San Jose Sharks 12-13 Preview: Still One Of The Best Teams In The League

Hawerchuk
August 13 2012 12:30PM

Patrick Marleau
If it wasn't for bad luck, Marleau would have no luck at all
Photo by Kittenwaffles
via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s start with a counterfactual: had the San Jose Sharks won the 2010 or 2011 Stanley Cup, would they be considered the best post-lockout team? After all, San Jose has the second-best record since the lockout, averaging 106 points per season, four points behind the Detroit Red Wings, and they’ve won more playoff games and series than all but Detroit and the Pittsburgh Penguins.Had they won one of those cups – more recently than Detroit and Pittsburgh – would they not indeed be viewed as a dynasty as opposed to a team that has never been able to crack the NHL’s upper echelon?

The irony is that this counterfactual had something like a 25% chance of happening.In the 2009-10 and 2010-11 Western Conference Finals, the Vegas lines expected San Jose to win 46% of their games; they won 11%.On average, the Sharks should have won one of these series, and they would have then had a 50-50 shot at winning the Stanley Cup. (As bad as events have unfolded lately, Sharks fans should be happier than Flyers fans, who have lost their last six straight Stanley Cup Finals.)

Enough Counterfactuals

We like to look at what we call “Fenwick Close” to evaluate a team’s possession performance – Fenwick being total shots at goal, including missed shots, and ‘close’ mean tied games, or games within one goal in the first and second period. By this metric, San Jose has been a dominant team over the last five seasons:

 

DET

Rank

SJ

Rank

2011-12

54.4

3

52.2

7

2010-11

52.0

8

54.4

1

2009-10

52.4

4

51.1

13

2008-09

57.2

1

55.9

2

2007-08

59.4

1

56.3

2

 

 

 

 

 

Avg

55.1

3.4

54.0

5.0

There’s nothing unexpected here. San Jose was the #2 team in the standings and they were the #2 possession team during the same time frame.If you want a shot at winning the Stanley Cup, you couldn’t ask for much more, but given the level of parity in the NHL, the Sharks only had a 1-in-3 chance of winning the Stanley Cup over the last five years.

Under Todd McLellan, San Jose became a markedly-different team, challenging annually for the highest faceoff winning percentage in the league and switching from Ron Wilson’s checking and sheltered lines system to power-vs-power, with Joe Thornton playing the role of true #1 center. One other area that McLellan’s teams have absolutely dominated is the power-play:

 S/60

5v4

Rank

Sh%

Rank

2011-12

62.9

1

11.7

20

2010-11

72.6

1

11.4

18

2009-10

61.2

1

13.1

9

2008-09

57.3

6

15.0

3

2007-08

47.5

16

11.6

20

 

 

 

 

 

Avg

60.3

5.0

12.6

14.0

Over the last three seasons, San Jose leads the league in 5v4 goals per minute, with Vancouver not far behind and Anaheim’s power-play only team at #3. No matter how you look at it, this is not a team weakness.How about the PK?

 

4v5

Rank

Sh%

Rank

2011-12

50.6

17

850

28

2010-11

52.5

22

865

26

2009-10

52.0

17

896

7

2008-09

46.8

6

882

7

2007-08

43.5

7

899

2

 

 

 

 

 

Avg

49.1

13.8

878

14.0

That’s not as good a story. Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been the go-to guy on the penalty-kill for the last five seasons, while Brent Burns, Dan Boyle, Colin White, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Rob Blake, Torrey Mitchell, Christian Ehrhoff and Mike Grier have cycled through the first unit.

The drop from being one of the best PK teams in the league to a bottom-half team coincided with two things: 1) Grier’s departure for Buffalo; and 2) Todd McLellan divesting his team of Ron Wilson’s checking line legacy. Did Grier mean that much to this team’s PK?Buffalo went from 26th in the league in shots allowed on the PK to 10th in his first season in a Sabres uniform – clearly not entirely due to Grier, but an indication of his talent nonetheless.Regardless, San Jose did not bring in a top PK talent in the three off-seasons since Grier left, and the coaching staff has not cracked the technical secrets of reducing power-play goals against.

