When the San Jose Sharks finished the 2010-2011 regular season with a 79.6% penalty kill percentage, and a 76.3% for the playoffs, it signaled major changes for the unit, which had been a bright spot for the team in seasons past.
Regular penalty killers Scott Nichol and Jamal Mayers were not re-signed, and the blue line was completely overhauled. In addition, new arrivals Michael Handzus and Martin Havlat were intended to change the complexion of the unit, and Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski were intended to take a reduced role compared to a very poor penalty killing campaign.
With the penalty kill currently languishing in 29th place, it's difficult to see any improvement from last season.
Firstly, a look at the numbers:
The PK currently sits at 73.6%, 0.2% better than the last place Toronto Maple Leafs, and 1.6% behind the 28th place Columbus Blue Jackets. The good news is that the Road PK is an even 80%, likely built on success during the earlier road trip, and hopefully a harbinger of success on the upcoming SAP Open road trip. The bad news is that the home PK is at 68.6%. For some perspective, the worst Road PK in the league is Columbus at 68.9%
To make matters worse for the PK, the Sharks are one of the least penalized teams in the league, with only 91 power plays against. Florida is the next most disciplined, having been shorthanded only 98 times, and they have the 10th best PK in the league at 83.7%. The Sharks have the 3rd lowest shots against total at 141, and have allowed 24 goals, putting them at 22nd.
As in years past, the Sharks remain one of the most disciplined teams in the league, playing a big role in their overall success shorthanded. And now, the PK is simply not getting it done by any measure. The PK is basically rolling over and not getting belly rubs for its trouble.
Most people associated with the Sharks have been left scratching their heads at the problem. It's unclear what the source of the problem is. Looking at the SHGA/60 for the primary penalty killers on the team, the problem seems even worse:
Player TOI/60 GA GA/60
Andrew Murray 0.53 5 20.93
Torrey Mitchell 0.76 6 17.56
Jason Demers 0.19 1 15.38
Dan Boyle 1.57 12 15.32
Michal Handzus 1.77 10 11.66
Joe Thornton 1.54 7 9.06
Marc-Edouard Vlasic 2.51 11 8.77
Joe Pavelski 1.71 7 8.21
Martin Havlat 0.85 3 8.11
Douglas Murray 1.99 6 7.88
Colin White 1.50 4 7.64
Logan Couture 1.07 4 7.51
Brent Burns 1.96 7 7.14
Justin Braun 1.03 2 6.82
Jim Vandermeer 0.90 1 6.70
Patrick Marleau 1.31 2 3.05
Wow. Those numbers make Steve Buscemi look like a candidate for People's Sexiest Man Alive. About the only player who can even look at themselves in the mirror is the gutless Patrick Marleau. It is somewhat troubling that Andrew Desjardins is only seeing 0.29 TOI/60, when he has yet to concede a goal against. The numbers look particularly bad for Boyle, Vlasic, Demers, Mitchell and Handzus. These are four players the Sharks were looking for to have big years on the penalty kill, and they have simply been wretched.
When looking at statistics, it's always tempting to say numbers are unsustainable when they are this low, but that implies that the players are playing at something akin to "normal." It's time to break down the game footage and see if that's the case. If you'd like to follow along, go to http://video.sharks.nhl.com/videocenter/console.
10/8/11 San Jose Vs. Phoenix, W 6-3
12:16 2nd period, SJ 4-1
The season opened badly for the PK. The unit on the ice is Vlasic, Burns, Marleau, Pavelski. One might argue this is the top unit. And the Coyotes make them look silly. There's a lot of open ice in the middle as Marleau and Burns pursue the puck along the near boards. Marleau can't quite win his board battle, but the puck kicks down towards Burns who makes an absolute mess of it, freeing the Coyotes to attack the middle. Joe Pavelski has been skating with his man and is out of position as the puck comes between the dots, and he's in no man's land as Vrbata passes to Doan who smokes a one timer past Greiss. There's a lot of questionable coverage here, but Burns has to do better with the puck. Joe Pavelski also needs to read that his partner, Marleau, has attacked the puck at the boards and come back to the middle, where the danger area is. Nothing more that Greiss can really do.
