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Fear the Five: Five things the first half taught us

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We can learn from the first half of the season how the Sharks might perform in the playoffs.

NHL: JAN 07 Sharks at Jets
Timo Meier drew a penalty and made the pass, but his face-in-the-ice posture is representative of the Sharks’ record of late.
Photo by Terrence Lee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

San Jose has now played 40 games this season. With the bye week upon them, this is as close as they’re going to get to an official halfway point. The Sharks are third in the Pacific with 48 points — five fewer points than the Los Angeles Kings and 12 short of the first place Vegas Golden Knights. Anaheim and Calgary are right behind, with 47 and 48 points, respectively. As of this writing, Team Teal is on pace for about 97 points, well ahead of what looks to be a 91-to-92-point playoffs cutoff for the Pacific division.

San Jose Sharks playoff chances
San Jose is still projected for a playoff berth, however scary the standings points look today.
hockeyviz.com

Let’s assume that San Jose won’t have a problem qualifying for the playoffs. Let’s also assume that as of today, they aren’t considered a Stanley Cup contender. This article will discuss five things we learned about this team over the first 40 games and how those five things might influence the team’s ability to play into June.

The defense has slipped lately, but there is likely an internal fix

Over the first quarter of the season, San Jose was one of the best defensive teams in the league. Since then, things have been different. Not coincidentally, the blueline sprung leaks when the Brenden Dillon - Tim Heed pair disappeared. Dillon and Heed did well against the middle of teams’ lineups, allowing DeBoer to truly shelter Burns in a very offensive role against easy (relative to the rest of the Sharks’ defenders) competition. Here are the team’s 5v5 defensive numbers with the Dillon/Heed pairing and without them:

Expected goals against/60, shots (all shots) against/60 are adjusted per corsica.hockey’s adjustments. High-danger chances against/60 are score-and venue-adjusted, per naturalstattrick.com. Goals against/60 are unadjusted.

San Jose Sharks team defense
After changing the defense pairs, San Jose’s team defense has struggled
corsica.hockey and naturalstattrick.com

The upswing is that San Jose does not need to run around the trade market looking for a defensive fix. Provided the pairs from earlier in the season return to form if called upon again, this team can plug their leaky D from within. How the coaching staff attempts to address their beleaguered back end will go a long way toward determining this team’s fate come April. For a team that can’t buy a goal, an airtight defense is critical.

Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc have emerged

Meier, if you recall, seemed to be doing just about everything right except scoring. Labanc spent some time in the AHL after an inconsistent start to his second season. Over the team’s first 20 games, Meier scored 0.6 goals per 60 minutes of 5v5 ice time, about the rate of a decent second-line forward. Since then, Meier has scored 1.12 goals per 60 minutes, the 36th-best rate among forward with at least 200 minutes of ice time during that span. Labanc had 0.31 primary assists per 60 minutes of 5v5 ice time during the first quarter, about a fourth-line rate. Over the team’s subsequent 20 games, he’s pacing for close to 0.6 primary assists per 60, a second-line rate.

Neither of these scoring improvements seem due to chance, either. During a recent post-game interview, Logan Couture remarked that Meier’s shot selection — an area of much consternation last season — has improved this year. His individual expected goals per 60 minutes of 5v5 ice time rank 10th overall among the 390 forwards with at least 200 minutes under their belts. Labanc is driving dangerous shot generation at the team level consistently. He has improved his ability to positively impact shot differential, as well.

Kevin Labanc’s shots
Labanc’s impact on dangerous shots should continue to lead to assists
hockeyviz.com

There is no reason to believe either of these players should slow down, as their production isn’t being buoyed by ridiculously high percentages. Given their age, both players have room for improvement, as well. If these two continue to produce at a top-6 level, this team’s 5v5 scoring could start to improve, as well.

Both goalies have been solid

Per corsica.hockey, 67 goalies have played at least 200 minutes of 5v5 hockey this season. Here is how each goaltender ranks at 5v5 and at all strengths among those 67 goalies in: difference between actual and expected save percentage (dSv%) and goals saved above average (GSAA). Goals saved above average is a cumulative statistic.

Aaron Dell and Martin Jones
Dell and Jones have both been starting quality this year
corsica.hockey

Those numbers don’t show world-beaters, but they do show two goaltenders performing at NHL-starter quality. A different goaltender evaluation model that attempts to adjust for rebounds goalies give up paints a similar picture. Jones ranks seventh in rebound-adjusted goals prevented above average per 100 shots and Dell ranks 18th.

