Lack of depth responsible for San Jose Sharks’ decline
The once-dominant Sharks have taken a step in the wrong direction. Why have they struggled so much in 2014-15?
If we were to prorate every NHL team’s current point total for 82 games, the Sharks would end up ninth in the Western Conference with 95 points. If, hypothetically, these paces were to continue through the end of the regular season, San Jose would miss the playoffs for the first time since 2002-03 — back when Mike Ricci and Teemu Selanne were on the active roster.
Back when Tomas Hertl was 10.
Indeed, it’s been an unusually trying year for San Jose, whose struggles can be traced back to spring: The Sharks’ most recent postseason failure created an undeniable ripple effect, one that left them without a captain and with a new, albeit highly-criticized, direction.
GM Doug Wilson claimed this new direction would lead to a rebuild, yet he did little more than sign a few counterproductive enforcers.
Said Fear the Fin in August:
If the Sharks aren’t rebuilding in the conventional sense and aren’t doing everything they can to win a championship, all they’re really accomplishing is wasting what is in all likelihood one of the last years of elite play from Thornton and Marleau. That isn’t a solution to anything.
This unease was certainly warranted. The Sharks are no longer among the league’s elite, and the window that has remained open for a decade appears to be closing.
Question is, what (and who) is to blame?
Not goaltending. Antti Niemi’s save percentage is just fine. Backup Alex Stalock has looked good, as well, and has surrendered just 17 goals in eight games.
Not special teams. The Sharks have converted on 24.5 percent of their power plays — good for 3rd in the league, and much better than last year’s rate (17.2). The penalty kill is slightly worse, but not enough to explain San Jose’s woes.
This brings us to even strength, where the true differences lie.
As of Friday morning, the Sharks are 19th in the league in 5-on-5 goals for percentage (48.6), down from seventh last year (53.8). This is an indictment of both their lack of scoring and poor defense.
A good way to evaluate forward depth is to break the skaters into four tiers — one for each line — and compare them to a large sample of their peers. Tom Awad’s work in Rob Vollman’s latest version of Hockey Abstract let’s us do just that.
In hopes of understanding what constitutes a good player, Awad organized forwards into tiers based on ice time from the 2013-14 season. It’s an imprecise way to measure talent, but it works for this kind of analysis. After all, better athletes tend to see more action than their lesser counterparts.
Here’s what Awad found (numbers are for even strength only):
And here’s how the 2014-15 Sharks forwards stack up so far (only those with > 100 even strength minutes included):
The stats are pretty clear. San Jose isn’t getting enough from its third and fourth lines.
This wasn’t the case last year, as the table below illustrates:
A year ago, the Sharks had a wealth of top-tier forwards who were complimented by lots of useful bottom-sixers. Quite a difference from what we see today: Matt Nieto, Logan Couture and Hertl all have taken steps back in 2014-15, and Wilson didn’t add anyone who could help mitigate their waning production.
It sure doesn’t help that the better, more reliable skaters such as Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski have been less effective, even if it’s not by much. Marleau and Couture in particular have had their fair share of rough patches.
As expected, the blue line is also underperforming. Justin Braun and Marc Edouard-Vlasic have been all right, but the bottom two pairings leave a lot to be desired.
Burns has subsequently gone from posting 2.1 P/60 during evens to 1.24 so far in 2014-15. Such a decline might be acceptable if he was a true No. 1 rearguard as Wilson naïvely envisioned.
Thing is, he’s not. Not even close.
While Burns provides San Jose with a fast, puck-moving D-man, he is also prone to turnovers and has seen his shot differential numbers drop since the transition.
|Burns||Games||CF/60||CA/60||CorsiRel||TOI% of Competition||Rel Zone Start %|
Nonetheless, Burns is far from the only problem here. Given their zone start percentages, Jason Demers, Matt Irwin, Mirco Mueller and Scott Hannan should be able to control more of the shot-share. Hannan has been terrible in this regard, especially when we consider the level of competition he’s going up against.
Can this be fixed?
Another important question: is there evidence to suggest San Jose can return to its once-dominant form?
Yes, but not much.
The Sharks’ score adjusted Corsi, which is a better predictor of future success than goals, has dropped off from last year. Additionally, their PDO (99.5) indicates they aren’t being weighed down by unsustainably low percentages.
So, it’s a talent issue. Simple enough, right?
Rebuilding has worked for a lot of organizations, and an argument can be made that San Jose needed one after last year’s hellish conclusion. However, there doesn’t appear to be much building going on.
Rather, the team has gotten worse while doing little to improve its long-term outlook.