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Assessing the San Jose power play

So what’s the deal with the Sharks’ power play, anyway?

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Winnipeg Jets Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

We’re 50 games through the season and the Sharks’ power play percentage remains a paltry 16.6 percent. That’s 22nd in the NHL after finishing third in the league a season ago with virtually identical personnel. It seems unlikely San Jose’s power-play prowess fell off a cliff in such a small amount of time, but bad luck can’t be the only factor at play, right?

So let’s take a deeper look at the Sharks’ special teams play over the course of the season to try to figure out what has gone wrong with San Jose’s power play. First off, power play percentage is a bad stat and does not accurately measure power-play success. The first two sentences in this story are the last time you’ll see it mentioned here. Purge it from your brain.

Still with me? Good deal. The stats don’t get much prettier when you look at the Sharks’ success rate by goals per 60 minutes (4.37). That’s 26th in the league, though again, measuring a power play by success rate is cheating yourself if you want to come out of this thing looking like an intelligent human being. We want to look at attempts.

Shot attempts are a great way to assess a team at even strength and they’re just as valuable while on special teams. The temptation to use scoring chances is understandable; after all, they should be easier to come by with an extra player on the ice! But given the small sample size we’re dealing with, I think it’s better to stick with corsi for a single-season sample size. In this area, the Sharks stack up pretty well.

San Jose is sixth in the NHL in corsi-for per 60 minutes while on the power-play, with Anaheim at the top and Washington in fifth. Even if you’re not into #fancystats, you’ve gotta be with me that both of those teams know what they’re doing on the power play. If the Sharks are on the same page with the Ducks and Capitals ... there’s something clicking, right?

It’s worth remembering that corsi rewards all shot attempts, even the ones that are blocked. Friend of the Blog Kevin Kurz made a good point last night: A lot of the Sharks’ shots were getting blocked by Edmonton defenders. Fenwick, which is my stat of choice, doesn’t reward teams for taking shots that are blocked. How does San Jose look on the power play through this lens?

Not so good. San Jose drops all the way down to 10th in fenwick per 60 minutes. This is the biggest culprit in the Sharks’ power-play woes this season. While Brent Burns continues to bomb point shots at a great rate, San Jose has gotten little to know help from the point on either the second unit nor from just about anywhere else on the ice in this area.

Check out the three rink images from the last three seasons. They show where the Sharks have taken their shots on goal in each of the following years.

The Sharks have drifted towards Burns’ area of the ice this season (not a problem) but I think what you’re also seeing is Vlasic taking more shots on the second unit (a pretty big problem). The stats back that up. Vlasic is up to 23.73 shot attempts per 60 minutes on the power play this year. That’s an increase from 19.64 last year and 17.01 the season before.

Vlasic’s accuracy? That hasn’t gotten any better. His corsi shooting percentage (percentage of shot attempts that are goals) is 2.63, cut in half from a season ago. Maybe that’ll rebound! Maybe it will. It probably won’t though. As someone who’s a big fan of running the numbers, I’m going to rely on my eyeballs when I say that Vlasic needs to be bumped off the power play once the Sharks come back from the All-Star Break.

That doesn’t tell the whole story, of course, but the eye test for the Sharks’ top unit suggests to me there’s not much wrong. Yes, it’s a unit that passes the puck around a lot but there’s a lot of data to suggest that’s the best way to score on the power play (you know, how the Sharks have succeeded on the power play for many years).

The second unit is where I would start tinkering if I’m Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer. Chris Tierney has shown some real play-making ability and Kevin Labanc can find the back of the net. San Jose’s top unit can survive with one defender in Brent Burns, why can’t the second unit do the same? Play it with David Schlemko and four forwards and see what can be generated.

Frustration with a power play is understandable, but looking at the numbers there doesn’t seem to be much reason to blow up what has been one of the best power plays in the NHL for a very, very long time. At least, not that I can see. I’m sure I’ll hear differently from the rest of you shortly. Oh, and it’s worth noting the Sharks have the second-lowest shooting percentage on the power play in the NHL. Just a heads up.