By Leon Lifschutz | Follow me @BruinsBreakdown
Hockey is considered the quintessential team sport. Each player is dependent on their five-man unit, and goalie, while on the ice. With 18 skaters only the best play more than a quarter of the game and rarely does a player play more than a third. Even the best players handle the puck for just over one minute of a 60-minute game. Hockey also has an attitude and perception of a team-first sport
With hockey’s emphasis on the physical and cultural manifestations of ‘team’, can the best players carry a team to victory over a season or playoff run? Does more depth, even at the expense of top-end talent, provide enough value over four-lines to defeat an opponent? These questions get into a wider debate over whether a sport is a strong link or a weak link sport. Determining which bucket hockey falls into will provide insight into what kind of a season the Boston Bruins have this year.
Strong link versus weak link
Strong versus weak link theory originated in a book called The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally. To illustrate the theory we can take a look at the two most prominent team sports on the globe – soccer and basketball. Soccer is considered a weak link sport where a hole in your lineup, especially on defense, can be catastrophic. Consider that eleven players play an entire game on a large field. Soccer depends a lot on build-up play where the ball originates deep in your own end and moves gradually, often methodically, up the field sometimes with multiple touches at each level of progress or retreat. Soccer is also a low-scoring game. One errant pass or a mistake while defending one-on-one can lose a match. With these factors, it was determined by Anderson and Sally, that in soccer you are only as good as the weakest link.
Basketball on the other hand is considered a strong link sport where inversely you are only as good as your best players. While we could get into the nuances of this let me just sum it up by saying, Lebron in Cleveland. A single, or a couple, superstar players can have a massive impact on a game and a generational player can carry a suboptimal team to a league title.
What about hockey?
Is hockey a weak or strong link sport? Like soccer, hockey is low-scoring where only a minimal number of moments translate to the scoreboard. But unlike soccer, and more like basketball, hockey has a lot more ‘events’, specifically shots but also situations like powerplays where there is more that can happen. Hockey also has the unique factor of a constant rotation of players, unlike the other two sports where substitutions are minimal.
The definitive voice on this topic in hockey is Alex Novet. Writing for Hockey-Graphs.com, Novet performed an analysis to see which players had the greatest impact on a game, top players, or depth players. Novet performed several types of analysis all corroborating the eventual conclusion that strong link players are more important than weak link players. Correlation analysis using Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to team points illustrates the relationship best.
While the correlation in the chart is positive and statistically significant, it signifies a low to moderate relationship (r = 0.348). That means that while having elite players certainly matters, there are also a number of other variables unaccounted for in this study that impact winning in hockey. Another important takeaway is that if you have a weak fourth-line left-wing the impact on your team’s success is negligible.
The Pittsburgh Penguins of 2016 and 2017 illustrate a strong link team, specifically when we look at the defensive units. Kris Letang was the only bonafide star on those teams on the backend as Brian Dumoulin’s profile was still on the rise. Beyond those two, the unit consists of veterans on the decline, reclamation projects, and youngsters. Injuries also tested their defensive depth along the way. Nonetheless, with their star players, and some strong play some middle lineup guys, the Penguins were able to win it all in back to back years.
If we look at this year’s cup champion though we can see that the formula isn’t always perfect. Tampa Bay has been a superstar laden team for years. However, the bottom of the lineup issues (and likely some horrible timing and luck) conspired to keep them from the ultimate prize. Look no further than their undoing by Columbus in the first round of 2019 for evidence of their trials and tribulations. In 2020, they shored up a number of the bottom of the lineup holes. While their star players still contributed vastly to their success, the ‘weaker’ links on the team were difference makers. This example illustrates how chaotic hockey can be and that in many instances you need significant contributions from the whole roster.
One final thought, hockey is a sport of significant variance. The best team does not always win. Players do not always play at 100% health, pucks hit posts, and goalies get hot. So as much as a theory may hold true more often than not, there will still be instances that defy logical wisdom.
The Bruins are a strong link team
The Bruins, as currently constructed, are very much a strong link team. In Dom Luszczyszyn‘s always excellent pre-season previews he outlines the value of each player throughout the Bruins lineup. According to his rankings, based on his Game Score Versus Average model, the Bruins first and third forward lines are the best in the league, the second line is 13th, and the fourth line finishes dead last. Where the concern really emerges though is on defense, as Bruins fans already know from an off-season of headbanging (despite some holdouts that the second line is the unforgivable issue). He ranks the Bruins top pair third overall, the second 27th, and the third 23rd. In goal, Tuukka Rask ranks seventh overall and the tandem of him and Jaroslav Halak, fourth. While his depth chart has room for discussion, the bigger story is quite clear. The Bruins are a strong link team with some major depth issues. Luszczyszyn, though, still predicts they will finish first in their division but is this team good enough to contend for a cup?
The 2021 Boston Bruins are a case study in strong link versus weak link theory. Their fate will provide a practical answer, barring issues like injuries, as to whether a top-heavy team with major flaws can be successful if they have enough elite talent. My prediction is the strong links carry the squad throughout the season and Boston again finishes towards the top of their division. The playoffs, however, especially in such a packed division where the fourth-place finisher may be a Stanley Cup contender, will be another story.
For the Bruins, with an aging core and closing Stanley Cup window, it does not seem worth testing the theory. They will either need an internal option to emerge or more likely need to acquire a player who can upgrade their weakness on defense. As Luszczyszyn states at the conclusion of his preview, “One more piece would quiet any doubts though [of being a Stanley Cup Contender] and it might be enough to put the team over the edge. The Bruins are already scary good as is. They would be terrifying then.”