4:56 3rd period, SJ 6-2
Burns and Vlasic on the ice again, this time with Handzus and Mitchell. The Coyotes dump the puck deep and Burns goes after it, but is bodied off the puck by the pursuing forward. All the penalty killers are now out of position, as they had moved to become passing options for Burns. Instead, the Coyotes get the puck and send it to the point. Mitchell and Handzus scramble to get into the lane, but the Coyotes quickly go D to D and Oliver Ekman Larsson's quick shot beats Greiss. No one looks particularly good here, but if Brent Burns wins his physical battle, there is no threat on this play. Handzus and Mitchell could communicate a bit better, but everything stems from the lost battle down low.
10:25 3rd Period, SJ 6-3
It's not often you can give up three PP goals in a game and still win. This one comes on a well executed 5 on 3. The Coyotes move the puck well, and the killer's can never truly challenge. Not much anyone can really do about this one. The team simply has to wonder what they were doing on the PK again in the third period, this time down 2 men.
10/17/11 San Jose Vs. Anaheim, L3-2
9:42 1st period, ANA 1-0
I watched this one twice to make sure I really saw what I thought I saw. Michael Handzus breaks his stick, always tough luck on the PK. And yet, he is the one playing down by the net because Dan Boyle is up above the circles, and I have no idea why. We all know Boyle's had a rough start to the season, and has heroically been playing through a broken foot, but this play is simply inexcusable. What makes this worse is that Douglas Murray is clearly injured on the play, and Boyle vacates the front of the net to pursue a puck that he has little chance of getting to in order to clear the zone. Injury or no, Dan Boyle has to make a better decision. Literally every other Shark on the ice is scrambling to cover for his mistake.
10/21/11 San Jose At New Jersey, W (SO) 4-3
13:53 1st period, NJ 1-0
Penalty Killing 101. Don't. Let. The other team. Pass. Through. The Box! Andrew Murray, Handzus, Boyle and Colin White all know this. It's even why they put their sticks in a position to stop the pass. But they also decided it was cool for Ilya Kovalchuk to have a few minutes to think about it, and he makes no mistake, sending a perfect pass to the stick of Patrick Elias. Kovulchuk is allowed time and space, and he's also allowed to make the perfect play. The box will get broken sometimes, but for a pass to arrive that cleanly on the stick of an offensive player means that there was a lack of active sticks. Kovalchuk literally hypnotizes the penalty killers on this play, freezing them in order to find his lane. So while the PKers were mostly in the right place, a lack of movement shreds them.
10/25/11 San Jose at Nashville, W 3-1
13:12 3rd period, tie 1-1
The struggling Predators power play managed to tie this game late in classic Predators fashion, sheer hard work. I had to go to youtube to find a real highlight of this goal (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vL1dlbQSFcU), but the story is, the Preds manage to continually hold the zone and simply wear down the kill. In the end, the Sharks fail to clear the crease, and Craig Smith cleans up. Hard to fault anyone in particular, but any one clear probably allows the tired PKers to get off the ice and turn the tide. Very troubling to see Brent Burns clearly beat at the net, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic appears to be all by himself dealing with 3 passing options. Thornton and Handzus need to do a better job of supporting the play here.
10/28/11 San Jose at Detroit, W 4-2
14:44 2nd period, DET 2-1
Everything appears to be going well on this PK as the Red Wings work it up high. Handzus does his job following the puck. Inexplicably, Andrew Murray decides that the view of Handzus's ass is particularly fine on this play (and who are we to dispute him) and he remains stationary in the middle of the ice. Marc-Edouard Vlasic comes over to Murray to see what all the fuss is about. All four Sharks PKers basically end up in a straight line from the goal to center ice. It looks really cool, but it's a bad way to kill a penalty against a skill team like Detroit, who are able to pass tape to tape and fire one home. I don't really know what to say about this play except that the entire PK seems to have gone completely brain dead for about 5 seconds, and that's all Detroit needed.
