHL had been absent from our lives for 310 days. The Bruins were coming off their previous season in which they lead the Northeast with 104 points yet lost to the Canadiens in the first round, and were going into a season with Mike Sullivan as their head coach, and Mike O'Connell as their GM. Joe Thornton had yet to be signed to a three-year, $20-million-dollar extension. He'd also yet to be traded to San Jose. And the hopeful Bruins fans with sophomore superstar Patrice Bergeron were unaware that they were about to bear witness to a massive rebuild that would see their franchise completely flip in the next 72 months, from players to coaches to general managers.
Ten years later, we have eight playoff berths, two Stanley Cup Finals, and one parade of Ducksboats to our name. So what exactly got better? What got worse? Which aspects of Bruins Hockey™ came and went, and which stuck around? How did the Black & Gold go from the basement, to the peak, and back to just falling short of a playoff appearance?
Well dust off your Trapper Keeper, sharpen those No. 2s, and stop huffing your pack of Mr. Sketch markers. We're going to Bruins Summer School! The course is (currently) one class, and the syllabus will look at the Modern Day Bruins. It's a mix of history meets statistics, business and strategy, philosophy and a touch of religion.
Goals For & Goals Against
It's not surprise that bringing in a handful of quality players, and a defensive coach in Claude Julien, has helped the Bruins reduce their GAA over the last ten seasons. What once floated above 3.50 GAA in the Dave Lewis era has consistently been below 2.75 since the 2007-08 season, and has largely been below 2.50 for the most dominant stretch. Having a couple Vezina-winning goaltenders in Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask also helps to quell the opponents scoring totals. As does bringing in future Hall-of-Fame defenseman Zdeno Chara. But even with a down year in 2014-15, the Bruins were not nearly allowing as many goals as there were a decade ago.
Scoring on the other hand has been a roller coaster. As expected, transitioning from Mike Sullivan to Dave Lewis to Claude Julien deflated their goal totals from 2005-06 to 2007-08. But that was before the breakout season in 2008-09, where the Bruins finished one point away from a President's Trophy, and took the top seed in the Eastern Conference. With Marc Savard leading the team, and Phil Kessel netting the highest goal total for a Bruin since Glen Murray in 2002-03, the Bruins took the city by storm, and revitalized hockey in Boston. The team then fell back to earth in 2009-10 with their lowest scoring team of the last ten years, and have been up and down literally ever since. It seems as though the team follows up a great year with an anemic year when it comes to putting the puck in the net. Thankfully for us, this totally scientific and fool-proof analysis would project 2015-16 to be a high-scoring year for the Black & Gold.
It's no surprise to most Bruins fans that when the team was taken over by Jeff Gorton briefly and subsequently Peter Chiarelli in 2006-07, the team started to slowly get better. They made the playoffs in Chiarelli's 2nd season in 2007-08 and every year after until the 2014-15 season. Their point percentage never dropped below .550, and the team on the whole has challenged for the playoffs, and even a couple Stanley Cups.
Claude Julien has yet to have a losing season as a Bruins' head coach, and has really never come close despite a couple of epically-long losing streaks and terrible scoring squads. The Bruins have been one of the best eight teams in the Eastern Conference since 2007. Playoff success be damned, uneventful regular seasons have been few and far between since the modern regime took over. Including last year, when in one of their most obviously struggling years the Bruins managed to post the highest point total for a team to not make the playoffs since ever.
With winning comes a fanbase. While the Garden has never hit Miami Marlins levels of embarrassment, the team did bottom out directly after the Joe Thornton trade. And nothing forces the hand of an owner like dwindling amounts of cash rolling in. After dropping nearly 2,000 fans on average from 2005-06 to 2006-07, the Bruins faithful started to trickle back in by the end of the 2008-09 season. In the most Bruins way ever, one of the most promising Bruins teams in recent memory lost in the 2nd round to an inferior Carolina Hurricanes team in a Game 7 that same year.
And while the diehard fans were hopeful for the future, they didn't start packing the house until mid-way through the 2009-10 season. The Winter Classic came to Fenway. The Bruins were legitimate challengers for the Eastern Conference. And despite an epic collapse for the history books against Philadelphia, the Bruins have sold out every game since. We'll see if the number starts to dip next year after missing the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, and trading away a few fan favorites.
If it weren't for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs would be the most hated man not on skates in all of hockey. Handfuls of people already hate him more than Bettman. The main proponent of a lost season and a shortened season, Jacobs has been a thorn in the NHLPA's side for longer than we want to remember. Granted, the changes brought along through salary caps and contract regulations have been a success, and were welcomed throughout the league. But despite the end result, the route he took to get us there puts him on a shortlist you simply don't want to appear on.
