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Sharks vs. Avalanche Preview: How does Sharks defense stack up against Avalanche offense?

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The Sharks will have their hands full with Nathan MacKinnon and ... um ... 11 other guys.

Jan 18, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; San Jose Sharks defenseman Justin Braun (61) defends against Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) in the second period at the Pepsi Center. Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The mad titan has spoken, and half of the 16 playoff bound teams have been summarily, and seemingly randomly, eliminated.

After a grueling seven game slug fest with the Vegas Golden Knights, the San Jose Sharks could really use a quick and easy domination of the Colorado Avalanche in round two, followed by a few days of rest before the Dallas Stars finish dispatching the St. Louis Blues (nothing is as it seems). Unfortunately, if their performance against the Pacific Division winning Calgary Flames is any indication, this Colorado team will not go quietly into the night. Led by 2013 first overall pick, 2014 Calder trophy winner, and very very large boy Nathan MacKinnon, the Avalanche were one of four wild card teams to eliminate their division’s winner and in convincing fashion.

Curiously, each division winner was ousted in a different number of games, and the Flames’ ejection in five was therefore relatively quick. Of all of this year’s famous first round upsets, the Avalanche knocking off the Flames was maybe the second biggest, not necessarily in terms of seeding, but in terms of the discrepancy between perceived team quality and on ice effectiveness. Not only did the Flames have no answer for MacKinnon, they seemed to have no answer for Philipp Grubauer, Cale Makar, Mikko Rantanen or just about anyone else who happened to be wearing either blue or purple on any given night.

The Sharks could face a similar challenge. Any discussion of Colorado’s forward group starts and ends with MacKinnon, and so will this article (sort of). Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar and his staff clearly know what they have in the Cole Harbor native, as MacK leads all NHL forwards in average time on ice in the first round with 23:46 per game (second is Tomas Hertl at 23:26, but the Sharks played almost three full overtime periods). With three goals and eight points in five games against Calgary, MacKinnon, along with linemates Gabriel Landeskog and Alexander Kerfoot, obliterated Calgary’s top pair of presumptive Norris favorite Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie, which should worry a Sharks team that lacks similarly defensive stalwarts (despite Brent Burns’ Norris nomination which is in no way controversial and which he totally deserves for many reasons).

Feb 28, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) and Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano (5) battle for the puck in the second period at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing  Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

This assumes that MacKinnon’s jump in production and impact during the second season is comparable to what’s to come. While he established himself as one of the game’s very best a few years ago or, at the latest, last year with his Hart and Ted Lindsay trophy nominations, MacKinnon took a huge leap into the first round of this year’s postseason. With MacK on the ice during the first 82, the Avalanche created 29 scoring chances per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. In the first round against Calgary, that number leapt up to 41. It’s possible that MacKinnon has dialed his intensity up or made a deal with a wizard and that the Sharks can expect a similar level of danger from the phenom, but probable that his actual production takes a slight step back.

You probably noticed the inclusion of Kerfoot on Colorado’s top line in place of Rantanen. That’s because Bednar opted to split up his dominant top trio in the postseason, sliding Rantanen down to a second line with Colin Wilson and Carl Soderberg. If those names fail to strike fear into your heart, you’re not alone, and if there’s one weakness on the Avalanche roster that the Sharks can exploit, it’s forward depth (or altitude sickness).

After MacKinnon, the Avs’ center strength suffers, with Soderberg a steep drop, and J.T. Compher and Tyson Jost contributing even less value by most metrics. Still, that depth produced in the first round, with third line winger and Long Beach native Matt Nieto, Wilson, and Compher sitting third, fourth and fifth in points per 60 minutes, respectively. They’re all riding pretty high individual and on-ice shooting percentages, between 15 and 29 percent, which will regress (unless they all made deals with a wizard), but the playoffs are a small enough sample that regression is even harder to count on than usual. Similarly to the first round, the Sharks will look to make hay off of the mismatch between Joe Thornton’s third line and Compher’s as that looks to be the largest difference in ability between the two forward corps.

Apr 11, 2019; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Colorado Avalanche left wing Matt Nieto (83) skates in front of Calgary Flames goaltender Mike Smith (41) during the third period in game one of the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Saddledome Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Who Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer chooses to send over the boards against the MacKinnon line with the last change in Games 1 and 2 will determine a great deal. Against Vegas, DeBoer eventually settled on Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Burns as a shut down pair to match against the Mark Stone line, but used a mish mash of those two along with Brenden Dillon and Erik Karlsson against that line and William Karlsson’s for the first five games. Earlier in the regular season, DeBoer often used Dillon and Karlsson against skilled forwards, but with Karlsson’s limited mobility, that may no longer be an option. Against Vegas, DeBoer didn’t behave much like a hard match coach with his blue liners, and effectively played a full seven game series with four and a half defensemen, but against a Colorado team with approximately half as much dangerous scoring depth, he may be able to be a little more flexible with the length of his bench, especially if there’s someone there to occasionally remind him that Joakim Ryan is, in fact, still alive.

