It's almost impossible to fathom now, but coming out of the last lockout (we should probably start ascribing Roman numerals to these things...so I guess Lockout II is the one I'm referring to), the league developed a schedule in which every team faced each of its divisional opponents eight freaking times. Even six meetings sometimes feels like overkill when you're trying not to fall asleep during the annual mid-March snoozefest in Phoenix wherein the Sharks shut out the Coyotes 2-0 with the aid of an empty netter for the fourth straight time or some other equally riveting result unfolds.
Despite the 2013 regular season slated to last just 48 games, we were nearly subjected to a similar intra-division saturation of the schedule if early reports that clubs would face their division rivals seven times each were to be believed. Thankfully, Bob McKenzie confirmed earlier this week that each team will face two of its divisional opponents four times each and the other two five times apiece. It's not 58% of the season playing within your division, but that's still a significant chunk of the schedule. If the Sharks are looking to make the playoffs, they'll likely have to compile a pretty impressive record in those games, especially considering four-point implications.
Will the Sharks be able to outplay their divisional foes? It's hard to say but one thing we can do is look at how they fared against the Ducks, Kings, Stars and Coyotes last season, which is helpful since all five Pacific teams' rosters remain relatively unchanged. Sure, Ray Whitney went from Phoenix to Dallas, the Stars also added Jaromir Jagr in an attempt to assemble an All-AARP line and the Kings obtained a 34-pound hunk of silver they're still holding ceremonies for despite them having won it over seven months ago, the attention-seeking babies. But in terms of core talent, the division is fairly similar to what it resembled last year so it might be worthwhile to analyze how exactly the Sharks did in their games within the Pacific in 2011-12.
Overall, the Sharks went a mediocre 12-11-1 against their division last year, a record largely hampered by their inability to win more than one out of six games versus the last-place Anaheim Ducks. But since we like to be fancy here at Fear The Fin and because underlying statistics can help us predict future performance better than things like wins and standings points can, let's look at what some of the non-traditional stats have to say about San Jose's performance against the Pacific in 11-12.
Sharks vs. Pacific Division, 2011-2012
|Opponent||GF||GA||FenClose%||5v5 SH% ||5v5 SV% ||5v5 PDO ||SCF ||SCA
Scroll down to the bottom of this post for a glossary of the terms used in this chart if you need it. Right away, it should be fairly obvious from the Fenwick Close and scoring chances columns which of these teams went on to win the Stanley Cup. While the Sharks largely held their own against the Kings last year in the goal-scoring department, they were pummeled territorially, particularly after Darryl Sutter took over the reins. Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski had a surprisingly difficult time in their matchup against the Anze Kopitar line (or perhaps unsurprisingly now that we know how dominant Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams were in the playoffs). In fact, the most success the Sharks ever had against that unit was when Todd McLellan deployed a makeshift trio of Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Ryane Clowe opposite Kopitar in what was just Sutter's second game behind the L.A. bench.
Conversely, the team struggled on the scoreboard but easily controlled play against the Coyotes. A ridiculously low 3.7% 5v5 shooting percentage was what really did them in during their season series against Phoenix (Mike Smith was pretty good last year, in case you forgot). It's unlikely that happens again, although the Coyotes did beef up on the blueline by bringing Zbynek Michalek back to Arizona. Another half-season's worth of development should probably also ensure Oliver Ekman-Larsson is even scarier good.
Dallas was the one Pacific Division team the Sharks thoroughly dominated in all facets of the game. In addition to going 5-0-1 against them, San Jose generated a whopping 36 more scoring chances than the Stars during their season series. The Sharks were pretty effective at dismantling teams with shallow forward depth last season (Anaheim being the notable exception) and the Stars were definitely that, although with Whitney, Jagr and Derek Roy on board, Dallas could be trouble in 2013. On the other hand, their blueline looks as bad as ever so there may be new holes to exploit.
And then there's Anaheim. The Ducks were bad news for the Sharks all season, most of it thanks to more spectacular play from San Jose's masked nemesis Jonas Hiller. More than just goaltending was the difference, though, as the Ducks probably played the Sharks more competitively than the somewhat lopsided possession numbers show. Scoring chances during the season series between the two were almost dead even, with Anaheim likely coming out ahead if we accounted for score effects. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry were tough to handle no doubt, but I don't really have an answer for why the Sharks weren't able to take advantage of Anaheim's complete lack of depth.
San Jose was probably better against the Pacific than their intra-division record showed, but not by nearly as much as I expected before I started compiling these numbers. The goals for and against columns refer to all game states and not just even-strength play, but it's eerie how closely those numbers and the Sharks' 5v5 possession rate versus the division as a whole line up. San Jose generated both 51.2% of the shot attempts in meaningful situations and 51.2% of the goals against Anaheim, Dallas, Los Angeles and Phoenix last season. They'll likely need to be better than that, especially against the Kings, in order to seriously contend for the division title in a shortened season. They should also hope that their extra divisional games come against the Stars and Coyotes although common sense dictates additional intra-state matchups are more likely. Then again, since when do common sense and the NHL go hand-in-hand?
Glossary: GF = goals for; GA = goals against; FenClose% = percentage of even-strength shot attempts generated by the Sharks with the score tied in any period or within a goal in the first or second; 5v5 SH% = Sharks' even-strength shooting percentage; 5v5 SV% = Sharks' even-strength save percentage; 5v5 PDO = 1000*(5v5 SH% + 5v5 SV%), trends heavily towards a mean of 1000; SCF = scoring chances for; SCA = scoring chances against