It wasn’t so long ago that most of the hockey world was roasting the Boston Bruins for firing Claude Julien when it was obvious what the problem was.
The Bruins, at the time of Julien’s firing, had the lowest shooting percentage in the league and couldn’t get a stop from any of its backup goaltenders while Tuukka Rask had been a little below average.
Well let’s just check the standings here really quickly and oh hey the Bruins are very comfortably in a playoff spot. What a big surprise! To everyone except Don Sweeney, who really has this whole thing figured out after all.
Turns out you can fire an elite coach and still go on a little bit of a run if you have the personnel. The Bruins are 12-4-0 since Bruce Cassidy took over behind the bench, and you gotta think that even if you buy very heavily into the whole “Claude Julien was the victim of bad luck” thing, Cassidy has to be doing at least something different to produce such a massive swing in results; the team was merely 26-23-6 under Julien this season.
For many in Boston, the answer of “We have to wait out this string of bad luck” wasn’t going to satisfy. So you take a look under the hood and see exactly what the team is doing differently under Cassidy. You will, I’m sure, be shocked at the answer.
Make no mistake: The Bruins are still playing very good hockey under Cassidy, just to a slightly lower level than they were under Julien. They’re getting off a lot fewer attempts in general, getting fewer through the defense, and getting fewer on net. That’s a problem, but it’s painted over by the fact that they’re generating a lot more chances per 60 minutes than they used to be.
It would have been hard not to. The Julien-coached Bruins were playing it a little bit safe in terms of pushing for shot attempts from good areas. By the time he was fired, the Bruins were attempting just 7.3 scoring chances per 60 minutes, tied for 10th-fewest in the league with Vancouver (of course, they were only marginally behind everyone’s favorite Celebrated Perennial Winners from Chicago; would you believe Chicago’s conversion rate at 5-on-5 was 33 percent better?). That’s obviously not where you want it to be.
But at the same time the Bruins were also allowing the second-fewest chances per 60 in the league, and had the sixth-highest share of chances overall. Now of course, when you’re playing low-event hockey like that, it thins out your margins. If things don’t go right, you end up looking pretty bad. And under Julien, things looked pretty bad for that reason.
Lowest 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the league? Check, and by a decent enough margin to be alarming. Second-lowest 5-on-5 save percentage in the league? Also check, and only a putrid Colorado team stood between Rask’s backups and the league’s basement.
Meanwhile, under Cassidy, the Bruins are both generating and conceding a lot more chances than they used to. That, in and of itself, is probably good for them, even before you get into the whole thing about how many goals they’ve scored. If you’re generating more chances than you allow, but there are higher numbers of both across the board, you’re going to be in pretty good shape, even if you let the opponents chip away at that advantage a little. And certainly, you’re going to do less “living and dying by any one bounce.” That’s a big relief for a team that needed it.
Under Cassidy the Bruins still enjoy a scoring-chance share of 52.4, which is down from 53.2 percent but still pretty good.
But when it comes to goals, of which the Bruins have many over their past 16 games — the exact number is 62, about 3.9 a game; they had 141 in 55 games under Julien, just 2.6 a night — you can’t say it’s just because Cassidy got a little more creative with the lines or significantly boosted the number of scoring chances generated even by Marchand and Pastrnak. A nearly 30 percent increase in scoring chances per 60 doesn’t correlate to a 45 percent increase in goals per 60. We understand that fundamentally. More to the point, a 28.5 percent in chances against doesn’t correlate to your goals against falling 6 percent.
The big takeaway from all this is that Cassidy hasn’t really done much other than fiddle around with the lines a bit to actually make the team better. At the end of the day line construction is important but unless you’re dramatically changing who gets scratched on a nightly basis — and he’s not — the makeup of the team largely remains the same.
Let’s also consider who they’ve played since Cassidy took over. Yeah, San Jose twice, Calgary, Montreal, Edmonton, and even the Rangers and Senators are tough draws. That’s seven games out of 16. But beyond that? Vancouver, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Dallas, Arizona, New Jersey, Detroit, and Philadelphia. A real murderer’s row, and they’ve won all nine of the games they “should have” won. Which is good, because it’s not something this team was doing before, but again, bounces are finally falling for them.
Let’s put it this way: The Bruins have been very good in recent weeks, and have in fact been very good all season. You watch them now and the level of dominance they enjoy hasn’t changed much. That’s very good news.
What has changed is the fact that shots are going into the net at a rate well above the league average (they have the fourth-highest shooting percentage in the league since Julien got canned) and the goaltending is now no longer abjectly terrible. It’s merely below-average. Which is a big improvement.
The Things The Bruins Do Well haven’t changed much, and the changes they have made do not result in their full-strength shooting percentage going up 56 percent, from 5.9 to 9.2. Nor does it make their save percentage jump from .907 to .913 (a number that was much higher before the Oilers ran them out of the building on Thursday).
And this isn’t a “watch the games” thing. I’ve seen plenty of Bruins games both before and after the coaching switch and the team really does play mostly the same way. And if they were playing appreciably different brands of hockey, that would probably show up in the numbers more than it already has. Again, I can’t put too much stock in a huge uptick in scoring-chance events being the sole driver of The New Look Bruins’ success, Edmonton result aside.
And so it really all boils down to Cassidy doing one thing Julien clearly forgot to do in his final 55 games with the Bruins: Telling his skaters to score on more of their shots, and goalies to stop more too. That’s the best advice a coach can give.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise stated.
MORE FROM YAHOO SPORTS