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What is causing the Bruins’ scoring woes

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Combining tactics and analytics for an in-depth look at the Bruins and their offensive output

NHL: Boston Bruins at New York Islanders Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Data is provided by Corsica or self-tracked and is 5v5. The self-tracked data covers the Bruins first 30 games (up to Dec 9th).

The Bruins have had scoring woes at even strength all season long. They currently sit tied for 28th in 5v5 goals for per hour. This can be attributed to a few factors. First of all, there isn’t much shooting talent throughout the roster. Certainly Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Patrice Bergeron can score goals. Jake DeBrusk also seems to be a solid goal scorer for the Bruins. David Krejci has a decent shot, but prefers to use his superior playmaking skills instead. Outside of those five players, there isn’t much shooting skill in the Bruins lineup.

The Bruins also take lower quality shots. They are currently 29th in the league in expected shooting percentage on unblocked shots. Combine that with some bad shooting luck and you get yourself to where the Bruins are now. While fans may be calling for the Bruins to bring in more skill, the organization would have to pay a steep price in order to do that. A deadline trade is inevitable, but is there something the Bruins can do within the organization to rid themselves of their scoring woes?

Above is a wonderful visualization provided by Micah Blake McCurdy who runs hockeyviz.com. The red areas are where the Bruins shoot above the league average rate, while the blue areas are where the Bruins shoot below the league average rate. Threat is a metric that McCurdy recently created and it finds the Bruins are 2% below league average based on the rate that they take shots as well as where those shots are taken from.

The Bruins do not struggle to control play or attempt shots. They have a 51.7 CF% (8th in NHL) while taking 57.5 shot attempts per hour (13th in the NHL). While the Bruins are above average in producing shot attempts, their poor shot quality brings the Bruins down to 21st in the NHL in expected goals for per hour. How can the Bruins improve their shot quality in order to convert on a higher percentage of shots?

Low-to-High Plays

A low-to-high play is one in which a skater, usually a forward, passes the puck back to the point. The player that receives the puck at the point, usually a defenseman, can then shoot, pass, or skate.

Ryan Walter, Hockey Plays and Strategies

These plays are a necessity in hockey. The points are used as a place to reset and attack, however, the way teams use these plays can affect their shot quality. If the player that receives the puck at the point decides to shoot it, there is a very small chance the puck ends up in the back of the net.

Ryan Stimson looked into this a couple of years ago and found that low-to-high plays went in just over 4% of the time they reached the goalie, and only created a rebound shot at about the same rate.

The Bruins numbers mirror the findings in Stimson’s study. Including when the puck is deflected by a Bruin on the way in, the Bruins have scored on 1.8% of all shot attempts resulting from a low-to-high play, and 3.8% when those shot attempts reach the goalie. The Bruins seem to be efficient when they take these shots as they create a rebound shot on about 6% of the shots on goal. Furthermore, they deflect about 1 in every 9 attempts. However, this is even more of a reason to look at alternative ways of attacking in the offensive zone. Low-to-high plays are responsible for 20% of the Bruins shots that have a pass proceeding them, and they seem to be efficient when they take these shots, but are still shooting at low rates.

Above is a low-to-high play from the December 27th loss to the New Jersey Devils. Brad Marchand sends the puck up the boards to Zdeno Chara, who decides to shoot the puck. The Bruins have two players (Bergeron and Pastrnak) inside of the home plate area, and Marchand isn’t trailing too far behind. The puck gets deflected on the way in where it trickles wide right. This is beside the point, but Travis Zajac, who is approaching Chara at the point, is stickless.

Chara’s shot selection is largely a result of poor support as opposed to him being trigger happy and not seeing a chance to make a better play. A Bruins forward should fill the space left by the opponent attacking the point. Normally, this would be the player who initially passed the puck, but Marchand is tied up on the boards. Because of this, Pastrnak should fill in the space left by Zajac in order to support Chara while Bergeron fills the space that Pastrnak leaves in the slot.

Something that is not clear from the clip above, is that going to the point was not the optimal play. Patrice Bergeron is wide open behind the net. The Devils defender has his stick blocking the center of the ice, allowing Marchand to make a clean rim (or indirect) pass down low. If Bergeron can cleanly field the puck, he may be able to find David Pastrnak in the slot for a scoring chance.

In this clip, Heinen takes the play back to the point. The Sabres are playing man-to-man, and Heinen uses Kuraly and his defender as a pick. When the puck gets to Matt Grzelcyk at the point, there are four Sabres above the faceoff dots. But three of those Sabres are also in the vicinity of the shooting lane, and the shot is blocked.

When Heinen moves towards the point, there is a massive space that opens up behind him. Heinen also has separation from his defender thanks to Kuraly’s pick. Heinen should turn and re-attack. He has Nordstrom in a one-on-one situation down low as well as Kuraly heading into the slot.

Grzelyck should also recognize the shot will likely be blocked. He can either send the puck down low for Nordstrom, or send the puck to his partner. The weakside winger for the Sabres is low enough that he’s likely not a threat to intercept the pass, but Grzelcyk should probably play the “field position” game.

Behind the Net

The two clips above are just a small gander into the hundreds of passes that the Bruins have sent to the point so far this season, however, they illuminate an issue that often occurs when teams begin to use the point too frequently. As I said before, passing back to the point should be used to reset and re-attack. However, sometimes it isn’t necessary. In the first clip, Marchand clearly had the ability to get the puck to Bergeron behind the net. Whether or not Bergeron could have set up Pastrnak in the slot, the chance that would have come from that would be far more dangerous.

Stimson found that shots on goal after a pass from behind the end line are three times more likely to end up in the back of the net and create more rebound opportunities. For the Bruins, about 5.5% of passes proceeding a shot are from behind the net. For reference, Stimson found that the league average rate was 12.5%. This seems to be the biggest problem for the Bruins. Falling so far below league average is concerning, and plays a huge part in their poor shooting percentage.

Conclusion

It seems as though the Bruins either struggle to play down low, or this is not a philosophy that the Bruins have. In 2019, coaches are well aware of the benefits of creating offense from behind the net. While the Bruins don’t abuse low-to-high plays, they should look to substitute them for more offense from behind the net. Of course, that’s easier said than done. In the examples above, there were options that could have been taken prior to passing the puck to the point. However, the Bruins defensemen must also be aware of better options if they receive passes at the point. Sometimes, playing the puck into space is the right play. Hockey is a game of manipulating space and supporting your teammates. In order to be successful, you must play as a five-man unit.

While the Bruins roster may not be full of skill, there are clearly adjustments that can be made in order to improve their scoring woes. Acquiring a skilled forward will cost the Bruins valuable assets and will only improve the Bruins’ situation so much. Coaching adjustments are free and can have a massive impact on your team.