Goaltending has also been a strength for the Sharks, with save percentages approximately one-and-a-half wins above league average over the last five seasons.While this doesn’t measure up to Boston’s performance, San Jose has still been at the top of the league in goal prevention.

5v5 Save%

SJ

Rank

BOS

Rank

2011-12

926

5

922

11

2010-11

926

5

937

1

2009-10

928

1

923

9

2008-09

924

5

936

1

2007-08

911

23

930

2

 

 

 

 

 

Avg

923.0

7.8

929.6

4.8

Outlook for 2012-13

For better or for worse, San Jose is basically the same team that they were at the end of last season. Yes, they shored up the penalty-kill with free agent acquisitions Brad Stuart and Adam Burish, but the impact of an improved PK will likely be imperceptible in the standings even if it makes a good narrative in the newspapers. At the same time, being roughly as good as they were last year makes the Sharks the odds-on favorites to win their division.At the same time, the salary cap pens in what they can do:

 

Cap Space

2012-13

$4.25

2011-12

$1.25

2010-11

($1.19)

2009-10

$1.08

2008-09

$1.13

2007-08

$10.17

Tom Awad’s Vukota projection system puts San Jose about six points off the league lead (Vegas inexplicably has the Sharks at 25-1 to win the Stanley Cup – you should throw some of your annual futures budget at that one) but closing that gap can’t be done at the going rate of $3M/win on the NHL’s free agent market.And it’s unlikely that they can build with youth: San Jose has only had two first round picks (a 17th, since traded to the Minnesota Wild, and a 28th) since they stole Logan Couture in the 2007 draft.

So where does that leave the Sharks? Going back to our counterfactual, the Sharks are no less likely to win the Stanley Cup than they have been on average over the last seven seasons. And while you’d think that being at the top of the league for eight consecutive years should result in some championships, good or bad luck and league-wide parity make it unlikely that any one team, no matter how skilled, ends up with the cup.

More of the NHLNumbers Annual:

F133ba2f9d7737aace589a3811b7b758
Gabriel Desjardins (aka Hawerchuk) grew up a huge Jets fan in Winnipeg. He runs the hockey stats website Behindthenet.ca and has written for the Wall St. Journal, the National Post, the Globe and Mail, ESPN.com and MLB.com. He has also worked as an analyst for a number of teams and agents in the four major sports. In real life, he attended Queen's University and UC Berkeley, and works in Silicon Valley. Previously, he briefly worked as a lumberjack in Manitoba. Contact: info at
Avatar
#1 Derek T.
August 13 2012, 02:28PM
Trash it!
0
trashes
+1
0
props

Great write-up, Gabe.

Shooting percentage regression alone should make the Sharks about 2-3 wins better next year. The biggest flies in the ointment are the PK and a very poor third line. I'm not convinced Stuart or Burish will do all that much to fix the penalty kill; there will likely need to be a systemic shift away from the passive 1-2-1 formation they've been running for most of the past two seasons. Larry Robinson should help in that department, he didn't run New Jersey's PK but probably had some input and they've been phenomenal for years. Then again, as you mentioned, fixing the PK won't make that big of an impact on their record although they were 12 goals below average shorthanded in 11-12.

They'll make the playoffs and contend for the division title but I think the Kings are definitely better.

Avatar
#2 manny
August 13 2012, 03:12PM
Trash it!
0
trashes
+1
0
props

If the sharks stay healthy all year, I see them as a better team than the Kings. The Sharks always seem to be to the kings as the ducks are to the sharks. Sharks always seem to have thge Kings' number. Watching the last two games of the season when the Kings played the Sharks back to back, they were close games but it always seemed to me that the Sharks controlled the game through aggressive and physical play, as well as shoddy reffing and other intangibles (from the bench!!)

Avatar
#3 Eric T.
August 13 2012, 04:03PM
Trash it!
0
trashes
+1
0
props
At the same time, being roughly as good as they were last year makes the Sharks the odds-on favorites to win their division.

I'm a little surprised to hear you call the Sharks the odds-on favorites. Do you mean they literally should be worse than 1:1 odds in Vegas, or just that with no rake you'd put them at above 50%?

