Boston’s Goaltending Strategy Extending Into The Playoffs

( Photo Credit: John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images )

By: Michael DiGiorgio  |  Follow Me On Twitter @BostonDiGiorgio

 

After Tim Thomas solidified a championship-winning run for the Boston Bruins in 2011, he took a longer than expected sabbatical from the NHL leaving Tuukka Rask the keys to the kingdom. Rask has been the Bruins sole beneficiary to their successful season since 2012. A recent question to Head Coach Bruce Cassidy by The Athletics’s Fluto Shinzawa has made Bruins fans wonder, how long until teams are using the same goalie tandems they’re using in the regular season in the playoffs?

Fluto Shinzawa’s question to Cassidy centered around how goalie tandems are so heavily used in the regular season, but perish in the playoffs entirely. Fluto asked if and when we will see the same regular-season timeshare used in the playoffs. “I don’t know if it will be this year. But I think eventually, if they’re structured that way during the regular season, then why would you necessarily change it in the playoffs? So I could see it happening, definitely. Absolutely,” Cassidy said during one of his pressers. For years, the NHL has relied heavily on one goaltender to carry a team throughout a playoff run. Martin Brodeur led his New Jersey Devils to three Stanley Cups; two of which he had played over 70 games in the regular season.

Dominik Hasek had played in 65 games before his first cup with Detroit. Jonathan Quick led his Los Angeles Kings to two cups, playing in 69 and 49 regular-season games in their respective years. Tim Thomas played in 57 regular-season games in 2011, before hoisting the cup in June 2012. Starting goaltenders have always been expected to play most of the regular season, and continue that regularity into the playoffs. Recently, the NHL has seen goalies’ workload split almost evenly between starter and backup in the regular season. Teams have been focusing on finding reliable backups who can give rest to their star keeper. It’s only a matter of time before we see this continue into the postseason.

Andrei Vasilvesky is Tampa Bay’s young promising goaltender, who has already won the Vezina Trophy (best goaltender in the regular season) at the age of 24. He was part of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s historic run last year when Tampa roared through the entire NHL racking up 128 points. The 2018-2019 Lightning won 76% of their games, in large part due to their lethal offense and stingy defense and goaltending. Vasilevsky played in 53 games last season. The Lightning were not only heavy favorites to sweep the Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs, but was predicted to walk into the Stanley Cup Final. The Lightning (and the rest of the NHL) were stunned to see the Columbus Blue Jackets sweep the series four games to none. Vasilevsky’s regular-season timeshare was questioned and many wondered if he was overused.

The 2019 Stanley Cup Final was represented by two goalies: Tuukka Rask and Jordan Binnington. Binnington at one time played for the Bruins’ farm system as an emergency loan before ultimately starting for the St. Louis Blues. The Blues were at the bottom of the standings by Christmas and were viewed as heading for a rebuilding year and sellers at the upcoming trade deadline. Jordan Binnington received the call-up because their current goalie, Jake Allen, sported a 2.83 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage. Binnington sparked a winning streak in the Blues and appeared in 32 regular-season games and eventually carried his team to the Final. Binnington’s usage during the regular season had been a unique situation, but the message stays the same: goalies who have more rest during the regular season enter the playoffs fresh. They fare extremely well the deeper the playoff run extends.

Tuukka’s situation was more common. He had never had a strong backup who could handle a larger workload. They swung and missed on numerous back-ups including Malcolm Subban, Zane McIntyre, and Nicklas Svedberg. Anton Khudobin seemed to handle the backup role quite well, but was given a two year, $5 million raise from the Dallas Stars and the Bruins were unwilling to match for a perennial backup. In the 2018 off-season Don Sweeney, current General Manager of the Boston Bruins, signed former New York Islander starter Jaroslav Halak to take on Rask’s backup duties. He was signed to a $5.5 million deal over two years, which exceeds Khudobin’s raise.

The difference here is that Halak was a long-time starter for the Canadiens, Blues, and Islanders. He had the resume that could withstand a long season with dependable starting opportunities, which is something the previous backups lacked. Halak most recently guarded the Islanders’ goal from the 2014-2017 seasons. The Islanders had a strenuous 2017-2018 season allowing the most shots on goal in the entire NHL, making Halak’s job harder than it already was. He posted a weak 2.80 goals-against average on Long Island. Halak came into Boston giving Rask something he wasn’t used to a reliable backup who can handle a substantial amount of starts appearing in 40 games in the 2018-2019 season. Halak was back to his old form in the black and gold posting a 2.34 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage.

