Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 26, 2012

With Early Exits, Bruins And Canucks Have Decisions To Make

Last year at this time the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks were winding their way through the Stanley Cup playoffs, on their way to a seven game showdown in the Finals. Boston prevailed, giving the Hub its first Cup in almost four decades. The Bruins’ 4-0 victory in the deciding game sparked riots in Vancouver and riotous joy in New England. But the NHL has at least one thing in common with the stock market, in that past performance is no guarantee of future results. This year both Boston and Vancouver have been sent home early, twin victims of upsets in the first round of the playoffs. Now both teams face an unexpectedly early off-season filled with questions.

The Bruins, the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference, fell in seven games to the #7 seed Washington Capitals; while the Canucks, the #1 seed in the West and winner of the President’s Trophy for the best regular-season record in the league, were stunned in five games by the #8 seed Los Angeles Kings. Of the two series, the matchup between Boston and Washington offered both far more exciting hockey and a less surprising result. The series set an NHL record as the closest ever, as it not only went the full seven games but for the first time in league history each contest was decided by a one-goal margin. Even that remarkable fact doesn’t adequately describe the closeness of the play. Four of the games went to overtime; and in two of the three that ended in regulation, the winning goal was scored in the final two minutes of the third period. In the entire series only once did a team, Washington, hold a two-goal lead. That was in Game Five, and the two score advantage lasted for all of 2:54 on the game clock.

All of those number point to a series between two evenly matched teams; an assessment that is fair despite the wide difference in seeding. The Bruins played two distinctly different seasons. Through 46 games they were sailing along at 30-13-3. Both their offense and defense were in form as they built up a league-leading +71 goal differential. But starting with a loss to the Capitals in D.C. on January 24th, the Bruins sagged to a 19-16-1 record over the final 36 games of the regular season. In that stretch of mediocre play they actually had a negative goal differential of -4. Had Boston’s record for the entire season mirrored what it was during the last eleven weeks, the team would have finished with 88 points, four fewer than Washington. Based on the season-ending standings, the defending Stanley Cup champions would have missed this year’s playoffs entirely.

Aside from the fact that Boston entered the playoffs playing no better, and probably somewhat worse than Washington, the seeding differential is also a product of NHL rules. In each conference the three division winners automatically earn the top three playoff seeds. Thus Boston and Florida as winners of the Northeast and Southeast Divisions earned the 2nd and 3rd seeds in the Eastern Conference; even though Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the 2nd and 3rd place teams in the Atlantic Division won by the New York Rangers, actually had better regular-season records and more points than either the Bruins or the Panthers.

As exciting as the seven games were, in the end the better team won. On the ice the Bruins were the less organized, less aggressive squad. Their power play, at 2-23 for the series, was a joke. They scored the first goal just once in the seven games. Constantly fighting from behind, the Bruins put enormous pressure on their defense and goalie Tim Thomas. While Thomas was good, he clearly wasn’t the same Tim Thomas who singlehandedly carried Boston through last year’s playoffs. Ultimately he was outplayed by Washington’s unheralded rookie netminder Braden Holtby.

If the Bruins falling to the Capitals was potentially predictable, the Canucks being trounced by the Kings was a result that no one saw coming. Vancouver racked up 111 points during the regular season to win the President’s Trophy for the second straight year. The Canucks came into the playoffs in solid shape, going 8-1-1 over their final ten regular season games. Having tasted bitter defeat on home ice in the deciding game of last year’s Finals, they certainly didn’t lack for motivation. But in Game One the Kings scored two power play goals and then broke a 2-2 tie when Jeff Carter used a skate to deflect a pass to Dustin Penner, who shot the puck past Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo. Two nights later Los Angeles scored two short-handed goals as they defeated Vancouver 4-2. In that game Luongo allowed the four goals on just 26 shots. That poor performance led Vancouver Coach Alan Vigneault to bench Luongo in favor of backup Cory Schneider for the remainder of the series.

Schneider performed well, holding Los Angeles, which had scored four goals in each of the first two games, to just four more in total over the final three contests. Unfortunately for Vancouver, the Kings’ Jonathan Quick was even better. He stopped all 41 Vancouver shots as Los Angeles won Game Three 1-0. After the Canucks avoided the ignominy of a sweep by winning Game Four 3-1, Quick again outplayed Schneider in the deciding Game Five. The two teams were 4:27 into overtime when Jarret Stoll beat Schneider to give Los Angeles a 2-1 victory, and an improbable place in the second round of the playoffs.

Now General Manager Mike Gillis in Vancouver and his counterpart Peter Chiarelli in Boston both have far more time than they would have liked to contemplate how to make their teams better for next season. While both teams failed on offense in the playoffs, the first question in both cities involves the crucial position of goaltender. There’s little doubt that there will be a change in Vancouver. A team doesn’t bench its franchise goalie in the middle of the playoffs, and then easily turn around and say that all is forgiven. Already it has been widely reported that Luongo has asked to be traded, and is preparing a list of teams for which he will waive his no-trade clause. But Luongo still has a lifetime left on a $64 million 12-year contract extension he signed in 2009. Gillis will ultimately find some team willing to take on a big annual hit to the salary cap, but he probably can’t expect to get much value in return.

In Boston the picture is less clear. Thomas turned 38 during the Washington series, and while the two-time Vezina Trophy winner is still a very good goaltender, the inevitable decline that comes with age seems to have set in. His GAA this year climbed to 2.36, from 2.00 last season, while his saves percentage fell to .920 from .938. Backup Tuukka Rask was actually the Boston goalie with the best numbers this season, with a GAA of 2.05 and a saves percentage of .929. Both were noticeable improvements over the 2010-2011 season. Chiarelli also knows that the Bruins’ second-half decline coincided precisely with the unwanted and unneeded distraction of Thomas refusing to join the team in the traditional White House photo opportunity afforded to all championship winners in the various major sports. The January 24th loss to the Capitals was one day after Thomas made headlines beyond the sports pages. Like Luongo, Thomas has a no-trade clause in his contract; but while the contract itself has another year to go the no-trade clause expires July 1st.

But Chiarelli must also consider that in the final year of his contract Thomas is scheduled to earn a relatively modest $3 million; and he will have to weigh whether the 25-year old Rask is prepared to become the team’s full-time #1 goalie. In the end he may well like the idea of having Thomas around for a transition year. Of course, whether the excessively proud Thomas, never known for being much of a team player, will want anything to do with a less than starring role remains to be seen. No doubt his Facebook followers will be the first to learn his opinion.

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