But he put his money where his mouth is after 2005, and since the salary cap was implemented, Jeremy & Charlie Jacobs have kept their wallets open for the team and been up against the cap almost every season. Over the last decade, the Bruins have brought in highly-touted free agents like Marc Savard, Jarome Iginla and Zdeno Chara. They've extended key players young and old, like Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin and Tuukka Rask. They've worked around cap penalties, bonuses, and LTIR to pay more than the cap limit. Hell, they even opted to not use the compliance buyouts last year when they were hampered by some ugly contracts. You can call JJ many things for being one of the main causes of a couple of lockouts, but you can no longer call him cheap.
Special teams have been an albatross of this team throughout the last decade. It's something the Bruins have never really figured out. Stretches of power play ills. Stretches of horrid penalty killing. Streaks of kills and games with multiple short-handed goals followed up by historically bad percentages with the man advantage. Brad Marchand scores at a higher clip when 4-on-5 than he does at 5-on-4. Outside of a tough 2007-08 season, the Bruins have been slightly above-average on the penalty kill, hovering above the 80th percentile. A couple fantastic years in '09-'10 and '12-'13 for their PK bookend a long stretch of pathetic power-play teams.
The Bruins have dipped below 80% on the PK just once since 2005, and have broken 20% on the power-play just twice over the same span. It sounds decently average at first glance. But for comparison, they've finished outside the top-ten in the league seven times over the last decade when down a man. And they've finished outside the top-ten on the man advantage all but twice in the last decade, including four years where they were in the bottom-third of the league. Bottom line, the Bruins bread and butter is even strength. Since the start of advanced status in 2007-08, the Bruins are 3rd in the league at Goals60 when 5-on-5, and they lead the NHL with a 55.4 GF%. Keep that even playing field, boys.
The second-coming of the Big Bad Bruins may have held some truth back in 2006-07. But outside of small resurgence in 2010-11, the Bruins have largely become a cleaner and more poised team over the last decade. Saying they're a clean team could. be. debated. a bit. But when it comes to taking stupid penalties and fighting to spark the team because you're down six goals, the Bruins have come a long way since averaging over 15 penalty minutes per game in 2006-07. Fifteen minutes, per game. That's having someone on your roster in the penalty box for 25% of regulation. And they only had 29 fights that season, they were just undisciplined beyond belief.
The Bruins won a Cup in 2011 with their 3rd-highest PIM average over the last decade, and their highest fight total (71). They won the Presidents' Trophy in 2013-14 with the highest concentration of fighting majors since 2002, with 46 fights in 48 games. Overall they've been able to pick their spots, and push their pace of play, which has allowed them to stay out of the box throughout the last few seasons.
But ultimately, they can't punch their way back into the playoffs. Having players like Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton and Jarome Iginla weren't valuable because they would drop the gloves. They were valuable because they could knock opponents off the puck, and go an score a goal at the other end. A combination of their size and talent made them great players. So when Zac Rinaldo racks up six fights by Christmas, don't pencil this team in for the Conference Finals just yet.
Speaking of playoffs, the Bruins and their fans have seen a lot of them recently. They've played a total of 90 playoff games since the 2007-08 season, winning 10 total series and taking home a Stanley Cup in 2011. They've played nine seven-game series, with a record of 3-6 under Claude Julien. They've gone into overtime in the playoffs 27 times, and into double-overtime six times. Say what you will about first-round exits, and underachieving in certain years, but that's a pretty damn good track record looking back on it.
Those 90 playoff games played? That's seven more than Calgary, Minnesota and Toronto combined over that same stretch. And that includes the three years the Bruins missed the playoffs entirely. There's no trophy for being very good in the NHL, but even in their down years, the Bruins are still strong playoff contenders. Going into next season with a blue line that's been devastated by the loss of players like Johnny Boychuk and Dougie Hamilton, they're still a favorite for a playoff spot in the East. With a couple additional pieces (or some addition by subtraction), the Bruins could be right at the top of the Conference sooner than we would've thought back in April.
So what have we learned since the lost season now ten years behind us? Many things. Goals are good. So is good goaltending. The salary cap is a good thing, and it's nearly doubled over the last decade. Peter Chiarelli and Claude Julien figured things out, and saved us from Dave Lewis and Mike Sullivan. Physicality is a positive thing, but more importantly is having talented physical players. Jeremy Jacobs isn't necessarily a cheap bastard, he's just an asshole.
If we can turn Mark Stuart and Marco Sturm and Brad Boyes into pieces that helped a franchise win their first Cup in 39 years, here's hoping we can turn around a team that potentially has a much higher ceiling already. Pencils down.