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Fear the Five: Five things March taught us about the Sharks’ chances this spring

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It’s been an up-and-down stretch run. What does it all mean for the ‘yoffs?

Mar 12, 2018; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Sharks right wing Timo Meier (28) celebrates after scoring a goal against Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard (35) during the third period at SAP Center at San Jose.
Timo Meier 20 goal scorer
Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

With just one game remaining, we can use our monthly dose of “what we learned” for March and treat it as a mini team preview for the playoffs. The next few items will show us what we might be able to expect from this team when the games start to matter.

(Potentially) Predictive Metrics Are Looking Up

In a bit of new research, Draglikepull finds that 5v5 scoring chances (as Natural Stat Trick defines them) might be more predictive than 5v5 shots of future goal scoring. As the article states, intuitively, that makes some sense. Scoring chances involve things like rush shots and rebounds and typically better quality shots than shots alone. Let’s look at the team’s scoring chance play over the course of the season.

San Jose Sharks offense before the Stanley Cup Playoffs
San Jose’s offense has taken off!
naturalstattrick.com

The team’s scoring chances for percentage remained pretty stagnant over the course of the season. They were average in that regard. Their scoring chances for rates remained pretty average for most of the season, as well. February and March the team showed signs of life, rocketing up the rankings and adding a little juice to their play. That their rate of scoring chances for remained the same from February to March, but their overall ratio of scoring chances generated jumped up suggests that maybe they’ve tightened up their defense a bit. If the team continues to generate 54 percent of all 5v5 scoring chances, and that research is correct, they could be in for a long playoff run.

The Offense Is Hot!

...And I don’t use exclamation marks lightly. We can see that the team posted their best scoring chance rate of the season. An expected goals model by Matt Barlowe shows that the team’s offense had one of their best stretches of the season. Corsica.Hockey’s expected goals model showed San Jose generating 2.8 expected goals per 60 minutes of 5v5 ice time (when adjusted for score and venue), which paced the league (Pittsburgh was technically first with 2.81 xGF60 and Columbus third with 2.79. But those three teams were a step ahead of the rest).

San Jose Sharks NHL hockey expected goals for
San Jose’s expected goals for took off in the latter part of March
@matt_barlowe

You can see it in some of their individual games, too. The team is generating quite a few unblocked shots right around the front of the goal.

San Jose Sharks vs Chicago Blackhawks NHL hockey
Sharks unloaded vs. Chicago
naturalstattrick.com
San Jose Sharks play the St. Louis Blues in an NHL hockey game
Sharks keep the front of the crease like lava
naturalstattrick.com

And, while the team is still taking their fair share of point shots, those shots are coming from closer in and don’t make up nearly as much of the team’s shot share as they used to. Something in this team has clicked offensively, it appears. That bodes very well for the playoffs.

The Defense Will Have to Turn Things Around

The same article above suggested looking at the rate of 5v5 shots against as a good barometer for predicting goals against. We know that offense is the biggest driver of postseason success. Goaltending comes next, followed by defense and, finally, shooting talent. Rather than compare the Sharks’ recent defensive form to league average and previous months, we can look at the 2015-16 Sharks’ defense to see if the current iteration has a Cup run in it.

Here is what their rate of shots (adjusted for score and venue) against looked like in 2015-16:

San Jose Sharks NHL hockey defense Stanley Cup run
The Sharks’ defense in 2015-16 was much better than it is today
@matt_barlowe

By the time the regular season was said and done, their defense was well above average, allowing about 50 shots against per 60 minutes.

San Jose Sharks NHL hockey defense 2017-18 season
This year’s defense has some ... issues
@matt_barlowe

Their defense seems to have improved toward the end of March this year, but they’re still hovering around 60 shots against per hour. The Sharks will have to hope their shot blocking makes up for the extra 10, 5v5 shots they’re allowing this year compared to the season in which they went to the Cup Finals.

How Special Are Special Teams?

Special teams only make up about 20 percent of any given hockey game, and maybe even less in the playoffs where referees are wont to forget their whistles. Still, special teams shouldn’t go totally unmentioned. They can offer otherwise equal teams an important advantage in a seven-game series.

