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Bruins breakdown: Centering in

02.22.10 at 3:48 pm ET
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What is the best thing about the final week of Olympic hockey? Well, despite the drama of the United States first Olympic victory over Canada since the 1960 “Forgotten Miracle” and the excitement of watching Jaromir Jagr play again, the best thing about the final week of the Olympics is that it means the Bruins will be back in action next week. The Hub hockey fans get to see if the four-game road winning streak before the break was a sign that the Bruins are ready to climb back into contention, or if it was a rare positive flash in an otherwise dreadful season.

In that mindset, the Big Bad Blog is going to breakdown the Bruins roster by position this week in an attempt to see where this teams stands. On Monday, we will be looking at the men in the middle — the centers.

(Note: Practice starts for the non-Olympic players (and those not still playing) on Thursday at Ristuccia Arena.)

The strength of the 2009-10 Bruins is definitely down the middle. Barring injury, the best Boston production Boston has to offer lays on the sticks of Marc Savard, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron. Let’s take a closer look at what each has to offer:

Savard: The gatekeeper of the Bruins attack, Savard has missed significant time though still is third on the team with 31 points in 37 games (behind Bergeron and captain Zdeno Chara). A couple of reporters were joking with P.J. Axelsson last year after he scored a goal playing on a line with Savard, and a reporter said, “Savard could feed a horse and it would score.” Axelsson just laughed and nodded, knowing the jibe was as much about his lack of scoring prowess as much as Savard’s innate ability to put the puck in the right place at the right time.

The Bruins offense has been anemic this year and that is, in part, due to Savard’s absence. Since returning from a knee injury on Jan. 29 Savard has recorded a point in seven of nine games the Bruins have played with nine assists (though no goals). His plus-three is one of the only positives on the team and Boston can generally expect him to be a point a game player, at least, when he is on the ice.

Yet, as any intuitive hockey fan knows, plus/minus is a bit of an archaic stat these days. It was created by the Canandiens in the 1950s, and has been an official NHL stat since 1968. It is quantified by goals for (plus) and against (minus) in even strength (5-on-5) situations when a player is on the ice. A slightly more advanced metric to determine a players value is to look at some of the stats that the guys at Behind The Net have put together. Their “Rating” system quantifies a player’s plus/minus while on the ice and subtracts from that his plus/minus off the ice and factors in relative team strength.

In this metric, Savard registers a respectable 1.06 Rating (for scale, when to comes to players who have played at least 30 games, Alexander Ovechkin leads the league with a 2.83 rating and the Kings’ Oscar Muller is last with -2.61). Extracting Savard’s plus/minus for 60 minutes puts him at .72, which is respectable but only a touch better than the mean.

In terms of generating points, which is about all that Savard is paid to do (though he has made progress in his two-way game in the last few years), this year he falls into the second tier of accumulation. Extending his production to look at points per 60 minutes, Savard generates 1.93 points, which translates to a little less than two points every 2 3/4 games, depending on ice time.

This is all relative. Savard has been hampered not only by his injuries but by those to the prime players around him. Last season, with Phil Kessel on his right and a healthy Milan Lucic creating space on his left, Savard was among the league leaders in points per 60 minutes (near the very top of the leader board in players who had regular ice time) with 2.99. Kessel was traded and Lucic has lost more time than Savard has this year. Savard’s current linemates, Miroslav Satan and a rotation of Lucic, Daniel Paille etc. have not been nearly as effective. Yes, a if Savard fed a horse it would probably score, but that horse needs to be healthy, present and accounted for to have a chance in the first place.

Krejci: Last year, Krejci was right behind Savard — at times, he quite a bit better than the veteran center. It was Krejci’s ascendance last year that helped transform the Bruins from an eighth-seeded playoff team that struggled to score goals in 2007-08 to a scoring powerhouse first seed in 2008-09. Is it any wonder the Bruins look more like the 2007-08 team than the 2008-09 team now that Krejci’s production has dropped off considerably?