10/29/11 San Jose at New York Islanders, W (OT) 3-2
3:15 2nd period, tie 1-1
The vaunted Islanders PP is the next to put San Jose to the sword. Everything is looking good until the Isles get a shot off. Greiss makes the save but does surrender a rebound. Brent Burns is out of position at the front of the net, and fails to take away his man's stick. The rebound continues to kick out, and the Islanders eventually punch it home. Things were going pretty good here, but Brent Burns HAS to win his battle at the net. Greiss could probably field this a bit cleaner, but in that situation, you'd expect a big man like Burns to help bail him out. Instead, Burns looks lost, and frankly, he looks soft on this play.
11:28 2nd period, NYI 2-1
Once again, the Sharks give up more than one PPG in a game, and still manage to win, although this one probably comes with a bit of an asterisk. But that's a separate issue. The issue here is that Michal Handzus is throwing stick checks in the neutral zone on the PK. Zeus should know better. He stops moving his feet, and suddenly, the Islanders are into the zone with speed and able to move the puck at will. This could be dealt with, except Brent Burns has decided it's totally cool for the Islanders to get the middle of the ice. Burns is late getting back and fails to read Grabner driving the middle. It's a good thing he gets the game winner, because he was all kinds of fail on the penalty kill. Burns has more than enough mobility to be able to make this play, but his read is just awful.
10/31/11 San Jose at New York Rangers, L 5-2
14:53 1st period, NYR 2-0
Stop me if you've heard this one. Brent Burns makes a bad read, and New York scores on the Power Play. One night after a disastrous spell of penalty killing, Brent Burns once again absolutely blows it on his read, jumping up as the last man against the rush and completely whiffing. The Rangers enter the zone with numbers and manage to send a cross ice pass for a wide open back door goal. This is pretty much all on Burns. There's no need to try and jump the puck in the neutral zone, especially when he's the last man back. He puts all of his teammates out of position by trying to make that play. It's a bad gamble, not worth the risk.
11/5/11 San Jose Vs. Nashville, OTL 4-3
5:58 3rd period, tie 3-3
Tough way to allow the Preds to force Overtime. This is also the second game since San Jose went to the 1-3 PK scheme. Joe Thornton and Douglas Murray never really get on the same page here. Joe collapses to the middle while Murray is WAY out wide, trying to take away the backdoor play. Joe gives up the pass to the point and then is unable to block the shot when it comes. Murray isn't in position to block this either, and Ryan Suter beats Niemi. Neither Joe nor Murray make a particularly bad play here individually, but their coordination is crap. Murray is expecting Joe to jump up to the point a lot sooner, but he doesn't really make it clear to Joe until it's too late. Joe does the right thing by collapsing low to take away the play at the slot, but he really needs to be hand off that responsibility to Murray, who is somewhat slow to come back to the net. It's good that Murray was aware of the backdoor play, but he has to be closer to the net in order to be effective. This is a bit of tough luck that could be improved by better communication.
11/7/11 San Jose Vs. LA Kings, W 4-2
6:19 1st period, LAK 1-0
You have to win faceoffs if you're going to have success on the PK. The first issue is that LA has a brief 5 on 3 here. Torrey Mitchell takes a dumb penalty to put the team down 2. LA has 17 seconds of 5 on 3. Obviously, a faceoff win is key here, but it's very hard to win a draw without support. As it turns out, Michal Handzus loses the draw cleanly. If he even manages to tie up his opposing centerman, it's probably a good thing. Instead, LA wins the draw, moves quickly D to D, and Jack Vastly Overrated Johnson scores on the one timer. Niemi should have this, but his angle is completely off. This is bad all around.
