It isn't exactly controversial to suggest that, of the myriad issues that plagued the Sharks during the first half of their 2013 season, the team's utter inability to put the puck in the net was firmly at the top of the list. Only the Nashville Predators have scored fewer goals than the Sharks this year and no team has lit the lamp at even-strength less frequently than San Jose.
So why has what was once a potent offense completely dried up? Well part of it is a perception problem: it's been quite a while since the Sharks could legitimately be described as a potent offensive club, at least at even-strength. In the four years of the Todd McLellan era before this one, 12 teams (including powerhouses like the Calgary Flames and Atlanta Thrashers) scored more even-strength goals per minute than San Jose. The Sharks were a dominant team because they controlled games territorially, wearing down opponents with their possession ability, yielding precious few opportunities the other way and drawing penalties galore, then burning teams with the best power play in the NHL.
But with their possession game taking a significant step back and the power play rendered largely powerless over the past 19 games, the lack of even-strength scoring has assumed greater prominence in the Gospel Of Everything Wrong With The Sharks. Some of their nonexistent 5v5 scoring can be traced to bad luck; the Sharks have scored on just 6.3% of their even-strength shots so far this season, far lower than the league average of 8.1% and an even lesser clip than the 7.0% the offense was clicking at a year ago. Their inferior territorial play has also prevented them from generating as many shots as they're used to; the Sharks averaged 31.4 shots on goal per 60 minutes of even-strength play from 2008 through 2012 but have taken just 27.9 so far this season.
That type of analysis looks at the offense as a monolith rather than breaking it down into its constituent elements, which might help us answer the question posed in the headline: who deserves to be blamed for this downturn? I took the top twelve forwards in even-strength time on ice from every Western Conference team and split them into three tiers of four players each; the top 4 group consisted of the four players with the most ice time at evens on that team, the middle 4 consisted of the next four players in even-strength ice time and the bottom 4 were the players who ranked 9-12. I then looked at each group's performance so far this season in even-strength shots and goals per 60 minutes to see how they stack up against the Sharks. Here's a sortable table with the results:
Western Conference 5v5 Scoring
|Team||Top 4 S/60||Top 4 SH%||Top 4 G/60||Mid 4 S/60||Mid 4 SH%||Mid 4 G/60||Bot 4 S/60||Bot 4 SH%||Bot 4 G/60|
Anyone even casually following San Jose this season is probably aware that, when they've scored, it's entirely been courtesy the effort of their top four forwards. But it's still somewhat jarring to observe the extent to which that's true. Buoyed by Jeff Carter's incredible season, only the Los Angeles Kings' top four forwards have scored at a higher rate during even-strength play than the Sharks'. Conversely, only the Edmonton Oilers' "middle 4" forwards in ice time have scored at an inferior rate than that of the Sharks and no team in the league has received fewer offensive contributions from their least-used forwards.
If there's a silver lining here it's that, since 2009, Ryane Clowe, Martin Havlat, Scott Gomez and Michal Handzus (the forwards who rank 5-8 in even-strength ice time) have scored on 6.9% of their even-strength shots while the remaining tier of Tommy Wingels, Adam Burish. T.J. Galiardi and James Sheppard have converted 7.8% of theirs, so the Sharks might be able to count on a little regression from those players the rest of the way. On the other hand, it's probably foolish to expect an over-the-hill Clowe and an injury-riddled Havlat to replicate their past shooting percentage performances and it's abundantly clear Handzus is no longer the player he was even three years ago (which, really, wasn't a very good player to begin with).
This likely constitutes trampling over a beaten-to-death horse at this point but I'll say it again: it all comes back to forward depth with this team. For all the unfounded criticism Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton have taken over the years, they (once again) aren't the problem. Neither are Logan Couture nor Joe Pavelski. The fact that the offense completely ends after those four players is by far the biggest issue with the 2013 Sharks. It might be difficult to blame Doug Wilson and company for not foreseeing Clowe's offensive collapse but their failure to stock the Sharks with any semblance of scoring depth is the root cause of not only the team's scoring woes but the aforementioned drop-off in their territorial play.
The lack of organizational depth is certainly a contributing factor in that there are no promising, NHL-ready prospects in the system capable of assuming roles in which veterans are struggling. But that wouldn't even necessarily be a problem this season if management had allocated cap space more effectively in search of useful players up front. It's especially frustrating because they've demonstrated the ability to find the types of depth forwards successful teams employ in their bottom six; Manny Malhotra, Kyle Wellwood, Daniel Winnik and Gomez are all, to varying extents, testaments to that. But they've never kept those players around, opting instead to replenish lost forward depth by signing the likes of Handzus and Burish to comical contracts and starting seasons with the likes of Torrey Mitchell and T.J. Galiardi penciled into top-nine roles.
As they prepare to face St. Louis this evening, it's worth keeping in mind that the Sharks are still 7th in the conference. Even without external additions, the offense is unlikely to continue shooting blanks at the rate that they currently are and getting Brent Burns and Martin Havlat back from injury can only help. At the same time, it's equally improbable Antti Niemi will continue to impersonate Dominik Hasek and the Sharks' substantial decline in possession will catch up to them if the reintegration of Burns and Havlat into the lineup can't turn that tide. The disappointing truth is that this team wasn't set up to receive adequate offensive contributions from their third and fourth lines even if the top six were performing as they're expected to. Courtesy a third of that group not contributing, the matter has only been exacerbated. With the constant fixation on Marleau's perceived streakiness or Thornton's alleged playoff no-shows, perhaps people have lost sight of what has truly been the most inconsistent facet of this franchise: the front office.