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Boston’s Net-Front defense needs to improve, and quickly.

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There are a LOT of good teams ahead on the schedule for Boston. Their play directly in front of their goaltender needs to be a lot better than it has been.

Boston Bruins v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Boston’s gone through some rough patches lately and it’s frankly an understandable, but frustrating scenario they’re in: Their center depth was depleted to the point that a career AHLer was second line center, their defense has a rotating cast on the bottom pairing until Krug got hurt...somehow. Scoring players having to take time off due to injuries that are ill-defined...it’s results are pretty obvious: a team that can create chances...but is either too young or too ineffective at finishing them, one or two players doing all the heavy lifting in scoring, and a defense that is creating headaches for their goaltenders, leading to confidence issues and..you guessed it...performance problems.

That being said...even with the starting roster players filtering back in? The Bruins defense has made a real nasty change this year, and not for the better. And again, we need to go to the visuals to explain.

These visuals are from Hockeyviz.com, and highlight where exactly shots on goal were coming from against Boston in relation to the net.

From last year:

Hockeyviz.com

As you can see, minus the high slot being a place of great shooting strength for opposing teams, Boston managed to protect their goaltenders and the right side especially pretty well last year, for all the ups and downs that defense had.

But to look at it this year...well...

Hockeyviz.com

...That little red weak spot last year has become more of a painful rash on Boston’s d-pairs.

Granted, this is only a quarter of the season so far, but the difference is already kind of staggering. Boston is giving up far too many chances right in front of their goaltender and also in what is considered the single most high-danger spot on the ice: The slot/high-slot.

A visual of shot-danger, sorted from lowest to highest, taken from a sample of 100,000 unblocked shots on goal
Corsica.hockey

That mish-mash of orange and yellow is exactly where Boston has been giving up it’s goals recently, and considering the talent they have on hand, it’s either a mix of exasperated surprise or exhausted “well, duh”s. A number of Boston’s defenseman are well above 6’, are large enough players with plenty of strength...and yet Boston continues to have this problem? Why?

Well, just from the eye test:

  • Being able to move a large body doesn’t always mean a player is going to, nor will they even be near a player. Rob O’Gara, Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller have all had egregious moments over the past 19 games or so of just not knowing who their man is even if they’re parked directly where they started the defensive shift.
  • Defensive miscues leading to breakaways for the opposition seem to be at an all-time high, and that goes throughout the pairings and forwards: from Zdeno Chara to Noel Acciari. Bad pinches, poor passing, and being completely unable to clear the puck has made opponent’s shifts a lot longer than they’ve needed to be and the number of shots coming towards their goaltender goes up as a result.
  • Sometimes just straight up not being up to taking on the forwards they’re defending because they were in the AHL a few weeks ago. (I’ve already harped on this.)

However, there IS hope! The last two games proved that it exists! The Bruins effort against LA and San Jose showed a lot of growth on the part of their blueliners and forwards, and smart deployment that has mitigated many of the issues previously facing them, pairing well with Anton Khudobin playing well above his paygrade and rewarding their awareness with his performances.

But they need to use those performances as the building blocks for the rest of the season, and this next week or so especially. They cannot expect to only be able to bring even a B- performance on the backcheck against some of the teams coming their way, which include the league leading Tampa Bay Lightning, Connor McDavid and the Oilers, Crosby and the Pens, and the new, fun version of the New Jersey Devils. These are teams that ruthlessly punish their opposition for defensive miscues, any defensive miscues. The good news is that even against a western conference leader like LA, the Bruins have shown that they have the talent, and they have the players who can be coached/led and the coaches and leaders who can guide this beaten up team to a better record than their start implies.

They just have to execute. And they’re gonna need every successful defensive play they can get.