A brief note before I get into this.
The tendency after some big losses is to pile on the team, bury them in criticism and state that all hope is lost when it comes to performing in the postseason. I understand that anger as well as anyone, and one thing that I have learned over the years covering this team is that burying your head in the sand when it comes to trends only results in getting blindsided. I have admittedly become much more jaded as time goes by, specifically this season, where youthful exuberance for the start of hockey led to hand-wringing a mere six games later.
It's the nature of the beast really. This fanbase has been burned so many times before, on so many different levels, that we have become a nation of whiners and malcontents. You, me, the dude playing guitar on the far side of West Santa Clara Street following every home game. We are spoiled by regular season success. We look forward to nothing more than the playoffs, and take every victory during the first 82 games with a grain of salt.
My hope is that today's discussion does not fall into name-calling and blanket statements that "the same ol' chokejob" is a foregone conclusion, because it truly is not. San Jose has struggled since the Olympic break but there needs to be a realization here that thirteen games do remain in the regular season; and while this article does point out some rather middling trends against the Western Conference elite, April is ultimately an unknown.
We have no idea what will happen, only previous performances to guide us when speculating on what will. Nothing is set in stone.
Let's not forget that.
The Sharks record against Western Conference playoff teams has been an issue for awhile now, and it's an area of the team that has me concerned going forward. Whether or not this means anything substantial to the masses is likely up for debate.
This post attempts to provide some context for that debate to take place.
The playoffs are a funny thing. Extremely volatile in terms of matchups, especially in the ever-deep Western Conference where a first round draw isn't going to be a walk in the park no matter who you end up facing. Although the term "parity" has become quite the modus operandi during Gary Bettman's reign as Commissioner, it's hard to debate that notion when it comes to the final seedings out West-- by and large all eight clubs are fairly competitive on some level or another, with each one bringing a different type of skill set to the table. You have your veteran teams with experience on their side, young clubs who have played above their head all season, hot teams, cold teams, fallen short of expectations teams, physical teams, freewheeling teams-- just about every crayon in the box is represented.
Detroit is the white Crayola; no one wants it around. But lo and behold it always ends up in the box, unblemished, standing above all others after two months of use.
Nine teams are currently in the Western Conference playoff mix, and all have varying chances of obtaining a postseason berth according to James Mirtle's Playoff Push. For this exercise I have chosen to exclude the Blues and Wild on down, as it looks to be a long and tumultuous road for any of those teams to crack the top eight. However, crazier things have happened (St. Louis last season ironically), and the advent of the three point game makes nearly anything possible. If the standings change substantially by the time I post again on the subject a week and half from now, those potential teams will be included.
As I mentioned earlier, the Sharks record against playoff teams has brought with it some concerns. There has always been a question of whether or not the organization is able to elevate their play when it comes to the top teams in the league, and for the most part, those questions remain unanswered this season.
Today we have a nine team sample (#1 seeded San Jose down to the #9 seeded Flames), and their records against other potential Western Conference playoff opponents. Shootout decisions have been thrown out of the win/loss column.
The amount of games played will fluctuate between teams. This is due to a pair of reasons.
The first is the fact that each team has played a varying number of games against these opponents. For example, Colorado has nine games remaining against potential Western Conference playoff teams, while Detroit only has four. The second is that some teams go to the shootout more often than others, and therefore will have more games tossed out of the sample.
Games that went to the shootout are listed as GSO. They are not included in the GP column.
Also, and this is very important, the goals for and goals against scored in regulation during shootout games will be included in the GF/G and GA/G numbers. While this may seem strange at first (why include these statistics when you are throwing out the game results), it makes sense intuitivitely-- what we are measuring in that category is how proficient a team is at scoring and keeping the puck out of the net against playoff teams during regulation and overtime play. Therefore, this chart encompasses all of the relevant in-game statistics that teams have amassed when playing one another, while throwing out the results of a situation (shootout) that will not occur one month from now.
If this bothers you for whatever reason, and you would like the goals for/against numbers to be thrown out for all games that reach the shootout, I have attached those standings here. However, I prefer the chart below for the reasons stated above, and will use this format in future postings.
What follows is all nine teams games ranked according to winning percentage (WIN%). That is the main thrust of this article, and really is where the focus should be-- wins and losses are pretty black and white at this point, no matter how many goals you score along the way:
Reconstructed Western Conference Standings
|# ||Team||GP||GSO||GF/G||GA/G||G Dif.||W||L||WIN%|
A couple things jump out from this list.
For starters, it looks to me like there is a definite split once you get past Vancouver-- although the Sharks are currently stuck in sixth place, it's really not that immense of a drop from the four spot where Phoenix resides. Chicago, Detroit, and Vancouver are playing up to the level of competition, while the remaining six teams have all struggled to varying degrees. The Sharks are far from being in the lower half of the Conference in terms of skill level, but I think a case could be made that they aren't necessarily as elite as the NHL standings may currently indicate.
Back in December I penned an article predicting that the Red Wings would make the playoffs, and end up somewhere in the four to five range. While that may have been a little presumptuous considering it would take nothing short of a Herculean effort to get to the middle of the group at this point, it is far from an appealing option to have them floating around in the bottom third of the Western Conference bubble, especially when you consider how well they have done against potential playoff teams.
To say nothing of their historic dominance of San Jose in Joe Louis Arena.
