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What changed?: Examining the Sharks' schizophrenic season

Following a perfect opening month, the Sharks have yet to win a game in February. What's gone wrong and what can the team do to fix it?

Thearon W. Henderson

The month of January was a remarkable one. Despite beginning with overwhelming uncertainty still clouding the possibility of an NHL season, it ended with the Sharks sporting a flawless 7-0-0 record as the final undefeated team standing in the league. When San Jose hosted Chicago on February 5th, despite having dropped two in a row at that point, it felt like a legitimate collision of conference heavyweights. While they went on to lose an enthralling contest highlighted by the clubs trading three goals apiece in the first period, an argument that the Sharks were the better team that night wouldn't have been without merit.

No one can make that argument about Friday night's rematch between the Sharks and Blackhawks. San Jose was dominated for extended stretches of that contest, their seventh consecutive loss in a winless February. It's been the best of months and the worst of months for the Sharks so far in 2013. So how does a team go from kicking ass to being on the receiving end? What makes a team turn awful? Lust for gold? Power? Or were they just born with hearts full of disappointment? In an attempt to answer that question, here's a look at how the January Sharks stack up against the February Sharks in a variety of statistical categories including shot, goal and scoring chance rate for and against, possession numbers in situations where the score was close and PDO (the summation of shooting and save percentage). First up, the even-strength numbers:

Segment SF/60 SH% GF/60 SA/60 SV% GA/60 PDO FenClose% Chances For/60 Chances Against/60 Chance%
Games 1-7 28.2 9.8% 2.76 28.4 0.954 1.30 1052 51.5% 13.5 13.8 49.3%
Games 8-14 29.0 3.6% 1.05 31.1 0.893 3.32 929 54.0% 13.1 13.5 49.3%

As far as the underlying numbers go, the Sharks have surprisingly been better at controlling play with the score close over their seven-game losing streak than they were during their 7-0-0 run. They've been a bit worse at turning that advantage in possession into similar advantages in shots and scoring chances, as their chance ratio has remained unchanged and their proportion of shots has actually declined despite the fact that they've had the puck more in this stretch.

Of course, in terms of what's driving all the losing, that rationale pales in comparison to the effects of our old friend PDO. San Jose has gone from scoring on nearly 10% of their even-strength shots to less than 4%. Their goalies have gone from stopping over 95% of the pucks they face to less than 90% (largely courtesy Thomas Greiss' poor outing in Columbus as Niemi has been very good throughout and essentially unbeatable against teams he hasn't played for). Those precipitous drops in the percentages have been by far the most significant factor in the Sharks' demise at even-strength.

To some extent, this was predictable. In a league where very few teams deviate from the mean in the long run, a 1052 PDO isn't even close to sustainable. Things were overwhelmingly going the Sharks' way in the early going; posts were repeatedly hit by opposing shooters, pucks were bouncing in their favor, San Jose's scorers were making their shots at unprecedented rates. But rather than their luck regressing to the mean, the pendulum has swung in the complete opposite direction and the Sharks haven't been able to buy a break as of late. They've been a better possession team, have managed a higher shot rate and have essentially generated scoring chances at the same clip over these past seven games but haven't been able to score thanks to, as Snark put it when describing the Kings' similar scoring woes, an impressively low shooting percentage.

It's possible some of that is the result of a system that de-emphasizes transition offense, although I'd contend that the Sharks have been more aggressive at the opposing blueline since reintegrating Jason Demers and Brent Burns into the lineup than they were prior. But, really, just as the Sharks' 9.8% even-strength conversion rate was a mirage, this 3.6% shooting percentage isn't going to last either. In the long run, the Sharks will probably end up somewhere between the 7.5% rate they've scored at during even-strength play over the past three seasons and league average, which is around 8.1%. While they could certainly do a better job of translating their edge in possession into a comparable edge in shot and chance differential, San Jose's even-strength offense should be fine once the pucks start going in at a normal rate again. So what's been the culprit on special teams?

Segment 5v4 SF/60 5v4 SH% 5v4 GF/60 4v5 SA/60 4v5 SV% 4v5 GA/60
Games 1-7 68.7 17.5% 12.0 44.3 0.914 3.8
Games 8-14 39.4 6.5% 2.5 44.1 0.888 4.9

Apart from the first three games of the season, the Sharks have been one of the best teams in the league on the penalty kill all year under Larry Robinson's tutelage. Their save percentage in that game state has regressed a bit from its lofty highs during their winning streak but San Jose remains among the NHL's elite in terms of both shot and goal suppression shorthanded.

In a complete reversal of the past two seasons, it's the power play and not the penalty kill that's cause for concern on special teams. As we discussed last week, power play success is almost entirely driven by shot rate with very little in the way of team-to-team talent differences in shooting percentage on the man-advantage. Which is what makes it all the more concerning that these past seven games have been the Sharks' worst stretch in recent memory as far as power play shot generation is concerned. What was a unit characterized by innovative and fluid player movement in the early going has inexplicably transformed into a predictable and stagnant one, easily countered by opposing penalty killers who no longer have to think two steps ahead in order to identify and cut off passing and shooting lanes. I really have no idea how a team that's been the best in the league at this for three years running can magically forget what made them successful. It seems probable that this is just an anomaly, given that it's seven poor games relative to three seasons of dominance, but that explanation becomes decidedly less satisfying with every dismal power play.

There are undoubtedly real issues afflicting the Sharks; it's difficult to lose seven straight completely by chance. The top line has had one good game in their past eight. Although the third line has pleasingly turned around their abhorrent territorial play, none of San Jose's depth forwards in their current configuration are even a threat to score. The aforementioned power play woes are real and significant. Martin Havlat has gone from dangerous weapon to hardly a factor. Ryane Clowe, while creating opportunities, is still stuck on zero goals.

But much of both this losing streak and the season-opening undefeated run boils down to the fickle percentages. Sure, it's a less satisfying narrative than one that compels the immediate firing of Todd McLellan or the detonation of this core group of players. But it's also closer to the truth. Aside from legitimately atrocious outings in Columbus and Chicago, the Sharks haven't played all that poorly during this losing streak; at least not much poorer than they did when piling up wins. They were far more convincingly dominant in their 1-0 shootout loss to Phoenix last Saturday than they were in their 5-3 come-from-behind win against those same Coyotes in the season's first week. They put up more of a fight in their 2-1 loss to Anaheim that opened this losing skid than they did in a 3-2 shootout victory over the Ducks the week prior. The Sharks have been embroiled in a slew of one-goal games courtesy their PDO cratering but their repeatedly coming up short hasn't usually been for lack of effort.

There are certainly adjustments that can and should be made to improve the Sharks' efficiency in the neutral zone, to increase the production of their bottom six and get their power play back on track. There's also no question that unless their three best forwards rebound from what's been a thoroughly underwhelming patch of games, the Sharks could be dead in the water in this shortened season. But it's worth keeping in mind that, underneath it all, this is still a good team. Sure, they aren't the world-beaters they appeared to be in January but they also aren't the bottom-feeders they've resembled so far in February.