Either way, I'm surprised, but it seems this is based mostly on taking a multi-year view -- over the last five years, San Jose has had a better Fenwick and Niemi has been comparable to Quick. But with the major moves LA made in the last 13 months, is that fair?

LA was appreciably better in Fenwick close last year (53.6% to 52.2%) and flat-out dominant after the Carter acquisition (58.3%). It's fair to guess Quick will regress to his career numbers, but it's possible he's maturing some too. Their power play isn't nearly what San Jose's is, but they don't rely as much on players who are on the wrong side of 30 either.

I completely agree that San Jose is a really good team. But can you comment directly on why you have them ahead of LA?

Avatar
#4 Pinch
August 14 2012, 12:35AM
Trash it!
0
trashes
+1
0
props

Whoops, never mind.

Avatar
#5 canuckle17
August 14 2012, 01:00PM
Trash it!
0
trashes
+1
0
props

@Derek T.

Even if the Sharks won, there's absolutley no way they'd be considered a dynasty! If you want to read about dynasties read this article....

http://hockeytwentyfourseven.blogspot.ca/

Avatar
#6 Josh L.
August 14 2012, 01:06PM
Trash it!
0
trashes
+1
0
props

@Derek T.

I think the Kings are too, but they were this year too yet still didn't win the division. The Pacific is a crapshoot.

Avatar
#7 Chris
August 14 2012, 04:02PM
Trash it!
0
trashes
+1
0
props

Quick question, how come if we use Fenwick Close to evaluate teams, why don't use it for players instead of Corsi?

Avatar
#8 Eric T.
August 14 2012, 06:04PM
Trash it!
0
trashes
+1
0
props

@Chris

It's a sample size thing.

The benefit of Corsi is that the sample size is larger -- adding in blocked shots means you get more events per minute, which means that with fewer minutes of play you can accurately assess puck possession.

The benefit of Fenwick is that by only counting shots that get through, you are more directly answering the question "did they have a chance to score".

The results is that If you have a really large sample size, Fenwick will be more useful for predicting future goal scoring, but that over fractions of a season, the larger sample of Corsi makes it a better predictor. (See: http://objectivenhl.blogspot.com/2011/02/shots-fenwick-and-corsi.html ).

In that article, Corsi is just a little bit better than Fenwick if you use a half-season, with the score tied. Teams spend a little under 18 minutes a game tied, so that's about 740 minutes of play -- and at that point, Corsi is still a bit better, so let's say they become even at around 800-900 minutes.

Teams spend about 28.4 minutes a game in close situations, so the crossover for using Fenwick or Corsi as a predictor happens at about 30 games.

At the end of a season, many forwards will have only ~800 minutes of even strength play, so you're just reaching the point where Fenwick might be equally useful as a predictor. So unless you're using multiple seasons of data, it won't be much of an advantage to use Fenwick.

As for limiting it to score close -- again, if we're already cutting the game down to the ~10-16 even strength minutes that a specific player might play, cutting it further to the part of the game where the score is close could be quite limiting. SnarkSD pointed out a while back that usage differences could have an impact (the defensive players being used to preserve a lead, for example); looking into corrections for that is on my summer to-do list.

Avatar
#9 Melky
August 14 2012, 06:15PM
Trash it!
0
trashes
+1
0
props

Excellent write up. Enjoyed it, also have a few questions.

a. Why are you using stats from five seasons ago as a basis, even partially, for your conclusions? The Sharks have some of their core players from back then still on the team, like Thornton and Marleau, but most of the team has changed. Using stats from four and five seasons ago in the average is going to skew your perception of how good the team is right now towards how good they were back then.

I understand you want a big sample size to rule luck out of your conclusion to as great a degree as possible, but five seasons is not just a big sample size in this instance, it's a different sample completely, a different team.

b. I assume you use only 5 on 5 save percentage to judge a goaltender's performance because you've found it to be on average a better predictor of future success and less dependent on luck than overall save percentage, or something like that. Is that correct?

If so, while that's sound reasoning on one hand, powerplays are a part of the game, too. One of the reasons you've cited for saying the Sharks are still an elite team is their great powerplay, yet Niemi's sv% on the penalty kill does not get held against him or the team at all in your analysis.

