By Leon Lifschutz | Follow me @BruinsBreakdown
The Tampa Bay Lightning were crowned Stanley Cup Champions earlier this month. The Lightning, dominant over a number of regular seasons, finally got over the playoff hump and won the big prize – the large, shiny, silver mug donated by Lord Stanley. Every year, after a team wins the cup, it feels like other teams study the winners to determine what is in the secret sauce. In the case of analyst Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic, that deep dive stretched a decade back. The analytics expert spent time reviewing all the winners of the past ten seasons to determine the must-have checklist for a cup winning team.
Luszczyszyn identified ten items that the past ten cup winners possessed.
Not every cup winner has all ten items according to Luszczyszyn. Teams can also make up for deficiencies by being special in other ways. Generally speaking though, teams tend to have the overwhelming majority of the ten items on their rosters. He also shares that an elite center, elite defenseman, and top-pair defenseman on the second pair seem to be the most essential elements that all cup winners possess.
With that in mind, let’s spend some time reviewing the current team that Bruins’ General Manager Don Sweeney and company have assembled to see which items we can check off and which remain concerns. Last year’s President’s Trophy winning team remains largely intact. Sweeney did allow powerplay quarterback Torey Krug to sign with St. Louis. The general manager did scoop up underrated forward Craig Smith on the opening weekend of free agency and just added depth forward Gregg Mckegg. While rumored to be in on some other players, Smith, a bonafide 20 goal scorer, has been the only notable addition to date.
To evaluate players to see if they meet the criteria set out by Luszczyszyn we will use a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches. For our quantitative measure, we will use the Goals Above Replacement (GAR) stat from Evolving-Hockey. GAR stats (as well as WAR and SPAR) are helpful as a catch-all stat to compare total on-ice contribution player to player as they account for both offensive and defensive contributions. For our query, we only looked at players who played a minimum of 500 minutes. With that parameter 353 forwards and 208 defensemen are eligible for evaluation. To determine what tier a player lands in we can use the following guidelines:
|Elite||Amongst the top five to ten players at a position|
|Number one||The top 30 in a position group|
|Top line/pair||Within the top 90 forwards or top 60 defensemen|
|Middle six/top four||within a range of 90 to 270 for forwards and 60 to 120 for defensemen|
|Replacement level||When GAR is equal to or below zero|
Each player will have their GAR listed accompanied by their overall rank (in parentheses) from the 2019-20 season. However, numbers don’t always tell the whole story so we will use a little creative license in determining if we feel a player can meet the criteria in the coming season. For example, Brandon Carlo posted a 0.5 GAR this season putting him not far off replacement level. However, in his first three seasons, he posted GARs of 9.4, 3.4, and 8.3 for a career average of 5.4. That number would put him in the Top 4 tier. We can conclude that Carlo’s actual talent and potential future contributions are likely better than this past down year for our speculative purposes. We also know a player like Smith is an analytics darling, ranking as a first liner despite playing third-line minutes most of his career, something we will also take into consideration.
The chart below will reflect three conclusions for each item on the checklist – meets the criteria, close to meeting the criteria, does not meet the criteria. Using the table, we can assess how many items on the checklist the current Bruins’ roster meets. Then, as we are wont to do as hockey fans, we can discuss what we have learned and try to surmise the outlook for the team in the 2020-21 season.
|Elite Center||Patrice Bergeron||15.8 (13)||Meets the criteria|
|Elite Winger||Brad Marchand||20.6 (4)||Meets the criteria|
|Two More Top Line Wingers||David Pastrnak; Craig Smith||17.8 (6); |
|Meets the criteria|
|Top-Line Center||Charlie Coyle||10 (60)||Close to meeting the criteria|
|Two More Top Six Forwards||Jake Debrusk; |
|8.2 (88); 5.9 (135)||Meets the criteria|
|Elite Number One Defenseman||Charlie McAvoy||16.7 (6)||Meets the criteria|
|Second Number One Defenseman||Zdeno Chara||6.8 (47)||Does not meet the criteria|
|Top Pairing Defenseman||Brandon Carlo||0.5 (135)||Does not meet criteria|
|Third Strong Defenseman||Matt Grzelcyk||5.3 (68)||Close to meeting the criteria|
|Top Ten Goalie||Tuukka Rask||19.7 (2)||Meets the criteria|
The Bruins remain strong at forward led by a special first line. Patrice Bergeron remains an elite center though just barely. He is ninth in GAR amongst pivots and will need to show he can maintain his level of play in his mid-30s. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, first and second-team All-Stars respectively, easily meet the elite and top forward designations. Coyle, whose GAR bests Krejci, is the 35th ranked center though in the top 90 forwards. We could make an argument he meets the criteria but I dinged Coyle since he doesn’t always line up against the other teams’ stronger players and is penciled in at 3C on the Bruins’ depth chart. Newly acquired Craig Smith has been an analytics darling for several years, scored at a more than 20 goal pace six of the last seven seasons, and can drive play. While he grades out quite well, some skepticism is warranted as he played down the lineup this past season. Jake Debrusk had the worst GAR of his career this past season. While he does still grades out well, helping to meet the criteria in his category, his decline in GAR is a concern and he will need to rebound to fit the part of a top-line winger.
On defense, Charlie McAvoy is in the upper echelon of the position. If he can add a little more offense to his game he can easily be a perennial Norris Trophy candidate. I’ve included Zdeno Chara, for now, assuming he will return to the team. I was surprised by how high Chara graded out, likely due to playing with Charlie McAvoy and his prowess on the penalty kill. The recently departed Torey Krug had a higher GAR than Chara but still did not meet the criteria as a second number one defenseman. Carlo, despite the down year, grades out as a top-four defenseman over his career. Having said that, he still falls short in his category. Matt Grezlcyk statistically meets the criteria but has yet to be tested by higher quality competition so I’ve left him in the close category for the moment.
In goal, Tuukka Rask had a tremendous year and easily meets the criteria. However, his five-year average GAR is actually 9.46 which would put him more in an average starting goaltender category rather than the elite tier. Which Rask shows up next year will have a deep impact on the Bruins’ season and the fans’ level of consternation with the polarizing netminder.
The Bruins meet the criteria in six out of ten categories with their present roster. If we are optimistic and assume no players regress, and a couple more play to their full potential, Boston can satisfy eight of ten items on the checklist. If Craig Smith comes as advertised, and can embrace a bigger role, the Bruins will be strong on offense. The two most glaring issues reside on defense. The Bs are in need of two more top defenders. A second number one defenseman is one of Luszczyszyn’s essential items and clearly missing from the current roster. After allowing Krug to leave for St. Louis in free agency this need is even more pronounced. Internal solutions at this position are not imminent unless Grzelcyk rises to the occasion once he receives a more prominent role.
Our conclusion is the Bruins need all their players to perform at optimal performance to be a Stanley Cup contender. That statement is true of all teams though. Where the Boston front-office can really set their team up for success is improving the D-core. The Bruins’ play strong team defense under Coach Bruce Cassidy. However, without bringing in more prominent talent to compliment McAvoy, the team does not have what it takes on the back-end to be a champion, at least according to Luszczyszyn’s checklist and stated dealbreakers. Identifying and acquiring at least one top defender should be a priority this off-season. Sweeney though, as he often does, may wait for the trade deadline before making his move to upgrade the position. If Sweeney is able to do so, the Bruins could be a legit Stanley Cup contender. If he does not acquire top-end defense help at some point, the Bruins will likely meet a similar fate as they did this past year – a good regular season coupled with an early playoff exit.