This season under former head coach Pete DeBoer, Brent Burns was on the ice for 37.8 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 minutes. If there was to be any hope for the Bob Boughner tenure, the new coach would have to realize that handing nearly 40 percent of his team’s minutes over to a major liability wasn’t a good idea. Last night against the New York Rangers, Boughner sent Burns over the boards for 43.4 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 minutes. Plus ça change ...
During those 21 minutes and 39 seconds, the Sharks were outshot 9-21. That shot differential included a 5-13 unblocked shot deficit. We can expect the unblocked shots the Rangers took to collectively result in a goal 90 percent of the time. At SAP Center last night, those shots turned into two goals for the visitors. For some perspective, we can compare Burns’ on-ice results to season-long measurements of the league’s top-six defenders.
186 defensemen have played at least 250 minutes at 5-on-5 this season. Last night’s rate of 36 unblocked shots against per 60 minutes of ice time with Burns out there was, surprisingly, stellar. If he maintained that sort of play all season, he’d rank top-10.
The 2.49 expected goals against per hour, however, would rank 148th out of 186, according to Natural Stat Trick. This is a crude way of evaluating a player’s impact. But, it illustrates the idea that, even if Burns limited shot volume against, the shots he did allow were close to the Martin Jones’ net and likely to go in. Part of why this approach is typically poor analysis is because Brent Burns is also on the ice with four other skaters, so he doesn’t deserve all the blame. This reasoning is why we turn to a model like Evolving Hockey’s.
This model adjusts for a player’s context. The results provide an estimate for a player’s individual impact on the game once you strip away his teammates, opponents, zone starts, the score of the game, and the venue in which the game was played. Of the 182 defenders with at least 250 even-strength minutes this season (Evolving Hockey does not have last night’s games; Natural Stat Trick does), Burns ranks eighth-worst in terms of limiting quality shots against. In other words, we can pretty safely assume that he’s a major factor behind why the team allows so many dangerous unblocked shots while he’s out there.
For Boughner to succeed at all, he simply cannot play Burns as often as he did against the Rangers. Instead, he might consider sending Mario Ferraro and Tim Heed into the game more often. Against the Rangers, those two were on the ice together for 11 minutes and 16 seconds. During that time, the Sharks outshot New York 11-5. That margin included a 9-3 unblocked shot advantage and produced shots that collectively turn into a goal about 73 percent of the time compared to the Rangers’ 12 percent effort.
Nine unblocked shots in 11 minutes translates to a rate of 48 unblocked shots per hour. The Montreal Canadiens sit atop the league currently, taking a rate of 46 unblocked shots per hour. Ferraro and Heed were helping the Sharks produce offense last night like the best of them, and they should be rewarded for that effort.
The other major bright spot in this contest was the new second line. Tomas Hertl, Joe Thornton and Kevin Labanc helped the Sharks outshoot New York 14-8 with a 10-4 unblocked-shot advantage. Those shots represented an 89 percent chance of scoring against just a 12-percent performance from the Rangers.
At the team level, the most impressive and important takeaway from last night’s game was that the Sharks’ offense may be back on track. It’s only one game against the league’s worst team defense, but the way the Sharks created opportunities in the offensive zone was remarkable.
Boughner’s comments about his team’s offensive effort are also a positive sign. He’s not interested in flinging pucks from the point, but is instead trying to coax his players into creating from down low, like Gord intended.
This is a different 5v5 look for #SJSharks.— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) December 13, 2019
Boughner: "We have some elite shooters on our blueline, we're not going to take that away. But we are concentrating on trying to create some more offense below the top of the circles...we want to use our D as well, at the right times." pic.twitter.com/JkNN35xzZG
This shot pattern is unusual for onlookers used to two glowing dots at the points and a narrow strip of shots from the slot. The wide-angle pattern of unblocked attempts suggests that not only is the team trying to create from down around the net, but that they are also sending passes side to side in an attempt to make opposing goalies’ lives difficult.
Mind you, this shot map is a bit misleading. The rate of just 27.6 unblocked shots per hour would be by far a league low if it carried on all season and much lower than the Sharks’ current mark of 38 unblocked shots per hour. And the fact we can expect those shots to turn into 2.15 goals every hour — the Sharks’ current rate of offense — means there is still some work to do.
Importantly, the foundation for future sustained success is there in Boughner’s philosophy and in the on-ice results. Despite the loss, there is hope that San Jose can relocate some of its past offensive potency. Considering offense (and goaltending) win championships, that’s a good stepping stone for the new era.