8:28 3rd period, SJ 4-2
Don't ask me how, but the Sharks manage to win another game in which they gave up multiple PPGs. This one is all on Niemi. Off the rush, Kopitar fires a hard shot which Niemi needs to handle better. Instead, he kicks the rebound right to Kopitar, who puts it home. Hard to fault goaltending on most of the goals given up thus far, but Niemi was not on his game. It's a good thing the team had a good offensive night, because ordinarily, 2 softies on the kill is a death sentence.
11/17/11 San Jose Vs. Detroit, W 5-2
17:23 1st period, DET 1-0
The Sharks put themselves behind the 8-ball again (by the way, how's that 1-3 working out?). This is pretty much textbook Red Wings PP hockey. Shot from the point. Holmstrom gets the tip in front. Pavelski makes a decent effort to block the shot up high, and that's pretty much been the Sharks' playbook against Detroit. This time, the Red Wings just execute better.
13:38 3rd period, SJ 5-2
So, apparently, the key to success on the PK is to give up multiple goals a game? A good win ends on a sour note as Detroit makes absolute mincemeat of the 1-3. The Sharks should expect heavy doses of this in the post-season. All 5 Detroit skates work together and the Sharks back into their own zone absolutely on their heels. Again, like the game on the 28th, the entire team ends up in a straight line between the goal and the puck, and once again, Detroit uses the space to shred the PK. Jason Demers is in front of the net, and that's about all that can be said of him, as he's doing nothing in particular. It's a free for all at the net, and everyone gets a shot. It's a good thing the team is up at this point, because they look absolutely foolish on this kill. This game should put to rest any notion that the 1-3 is any kind of an answer to the PK's struggles.
11/26/11 San Jose Vs. Vancouver, L 3-2
10:17 2nd period, VAN 2-1
Good teams don't need a whole lot to make things happen. There doesn't look to be much going on here, and the Sharks are doing a decent job on the kill. But Torrey Mitchell doesn't quite win his battle at the boards, Andrew Murray isn't quite in position to disrupt the pass, he doesn't quite get back to block the shot, and Niemi can't quite control the rebound, which goes right to Henrik Sedin at the backdoor, and Niemi can't quite get back in time to make the save. Dan Boyle and Jim Vandermeer make a hot mess of things infront of the net, basically running into each other and creating even more traffic which probably throws off Niemi's timing just a bit. It also prevents them from doing anything about the rebound. It's good that Mitchell goes after the puck at the boards, but Murray should probably be closer to the middle to support Mitchell.
12/3/11 San Jose Vs. Florida, L5-3
7:53 1st period, tie 1-1
Douglas Murray gets beat along the boards. Let that sink in for a moment. After that, it's pretty much chaos in front of the net before Florida finally cashes in. The Sharks could really use a freeze from Greiss, but Douglas Murray can not lose that battle behind his own net. That is inexcusable.
18:25 3rd period, FLA 5-3
San Jose was still in this game, but this is a howler from Greiss. Can't say much more than he just needs to make that save. No one really does anything particularly wrong here, and you can argue that shot should never get off, but Greiss just has to be better. So the Sharks finally lose one in which they give up multiple PPGs, but in their defense, they also gave up a short handed goal... yeah, okay, never mind.
12/6/11 San Jose Vs. Minnesota, L 2-1
19:48 1st period, MIN 2-1
This is the game winner. And it comes in the final minute of the first. Joe Thornton is a great hockey player, but he needs to be better here. He goes up high to block the shot, and forces a cross-ice pass. Good. But he doesn't get back to follow up. Instead, his man gets behind him for the cross ice pass which shreds the D. Niemi does get across, but the puck beats him short side. The team just needs better execution here, particularly in close games.
12/8/11 San Jose Vs. Dallas, W 5-2
6:30 2nd period, tie 2-2
You know, I hear Michal Handzus was a pretty good PKer in LA. I sure hope that's true, because I have no idea what he's doing here. His responsibility as the weak side forward is to stop the cross ice pass. Instead, his stick is out towards the blue line, and leaves the lane to Brendan Morrow wide open. Morrow makes no mistake. Everyone is working pretty hard here, but Handzus just absolutely goes brain dead, and the Stars make him pay for it.
