- Big Bad Blog - http://bigbadblog.weei.com -

Bruins breakdown: The top pair

The breakdown at the break continues and this time we are moving onto the men commissioned with keeping pucks away from the crease. Since Claude Julien [1] took over behind the bench for Boston defense has been the name of the game in The Hub. Considering the Bruins scoring woes this year the only thing that has kept them in contention has been their ability to limit opponents chances.

Boston is fourth in the league in goals against with 2.42 and one of the reasons behind this is that its captain, Zdeno Chara [2], happens to be the reigning Norris Trophy winner. If a high tide raises all ships then a towering defenseman buoys all blue liners. We will also take a look at his partner, Derek Morris [3].

Note – Slight change in schedule. Will be doing the top defensive pairing Thursday then the other two pairings on Friday.

Chara — The questions about Chara are two-fold. One, how is he so good? Two, how do you quantify how good he actually is?

The first question has an easy answer — at 6-foot 9-inches and 255 pounds he is physically dominant on the ice. He skates well, has a long stick that he employs judiciously and, for the most part, has good positioning. Watch Chara play and it is easy to see why he is one of the best. Quantifying his play with advanced statistics is a little harder.

Chara is middle of the road when it comes to a lot of advanced metrics. His .72 Rating (advanced plus/minus with goaltending and team strength attributes configured) this year is very middle of the road. His -.22 plus/minus through 60 minutes of ice time is below the league average. Even in his award winning season last year he was .-44 in plus/minus through 60 with a .70 Rating. He had a 1.64 goal against while off the ice and a 2.23 goals against while on the ice. None of these statistics points to Chara and screams “look at this man, he is the best defender in the league!”

This is where advanced hockey statistics should be taken with a grain of salt. They work well when quantifying the performance of centers’ production and the strength and weaknesses of goaltenders in terms of positioning. For everyone else, not so much. Hockey is far to interdependent on lines and match ups for a lot of comparative stats to make a lot of sense. Sometimes they can paint a general picture and the folks at Puck Prospectus and Behind the Net are good at what they do but in the end they are playing with a deck stacked against them.

Granted, Chara has not been as good this year as he was last year. Part of that is the men playing in front of him. Another reason is that he has been playing with a a severely injured pinky that he injured in November in a game against the Sabres. The pinky does not bend straight and as of a couple of weeks ago was at a 90 degree angle to the rest of his fingers. When asked about it he said that he probably will not need surgery even though he tore almost all the tendons around the finger. What else would you expect? He is a hockey player.

That does not mean it does not hurt. Try doing anything with limited gripping ability and constant pain in your hand. It is not easy. It does not effect his ability to skate or the way his brain processes information, so he plays. Injured or not he will always be rolled out against the opposing teams best scorers (part of the reason his stats are so middle of the road) and find a way to get the job done.

Morris — The original plan when the Bruins signed Morris was not to pair him with Chara but rather have him create a good puck-moving pair with Andrew Ference [4]. Yet, that was before Dennis Wideman [5] fell off the face of the Earth and Ference went down with injury.

With Morris the Ying to Chara’s Yang, the duo have been effective. Yet, Morris’s stats have been relatively neutral this year as he has a mediocre .04 Rating and a -.19 plus/minus through 60 that is right in line with his classic plus/minus of -1. In terms of overall depth, Morris would be better suited as the primary man on the second pair but that is just not how things have worked out this season.

Morris does a decent job playing within Julien’s system and as far as the Bruins go, that is the best that can be asked. On offense, Morris is an average shooter both in terms of power and accuracy from the blue line. He has three goals and 22 assists through 57 games this season. In the Bruins offensive scheme he plays the opposite side from Chara, who will be activated to charge the net in set plays and on the power play. A lot of Morris’s assists are not of the “shoot and tip” variety but rather as the secondary man who made the cycle pass that eventually leads to a goal. He has benefited from being on a line with Chara as those 22 assists are his best since putting up 22 through 69 games in 2003-04 with Colorado (his career-high is 37 in 75 games in 2002-03 also with the Avalanche).