It’s difficult to judge how effective the Avalanche's forwards really are, though, since Colorado so thoroughly owned Calgary through those five brutal games. The Avalanche’s third line seemed to be their least effective, as they are the only three Avalanche forwards to record lower than a 55 percent expected goals share, and Nieto the only to record under 50. Still, 55 is very good, so if they play to that level against San Jose, there may not be much to do except limit the damage. It seems unlikely that Colorado’s depth forwards suddenly learned how to dominate in a few off days (wizards?), and Nieto, Compher and Calvert posted expected goal shares of 54, 47 and 47, respectively, against on average ostensibly weaker competition over the full 82. How Bednar deploys his weaker centers behind MacKinnon will go a long way to maximizing their impact.

On that note, the way that the Sharks' coaching staff has been utilizing their defensemen is bordering on unusustainable. Where Burns is averaging over 30 minutes per game on ice (again, factoring in three overtime periods), Ryan is averaging under ten, with Vlasic, Karlsson, and Justin Braun all over 20 to some variety. The loss of Radim Simek earlier this season seems to be taking a toll on the work load across the rest of the blueline, and no where is that more stark than with the reliance on Burns and Karlsson. Still, this may have been the plan with those two all along: it worked with Steven and Niedermayer.

Apr 23, 2019; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson (65) speaks with right wing Timo Meier (28) during the third period in game seven of the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Vegas Golden Knights at SAP Center Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Karlsson, obviously hurt, though the severity may vary depending on the source of your favorite rumor, has still been relied upon heavily by DeBoer and his crew, skating over 30 minutes in Games 6 and 7, and seeing his number of shifts nearly double from Game 5 to 6. If his injury is affecting his ability, it seems not to be in his hands, as he managed to tally nine assists in the seven game series. Unfortunately, Karlsson’s 40 percent expected goal share at 5-on-5 is unimpressive, and his 3.6 expected goals against per 60 minutes and his 4.8 actual goals against per 60 minutes are both the worst metrics on the team, and his ability to pivot and skate with urgency is pretty clearly compromised, a weakness which a speedy Avalanche team will be eager to exploit.

Either way, the Sharks have operated with Vlasic as a shut down defenseman pretty much every game since his emergence into the NHL in 2006, the question is one of who skates against the best the Avs have to offer on Vlasic’s flank. Putting Burns there, as DeBoer did, raises questions about whether the difficult assignment limits his offense, and whether that is a good use of the Norris trophy winning wookiee. Burns’ three points in seven games in the first round were disappointing at least and his individual unblocked shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 of 3.93 was fourth worst on the team, a huge drop off from 12.18 in the regular season, fifth best. Does Burns offer enough defensive acumen alongside Vlasic to offset the cost in offensive production? Probably not.

Generally, the Sharks seem to have an advantage on paper in forward depth and on the blue line, but there is also a pretty stark difference between the two teams in goal. While Grubauer has been a revelation, allowing more than two goals only twice since the beginning of March and posting a save percentage of .952 in that period and .940 in the first round, Martin Jones has been ... less than that good. While his .904 save percentage and -2.53 goals save above average are better than the .896 and -22.87 he posted during the regular season, which Jones will show up on any given night is a gamble. While it’s true that Jones stole Game 6 out from under the dominant Knights, the decision to keep starting him after he’d been pulled twice was still questionable.

Look at it this way, say I bet my life savings on 22 red. The wheel spins for a while and, lo and behold, the ball settles on 22 red. Now, I’m very rich (or, with my life savings, now I can buy a large coffee), but, importantly, that doesn’t mean that the initial bet was a good idea. The odds of Jones putting together a solid game are higher than 22 red, but they still probably aren’t high enough for us to count on him, and the Sharks will have to structure their game around protecting him, much like they did during Game 1.

Apr 21, 2019; Las Vegas, NV, USA; San Jose Sharks goaltender Martin Jones (31) follows the play during the second period against the Vegas Golden Knights in game six of the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Part of that will be limiting the amount of opportunities Colorado’s forwards create off the rush. During the first round (and much of the regular season) the Sharks played a high risk, offensive style in the offensive zone that often created odd-man opportunities against, and we all have images of a sprawling Jones seared into our brains after goals for which he had little to no help. The Sharks will have little respite from that style in round two, as the Avalanche destroyed the Flames with rush opportunities in round one. Colorado’s 49 scoring chances on the rush eclipsed Calgary’s 27 through five games, and the Avalanche’s 118 shots from the slot towers over Calgary’s 70, while outscoring the division leaders 17 to 11. The Avs showed a knack for getting inside the Flames defensive shell with speed and the Sharks will have to find a way to slow them down and keep them outside in the zone.

While the Avalanche appear to lack forward depth, their performance against the Flames gives any attempt to underestimate them pause. What’s more, Colorado captain Landeskog may actually be under performing relative to underlying metrics: his individual expected goals of 2.45 is well above his one actual goal, likely at least partially fueled by a lower than average shooting percentage of 4.76. If Landeskog has more to offer beside MacKinnon, and Rantanen can approach his nine points in five games production from round one on the second line, San Jose may be looking at another team with a very dangerous top six and an only slightly less dangerous bottom six.

It’s probable that Colorado’s forward corps are significantly less dangerous and skilled than Vegas’, but rest and health are on the wild card’s side, and the Sharks’ battered and bruised defensive group may struggle to contain the youthful exuberance of MacKinnon and company. Overall, this is a match up that is probably much closer than anyone would have expected in May, but if there’s anything that the first round of the 2019 playoffs have shown us, it’s that any analysis that anyone makes is always wrong.

Lesson learned?