Before getting into the numbers, it should be noted that in the absence of Savard, Krejci becomes the de facto playmaker of the Bruins. That means that Krejci will just about always get the attention of the opposing teams’ best defensive forwards and defensive pairings. Without the balance that Savard brings to the team, the Bruins don’t have the type of depth to allow Krejci to bear that burden. Add to that the fact that Krejci came back from offseason hip surgery and the equation proves difficult for the Boston and the young Czech center.

The numbers reflect it. In 2008-09 Krejci had a 1.55 Rating, this year he is registering at .25 (at a minus-1 on the classic plus/minus scale). The center was right behind Savard in points per 60 last year at 2.95. This year, he’s at 1.44. The biggest difference comes when looking at the plus/minus through 60, where Krejci was a league-best 37 in the classic scale last year and registered a 2.05, this year he is at -.33.

The regression in production should be a little bit alarming, even considering the tougher lines Krejci has faced this year. He still has basically the same linemates from last year in Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler, and neither of them are incredibly deficient goal-scorers (even if they have not exactly lived up to expectations either) at 15 and 13, respectively. Krejci has 11 goals and 20 assists through 57 games for 31 points, a far cry from the 22 and 51 he put up while playing in all 82 games last year.

Right now, Krejci is playing more like he did in his rookie season (six goals, 21 assists for 27 points through 56 games) than he did last year. This is a problem. Did the Bruins mis-evaluate Krejci’s potential or are all the other factors on the Boston roster the cause of his drop in production? Sadly, the answer will probably have to come next season.

There are other extenuating factors with Krejci’s production and role on the team that will be addressed in breakdown’s later this week, or perhaps at the trade deadline?

Bergeron: The third-line center has been the heart of the Bruins this year, and one of the only players to perform any where near expectations. Bergeron does everything that needs to be done on the ice — he’s a good two-way player, great on faceoffs, good point producer and occasional goal scorer. As a third-line center, Bergeron is exactly what any team would be looking for.

The problem for the Bruins is that their third-line center is also the teams’ points leader. On a team with true Stanley Cup aspirations, Bergeron’s production would be right in line for his role, better than average on a great team. The Bruins are not a great team. They are an average team (albeit it one with significant potential if everything was going well).

Bergeron’s baseline stats this season are decent, though not spectacular, with 12 goals and 25 assists for 37 points through 54 games. That translates into 2.08 points per 60 minutes and -.06 plus/minus through 60. His minus-1 classic plus/minus is reflected in his Rating of -.35 which is not a great representation of his good two-way game, mostly because his two primary linemates, Mark Recchi and Daniel Paille, are not exactly known as defensive wizards (yet are not slouches in their own right). A third line, almost by definition, is going to come in around neutral in plus/minus on an average team. That’s because the third line will often be matched up with an opposing teams’ best scoring line and the fact that the third line is not where a team stashes its own best goal scorers. The trade off tends to even things out.

If Bergeron was likened to a basketball player, he would probably be a Joakim Noah or James Posey. He has the ability to carry the team but his best features are his intangibles. A good example of the intangibles is the fact that Bergeron is eighth in the league in face off percentage at 57.4 (Krejci and Savard are middle of the road at 50.8 and 49.6 percent, respectively). Bergeron is the player the Bruins want on the ice to take a face off late in the game while holding onto a lead or on the power play if they are trying to come back.

The Others: The Bruins really lack a true fourth-line center. For the most part, Steve Begin plays the center, depending on the roster configuration at the time, but he is really more of a left wing than a center. Vladimir Sobotka would be a good fourth-line center, though finds himself more on the healthy scratch list than on the rink come puck drop. Trent Whitfield, Brad Marchand and Drew Larman have all seen time on the fourth line this season. What the Bruins truly miss is a Stephane Yelle-type of role player from last year. Yelle was coach Claude Julien’s go-to guy down the stretch last year when a face off needed to be won and Boston had to cycle the puck to kill time late in the game.

The team can make do without a Yelle-type (and should not consider actually bringing back Yelle from Carolina where he has not been all that good this year), for now but championship teams have role players who fill their roles well. Right now, the role of fourth-line center is a rotation, depending on health and matchups. That is not the worst problem but still a problem nonetheless.

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