12/10/11 San Jose at St. Louis, L 1-0
19:34 1st period, STL 1-0
This game was ugly. And while this goal is officially a PPG, it's effectively a 5-3 goal, as the man had just come out of the box. Pretty tired group out there, and Niemi should probably have this one, but the less that's said about this game, the better.
12/13/11 San Jose at Colorado, L (SO) 4-3
11:51 3rd period, COL 3-2
Oh dear me, Danny Boyle, what are you doing? Dan Boyle is again caught pushing up the ice and vacating the front of the net. Logan Couture does not immediately recognize this, and is late coming back to challenge Matt Duchene's shot. The play by Boyle is perhaps not as awful as it first appears, as he's supporting the pressure on the point provided by Martin Havlat. But this should be Logan Couture's responsibility. With Boyle pushing up the ice, the Sharks are severely overloaded on the near boards. Logan Couture is suddenly covering no one, and Justin Braun is unable to do anything of merit in front of the net. No one really does anything particularly well this play, but Dan Boyle really makes a mess of things for his teammates.
12/15/11 San Jose Vs. Colorado, W 5-4
5:51 1st period, tie 1-1
Textbook PP goal. Joe Pavelski loses the draw cleanly. It goes to the point quickly, a good hard shot is tipped, and Colorado scores. Again, if the draw is at least tied up, this play might not happen the same way, and considering this game is at home, Joe Pavelski can not lose the draw this badly.
19:49 1st period, COL 2-1
So, basically, if the Sharks give up multiple PPGs against, they end up having an epic period, so we're going to stick with this strategy, right? Drew Ramenda takes the PK to task for not blocking shots, and it's not hard to see why. The PK has not been effective in blocking, or even denying shots all season, and this time, the shot gets through again, creating problems for the team down low. Colin White is unable to find the puck, and the forwards were not high enough to block the initial shot, and not low enough to help White clear the rebound.
Ugh... that was painful. It's hard to see any silver linings in any of this. The PK is just bad. It's not one particular player. There's plenty of suck all around. Some very good players just make some absolutely horrendous decisions at times. And there's just too many instances of individual players losing individual battles. A few outlying games aside, it's hard to blame the goaltending, but it's getting to the point where the PK seems like it has to ask its goaltenders (both of them) to just start stealing a few here and there.
I've made some attempt to look at numbers and positioning and such, but it has to be said, the PK just plain doesn't work hard enough. There's no urgency to its play, and the opposition is given tons of time and space, enough to make those pretty plays that beat the PK.
Looking at the stats, you'd think the numbers are unsustainable for a team this talented. And they may well be, but that assumes that their effort level will increase. The season is past the quarter point. This is not a lull or a statistical aberration. This is an honest to god weak spot. All the players (maybe outside of Marleau) who are relied upon to do the job are being beaten, and beaten badly.
I've contended that the Sharks are in danger of missing the playoffs if they don't improve their PK. When it comes to very good teams in the NHL, there's generally not much separating them. The margin for error ends up being very thin. And a bad PK just rips that margin wide open.
A few of us (myself included) have advocated a coaching change in terms of special teams. Watching to clips, I don't know how much I can fault the coaches for players just absolutely crapping the bed on their assignments. Good coaching might help, but when experienced professionals make such poor decisions, that's all on them, not the coaches. The fact that it's chronic doesn't speak well of the coaching staff, but it speaks worse of the players.
This all sounds very doom and gloomish, and yet, as of December 20th, the Sharks sit in 8th place in the West, 2 points out of first in the Pacific with 2 games in hand. So they're not out of it by any means, but the way the season is shaping up, it's very likely only 2 teams from the Pacific will make the playoffs. The Sharks currently have the inside track on their division rivals, but the whole point about the poor PK is that it cuts in to the thin margin for error.
The SAP Open trip still looms, along with a heavy dose of division games to close the season. All of which means this is still very much up in the air and the Sharks aren't doing themselves any favors with their penalty killing.