In the 2008-9 season, the Boston Bruins looked unbeatable. Nobody scored on them, and they ended up only a single point behind the San Jose Sharks in the race for the Presidents' Trophy for the honor of biggest regular-season steamroller.
Things looked similar in the first round of the playoffs, as they outscored Montreal 17-6 over a quick and dominant four games. Somehow, however, they found a way to lose to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games in the second round, clearing the way for the Penguins to make the finals and, eventually, win the Cup.
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The Bruins were forced to console themselves with a tall mound of individual trophies given out at hockey prom: Their goaltenders were jointly awarded the Jennings, for giving up so few goals, and the patriotic Tim Thomas, still then just twitchy and not yet Twitchy, was granted the Vezina for being the best goalie that year. Large, dominant defenseman Zdeno Chara was rightly assigned the Norris Trophy as the year's best on the blueline, and the vaguely Cenobite-looking coach Claude Julien took home the Jack Adams, for best coach. A good year, and a bad one: no team with such talent could be happy with a second-round loss.
The 2008-9 season was, in sports terms, a hell of a long time ago. So long, in fact, that Steve Mason was still considered a good goalie by somebody other than the Philadelphia Flyers, who are still the number-one result for googling "Jesus Christ show me some dudes who can't find a good goalie no matter what." Mason won the Calder Tropher as the league's top rookie that year and then began his long largely unpunctuated descent to the bottom of save percentage charts.
The Bruins weren't super-great the following year, having trouble scoring, finishing third in the division, and losing to the Flyers in the second round. The year after that, though, they stomped through the league and won the Cup. Their leaders: Julien, Chara and Thomas. Since then they've followed three regular seasons of massive success with one finals loss to the Blackhawks and a couple upsets at the hands of the Canadiens and Capitals. So, since 2008-9, the Bruins have been in the playoffs every year. They won a Cup, and managed four first-place divisional finishes, one second and a third.
This year's individual awards were handed out a couple days ago. The Colorado Avalanche took home three, after a marvelous regular season in which they won their division before suffering a first round upset. Nathan MacKinnon took the Calder and Patrick Roy added a Jack Adams for best coach to his enormous trophy case, which includes three Vezinas for best goalie that his pupil Semyon Varlamov was a runner-up for this year. Ryan O'Reilly got the much-maligned Lady Byng, awarded nominally for "sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct" but generally going to somebody with a lot of points and fewer than 10 penalty minutes on the season. So do we think the Avs are going to follow this season up with a Bruins-like run at the top?
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There's a couple possible answers. First: "Yeah, maybe ... they've got a lot of young talent, as evidenced by MacKinnon's Calder, that should continue to get better, especially with their good coach (see the Jack Adams)." Second: "Probably not, given that the team 'gives up a ton of shots and gives up quality shots disproportionally when compared to other teams' and only won a ton of games last year because of great goaltending (for which see Varlamov's Vezina nomination)." Third: "Probably not, since O'Reilly, who's a hell of a player, is perpetually at odds with Avalanche management, who have taken him to arbitration, which basically never happens, so he's probably on his way out. And, oh, yeah, so is unheralded but indispensable centerman Paul Stastny, who will also probably want to make more than the Avs feel like paying him."
The truth likely contains elements from all three answers. The biggest problem for the Avalanche is that they do get outshot every night: 32.7 shots against every night, sixth-worst in the league (and nearly three shots worse than the average of 30.04) as against only 29.5 shots of their own. That isn't a problem as long as your goalie is otherworldly, as Semyon Varlamov was last year. If he has really become a superior goalie at the age of 25, maybe the team truly is poised for a stint at the top. However, last year was by every measure his most successful season, and hockey history is full of goalies who had just one great year, buoyed by randomness (probably) only to revert to the mean later.
Maybe Roy's coaching has made a permanent difference: some coaches can do that. More likely, though, is that the goalie enjoyed a career year and Varlamov and the rest of the Avs are due for a fast, thorough reversion to the mean, that rough place where giving up more shots than you take every night results in losing games. A lot of games.
Besides, having the best coach, defenseman, and goaltender is probably a better place to start from than having the best coach and rookie and the most gentlemanly skater.
From here, it looks like the Avs probably won't be beating out the Blackhawks in their division or going to the finals all that often.
Tags: colorado avalanche, boston bruins, calder, jack adams, vezina, lady byng, norris, patrick roy, historical parallels that don't work, semyon varlamov, tim thomas, nathan mackinnon, ryan o'reilly, paul stastny, nhl, hockey, hockey prom