Is there hope in the numbers for the struggling San Jose Sharks?
On one hand, San Jose is the worst 5-on-5 team in the NHL — their -18 goal differential is last (by far). On the other hand, they’re the best special teams unit in the NHL — their combined 114.82 power play and penalty kill percentage leads the league.
On the surface, that doesn’t make sense. In theory, good overall special teams should mean you have good two-way players, which should lead to good 5-on-5 results.
Looking over recent NHL history, this theory holds, for the most part. But before we get to that, Logan Couture and Evander Kane commented on what they could apply from special teams to 5-on-5.
Kane offered, of the ninth-ranked power play scoring at a 24.4 percent clip, “You’re touching the puck, puck goes into the net, it makes you feel good about the rest of your game. That can help the 5-on-5.”
Kane’s had plenty of that good feeling — he’s accounted for six of the Sharks’ 11 power play goals to start the year.
Meanwhile, Couture remarked, of San Jose’s NHL-best 90.4 percent penalty kill rate, “Guys are maybe more desperate on the penalty kill. 5-on-5, we’re soft around our net. Penalty kill, we’re stronger, we’re harder, helping our goaltenders out. And our goaltenders are making big saves.
“5-on-5 play, we’re giving up odd-man rushes. We’re giving up breakaways, two-on-ones. We’re not doing that 4-on-5.”
Kane cautioned though, “You’re not finishing your check on the PK. A lot of turning, a lot of looping, a lot of pressuring the puck, stick position. That survival mode kind of kicks in.
“On 5-on-5, you don’t want any of that. You don’t want to be in survival mode, you want to be in pack mode.”
In truth, the Sharks are probably as mystified by their even strength/special teams duality as everybody else is. The good news? If San Jose can keep up their dominant special teams work, the playoffs — cue Jim Mora — are still a real possibility.
Now the Sharks won’t maintain their gaudy, small sample size-fueled 114.82 combined special teams percentage. In the salary cap era, just two teams — the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning (113.26) and 2015-16 Anaheim Ducks (110.1) — have finished the regular season with a 110-plus combined special teams percentage.
But anywhere over 103, coupled with improved 5-on-5 play, should deliver San Jose to the post-season: In the cap era, 99 teams have boasted a combined 103-plus special teams percentage. 86 have made the playoffs, a solid 87 percent.
103 appears to be the cut-off number — below that, just 42.7 percent of teams get to vie for the Stanley Cup.
That said, 103-plus isn’t an easy feat to accomplish. Just seven squads surpassed that threshold last year. But I’m the bearer of good news today: All of Peter DeBoer’s Sharks squads, save the 2016-17 edition, have met that goal.