Monday, November 28, 2011

Is This P-Bruins Team Worse Than 97-98?

There are a multitude of reasons to either accept or object to the shootout as well as the outright elimination of ties that came with it back in 2004-05.

For Providence Bruins fans, this particular season, the shootout has been little more than the ultimate sugarcoating. With three of the P-Bruins’ eight wins decided by way of the one-on-one derby, it is all that is keeping the superficial observer from evoking memories of the team’s single-worst season in franchise history.

Recall that, in 1997-98, when Providence finished last in what was then an 18-team AHL under the misguidance of Tom McVie, the only prominent league to use the shootout was its since-deceased rival, the International League.

As was learned a year later when Peter Laviolette came to initiate a District-Five-to-Ducks turnaround, that team had an abundance of capable personnel. The likes of goaltender John Grahame, defenseman Elias Abrahamsson and forwards Cameron Mann, Randy Robitaille and Landon Wilson formed part of a returning corps that garnered the 1999 Calder Cup title.

With goaltender Anton Khudobin, long-tenured blueliner Andrew Bodnarchuk and strikers like Zach Hamill, Josh Hennessy, Max Sauve and Jamie Tardif, this 2011-12 team theoretically could have at least been a threat. No need to be a record-setting runaway, but a reckonable club would have generated little surprise.

The fact that this P-Bruins’ group is instead languishing the way it has been for the first two calendar months of action is enough to size them up with the peerlessly plebeian 1997-98 installment.

But back then, if a regular-season game’s ice chips hadn’t settled in the standard, 60-minute time frame, each team got a hard-earned point and proceeded to a bite-size bonus round to go for the extra point.

If no goals were scored over the next five minutes of play, then that third point was withheld and each team settled for a tie. If you surrendered a sudden-death goal, you settled for the regulation tie. If you tuned the mesh, the win was yours.

En route to an eventual 19-49-12 finish, the 1997-98 P-Bruins were 6-12-5 at the 23-game mark, with all six wins decided in regulation and two of their five regulation ties being overtime losses.

After 23 games this season, Providence bears an 8-13-2 transcript with four regulation wins, one overtime triumph, three shootout victories, one overtime loss and one shootout falter.

But imagine if this were at least eight years ago, before the advent of the shootout. None of those four lightning rounds would have happened. Accordingly, under the previous system, the Bruins’ record today would read 5-13-5.

Translation: They would have three points fewer on this season as well as one win and two points fewer than their infamous ancestors had at this point of their itinerary.

Oh, and this may be an awkward time to mention, but as of this season, these P-Bruins have four fewer opportunities to make up for lost ground. Additionally, in contrast to the McVie team, Bruce Cassidy’s pupils have six additional Eastern Conference rivals to overcome if they are to earn a slot in the Calder Cup playoffs.

As mortifying as it was in the former days to be the odd team out when 16 out of 18 AHL teams earned bonus springtime action, today’s P-Bruins are in stark danger of their third straight postseason no-show.

Of the four other times they have whiffed on a playoff passport, the P-Bruins have never had as low a bushel of regulation/overtime wins after their first 23 games. In 1993-94, they started at 7-13-3. They were 11-11-1 at this point in 2009-10 with only one shootout win. And last year, they were 9-10-4 with eight victories decided with a clock running.

And while the misery of a non-playoff AHL season has more company than it did before the turn of the century, Providence is presently third-to-worst in terms of winning percentage. In the 30-team circuit, their .391 success rate compares favorably only to that of the Binghamton Senators (.381) and Hamilton Bulldogs (.368).

But delete the B-Sens, who did not exist until 2002 and whose city started going without Triple-A hockey in 1997, and last place would be the P-Bruins’ to take once the Worcester Sharks start using their six games in hand.

And the Senators themselves have two games in hand on Providence, whom they trail by only two points.

This means that, at this rate, the shootout could do what years of expansion might fail to do. That is, salvage the genetically modified table scraps of dignity the 2011-12 Providence Bruins may require to avoid lowering the bar set by their 1997-98 counterparts.