 

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Halak’s reliable play put Tuukka in a fantastic situation to tend the twine deep into the playoffs. It, unfortunately, did not gain the Bruins a championship, but Rask was often the best player on the ice throughout the playoffs, which can be attributed to his regular-season rest. The closest we’ve seen to a team using a goalie tandem in the playoffs was the Pittsburgh Penguins during their historic run winning back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017. In 2016, Marc-Andre Fleury was one of the team’s biggest stars, which is a high accolade playing alongside Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang. Fleury played in 58 games in the regular season, with a promising young goalie prospect, Matt Murray, only providing rest for 13 games.

Jeff Zatkoff played in the remaining 11 games. Fleury, a three-time Cup winner, was injured in the second game of the playoffs, ceding the crease to Murray. Behind some impeccable offensive firepower, Murray and the Penguins won their fourth Stanley Cup championship. The following season the two net-minders split time almost evenly. The Penguins gave Fleury the starting nod come playoff time. Fleury was a force in the first two playoff series, ensuring his team won both. He was eventually pulled in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals after allowing four goals on nine shots. Murray started the rest of the way, earning the franchise’s fifth championship.

The goalie tandem is not unheard of in the NHL but has not been viewed as best practice. Certain circumstances have shown that it is necessary. If a goalie in the regular season benefits from a reliable backup, what’s stopping that same philosophy in the playoffs? The Bruins are set up to be one of the best teams to test this theory, given they essentially have two starting-caliber goalies and a coach who is not afraid to play the hot hand, regardless of a player’s salary. These upcoming playoffs could come with an interesting twist if Cassidy decides that Halak and Rask can co-exist in the sport’s most crucial time of the year.

Check out the new Black N’ Gold Hockey Podcast episode 153 that we recorded below! You can find our show on many worldwide platforms such as Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, iHeart Radio, Spotify, SoundCloud, and Stitcher.

Please subscribe to our new Black N’ Gold Hockey YouTube channel! We’d really appreciate the continued support. Click HERE for exciting Black N’ Gold online content!!

Replacing the Bruins’ Big Man

( Photo Credit: USA TODAY Sports Images )

By: Michael DiGiorgio  |  Follow Me On Twitter @BostonDiGiorgio

Head Coach Bruce Cassidy recently shuffled his defensive lines to give some of his young stars a spark. The move sends Charlie McAvoy, the Bruins former 2016 first-round pick, to Matt Grzelyck’s right side. The long-time left-shot defenseman, Zdeno Chara, to play with Connor Clifton. Chara has been the Bruins’ staple on the blue line as their number-one defenseman, and the recent move begs the question: What we can expect for life after Chara?

Zdeno was drafted 56th overall in the 1996 NHL draft to the New York Islanders. The Slovakian possessed something NHL GM’s salivate over for their blue line defenders: size. Chara measures in at 6’9 and currently weighs 250 pounds. Any GM would love to have that monster be one of the first things the opposition sees entering the zone. The 20-year-old entered the professional hockey world in the Islanders’ farm system, beginning with the Kentucky Thoroughblades. A year and a half later, he played between New York and their next affiliate team, the Lowell Lock Monsters. Beginning in the 1998 season, Zdeno Chara made the Islanders’ opening roster where the future Hall of Famer’s career would begin.

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His three and a half year tenure in New York was nothing to write home about, and the Islanders didn’t offer much support finishing last in their division those three straight years. In the 2001 offseason, the Islanders struck a deal with the Ottawa Senators, sending Zdeno Chara, Bill Muckalt, and a first-round draft selection (which turned into Jason Spezza at second overall) for Alexei Yashin. Muckalt only played one year in Ottawa and Spezza is still playing out his seventeen-year career. Many in the NHL felt the Islanders gave up too early on Chara, and they were right. Chara quickly found his game in Ottawa. He posted 23 points and a plus 30 in his first year with the Senators, almost tying his three and a half year point total in New York. Each of his four years in Ottawa, Chara surpassed his previous season’s point total, netting 146 points in 299 games. The success he had in Ottawa did not go unnoticed, as he was named first-team All-Star and a Norris Trophy finalist (Best NHL Defenseman) in his third year with the Sens. Ottawa allowed the fewest goals in 2005-2006 and the big man played an immense role in that. In the 2006 off-season, Chara was an unrestricted free agent and the Bruins were desperately searching for an elite two-way defenseman.

