"Fire me? Have you seen our forward depth?" - Christian Petersen
San Jose's offense has sputtered for most of this season now and many are placing the blame at coach Todd McLellan. But is he really the problem for the Sharks?
You gotta love the San Jose Sharks -- they always give us something to talk about, and it's usually one extreme or the other. For the first two weeks, everything was about how Patrick Marleau would score a bazillion goals and Todd McLellan should win the Jack Adams Award. Then the bottom fell out and it went from bad to worse as the finger pointed at every possible excuse, including how handsome Marleau is.
Then there's the talk about Todd McLellan. Mind you, there were already rumors of a short leash for McLellan given the arrival of Larry Robinson and Jim Johnson, but a lengthy winless streak (though points were achieved, mind you) and it seemed like McLellan would be out the door faster than Morrissey at a Duck Dynasty viewing party.
Now? The optics have been better over the past two weeks, so the ship seems to have stabilized some. And if you look at the numbers, everything really comes down to the horrific goal drought more than anything else. Throw in one more goal per game over that stretch and you'll easily cut the number of regulation losses in half.
So where does that leave McLellan? Is everything his fault? Would things drastically improve should, say, Lindy Ruff or The Neutral take over?
Let's examine the numbers (disclaimer: all numbers taken from Tuesday evening). Usually, when there's a coaching problem, it's the defense that's the glaring issue. There are a number of reasons for this -- sometimes the system is outdated, sometimes the team's offensive players start freelancing, and sometimes people just stop paying attention to details. The Sharks, though, aren't really experiencing that. Their 28.8 shots-against per game is smack in the middle of the league, and their 2.05 goals-against per game is third best in the league right now. In comparison, Buffalo -- the team that let go of Ruff a few weeks back despite his tenure dating back to when Star Wars consisted of only three movies, Timothy Zahn novels, and a handful of video games -- has an ugly 33.7 shots-against per game and an even uglier 3.18 goals-against per game. Buffalo also has a goalie not far removed from a Vezina trophy and IIHF Olympic recognition as the tournament's best goalie. Chances are, you're not going to get Antii Niemi mentioned in the same breath as Miller.
Penalty killing is often another area where coaching gets scrutiny, as it's a combination of system, player management, and team communication. The Sharks have gone from putrid to not just respectable, but really darn good. You could say that it's all Robinson (and really, that is a big chunk of it), but if McLellan had experienced the proverbial losing-the-room syndrome, there's a good chance that the PK and overall team defense wouldn't nearly be as strong.
Then is it a case of bad luck? During the Sharks' torrid start, FTF recaps noted the high shooting percentages the team managed to get. It's obviously dropped off significantly since then, and here's a handy-dandy table (again, stats through Tuesday evening and please Jebus I hope I formatted these tables right):
The numbers don't lie; San Jose has the second-worst overall shooting percentage -- at 7.2%, it's well below the league average of 9.3% (somewhat surprisingly, Chicago isn't in the top five). What creates such a low shooting percentage? Part of it is the nebulous idea of puck luck, or that sometimes bounces simply don't go your way over a short period. If you took snapshots of San Jose's play over the last few games and stripped it off statistics, there's a good chance you'd see the Sharks carrying the play. A few inches here or there and that shooting percentage might be significantly different.
Now, just for kicks, let's look at San Jose's post-lockout (well, the Great Season Slaying Lockout Of 2004-05) shooting percentage.
McLellan's squads are firing just slightly below Wilson's, though a big part of that probably comes from the style of play that generates more shots on goal. There's certainly been roster turnover during that time, though there is a lot of continuity between last year's team and this year's team. With that in mind, you'd think that at the very least San Jose would be hovering around the 2.6-2.7 goals-for mark -- especially since so much of last year was without Martin Havlat. The difference probably lies in the injuries to Brent Burns and Ryane Clowe, along with the aforementioned puck luck. (If you're wondering about the bottom six, I'm getting to that.)
When you take a step back and look at all of the data, along with the improved penalty kill, it really does seem like there's little reason to get rid of Todd McLellan unless you advocate change for the sake of change. In many cases of fired coaches, you'll hear leaked and rumored reports of a poisonous locker room and we haven't heard any of that -- reports to the contrary, in fact. The logical thought would be that San Jose's shooting percentage would regress to the norm over time. And even if that's roughly around last year's average of 2.6-2.7 goals-for, if the defensive side of things keeps up, things should be looking up. However, note that it's still a considerable drop from the high-flying 3 goals-for seasons of just a few years back, and that's where the poor 3rd/4th lines factor in.
In short, I don't think the coach is the problem.
With that in mind, the forward-depth problem really belongs at the feet of this roster's architect: GM Doug Wilson. Wilson's certainly done many, many things right, but it's hard to argue about the lack of depth on the bottom six, particularly when FTF post-game numbers repeatedly show the third and fourth lines getting obliterated. If you want to combine conventional wisdom with advanced stats, the lack of forward depth means that opposition defenses don't get worn down as much, thus making it easier to keep pace, block shots, and push out screening top-six forwards.
And why are the bottom six so bad? Speed, or lack thereof, is a big part of it. AHL-level skill is also a big part of it. Let's face it, any combination of the bottom six won't even come close to the famous grind line of Mike Ricci/Scott Thornton/Niklas Sundstrom. Back in the Darryl Sutter era, that line could change the flow of the game through sustained pressure that set up the top lines -- along with pitching in production. You're just not getting that these days.
Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but next season's non-penalized buyout option does offer a number of possibilities to retool the second and third lines, which will then flow down to proper fourth line assignments. The middle lines need to eat up ice time and contribute in ways that don't necessarily show up on the box score (but do in the Corsi/Fenwick numbers), and that will minimize the impact when puck luck and shooting percentages dip below the norm.
As for now? Well, I suggest someone inject Ryane Clowe with nanomachines while teaching him to use the Dark Side of the Force.