Avoiding Detroit, as the entirety of Fear The Fin has echoed all season, is absolutely essential for this club to make a deep run. As was mentioned earlier in the year, "Detroit is the second most dangerous team amongst the Western Conference pool of contenders, with Chicago obviously taking the crown in that regard. Niklas Lidstrom may have a receding hairline but is still the best shutdown defenseman in the league today, Pavel Datsyuk makes your deity of choice green with envy, and Henrik Zetterberg is always available to pick your pocket like Winona Ryder on a Tuesday afternoon at the mall."
So that's the first thing that jumps out at me.
The second, and somewhat cathartic statistic in an ultimately sadistic sort of way, is the fact that San Jose has had some trouble keeping pucks out of the net against playoff teams. They are last amongst this sample, finding close company with Nashville, Colorado, and Los Angeles, who are all over the 2.80 GA/G mark as well.
As the majority of Fear The Fin readers are well aware of, TCY and I have been big proponents of upgrading our defense throughout the course of the season. I think this validates our qualitative observations to some degree (in regards to the usual retort being "but we're fifth in the league in goals against!"), and while I don't necessarily fault Doug Wilson for holding off on making a move at the deadline due to the cap space he had to work with*, it is going to be an area of concern both down the stretch and into the playoffs. Evgeni Nabokov has masked a lot of the defensive issues that have plagued the unit since the outset of the season, and to ask him to continue carrying the team when he is well on his way to the 70+ start range seems rather bold. His .888 SV% since the Olympic break (.903 before last night's loss to Dallas) has done little to assuage these concerns.
*Yes, I understand that Wilson was the one who put himself in that salary situation, but it's hard for me to argue that he is ultimately responsible for the success of the team in this area. He definitely has his faults, specifically in the area of being proficient at making a great trade vs. being rather subpar in re-signing players to reasonable contracts, but at this point it is all on the players and coaching staff. The regular season record speaks for itself when it comes to DW. Playoffs, and performance against playoff teams, are a player problem. Nothing Wilson has done can change that.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic's return from a knee injury should definitely help in this area. He's an essential player to this team, and hopefully will not be burdened with decreased mobility when he returns. Mobility is one of the biggest assets to his game considering he doesn't play with much of a physical edge, and while McLellan has handled injuries well this season, sticking to that approach wholeheartedly with Vlasic, you never know with a knee. It's a wildcard.
One last note before I transition into another approach to these reconstructed standings-- I understand that there a lot of relevant links nestled into this article, and I fully encourage you to click on all of them considering they accentuate the points I am trying to make. But if you do one thing today, read this article from March of last season, this one from December, and the comments in a post entitled "How the Sharks have spent the post-Olympic break", published earlier this week on Fear The Fin.
Similar in almost all respects. No matter how much things change, they always do seem to stay the same.
All this being said there are some positives, or at the very least, aspects within these numbers that should offer some modicum of comfort.
San Jose's goal differential is at the break even point, good for fourth amongst these teams. While that is not necessarily where the coaching staff would like things to be against top-tier opponents, it shows that they generally have played these teams tight, 7-2 shellacking at the hands of Chicago notwithstanding.
They also find themselves tied for third in terms of goals scored, which has also been a concern throughout the year. For the most part San Jose has shown they can score in bunches when they have the motivation to do so, and with secondary scorers to boot-- having those bottom nine guys chip in is probably the second biggest thing during the postseason behind Nabokov (and consequently, the defense). It is a good trend, albeit one that has been washed out by some questionable decision-making with the puck in the defensive end. Sure, they may have benefited from some gaudy offensive numbers against Calgary (9-1) and Nashville (8-5), but that's largely true for every team in this sample.
Furthermore, San Jose is 6-4 since January against playoff teams. There has been improvement, however slight, and building on that momentum will be essential during these final four weeks of the regular season.
The sky probably isn't falling-- that has never been the purpose of any article I have ever written, because to truly predict the outcome of the playoffs requires some pretty nasty hallucinogens and one helluva accurate crystal ball courtesy of Miss Cleo. There is nothing in here that states San Jose is incapable of making a deep playoff run; however, this indicates to me that there are some notable maladies that plague the club on a broad level when it comes to performing against playoff teams, which in turn makes it seem as if they will be less likely to make a deep playoff run.
There is a definite distinction there.
Whether it is frustrating turnovers at the bluelines, botched breakouts, a lack of urgency for sixty minutes, or whatever other option you choose to hang your hat on (and there a fair amount of rungs available right now), I don't think the Sharks have exactly been the world beaters that their official record may indicate.
It's all relative to expectations. A team struggling to make the playoffs would kill for San Jose's totals on this chart, while a potential number one seed in West should be disappointed in what they have turned in thus far. The regular season Sharks are the heroes that San Jose deserves, but are not the ones we need right now. We need some dark knights.
Of course nothing is set in stone, and a 10-12 record is no exception. San Jose has eight games remaining against these potential playoff opponents, and that all begins tomorrow with a nasty back to back on the road against Vancouver and Calgary. The following weekend also features another back to back, this time featuring Vancouver and Colorado in the cozy confines of HP Pavilion.
San Jose then plays Colorado, Calgary, Vancouver, and Phoenix during the last week of the regular season. All in a row.
These are huge games, defining ones, and will be a better indicator of what to expect during The Months That Shall Not Be Named than anything else that has come before.
Cue John Williams and ready the superlatives folks. It's going to be a wild ride.