With Phil Kessel, Jarome Iginla and Mike Richards all lighting the lamp over the past week, Ryane Clowe remains one of the few top-six forwards in the NHL yet to score a goal in 2013. The fact that he's seemingly spent about half the season in the penalty box certainly has something to do with it, but that's just one of many contributing factors.
This is the part where I tell you Clowe's possession numbers and shot rate have been solid and we shouldn't read too much into shooting percentage over a small sample, right? To some extent, yes. Despite a few glaring and memorable turnovers coupled with frequent unnecessary trips to the penalty box, Clowe has been a reasonably useful player for the Sharks so far this season. The team is dominating play with him on the ice at even-strength to a far greater degree than they were in Clowe's injury-riddled 2011-12 season and that's despite the fact he and his linemates are playing much more challenging minutes as Todd McLellan has opted to shelter Michal Handzus' line rather than theirs.
Even at even-strength, however, there are reasons to be concerned with Clowe's play thus far. In the 89 5v5 minutes for which Clowe and Couture have skated together, the Sharks have earned an impressive 58.8% of the shot attempts whereas they've earned just 41.8% of them when Clowe has been on the ice without his bear cub. I'd say that it's too early in the season to draw conclusions based on limited data, but the same thing happened a year ago. At least over the past season and change, Clowe and Couture's on-ice relationship has been more parasitic than symbiotic. At any rate, it's really Clowe's performance on the power play that's been driving his goal-less start. Here's a look at Clowe's shot rate, shooting percentage and goal rate both 5v5 and 5v4 over the past five seasons:
|Season||5v5 S/60||5v5 SH%||5v5 G/60||5v4 S/60||5v4 SH%||5v4 G/60|
Clowe has actually been better at generating shots 5v5 so far this season than ever before in his career. Eventually those opportunities will start going in, especially if the coaching staff reworks their forward deployment to put Clowe in more favorable positions to generate offense. It's the precipitous drop in his power play shot rate from a year ago that's really cause for concern and symptomatic of an underlying problem with the Sharks' power play: the second unit isn't good.
It's difficult to entirely separate out first unit and second unit power play data so I used Martin Havlat as a proxy for the second unit. He's appeared in every game (knock on bench), played on every power play and is used exclusively on the second unit. Here's a comparison of the Sharks' 5v4 shot and goal rate with the first unit on the ice relative to the second:
|PP Unit||5v4 S/60||5v4 G/60|
So far in 2013, the Sharks' second unit has been less than half as effective at generating shots as their first. They've been about seven times less potent in the goals department. Even if both units were posting what's been the league-average 5v4 shooting percentage over the past three seasons of around 12.8%, that would be a difference of three goals per 60 5v4 minutes, a substantial disparity. In isolation, the Sharks' first unit has generated more shots per minute than any overall power play in the league while only Winnipeg has mustered a lesser shot rate so far than San Jose's second unit.
It's painfully clear that the second power play unit needs some sort of shooting threat. None of the three forwards who typically take the ice as part of that group--Clowe, Havlat and Scott Gomez--have much interest in putting pucks to the net and neither of the point-men have been effective enough at getting into scoring positions to benefit from Gomez and Havlat's considerable playmaking ability. They need Brent Burns (and Jason Demers, who was scratched against Chicago) back badly and it's unlikely Clowe will be the beneficiary of the rebounds he usually feasts on with the man-advantage until The Bearded One is in the lineup again.
Projected Sharks Lineup
Projected Coyotes Lineup
Another early start today as the Sharks take on the Desert Dogs (*drink!*) at the Tank for the second time this season. The first meeting was easily San Jose's most exciting game of the year so far as the Sharks stormed back from a 3-1 deficit courtesy a 4-goal third period to defeat the Coyotes. Although their place in the standings doesn't really reflect it, Phoenix has been a good team in 2013. Among Western clubs, only the Kings, Blues, Red Wings, Sharks, Canucks and (somehow) Flames have been better at controlling play than the Coyotes at even-strength so far this season and they've managed to turn what were woeful special teams by the shot metrics a year ago into above-average ones in the early going this year. The issue with Phoenix has entirely been goaltending. Mike Smith has posted an atrocious .863 SV% in seven starts while the netminders as a whole have combined to stop just 89.2% of shots faced 5v5. While Smith was exceedingly unlikely to maintain his Vezina-calibre numbers from last season, it's equally improbable he stays this bad. When that save percentage turns around, the Coyotes should be a playoff team. Hopefully that process doesn't begin this afternoon in San Jose. Go Sharks.