Rebound-adjusted goals saved above average
Both goalies are doing well even when adjusting for rebounds
crowdscoutsports.com

Even if Dell’s overall performance regresses some as the team’s penalty kill regresses, he should remain a viable starter. Considering goaltending is one of the two most important indicators of postseason success, San Jose is well positioned for a deep postseason run in this department with little discernible difference between their two ‘tenders so far this season.

The offense has some, uh, kinks to iron out

We looked earlier this year at the Sharks’ offense, and whether or not they might be able to address their lack of 5v5 scoring via trade. That article surmised that altering the team’s offensive philosophy, rather than acquiring a forward with a hot shooting percentage would be the key to turning expected goals into actual goals. A month has passed and not a whole lot has changed. At the halfway mark, the team ranks fifth in shots per 60 minutes of 5v5 ice time, 14th in shots-on-goal/60, 14th in high-danger chances for/60 and eighth in expected goals for/60. It’s not fair to say the team’s offense is bad, but they are not consistently turning their shot advantage into dangerous opportunities.

If you split the season into quarters, the team’s shots-on-goal, expected goals, and high-danger chances for/60 have all dropped off since the first 20 games. It appears the team hasn’t received Meier and Labanc’s memo, and if their offensive plunge continues, San Jose will find it difficult to compete when the temperatures start to rise. If the team is going to trade young talent and next year’s first-round pick for a stud winger, he’d better bring more than just shooting. The only types of players Doug Wilson should be trading for are the players like Max Pacioretty who bring the heat themselves, but also help create offense in close to the goal.

Max Pacioretty heat map
Max Pacioretty is good at hockey
hockeyviz.com

Most of the coaches’ decisions seem to align with what the numbers tell us

There will always be disagreements between more traditional “hockey men” and people who view the game through a lens shaped by analytics. Follow enough fans or writers on Twitter and you’ll see tirades about coach X playing player Y when he should be playing player Z. The back-and-forths between “watch the game” people and those who think the numbers tell a different story have even prompted articles that discuss why your favorite seventh defensemen probably isn’t as good as the numbers say he is.

The big-picture point is that coaches, for however many head-scratch-inducing decisions they make, have way more riding on their teams’ successes than any fan or writer does. This truth doesn’t absolve coaches of their poor decisions when they do make them, but the fact provides a frame of reference we don’t often consider. So far this season, San Jose’s coaching staff hasn’t made any decisions that look awful by the numbers. Take Labanc’s demotion, for instance (in the image below focus on the information in the navy blue rectangle):

Kevin Labanc 2017-18 season
Labanc was sent down because of shot impact, not lack or scoring or something silly
hockeyviz.com

The first row shows his teammates. The second row, his time on ice. The third row shows the Sharks’ shot differential with him on the ice. You can see that, despite him racking up seven points in his first 13 games (bottom row), he had an up-and-down beginning to the season in terms of helping the Sharks control shot differential. The black line indicating the team’s shots for shows as much — it looks like a sine curve. It seems that the coaching staff understands even solid counting stats are hollow if there isn’t shot-differential meat behind them.

Even the Dylan DeMelo - Tim Heed and DeMelo - Joakim Ryan pairings have been about what you’d expect from a third pair, if a bit worse than the rest of the Sharks as a team, rather than the atrocities some teams roll out on a nightly basis. Some of this is likely coincidence, but maybe some of the coaches’ eye test matching up with what the numbers say suggests something more going on behind the scenes. How Pete DeBoer and company deploy the roster after the bye week will impact greatly the team’s offseason chances.

Despite flaws, there is a lot to like

Micah Blake McCurdy found, of the regular season team components that best predict postseason success, “Offence matters most of all. Goaltending matters too. Defence matters a little. Scoring talent barely matters at all.”

San Jose has part of the offense. They’ll have to find a way to turn their shot advantage into more dangerous chances. That doesn’t seem to be something they can fix from outside the organization. The team certainly has goaltending, even though Aaron Dell’s penalty kill numbers should regress. Though defense isn’t as important as offense, the team can ice a top-10 defense with the right pairings. Finally, though it matters least of all the four components, shooting talent is something San Jose can address, maybe via one of the trade rumors they’ve been linked to recently.

Acquiring a Max Pacioretty or Mike Hoffman might help add a few more goals to the stat sheet, but to succeed in the playoffs this season, San Jose will have to fully optimize their lineup and make changes to what they currently have. The first half of the season has been solid. The decisions this organization makes about personnel during the second half will shape the team’s chances of hoisting Lord Stanley’s oversized drinking vessel this summer.