The Bruins are having another terrific season defensively. This isn’t new for Bruins fans. Just tune into a Bruins’ broadcast on NESN and you will hear Jack Edwards stress the importance of layers.
Growing up in Massachusetts, I feel like it was engrained in me at a young age. As scarred as I may be, the defense-first mentality works for the Bruins. Last season, the “Corsi Kings” (a name given to them by Dale Arnold that I will now start using), allowed the less 5v5 shot attempts against than any other team, after adjusting for score state and home ice, with 43.26 per 60 minutes. That was the 5th best tally between 2014-15 and 2016-17.
The Bruins look to be just as good defensively at 5v5 this season. They are 2nd in shot attempts against per 60 with 45.53, 5th in expected goals against per 60 with 2.06, and 4th in goals against per 60 with 1.97.
Their shot metrics are slightly worse, but the Bruins have seen far better goaltending this season. Last season, the Bruins were 19th in goals against per 60 due to lackluster goaltending. Seeing somewhat above average goaltending this season, the Bruins are witnessing their hard work pay off.
Defense is a hard concept to grasp. You can look through hours of film, talk to experts, even play yourself, but there is no set definition for it. One thing we do know about defense, however, is that the objective is to keep the puck out of the back of your net.
The best way to make sure the puck doesn’t end up in the back of your net is to prevent shots. The top two players for the Bruins at preventing shots are Matt Grzelyck (35.4 per 60) and Charlie McAvoy (41.6 per 60). Next in line, and top forward, is...Frank Vatrano?!?!
Yes, Frank Vatrano.
Now this should not be taken as an absolute. Marchand and Bergeron, who sit just behind him in this metric, play tougher competition and take more shot attempts. Of course they are better defensive players and are some of the best in the world at playing without the puck.
Instead, take this number as a possibility that Vatrano may, in fact, be good defensively. This isn’t new for Vatrano either. His 41.5 shot attempts against per 60 placed him 6th on the Bruins last season. His .41 wins above replacement also placed him 9th among Bruins skaters last season, and a little over two-thirds of it was from defense.
But for some reason, this has been something many Bruins fans (and perhaps the Bruins management and coaching staff) have missed. I asked Bruins Twitter if Vatrano was a good player defensively and the large majority said no.
Is Frank Vatrano a good player defensively?— Shawn Ferris (@TheShawnFerris) December 27, 2017
Vatrano has been put in a “role” position this season. He has played a team low 9.07 5v5 minutes per game in the 20 games he has played this season. Even though his minutes have gone down, he has been very effective in his role. We’ve already gone over his shot suppression, but he also outshoots other teams with a 55.1 CF%. He’s 7th on the team in that metric, which is one place higher than where he placed last season.
To those who point out how he’s only scored 2 goals in 20 games, he has more goals per minutes at 5v5 than Jonathan Toews, Mike Hoffman, Joe Pavelski, and Ryan Getzlaf. He can’t control his usage, he can only control what he does in the time he is given. At the moment, he’s still successful in those minutes.
The sad truth is, many feel there isn’t a spot for him in Boston anymore given the rise of DeBrusk and Heinen, and Spooner being used at left wing as well at times. However, his two-way game should at least be enough to keep him in a bottom-six role.
He also has the tools to play on the powerplay from the little we’ve seen. He’s only played 16 minutes on the powerplay this season and 99 in his career, but over his career he has 4 powerplay goals and a primary assist. Those 5 primary points equate to 3.01 per 60 minutes which is borderline first unit. To put that into perspective, Marchand put up 3.4 primary points per 60 on the powerplay between the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons.
There aren’t many teams with a forward who plays on the powerplay and the fourth line, but if the Bruins have that, it’s just another advantage. The Bruins sit 30th in shot production on the powerplay, so they shouldn’t sit still and pretty even though pucks are going into the back of the net. The Bruins haven’t had solid, staple units unlike the last few seasons, so I am sure they are still figuring themselves out. Maybe adding in Vatrano can help.
These are decisions for the coaching staff and management. As a fan, you can only watch. But hopefully this helps you the next time a drunk guy in a bar (or on Twitter) tells you Vatrano isn’t good.