Sharks vs. Oilers: Forward depth remains an issue

Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

San Jose might be undefeated but that doesn't mean everything about their game is coming up Milhouse. Ahead of tonight's contest with the Oilers, the Sharks should look to tweak their bottom two forward lines.

Are you tired of hearing about how it's too early in the season to draw any performance-based conclusions yet? Well, then you'd better click away because I'm going to say it again. It's early. Incredibly so. Nothing that has transpired over the last week and a half in the NHL is really worth reading into. Of course, that cuts both ways. The Sharks are off to a spectacular 6-0 start but the only thing that actually tells us is they've banked 12 standings points in the early going. Seeing as it will likely take 54 points to make the playoffs, San Jose only needs 42 points from their final 42 games (essentially a .500 record) to qualify for the postseason thanks to their 2013-opening hot streak.

What that doesn't tell us is how many points the Sharks are likely to accrue over the next 42 games. Any type of goals- or standings points-based analysis is going to be fraught with variance at this point so as to be almost entirely meaningless. Shooting and save percentage tend to be dominated by randomness even over extended stretches of the season, let alone six games. So it's probably a better idea to analyze the team's performance so far by looking at how effectively they've controlled the puck at even-strength. The answer is: not very well. By Fenwick Close, a metric that measures a team's even-strength shot differential with the score tied at any time or within a goal during the first or second period, San Jose ranks 22nd in the league. Granted, they've spent less time in the game states tracked by Fenwick Close than all but three other teams so we're dealing with an infinitesimally small sample size here. But the numbers mostly confirm what's been apparent on the ice so far: despite their results, the Sharks have struggled to push play at evens and have been dominated territorially for periods at a time. They have essentially been living off their decidedly awesome power play, unsustainable even-strength shooting percentage and elite goaltending by Antti Niemi.

Obviously this is in stark contrast to pretty much every Sharks season in recent memory; this team has been historically dominant at outshooting opponents, especially during the Todd McLellan era. So what's different? The fact that we only have about twenty minutes worth of Fenwick Close data to go upon looms extremely large here, so the most likely explanation is probably that even possession numbers are largely random this early in the season (of course, their overall shot differential numbers have been just as poor although that could be the result of score effects). Moving away from sample size issues, the absence of Brent Burns has had a ripple effect throughout the defense corps. Neither Marc-Edouard Vlasic nor Brad Stuart is all that competent at initiating a breakout but they've been forced to play together as a shutdown tandem without Burns to anchor a second pairing. But the most significant issue remains forward depth. Here's a look at how the Sharks have performed territorially at even-strength with each of their twelve most-used forwards on the ice:

Player Corsi/60
Logan Couture +14.16
Patrick Marleau +11.62
Joe Thornton +8.22
Martin Havlat +5.01
Joe Pavelski +3.31
Ryane Clowe +0.77
Scott Gomez -13.09
Tommy Wingels -18.85
T.J. Galiardi -22.80
Andrew Desjardins -28.04
Adam Burish -27.55
Michal Handzus -32.69

As that table makes painfully clear, the Sharks' even-strength possession woes have come entirely with their bottom six on the ice. That isn't solely on the forwards; obviously a lot of the time, it's been Douglas Murray playing behind the Handzus and Gomez lines and it's tough to have success through the neutral zone in that situation. Still, these numbers probably severely understate how awful the bottom six has been because it ignores deployment. None of the Sharks' top six forwards have started more than 39% of their even-strength shifts in the offensive zone so far. Meanwhile, the third and fourth lines have started there exceedingly frequently, with all three members of the Handzus unit having begun over 60% of their shifts in the right end of the rink. All quality of competition metrics are basically useless this early into the season but we can look at the opponents these players have predominantly faced. While Thornton counts the likes of Gabriel Landeskog, Corey Perry and Jarome Iginla among his most common forward opponents and Couture has skated the most 5v5 minutes against players like Bobby Ryan and Taylor Hall, Handzus has been used against guys like Lauri Korpikoski and John Mitchell. Burish has spent the most time against Mark Olver and Andrew Ebbett.

The bottom six has played absolutely butter-soft minutes by any measure yet has still managed to get steamrolled. Exacerbating the issue is the way the coaching staff has divvied up even-strength minutes; Couture has been the Sharks' best territorial forward while Handzus has been their worst yet they've played an identical number of even-strength minutes so far. Handzus has essentially counteracted Couture's positive contributions more than twofold. The good news is that the Sharks appear to have the personnel to rectify this problem. Gomez is a historically great possession forward, while Galiardi and Wingels have looked impressive in their time away from Handzus. Put those three together on a third line while severely cutting the resultant fourth line's minutes and you're getting somewhere. The fear is that the coaching staff will be reticent to screw with what's "working" when in reality, despite the results, the Sharks' current forward lineup and usage strategy hasn't been working well at all during even-strength play. The top six is as good as ever but the third and fourth lines have played terribly and played a lot. That needs to change if the Sharks want to keep winning games when their power play, 5v5 shooting percentage and Antti Niemi fall back down to Earth.

Edmonton Oilers

@

San Jose Sharks
4-2-0, 8 points
6-0-0, 12 points
5th in Western Conference 2nd in Western Conference

7:30PM PST | HP Pavilion | San Jose, California
TV: CSNCA-HD | Radio: 98.5 KFOX, SJSharks.com
Know Your Enemy: The Copper & Blue, mc79hockey, Oilers Nation

Projected Sharks Lineup

Patrick Marleau - Joe Thornton - Joe Pavelski
Ryane Clowe - Logan Couture - Martin Havlat
T.J. Galiardi - Michal Handzus - Tommy Wingels
Andrew Desjardins - Scott Gomez - Adam Burish

Marc-Edouard Vlasic - Brad Stuart
Matt Irwin - Justin Braun
Douglas Murray - Jason Demers

Antti Niemi
Thomas Greiss

Projected Oilers Lineup

Taylor Hall - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Jordan Eberle
Ales Hemsky - Sam Gagner - Nail Yakupov
Ryan Smyth - Shawn Horcoff - Lennart Petrell
Magnus Paajarvi - Eric Belanger - Teemu Hartikainen

Ladislav Smid - Jeff Petry
Nick Schultz - Justin Schultz
Ryan Whitney - Corey Potter

Devan Dubnyk
Nikolai Khabibulin

Oh right, there's a game tonight. If there's a team that doesn't have forward depth issues, it's Edmonton. Especially now that Ralph Krueger appears to have shackled the worthless Ben Eager to the press box and is icing an impressive fourth line. McLellan should use last change to ensure Thornton gets as many minutes against RNH as possible; that's a head-to-head matchup Thornton should win handily at this stage of those players' respective careers. Horcoff on the other hand, while widely despised in Edmonton, is still a strong enough defensive player to draw even playing against Jumbo's line. Since we last saw Edmonton (and the Sharks put up a six-spot on Dubnyk), the Oil has gone 3-1 and looked impressive in the process. Despite their struggles on defense, this could be a challenge for San Jose. The undefeated streak has to end eventually, but hopefully that isn't tonight. Go Sharks.

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