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:

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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