Entering the 2006 off-season, the Bruins constructed a massive overhaul of their blue line. Hall of Famer Brian Leetch retired and they cut ties with Nick Boynton and the hometown 6’7 veteran Hal Gill. The Bruins had some cap room to fill and Chara was their number one target. The Black and Gold signed the big man to a five-year, $37.5M contract. Not only did Chara bring size to Boston, but he also brought a thorough work ethic and mentorship that is a staple on and off the ice to this day. It’s the reason he’s well-respected throughout the league.

Chara became the Bruins’ 18th captain in their history. He brought his leadership, 100-mph-plus slap shot, and defensive stinginess to Boston where it would change the Bruins’ vision for years to come. He maintained 40-plus-point seasons in his first six years in Boston, two of which he reached the 50-point plateau. Chara continued to be selected as a first-team All-Star and became the 56th winner of the Norris Trophy in 2008-2009, with 50 points and a plus-23 rating. He was the leader of the team on and off the ice, and an integral part of the teams’ sixth Stanley Cup to Boston in 2011. Chara didn’t score a lot of points those playoffs, but he did shine where his team needed him most. He averaged a hefty 27:39 time on ice and a plus-16 rating. One key play that comes to mind is in Game 6, Chara used his seven-foot wingspan to make a game-changing play:

A four-goal lead feels as though the game is out of reach, but every hockey player knows it takes just one goal to change a game. The Bruins desperately needed a win to send the series to a heart-pumping Game 7 and once again, Chara was there to save the day when his team needed him most.

Game 6 ended in A 5-2 Bruins victory, sending the Bruins and Canucks back to Vancouver for any sport’s most exciting two words: Game 7. The Bruins took an early 1-0 lead at 14:37 in the first from the stick of another future Hall of Famer: Patrice Bergeron. That goal proved to be the game-winner, as the Bruins scored three more times, and on June 15, 2011, the Bruins were Stanley Cup Champions. Bruins fans around the world can still hear Dave Goucher’s legendary call: “Get the duck boats ready, the Boston Bruins are 2011 Stanley Cup Champions.” The Stanley Cup was raised the highest it had ever been, over Chara’s 6’9 stature. Chara ended the game with a game-leading 41 shifts, team-leading 27:12 time on ice, and a plus-2 rating.

( Photo Credit: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File )

The Stanley Cup was the cherry on top of Chara’s incredible career. Recently, it’s clear the Bruins have been drafting and developing their players for life after Chara. Following the 2017 season, he became the next athlete to take on the TB12 method to keep Father Time at bay. He no longer eats red meat and has switched to strictly plant-based and organic foods. “I can tell I’m feeling better,” said the 40-year-old Bruins captain and tallest player in NHL history. “I know for a fact I’m playing with a lot more energy and I’m recovering faster.”

General Manager Don Sweeney hasn’t taken his renewed time for granted, though. The Bruins spent three draft picks on blue-line defenders in 2015 selecting Jakub Zboril, Brandon Carlo, and Jeremy Lauzon. Zboril and Lauzon (both left-shot blue-liners) are still developing in the American Hockey League, and Carlo is one of the Bruins’ most important and consistent defenders, playing alongside Torey Krug. The Bruins drafted McAvoy 14th overall in 2016 and he’s been launched into first-pairing duties from the start. The Bruins also drafted young Finnish defenseman Urho Vaakanainen, who most believe to be the man to fill the big man’s skates with his ability to play long minutes and defensive stinginess.

