“No more data points,” Brent Burns groaned, when asked about some of his underlying stats. “Just watch the game and enjoy it.”
That said, there’s a lot of evidence — visual and analytical — suggesting the San Jose Sharks are rounding into expected form.
Just a couple of months ago, the Pacific was considered the NHL’s weakest division.
Now, at a little more than the halfway point of the season, the Calgary Flames have blazed their way to the top of the Western Conference. In perhaps related news, a trio of Pacific squads — San Jose with 55.61 (3rd), Vegas Golden Knights with 55.37 (4th) and Calgary with 52.66 (7th) — rank in the top-seven in the NHL in Expected Goals For Percentage at 5-on-5.
The Sharks are also tied with the Flames and Winnipeg Jets for the fewest regulation losses (13) in the West.
As for special teams, San Jose boasts one of the better overall units in the league, with 25.2 percent conversion on the power play and a 83.5 percent successful penalty kill. They’re seventh in the league in both categories.
The Sharks’ success on the man advantage — they’ve converted at 28.1 percent since October 18th — may be tied into shot volume: Their 107.45 Corsi For per 60 at 5-on-4 is second in the NHL. This isn’t surprising for a power play that features Burns and Erik Karlsson.
But we’ll get to Burns and Karlsson’s data points later. Let’s start up front.
Joonas Donskoi leads San Jose forwards with a +10 Penalty Differential. His previous career-high was +8 in 2016-17; it was +18 going into this season.
Barclay Goodrow leads Sharks centermen with a 55.7 Faceoff Win Percentage. He also tops all forwards with 3.66 Shot Blocks per 60 in all situations.
Evander Kane sports a team-leading +14 Giveaway/Takeaway Differental. He’s 10th among all NHL forwards with 11.68 Shots per 60 at 5-on-5 (of 363 forwards, 300+ minutes). He also has a team-worst -9 Penalty Differential.
Melker Karlsson’s 46.93 Zone Start Ratio (percentage of non-neutral zone starts that are offensive zone starts) at 5-on-5 is the toughest among all team forwards.
Timo Meier leads the league in most missed shots over the net (14). He’s seventh among all NHL forwards with a 6.01 Individual High-danger Corsi at 5-on-5 (of 363 forwards who have skated 300+ minutes).
Joe Pavelski leads all Sharks forwards with 149 defensive zone faceoffs at 5-on-5. He’s won 58.4 percent of them.
He's played just 20 games, but Lukas Radil boasts the highest Game Score per 60 (4.13) — a stat created by Dom Luszczyszyn that quantifies the total value of a player’s productivity in a game — on the team. He’s ahead of Meier (3.76), Burns (3.28) and Tomas Hertl (3.23).
Marcus Sorensen is +10 at home, -9 on the road.
Sorensen has emerged as a key role player for San Jose. Perhaps one reason for this is an increased Carry-in Percentage at 5-on-5. According to Corey Sznajder, who’s tracked 38 Sharks games in 2017-18 and 15 so far this year, Sorensen had a 37.5 Carry-in Percentage last season. That figure has risen to 64.0 this year.
Granted, the data is limited here, so we have to be careful about drawing any conclusions. But the season-to-season difference is stark enough that it’s worth exploring; it also fits the narrative that the third-year forward is becoming more comfortable at this level.
“The best choice is carrying it in,” said Sorensen.
However, he hasn’t noticed that he’s carrying the puck in more this season: “I don’t think it’s any different.”
He did add that speed and carrying it in are hallmarks of his game, and that he’s certainly making more plays he wants this year.
Meanwhile, Sorensen’s frequent linemate, Joe Thornton, also has unsightly home-road splits: He’s +9 at home, -8 on the road.
Thornton’s 61.41 Zone Start Ratio at 5-on-5 is the easiest among all team forwards.
On the blueline, San Jose’s most frequent penalty killers aren’t much for blocking shots. Justin Braun leads with his body at 12.26 Shots Blocked per 60, good for 10th in the league (of 119 defensemen, 50+ minutes of 4-on-5). Meanwhile, Karlsson ranks 104th, Burns 116th and Marc-Edouard Vlasic 118th.
Burns leads all defensemen with 1.02 First Assists per 60 (of 140 defensemen, 500+ minutes of 5-on-5). He’s a quarter assist per 60 ahead of second-place John Carlson (0.77).
Pete DeBoer’s 5-on-5 usage of Burns may be contributing to this windfall of helpers. Since Burns re-joined the defense in 2014-15, his Offensive Zone Starts per 60 have increased dramatically, while his Defensive Zone Starts per 60 have decreased dramatically:
Another interesting development for Burns is his decreased reliance on the snap shot:
“I don’t know about shots. I shoot when I get it,” laughed Burns. He added, “No more data points. Just watch the game and enjoy it. No more computer data!”
Speaking of shooting, Karlsson’s addition to the San Jose power play has radically changed where Burns shoots — he’s gone from firing it pretty much anywhere that he wants to confining himself more to the left side of the ice.
“When we do use both of them, we use them in different situations,” said power play coach Steve Spott. “We use Erik on the right flank and Brent on top. Or we use Brent on the left flank and Erik on top.”
Finally, Burns has done a sterling job of cutting down on minor penalties:
His four minors are as many as Vlasic has taken!
“Hockey’s a weird game,” offered Burns, perhaps not wanting to test his luck with the refs.
Brenden Dillon has the fewest number of Giveaways per 60 at 5-on-5 among Sharks defensemen (1.25). Meanwhile, he’s fourth in the league with 9.56 Hits per 60 (of 140 defensemen, 500+ minutes of 5-on-5).
