A New Hockey Season Starts: Boston & Los Angeles Seek Redemption

The NHL season starts tonight and the Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins are both teams in need of making up for disappointments. In 2014, the Kings won the Stanley Cup, while the Bruins won the President’s Trophy, as the league’s best regular season team. Neither one made the playoffs last year and both had busy offseasons looking to change that.

We should start by putting the failure to make the playoffs in some context. Boston had 96 points and Los Angeles finished with 95 points, both numbers usually good enough to make the playoffs, especially for the Bruins in the weaker Eastern Conference. In fact, 2015 was the only season this century where 96 wasn’t good enough to qualify out of the East. The historical odds of Los Angeles missing with 95 points are almost as long.

So it’s not as though either team fell off the edge of the earth. Nonetheless, when a league takes 16 of 30 teams to its postseason and you aren’t one of them, clearly something went wrong. Particularly when you skate to the heights both teams had achieved the year before, and had a track record of achieving prior to that.

Both teams had a similar problem—they didn’t score enough, and the low scoring numbers (the Bruins finished 22nd in goals scored, the Kings were 18th) came in spite of doing a good job generating shots (Boston was 8th at getting shots, Los Angeles was 10th). This suggests the problem wasn’t schematic or with effort—unsurprising given that both teams are generally well-coached and have a lot of pride—but that the talent on hand simply wasn’t good enough to light the lamp.

Each team had the same strength—quality defense—but got there in different ways. The Bruins ranked 8th in goals allowed, and it was a case of goaltender Tuuka Raask bailing out a subpar unit in front of him. Boston was 18th in shots allowed and as one who watched about seventy Bruins games last year on the Center Ice package, the biggest visual that sticks in my mind is that of a puck just floating around in front of the net after a rebound save. Boston did a very poor job in cleaning up after the save, a sign of a team getting older and slower.

Los Angeles goalie Johnathan Quick has a good reputation, but the dirty little secret is that he hasn’t been very good the last couple years. The save percentages are down—91.8% isn’t good enough, and while it can seem like splitting hairs, with Raask at 92.2%, those half-points and full points add up to a lot over the course of an 82-game season in a sport where so many games are decided by a single goal. Quick had the same problem in 2014, but turned it around in the playoffs. Last year, he didn’t get that chance.

Quick’s defense still bailed him out quite a bit—the Kings were the best team in the league at shot prevention. It’s something that makes the loss of defenseman Slava Voynov, back in Russia after a domestic violence conviction, a concern.

Both teams went back to the drawing board and their different approaches were summed up in a trade they made with each other. Boston sent forward Milan Lucic to Los Angeles. Lucic wasn’t very good last year, but he’s only 28-years-old and has been a decent scorer in the past. The Bruins acquired a young defenseman in Colin Miller, to speed up that unit and also added backup goalie Martin Jones. Raask had to play a lot of games last year and his fatigue showed down the stretch.

More notably, Los Angeles shipped a first-round draft pick to Boston as part of the deal. The Bruins acquired more picks when they dealt young defenseman Dougie Hamilton to Calgary. There’s a new general manager in town, Don Sweeney, and he’s clearly decided to build through the draft. As a Bruins fan, it’s fine with me, with the obvious precondition that Sweeney better know what he’s doing in the drafting process.

Thus, Los Angeles is after an immediate upgrade and a return to some even-year magic, given their Cup victories in 2012 and 2014. Boston is taking the longer view. That’s reflected in the betting odds for the Stanley Cup. The Kings are 10-1, trailing only last year’s finalists, the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s as though last season never happened. Boston is a 40-1 longshot.

It seems to me that while the Kings are the better team, the disparity is not that great. Lucic is the big upgrade on offense and I’m not heartbroken that he’s gone from Boston. Conversely, the Bruins have two talented defenseman with wicked slapshots in the newly acquired Miller and Torey Krug. Not to mention the better goalie. I look for both teams to make the postseason again, with Los Angeles slightly—but not dramatically—the better of the two.