Urho was drafted 18th overall in the 2017 draft, one year after McAvoy. Where the Bruins will miss Chara’s contributions the most is the penalty kill (PK). The Bruins have historically had great success on the PK due to Chara, Bergeron, and Brad Marchand. Zdeno’s long reach gives him an uncanny ability to intercept passes and clear the puck from danger. Sweeney has been spending the past two off-seasons signing bottom-six role players who can contribute effectively to the PK. Par Lindholm, Joakim Nordstrom, Chris Wagner, Brett Ritchie, and John Moore have all been part of this movement.

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One of Chara’s finest qualities that fly under the radar is his ability to shadow the opposition’s best players. Chara and the Bruins have executed Bill Belichick’s approach in neutralizing the opposition’s most lethal weapon. Chara has always been the mainstay in limiting players like Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, and Alex Ovechkin. These world talents have all had the tall task of facing-off against Chara and haven’t had much success. According to Natural Stat Trick, when both Chara and Ovechkin were on the ice together in a 5v5 situation, Ovechkin was held to only four goals from 2013 and 2016. Stamkos was held to three, and Crosby held to one. This type of shutdown ability will be extremely hard to replicate. Cassidy has faith in players like Bergeron and Charlie Coyle to handle the load, but it will probably be more of a group effort moving forward.

Chara hasn’t definitively said which year will be his last. If we know anything about the big man, his work ethic will not let him go quietly. His motivation throughout the years has awarded him tremendous honors. The Stanley Cup, Norris Trophy, and Mark Messier Leadership Award are just pieces of a successful resume for this seven-time All-Star. He recently reached an amazing plateau of 1,500 NHL games played.

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The Bruins don’t have just one player to solve the missing puzzle piece. But they do have a plethora of defensemen in their system, all of whom bring something unique to the table. McAvoy is one of the NHL’s brightest young stars. Carlo is a stay-at-home defenseman with a long reach and whose big body has been a key piece of what the Bruins do best in their zone and limiting the opposition. Torey Krug is the quarterback on their powerplay. Matt Gryzelck is statistically one of the best D-men breaking the puck out of the D-zone efficiently. Connor Clifton is a scrappy, hard-hitting defenseman who isn’t intimidated by the opposition’s size. The Bruins will miss having one player bring all of that to the table and alleviate pressure from others. But with some help from the men upfront, the current Black and Gold D-men should be able to replicate what the big man has done with great success.

Check out the new Black N’ Gold Hockey Podcast episode 153 that we recorded below! You can find our show on many worldwide platforms such as Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, iHeart Radio, Spotify, SoundCloud, and Stitcher.

Please subscribe to our new Black N’ Gold Hockey YouTube channel! We’d really appreciate the continued support. Click HERE for exciting Black N’ Gold online content!!

The Bruins Unsung Forward: Danton Heinen

( Photo Credit: Bill Greenblatt/UPI )

By: Michael DiGiorgio  |  Follow Me On Twitter @BostonDiGiorgio

Over the years, the NHL’s recipe to win Lord’s Stanley Cup has changed. We have seen fewer teams like the 2011 Bruins win with a goalie who catches fire at the right time, coupled with physical and mentally draining gameplay. In recent years, the NHL is trending toward teams winning with a well-rounded offense, two to three talented puck-moving defensemen, a hot goaltender, and role players. These role players don’t always end up on the score sheet night in and night out, nor receive the recognition for their deeds. Instead, these players are winning key puck battles, keeping the puck out of their own end, ensuring the opposition can’t get a quality scoring chance and maintaining high average time on ice. They are an integral part of the current NHL’s winning recipe. Players like Charlie McAvoy and Erik Karlsson are insanely fun to watch and many fans fall in love quickly, but teams need players who can help them in the defensive zone and break the puck out to their fellow line-mates. Enter: Danton Heinen.

Danton Heinen was drafted 116th overall in the 2014 NHL draft from the British Columbia Hockey League Surrey Eagles. In 2014, he attended the University of Denver, having two very successful consecutive years at center for the Pioneers. He posted 93 points and a plus 38 in 81 games, while also winning Rookie of the Year in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference; he led the Pioneers both years in scoring. His scouting report highlighted that he has very good hands and a nose for the net. He can play on both wings, which adds to his overall versatility.