San Jose finished March with an 87 percent penalty kill rate, good for seventh in the league. The power play fell to 16 percent, a paltry 24th. On the season, San Jose has an 85 percent kill rate (first) and has a 20.5 percent power play percent (18th). If you look at the Sharks since November 18, when they made changes to their power play against Boston, their 22.3 percent power play rate ranks 11th in the league.

Unfortunately, power play and penalty kill measures that are pure percentages can be misleading. How do their special teams shape up behind the percentages?

In March, the Sharks 4v5 PK allowed 95.4 shots against per hour (11th-best).
76.3 unblocked shots against per hour (13th-best)
44 scoring chances against per hour (3rd-best)

On the season, they’ve allowed 99.6 shots against per hour (13th-best)
76.7 unblocked shots per hour (15th)
55.2 scoring chances against per hour (16th)

The improvement in scoring chances and shots against is promising, but the team’s mostly-middling ranks in suggest a penalty kill that has been less the league’s No. 1 and more outstanding goaltending.

In March, the Sharks 5v4 power play took 110.8 shots per hour (6th-best)
79.6 unblocked shots per hour (14th)
65.7 scoring chances per hour (4th-best)

Since November 18, the Sharks have taken 120.2 shots per hour (2nd-best)
88.4 unblocked shots per hour (3rd-best)
67.8 scoring chances per hour (3rd-best)

The team’s rate of power play shots has fallen this month, but the rate of scoring chances remains top-notch. 10 shots is quite a swing, but we can attribute a little bit of the changes on both sides of special teams to the smaller sample size one month affords us. If the penalty kill’s scoring chance rates are a true indication of a positive trend and not simply variance, and their power play shot rates continue or even rebound a bit, San Jose’s special teams will represent an advantage on both sides of the penalty ledger, a boost to their chances when playoff games become tight and extra-man opportunities seldom.

Are Injuries Too Many to Overcome?

Joe Thornton, Evander Kane, Joakim Ryan, Eric Fehr, Barclay Goodrow, Melker Karlsson, Dylan DeMelo. Injuries keep finding their way into this lineup late in the season. Some of these players have been out for a while, and some have picked up only minor nicks along the way. Some players leave a gaping hole in the Sharks’ lineup; others would likely make way for a superior player were they to miss any time in the playoffs.

Luckily, we have some updates about the medical-table crew.

It looks like the Sharks’ most prominent offensive player is still making his way back from whatever ails him. Upper body injuries can be a whole host of afflictions, though consensus seems to be that Kane hurt his shoulder. If Kane misses time during the playoffs, you can bet the team will feel it. With Kane on the ice at 5v5, his teammates take nearly seven more unblocked shots per hour than they do without him. That means Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi’s chances of potting some points during the ‘yoffs go way up with Kane on their other wing.

The status of Joe Thornton has been way up in the rafters since the night he injured his knee. The team has felt the impact of not having one of their best defensive forwards in the lineup since then, too. As we examined the team’s components above, we learned that their defense has suffered this season, and it is well worse than that of the Stanley Cup Finals team of two seasons ago. If Joe Thornton is able to return to this lineup and improve the team’s defense, their chances should improve, as well.

As for the rest of the banged and bruised, it appears Pete DeBoer will have a full complement of skaters at his disposal when he orchestrates line rushes ahead of postseason contests. Unfortunately for the Sharks, that likely means Melker Karlsson draws in for Jannik Hansen and Dylan DeMelo continues to skate ahead of Tim Heed. These are bottom-of-the-roster decisions, and their impacts won’t be great, but for a team that has some imperfections, they need every inch of advantage they can muster.

BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

This team’s defense is a shell of what the Cup Finals team’s was. The offense is similarly equipped, but it has shown signs of improvement from that of the squad two seasons ago. Still, it will be hard to ask the offense to do more than it has done down the stretch. Unfortunately, that means the team will have to rely on what has so far been stellar play from Martin Jones to make up the difference defensively. He’s faced a big workload during the season’s final two-plus months, so his ability to stay healthy and perform in April, May, and June will be the deciding factor in this team’s playoff run.