Midseason Grades for Each Line on the Boston Bruins
In the wake of several tweaks to their line combinations, the Boston Bruins have crossed the midway point of 2014-15 on a rare winning streak. That fact ought to underscore one of this team’s chief shortcomings in a mediocre 20-15-6 start through the 41-game mark.
That 20th win occurred this past Wednesday, when the Bruins topped the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins in overtime, 3-2. They have since bagged back-to-back regulation victories for the first time since mid-November, tallying three goals each night.
As much as those results have improved Boston’s outlook, the sample size is still too small to evaluate the depth chart’s new configuration. The notion of whether this arrangement even sticks or ultimately reverts to more customary combinations will take shape with time.
If there is a considerable shelf life for the current lines, that will speak to an improvement on the status quo. As it was for the majority of the first 41 games of 2014-15, however, the makeup of the Bruins lines did not warrant many rave reviews.
The following four evaluations will focus on the forward lines the Bruins deployed under normal circumstances during the first half of their schedule. Between the padded personnel’s performances and the front office’s handling of their supplies, few can claim above-average results so far.
When David Krejci is healthy and available for action, Boston’s first line tends to show its stability accordingly.
Therein sits one of the problems this year. The franchise’s other first-line staple, Milan Lucic, failed to carry on during Krejci’s protracted injury stints this past autumn. Of the 18 points Lucic mustered in October, November and December, only six came in the 19 games his fellow eighth-year Boston staple missed.
Granted, with or without Krejci, this line has had another element of difficulty in the right wing’s revolving door. Unripe rookies and reduced veterans alike have tried to plug that gaping void.
As recently as Dec. 22, when Craig Cunningham was the top troika’s latest on-the-fly tryout, Joe Haggerty of CSNNE.com mused, “It’s still expected that an outside trade will have to eventually supply them with a goal scorer.”
That is the inevitable conclusion this subject leads to from every direction, even with the slickest of detours. NHL neophyte Seth Griffith, most notably, has six goals and 10 points through 30 appearances, but he packed half of those into one October week. The Bruins have since sent him back to Providence, as they announced in a Saturday evening press release.
With that brief outburst with Krejci and Lucic, and his subsequent return to reality, Griffith personifies the fact that valiance only helps so much. Results are results, and a need for improvement is a need for improvement.
Midseason Grade: C-
Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Reilly Smith have been Boston’s bailout brigade on several occasions this season. Though their all-around performances have been far from flawless, Marchand is not the team’s leading goal-getter (11), and Bergeron doesn't lead in assists (20) and points (31), by accident.
When the Bruins sought to halt a losing streak at three games in October, the second line stood out with a critical scoring play to help force a shootout. Boston eventually claimed the extra point in Detroit that night.
On Nov. 4, when Florida frustrated Boston on several radiant chances, the second unit persisted long enough to give Marchand a sudden-death clincher. When the regal Blackhawks seized a 3-2 decision Dec. 11, NESN.com proclaimed “the Bergeron line was the bright spot” by virtue of its quantity and quality of chances.
Following another fruitful venture, a 5-3 Bruins triumph over Nashville on Dec. 23, The Boston Globe's Fluto Shinzawa opined, “Bergeron, Marchand, and Reilly Smith haven’t played with the metronome’s consistency they submitted for most of 2013-14.”
Case in point: Their periodic breakups, including the still-active one that head coach Claude Julien imposed this past week.
But with their elasticity and familiarity, the three second-line regulars have easily formed Boston’s best combination so far. With their collection of first-half highlights, they will most likely reunite to generate a few more in the coming months.
Midseason Grade: B-
Like the second line, the Chris Kelly-Carl Soderberg-Loui Eriksson combination has rarely seen action apart in 2014-15. They, too, have had their glitches but have generally functioned as a welcome allotment of chemistry-based glue.
Unlike the other two-thirds of the line, Kelly has been streaky on offense. Between two productive eruptions, he endured an 11-game pointless drought, chipped in an assist Nov. 21 and then let another scoreless hex last seven games.
But of his first 17 points in 34 appearances prior to the new year, he shared credit with one or both of his Swedish associates 12 times. On another occasion (Dec. 21 against Buffalo), Eriksson and Soderberg were both on the ice for Kelly’s goal.
Outside of that, though, the aforementioned Shinzawa proclaimed in a Nov. 22 report that the combination in question “has been the team’s most consistent two-way unit.” A month later, Nicholas Goss of NESN.com posted a Corsi study that spoke to overwhelmingly better results for Eriksson in this arrangement.
Advanced stats aside, though, Eriksson and Soderberg have dished up decent depth in the only set of stats that matter to any team: goals for and goals against.
Despite their status on the line chart, they are second and third, respectively, on Boston’s point production leaderboard. As of Sunday, they are tied for third with nine goals apiece, while Eriksson is tied with Marchand for the team lead with a plus-10 rating.
As long as the Bruins avoid overusing these three and coax a little consistency out of Kelly, they will be down one more problem in the second half.
Midseason Grade: C+
Following Daniel Paille’s refreshing performances on higher-ranking units, Matt Kalman of CBS Boston was apt to break down the veteran’s preceding mismanagement. In reference to Paille and the one-time Merlot Line’s other holdover, Gregory Campbell, Kalman wrote the following in a Friday column:
Too often, Julien has had to shorten his bench and keep his fourth line off the ice for long stretches. Paille’s best scoring chances have all drawn iron or glass. Maybe the only thing that’s kept Paille and Campbell in the lineup all season has been the injuries to both the Bruins and their Providence farm club in the American Hockey League.
Indeed, Paille personifies the head-scratcher that is a floundering fourth line. One safe conclusion, however, is that the Bruins did not adequately break up that line after severing ties with Shawn Thornton.
Before and after the pugilistic plugger’s departure, analysts engaged in incessant discussion about youth and speed supplanting some of the line’s seasoning and grit. For whatever reason, even when the injury bug was not biting, that has not happened nearly enough for Boston this year.
Paille even told Dan Cagen of the Metrowest Daily News in mid-October, while working with Ryan Spooner, “The faster the pace goes, the better I feel.” Yet the Bruins have since buried the likes of Spooner in the minors. The third-year pro last suited up for Boston on Oct. 15.
This occurred despite Spooner’s preseason status as the club’s most NHL-seasoned (27 career games) candidate to graduate from the AHL and the attributes he could bring to give the fourth unit the precise reformation it needs.
No matter how Paille and the fourth line are best served, Boston’s brass has not attained that proper formula. Although management is more to blame than the players for their shortcomings in this particular case, this sector of the depth chart is easily the most disappointing to date.
Midseason Grade: D
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com.