 

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Versatility is something the Bruins have always valued.  They’ve sought out players who are able to give more than just a scoring touch, which speaks to most of their players’ abilities.  Injuries and poor play can elevate another player into a role they’re not used to. Heinen has been given the opportunity to play on all four lines and in most situations. He has seen time on both the power-play and penalty kill, as well as playing alongside David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, and Charlie Coyle without skipping a beat. These opportunities aren’t new to Heinen in his hockey career. When signing with the Bruins, Heinen’s college coach (now Dallas Stars Head Coach) Jim Montgomery spoke of Heinen in high regards: “The accolades he’s accrued and the (statistical) numbers he’s produced during his time at Denver speak volumes about his talent as a hockey player, but the things that don’t show up on a score sheet – his tremendous character, work ethic and dedication to his teammates – are truly immeasurable and that’s what makes him such a special young man.”  These attributes are what make Danton an extremely special player and unfortunately misunderstood. 

 

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Over the years, Bruins fans have fallen in love (almost to a fault) with the gifted and exciting players who zip in and out of defenders for highlight-reel goals.  In last year’s Stanley Cup run, Heinen was wrongfully judged to the point where fans wanted him watching from the press box as a healthy scratch.  He wasn’t the top goal scorer, power-play contributor, or delivering massive neutral zone hits.  He was, however, consistently breaking the puck out and winning puck battles in corners and open space to allow scoring plays to develop.  If a defenseman has a great game, you rarely notice them on the ice because they are doing their job. The same applies to Heinen: one of his biggest strengths is preventing the opposition from scoring, which is what fans admire Patrice Bergeron for.  So why is the love lost with Danton?

He played the majority of the 2018 playoff games on the third line with Weymouth-native Charlie Coyle, who was acquired at the trade deadline from Minnesota for another Massachusetts native, Ryan Donato.  Heinen was second on the team in plus/minus in the playoffs, only behind Coyle.  Even further, Heinen did not post a minus from Game 5 of the Toronto series through Game 2 of the St Louis series, which totals 13 straight games.  Many have disputed the plus/minus stat because sometimes it doesn’t give an accurate assessment of a player or play.  For example, a player will receive a minus on the score sheet if they are on the ice for an empty-net goal.  However, Heinen was on the ice for an average of 13:14 throughout the playoffs, which is very modest for a third liner and supports his plus play.   He was also tied for third on the team in takeaways with Brandon Carlo at 43.

 

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The Bruins’ Achillies heel last year was their lack of consistent scoring depth. Many hoped the acquisition of Coyle would spark Heinen and his teammates throughout the playoffs, but it did not come to fruition. The first line was relied on heavily throughout the playoffs to provide the goal-scoring, which fans rightfully expect out of their star players. The problem arose when the same group of stars went cold in the Stanley Cup Final, resulting in the St. Louis Blues raising the Cup on the TD Garden ice.  Depth scoring needs to come from all four lines in order to win: see the Merlot line in 2011. There is some blame to cast on Heinen in last year’s playoffs, specifically with his lowly 8 points.  He showed flashes of offensive prowess in a few games, but unfortunately could not consistently sustain it over a seven-game series.

This year, Heinen has been able to play with the likes of Jake DeBrusk and (when healthy) David Krejci on the Bruins second line.  He already has 6 points in 13 games played this season, which puts him on pace for 38 points.  This would not surpass his career-high of 47 points set in his rookie season, however, it would provide the regular depth scoring the Bruins have lacked for a few years. He is frequently in the right place at the right time, which is not by accident.  Heinen’s ability to get the puck out of the neutral zone from multiple defenders has lead to great rewards.

 

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The Bruins have been searching for a dominant and consistent top 6 forward since Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton have left town. They have tried numerous players on Krejci’s right side, but none have been able to stick for a full season. Danton Heinen is the next player to be given the chance to seize the opportunity. If he can continue his strong two-way play and create plays out of the zone, Heinen and his teammates will reap the benefits and Boston may have finally found the top 6 forward they’ve been desperately searching for

Check out the new Black N’ Gold Hockey Podcast episode 152 that we recorded below! You can find our show on many worldwide platforms such as Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, iHeart Radio, Spotify, SoundCloud, and Stitcher.

Please subscribe to our new Black N’ Gold Hockey YouTube channel! We’d really appreciate the continued support. Click HERE for exciting Black N’ Gold online content!!