Much of the talk surrounding the Sharks this season has focused on the offense. I’m guilty of this myself and think it’s time we take a step back and appreciate the true strength of this team: the defense. After getting brutalized in the Stanley Cup Final, Doug Wilson went out and got David Schlemko to solidify the defense.
That move is looking better by the game. It’s only been 15 games, of course, but the Sharks are currently one of the best defensive teams in the league. Beyond that, this iteration of the Sharks is one of the best defense corps we’ve seen at the Shark Tank in the past 10 years. Skeptical? Read on.
Why just the last 10 years? Well, because one of the best ways to evaluate defense, other than pointing to Roman Polak and asking why that nice man skates with concrete blocks instead of ice skates, is how many shots are allowed. Fenwick (unblocked shot attempts) is my metric of choice because it both measures how many shots are attempted (which I think is better than only counting shots on goal) and gives the defense credit for blocking shots (which corsi does not).
Let’s start with this year. At the time of this writing (before the 1-0 loss to the Hurricanes, I’m not waiting, I’m sorry) San Jose holds the second-lowest fenwick-against per 60 minutes in the NHL (36.14, score and venue adjusted from corsica.hockey). The only team performing better? St. Louis, a very good defensive team in its own right.
We have shot attempt data going back to the 2006-07 season, which gives us 10 full years of data and a portion of an 11th. This season stacks up as the third-best in FA60, worse only than the 2007-08 (32.53) and 2008-09 (35.7) seasons. That’s pretty darn close. Over the 10+ year period, the Sharks average FA60 is 38.29. Their worst season was the 2009-10 campaign (42.33). For context, the Arizona Coyotes are the worst FA60 team in the NHL this season (49.75) and the Colorado Avalanche were the worst last season (45.87).
The addition of David Schlemko gave the Sharks a definite boost entering this year, but San Jose was actually quite good during the regular season last year, too. The 2015-16 team is fourth on the list (36.62) and only a half a fenwick per 60 minutes worse than this year’s squad. You can probably thank Paul Martin for helping shore up the Sharks’ defense a year ago — they were the second-best defensive team last season, too.
This is all especially good news because the Sharks have struggled to score this year. The chances are there and the shots are coming but they just haven’t resulted in goals yet. That’s probably a matter of bad luck more than bad play, but San Jose’s great defense has kept the team afloat through its shooting and save percentage struggles.
Assuming the Sharks get their act together on offense (read: get luckier) they’ll become a very, very complete team. There’s not a bad defender on the team right now as San Jose finally got the right partner for Brenden Dillon a season after finding a great partner for Brent Burns.
Doug Wilson put together his core and the past two years he has done a great job of supplementing it. If San Jose can stay healthy, we could be looking at another long run in the playoffs. For now, it’s all about the defense banking points.