Of course, there's a reason for that, as a talented powerplay's success is much more repeatable and less dependent on luck than one lone goaltender's performance on the penalty kill.

Still, Niemi is very much a first save goaltender, a blocker, who your stats show is very good at making saves against even strength shots. But shots on the powerplay are often of a higher quality than even strength shots, and it's not a stretch to argue that for a goaltender like Niemi who is not mobile or athletic, that maybe there is something about him where he struggles against higher quality shots while penalty killing.

There are more passes made side to side on the powerplay that perhaps a goaltender like Niemi would struggle with going from post to post, more grade A scoring chances, and even on the lesser scoring chances, there is one less teammate on the ice on the PK to clean up the many rebounds a goaltender like Niemi gives up.

I think its a mistake to give Niemi full credit for his great even strength sv%, but give him no blame for his awful sv% on the pk. I watched him play last season, and while I think some sharks fans go overboard on the criticism, Niemi definitely did not have a good year overall. That was plain to see.

For you to say they have great goaltending, maybe it will bounce back next year, but for you to get that off of last year's performance is questionable at best. It's quite possible it was just chance that most of Niemi's errors came on the penalty kill.

c. You make it sound like going into the playoffs there are always a handful of top teams with x to x+5% or x to x+10% chance to win the cup, and the rest is luck, PDO, bounces. While some years this may be true, to say every year is like this, and the Sharks just haven't been gotten the luck in any year , is incorrect. Just because vegas thought the Sharks would win 46% of their conference finals games does not mean they were right, that the Canucks were only 8% better than the Sharks or rather had an 8% better chance to beat them than the Sharks had to beat them. I don't know why you brought up vegas odds as proof.

I can all but prove this luck hypothesis is incorrect, too, just by virtue of paying attention to the Sharks.

The year they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks, I believe they went 1-3 against them in the regular season, and then went 0-4 in the playoffs. A 1-7 record against a team in one season suggests more than not getting the bounces, it suggests you were outmatched, and not just outmatched in that they would have beaten you 54 out of 100 series, but much higher than that, severely outmatched to the point where luck was nowhere near the biggest factor in them beating you.

But, and Im sure you're thinking the same thing, it's too small a sample size, isn't it? I agree.

2010 - 2011, Sharks go 1-3 against the Canucks in the regular season, 1-4 in the playoffs. That's a 2-7 record, doesn't exactly spell close.

2011 - 2012, Sharks went 0-4 against the Blues in the regular season, 1-4 in the playoffs. That's 1-8.

So the Sharks, playing against the teams that ultimately eliminated them in the playoffs, were a combined 4-22 in the years each team eliminated them. Bad luck? And didn't the Blues even outshoot the Sharks every game this season or all but one? So it's not even bad shooting percentages, they even got outshot. 4-22 does not support your theory.

That's not even the best proof. The best proof was watching the playoffs this year, and watching the Kings. No amount of luck in the world was going to save any of the teams they played. No one was close. Winning the first three games of every series? And they made it look easy.

This was a dominant team, but you would probably agree with that. That's not the point. Your point is that even the best team usually does not make the Finals, or does not have that much better of a chance than the next best team and all the top handful of teams. But that's not true.

Just think back, post lockout. I'll start with 2007 because 2006 absolutely was an anomaly, the first season with the new rules, two undersized teams that played wide open run and gun hockey making the finals, the type of hockey that does not work nearly as well now.

But starting in 2007, I believe the favorites were the Ducks going in (this is the only year Im not sure of), with Pronger, Neidermayer, Selanne, Getzlaf, Perry, Andy Mcdonald, this was a stacked team, the best team, and they won the Cup.

In 2008, the Red Wings were the definite favorites with Rafalski on their team and Neidermayer and Selanne taking breaks with the Ducks, and they won it. They were my and probably everyone's pick before the playoffs and they won it, and it's not like we were all predicting luck, we were predicting the best team to win and they did.

2009, the Red Wings sign Hossa, are again the favorite, and make it to game 7 of the Finals before succumbing to their injuries more than the Penguins and losing. The Penguins were the favorite in the east and they won the Cup.

