The Sharks’ power play stunk this season. We can all agree on that, right? Go pull up whatever metric you want. San Jose scored on 16.67 percent of its power play opportunities (league average was 19.10 percent), generated the 14th most shots on goal and 15th most scoring chances per 60 minutes at 5v4.
Those last two metrics suggest mere mediocrity and not quite the putridity (new word!) we witnessed for much of the season. San Jose shot 9.79 percent at 5v4 last season, 29th in the NHL, so perhaps we can attribute a bit of poor fortune came into play. But it’s not enough for the Sharks to be a middle of the pack power play given the talent available. This team should be elite.
Enter the latest scapegoat for San Jose’s struggling special teams: assistant coach Steve Spott. Much like Jay Woodcroft was back in the day, Spott has become the source of ire for fans who see a struggling power-play and need a head on a stick. Like I said for much of the season, a broken power play is a little more complicated than that.
While Spott may be responsible for the power play, let’s not pretend he has unilateral control over it. Head coach Pete DeBoer has the final say on everything that happens on the ice; if he wanted to make a change to the power play, it would have happened. This is a group effort, so firing Spott would be little more than ceremonial. If that’s what you’re looking for, fair enough; I just don’t really care about that.
Here’s what I think went wrong with the Sharks power play this year: Joe Thornton’s regression exposed the top unit badly. It relied heavily on Thornton for years, and got away with it, because he’s played at a Hall of Fame level. He didn’t do that this year and it killed them. Here are some numbers (and graphics) to illustrate that.
That’s what the Sharks top power-play unit looked like this year. Compare that to what the shot distribution looked like a year ago.
A lot has been made about the uptick in Brent Burns’ shot attempts this season, which I’ve long that was a little overblown. The numbers back that up. The biggest change came in two places: first, Thornton is shooting less and Joe Pavelski is shooting a lot more.
Those numbers in and of themselves aren’t all that useful. I think what’s actually happening here comes from a slip in Thornton’s passing ability, leading to lower-quality shots from Pavelski. Many of Pavelski’s goals (warning: eye test take incoming) came from incredible feeds from Jumbo either below the goal line or across the slot. Those passes didn’t work this year.
My hunch is that, as a result, many of those Pavelski shots came immediately following zone entries. That’s another area the Sharks struggled on the power play this year. Pavelski carried the puck in, threw the puck at the net and then the Sharks attempted to generate a standard cycle, rather than their old standard (Jumbo controlling the puck low and alternating between throwing the puck up to Burns or across to Pavelski).
As a result, the Sharks generated fewer high-quality chances. That’s why Pavelski’s share of shots went up this season and his goals went down. San Jose’s entire power play ran on Thornton’s ability as a magician and the magic wasn’t there this year. It’s going to be back to the drawing board for the Sharks this season, and that likely means moving Thornton to the second unit; or at the very least moving him into a greatly reduced role on the top unit.
Whether Spott becomes a sacrificial lamb is irrelevant. San Jose’s power play will almost certainly improve next year, but it won’t be because Spott is fired (if indeed the Sharks decide to part company with him). San Jose struggled on special teams because the key piece of the power-play machine didn’t work the way they expected and (in my opinion) a full rebuild of that machine mid-season is next to impossible. You’re welcome to disagree with that assertion, but asking any coach to totally retool the power play during a condensed schedule is, well, asking for a lot.