According to Sznajder, Dillon is denying carry-ins from opposing forwards at a much higher rate this season. Again, the data is limited, so we have to careful about drawing conclusions — but last year, opposing forwards enjoyed a 60.7 Carry-in Percentage against Dillon. That’s not a bad number, just a shade better than Vlasic’s 60.9. This season, opposing forwards have had just a 40.3 Carry-in Percentage against Dillon.
Dillon attributed this improvement mostly to the work that he did this summer.
“This year, it was having a good stick, using my size and feet to be able to break things up. Our coaching staff has shown me a couple clips of it, continue to do this, continue to do that,” noted Dillon.
“Victor Hedman is a guy who I watched a lot of clips of,” he revealed. “He’s got a great stick. He’s such a big guy. I’m 6-foot-4, he’s 6-foot-5. You take up a lot more ground than some times you think. A lot of times, just having one hand on your stick instead of two. Your reach is longer, you’re able to poke check.”
Karlsson’s renaissance — 25 points in his last 14 games — might be related to simply getting more shots through, as Marcus White of NBC Bay Area recently suggested:
Through November, Karlsson was averaging a career-norm 6.91 Shots per 60 at 5-on-5. From December on, he’s firing 10.64 Shots per 60.
Overall, Karlsson is second in the league with 8.47 Shots per 60 (of 140 defensemen, 500+ minutes at 5-on-5). Burns and Karlsson are one-two among NHL blueliners with 20.01 and 19.91 Individual Corsi For per 60.
In fact, Karlsson’s 4.69 Shots per Game (all situations) in December was his career-high for a month (10 games minimum).
“The way we play here, the opportunities that we get, you got to take them,” Karlsson pointed out. “If you have a shooting opportunity, you need to take it more often than not. Maybe I haven’t done a good enough job of that in previous years.”
Spott talked about San Jose’s point shot-based system.
“It is a big part of our system. We want to utilize our defense as much as possible. He’s got the flexibility to make plays when the puck is on his stick. But one thing we do take a lot of pride in is getting people to the other team’s net. He knows that,” said Spott. “When it’s on his stick, we’d like to see him get it to the net as quickly as possible. I think he’s realized that. He’s done a great job doing it.”
Spott added, “He’s a lot more comfortable with our system and how we play here in San Jose.”
Los Angeles coach Willie Desjardins observed, “That’s probably San Jose’s biggest strength is how they put pucks to the net all the time and guys are going there for tips.”
It appears Karlsson, like Burns has all these years, is finally taking advantage of it.
Like Burns, DeBoer may be helping Karlsson bring the offense by pulling back his Defensive Zone Starts per 60 at 5-on-5: Karlsson’s 5.72 in this category is the lowest of his career.
Of course, if Burns and Karlsson are getting more offensive zone starts, someone’s getting more defensive zone starts. In this case, it’s Vlasic and Braun, whose 37.58 Zone Start Ratio is the second-toughest in the NHL (of 49 defensive pairings, 300+ minutes at 5-on-5).
While the results haven’t been there for Vlasic-Braun, there’s an intelligence to what Pete DeBoer is doing. If Vlasic-Braun can raise their game, as they have in the recent past, and handle the toughest zone starts and competition, this will free Burns and Karlsson to wreck the opposition at the other end.
Martin Jones is making the wrong kind of history with a .8971 Save Percentage at 5-on-5. Since 2007-08, when the statistic was first recorded, just four goalies have posted a sub-.900 Save Percentage at 5-on-5 (of 358 goaltenders, 1500+ 5-on-5 minutes):
- Ben Scrivens, EDM, 2014-15, .8991
- Johan Holmqvist, TB/DAL, 2007-08, .8988
- Dwayne Roloson, TB, 2011-12, .8978
- Cristobal Huet, CHI, 2009-10, .8941
It’s worth noting, as Mike Kelly pointed out, that scoring is up and save percentages are down.
That said, Jones has been at least statistically average recently with a .918 Save Percentage at 5-on-5 in his last 14 starts. Not coincidentally, San Jose has gone 10-2-1 in that stretch. This supports the notion that the Sharks are good enough to go deep as long as Jones provides at least average backstopping.
Part of Jones and Aaron Dell’s struggles is their trouble with stopping 5-on-5 high-danger chances this year, as opposed to previous seasons.
- 2018-19: Dell .7778 High-danger Save Percentage (42th), Jones .7619 (48th) (of 54 goaltenders, 500+ minutes at 5-on-5)
- 2017-18: Jones .8125 (10th) (of 36 goaltenders, 1,500+ minutes at 5-on-5)
- 2016-17: Jones .7929 (21st) (of 36 goaltenders, 1,500+ minutes at 5-on-5)
- 2015-16: Jones .8057 (13th) (of 36 goaltenders, 1,500+ minutes at 5-on-5)
However, Dell’s 27.18 Percentage of High-danger Saves (HDSA%) means that he’s had to make the toughest ratio of high-danger saves at 5-on-5 in the league. Jones had had to deal with the third-toughest ratio (24.35).
What this means is while the Sharks haven’t given up a great many chances compared to the rest of the league, when they allow an opportunity, it’s more likely a high-danger than not.
So while San Jose’s netminding has received the lion share of the blame for the team’s struggles, this stat suggests that both team defense and goaltending need improvement if the Sharks are to take the Pacific.
(Stats as of 1/8/19, courtesy of Corsica, Hockey Reference, Hockey Viz, Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com and Sporting Charts.)