In 2010 the Blackhawks were the "it" team, taking over for Detroit, everyone picked them before the season even started, and they won. That's four years in a row the best team, the most talented team, either won or at least made the Finals.

In 2011 the Canucks were clearly that team on paper, everyone's pick, and they backed it up in the regular season, winning the presidents trophy and finishing 1st or 2nd in most team stats. They also made the final and might have won the Cup if they hadnt suffered so many injuries.

In this four year period, the Bruins are really the only winner where I can agree with you to the extent that luck definitely played a part, all those game 7's. But even if there was no clear "it" team in the east that year, it's not like they were one of a handful of elite teams and ranked maybe 3rd in the conference. Maybe there was no team you could easily identify ahead of the pack, but the Bruins were as close as anyone. There definitely wasn't any team you would have said were better than them, only maybe tied. And Tim Thomas was having a historic year behind the best defensive team in the NHL, who with Marchand's emergence and Seguin's to an extent had a ton of depth up front to go with it. It's not like they came out of nowhere.

And last year, while the Kings may not have been a preseason favorite like all these other teams, it was easy to predict them as Cup winners after they beat the Canucks, and the stats tell us they were the best team in the NHL from shortly after Sutter came along and they traded for Carter to the end of the season.

So again, the best team won the Cup. If luck or bad luck could so easily derail the best team from winning the Cup or elevate the second or fifth best team to winning it, we would not see the best team or the most talented team on paper win the Cup so often regardless of their luck.

The only real argument this year is that the Penguins were the best team, not the Kings, but when you examine what happened even that doesn't support the luck theory. They were more talented offensively than the Kings, although their depth was not as good, but their team defense faltered, and more to the point, they were undisciplined, took a ton of penalties against one of the best powerplays in the NHL, and could not stop it.

That doesn't say anything about the best team not making it due to luck, it just reinforces the obvious, if you play stupid and give a powerplay you can't stop tons of opportunities, you will have a hard time winning no matter who you are. But that's an anomaly, we don't see many series like that, most of the time the best team on paper plays the way it should and seems to at least make the Final far more often than not.

So great recap, but I don't believe the Sharks have been unlucky or rather failed to get lucky. i don't think their failure in the postseason has been that simple. In fact, both years they went to the conference finals, they had a ridiculous record in one goal games, and even more ridiculous in overtime. It was like 10-1 in overtime games or something crazy like that. When you realize that, the truth is it took a lot of luck for them to even get to the conference finals.

I also don't think Niemi had a good year last year. Maybe as a predictor of future success, you can discount his PK performance, maybe. But in that case, say he had a poor year last year but is a good goaltender and should rebound. To say he was actually good last year, those goals against on the PK counted just the same as if they were even strength, and his errors were just as glaring.

I don't get your counterfactual about the Sharks being the best team since the lockout had they won a Cup. Even if they had scraped their way to a Cup, wouldn't you go with the Kings team that started all four series 3-0 on the way to their Cup? Or the Red Wings team that didn't just win a Cup, but went to two straight Stanley Cup Finals? Or even the 2011 Canucks just because they finished 1st or 2nd in every major team category, won the President's trophy, trounced the very San Jose team you would put ahead of them 7-2 over the course of that regular season and playoffs, and made it to the Finals before injuries derailed their hopes of a Cup? Not to mention the 2010 Blackhawks, 7-1 against the Sharks that year, Cup winners, the third line of that team now playing on Florida's top line, Winnipeg's top line (and filling the captaincy), and Winnipeg's top defenseman who scored 20 from the backend. Many third liners dont score 20 from the forward position.

I know you were just setting up a point, but I guess when the point is wrong, a false basis is probably what led to the misconception in the first place. So Im sorry if Im casting two parts of criticism onto what's really the same issue.

Other than that, great write up, hope the season will start on time.

Avatar
#10 Chris
August 14 2012, 07:54PM
Trash it!
0
trashes
+1
0
props

@Eric T.

It all makes sense now. Thanks a lot, really appreciate it.

Avatar
#11 harold
August 19 2012, 05:33AM
Trash it!
0
trashes
+1
0
props

The Sharks have never been even close to winning the Cup. Sorry.

Comments are closed for this article.