Joe Haggerty posted a revealing piece last week about what went wrong with the Boston Bruins last season. According to Brad Marchand on the record, as well as a variety of sources off it, the B’s were a divided team, with only part of the group truly on board with the team’s march to the playoffs. Others, he claims, without naming names, didn’t seem particularly bothered to miss out.
It’s a very interesting case, and unfortunately it’s impossible to think of it in terms of an actual case study, since there’s nothing scientific about the way in which players may discuss their perception of the causality involved in failure, and certainly everything a front office says with regards to move it makes has to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, the eye-rolling that some in the analytics community may take part in with regards to this story is a mistake. Dressing room chemistry is important. Leadership is important. And this story does contain some important lessons. Let’s take a closer look.
“In the past years, we were family, but for some reason this past year we were definitely a little bit divided, and had different cliques. It could’ve been because we had a lot of guys coming up in different times from Providence; they felt a lot more together, and it seemed like the older guys didn’t do a good job at integrating other guys.”
There’s no reason to distrust Marchand on this point. I completely believe that the team was divided, and it’s quite possible that guys coming and going from the AHL played a part. Every team deals with those comings and goings to different degrees, but a lack of leadership and communication could play a part in those guys not being well integrated. Just from personal experience, I can tell you that playing on a team when you feel well-liked, or a part of the group, is a lot easier – and often leads to a better performance – that when you feel ostracized or the unity just isn’t there.
The issues with the Black and Gold started before the regular season began.
Fourteen months ago, the Bruins chose not to re-sign fourth-line enforcer, and high-character clubhouse presence, Shawn Thornton. They continued with the gut-punch trade of top-four defenseman Johnny Boychuk right before the beginning of the season.
Here’s where we get into murky territory. Some will jump all over Haggerty on this, but in a lot of ways he’s just the messenger. It’s not hard to decipher that Bruins players feel that the losses of Thornton and Boychuk (off the ice, we’ll get to in the ice in a minute) were largely at fault for this lack of chemistry, lack of leadership, and overall failure. It’s natural for anybody to look at a season in which their team did not have success, compare it to a series of prior seasons in which their team was very successful, and look for the obvious differences. In this case there were two. The first is that the team no longer had Boychuk and Thornton, two good guys, by all accounts great leaders, and positive personalities. Because of this, Marchand and Haggerty would argue, there were dressing room issues and the team wasn’t as good. But what if that result is actually the second cause?
In hindsight, finding takers for Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell, and buying out Chris Kelly, could have created the cap room that would have allowed the Bruins to keep Boychuk, who desperately wanted to remain in Boston (and who ultimately signed a mega seven-year deal with the Islanders). Had the Bruins retained, and re-signed, Boychuk, they would now have at least one proven top-four defenseman in his prime. As it stands they have none, what with Dougie Hamilton having been dealt to Calgary.
But that’s beside the point when it comes to team chemistry.
I’m not convinced it is. The second noticeable difference between the 2009-2010 Boston Bruins (the first year in which both Boychuk and Thornton were together on the team full time) and the 2014-2015 squad was that the 2014-2015 team wasn’t particularly good. From 2010 to 2014, the team finished top 5 in both score-adjusted Corsi and Fenwick every year except one, and in 2015 they were 16th and 10th, respectively. Combine that with the team’s lowest save percentage during that period, a notable lack of defensive depth (largely attributable to Boychuk’s departure but also thanks to an injury and decline of Zdeno Chara), and a strange sudden decline and injury to David Krejci, and it was never a recipe for success.
But going back to the chemistry issue for a minute. I do believe having a united dressing room and powerful leadership is important. But it’s most important when the team is losing. The causality is often flipped such that winning teams are praised for good chemistry in the aftermath of their victories. In reality, I think much of good chemistry is developed through winning. Winning teams bond and become close. Losing teams grow apart and feud. That’s sports. Good leadership ensures that the team never gets too high when it wins, but more importantly, it keeps the team’s head up and its mentality together when it loses.
Between 2010 and 2014 the Boston Bruins never lost more than four games in a row. The 2015 Bruins lost six in a row – twice. So did guys like Thornton and Boychuk keep the team’s attitude positive during those four game slides in past years in ways that the current group of leaders couldn’t? Maybe. It’s also possible though that those teams were just never bad enough to be faced with serious locker room feuds that were the result of losing. Those earlier teams were never seriously in danger of missing the playoffs, so the type of leadership the Bruins needed in 2015 just wasn’t as necessary. Maybe Boychuk and Thornton would have made a serious difference on that front; maybe they wouldn’t.
A poll of veteran Bruins players, if truth serum was involved, would probably reveal that many of them felt that guys like Hamilton and Reilly Smith weren’t willing to pay the price to win, and didn’t really want to be Bruins at the end of the day. Smith’s days here were essentially numbered when he choked hard in a March 19 must-win game against the hard-charging Senators: He finished with a minus-3 and got benched for his lackadaisical, careless play. His turnovers led to easy Senators goals in a late-season game the Bruins needed to win to squelch Ottawa’s momentum toward the playoffs, and it spoke volumes about Smith’s willingness to fight and battle under pressure.
This leads us to one more important issue when it comes to causality. Smith having a poor attitude is justifiable criticism. But one bad game late in the year, and hearsay from a team that traded the player away, isn’t necessarily evidence of such. In this case, it’s probably fair to give the benefit of the doubt. But it’s always important to play devil’s advocate to any line of thinking. What incentive does somebody have to give this comment on a player? And is there any other potential explanation for this outcome, especially in a small sample size?
Occam’s Razor suggests that the simplest explanation is often the right one. The difficulty with the 2014-2015 Boston Bruins’ struggles is figuring out what exactly is the simplest explanation. Is it the departure of two core personalities? Or is it the team’s injury bug and lack of defensive depth? The team traded Boychuk last summer to hold together what it felt was a good locker room (management obviously felt Chris Kelly was an important part of that). Keeping Boychuk made more sense on the ice. Now the team is attempting to mend that rift, to bring back the team’s culture of toughness. New management felt that it had sacrificed personality leading to last season’s downfall. The important final question is whether the team really sacrificed personality for product, or whether it was the other way around? Now, with less defensive depth than ever, but theoretically more toughness, I guess we’ll find out.