The San Jose Sharks might have a Mark Stone-sized problem on their hands when the Las Vegas Golden Knights come to town for the first-round playoffs series between the budding rivals. Though the Knights experienced their fare share of ups and downs during the March home stretch, one thing remained mostly constant: their offense.
Since Christmas, the Golden Knights’ 5-on-5 offense has taken the third-highest rate of shots in the league, the third-highest rate of unblocked shots and led the league in the rate of expected goals generated. During that time, the I-still-can’t-believe-the-league-let-an-expansion-team-do-this Knights’ expected shooting percentage on unblocked shots also paced the 31-team National Hockey League (NHL) (Corsica). They’ve been taking shots, getting said shots through traffic and creating dangerous chances and, if you’re keeping score at home, have even managed to underperform relative to those metrics.
Everything amounts to the Knights owning what has been arguably the league’s most consistently dangerous offense during the second half of the season. You can see their final stretch of games, below. The deeper the red and the higher the plateaus, the more unblocked shots the team is generating. The Knights are getting pucks in front of the net and up and down the left side of the zone.
For the Sharks, it appears that the Knights’ recent pattern of shot generation could pose quite a threat. San Jose’s team defensive structure has allowed opponent shots in a pattern that is almost a mirror image of the Knights’ offense. If these trends continue into the postseason, the sweet Golden Knights may yet again prove a difficult challenge for the Sharks’ defense.
Leading the way for the Knights during the season’s second half and subsequent dog days has been expected goal monster, 33-year-old Paul Stastny. Playing mostly with Max Pacioretty and Alex Tuch, mixed in with Brandon Pirri and, most recently, deadline acquisition Mark Stone. According to Evolving Hockey’s adjusted metrics, Stastny has had the seventh-biggest impact on even-strength expected goals this season among forwards with at least 50 minutes of ice time. His new linemate, Stone has been the league’s second-best forward this season in that capacity, but these metrics adjust for teammates, so Stastny’s been doing this no matter his wingers.
Indeed, the Stastny, Pacioretty, Stone line ranks second in its rate of 5-on-5 expected goals generated among all 225 forward lines to play at least 100 minutes together this season (Corsica). Those three have combined to create more than four expected goals per hour of ice time together. Three expected goals per hour is exceptional. Four is something you’d see paired with “unsustainable” often. This time, however, the Stastny and Stone combination appears to be a match made for long-term success.
The team’s nominal second line generates an extra 1.27 expected goals per hour and produces unblocked shots are are nearly two percent more likely to go in relative to the rest of the team. While none of the team’s other three lines is any sort of slouch offensively, it’s clear that for San Jose to win its first-round series, it must find a way to silence the Stastny-Stone pair.
To do so, Shark Coach Pete DeBoer will employ what looks to be the following defense pairs:
- Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns
- Brenden Dillon and Erik Karlsson
- Joakim Ryan and Justin Braun
There may not be a pair better suited to neutralize the Knights’ top threat than the Dillonand Karlsson duo. Between Dillon’s ability to separate man from puck and Karlsson’s penchant for breaking up zone entries before they develop, the unlikely shutdown unit may be able to hamstring Stastny and Stone long enough to keep them off the scoreboard.
Together, the pair has swallowed opposing offenses’ advances almost altogether. Despite that mound of unblocked shots just in front of the Sharks’ goal, this pair has forced teams into unblocked shots that are 17 percent less likely to go in than those of a league-average offense. This season, Erik Karlsson has played the most against opponents’ middle-six forwards. While Stastny has led the Knights’ forward corps in ice time for the last 20 games or so, Stone and Pacioretty are firmly in the 5-to-7 range, making a Karlsson and Stone matchup likely.
In the aftermath of Radim Simek’s injury, the Sharks’ coaching staff has searched mostly unsuccessfully for Simek’s replacement. The Czech defender proved exceptionally adept at limiting opponents expected goals and shots this season, making him an ideal partner for the high-risk, high-reward Burns. It has become painfully apparent that the coaching staff does not think Joakim Ryan — the man whom Simek replaced earlier this season — is capable of limiting the pair’s chances against. As a result, they’ve turned to a struggling Marc-Edouard Vlasic to fill the void.
In just fewer than 180 even-strength minutes together this season, the Vlasic and Burns pair has allowed expected goals at the rate of the Ryan and Burns pair. A closer look reveals that most of those minutes have been in increments of three minutes or fewer most nights, making it difficult to lend much credence to the aggregate numbers.
Against the Chicago Blackhawks on March 28, the two played nearly eight 5-on-5 minutes together and allowed a rate of just 1.44 expected goals per hour, an even more impressive number than the season-long Burns and Simek pair. Against the Oilers on April 4, the pair played six minutes together and allowed a paltry rate of 1.57 expected goals against per hour, an exciting development. However, against the Avalanche during the team’s regular-season finale, the Wookie and the dog walker let the Colorado team produce 2.66 expected goals per hour in 12.5 minutes, an unflattering, if not horrendous result (Natural Stat Trick).
No matter his partner over the course of the season, Vlasic has played mostly against opponents’ top-three forwards in terms of ice time. In this series, he’ll be tasked with taking down a combination of the vaunted-but-underperforming William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith line and the Stastny firehose.
Finally, a relatively new creation of Joakim Ryan and Justin Braun creates a seemingly bizarre third pair. While there isn’t enough information to form an educated opinion about the two together so far, we can see roughly what each player’s strengths and weaknesses have been this season and try to put two and two together.
These two will be tasked primarily with keeping the bottom of the Knights’ forward lineup at bay. If Ryan’s offensive prowess can combine nicely with Braun’s defensive fortitude, the pair could be a trouble-making asset for San Jose.
Finally, 20 percent (and perhaps a bit less in the playoffs) of the game is spent on special teams. Though Martin Jones is enjoying his second-straight season of phenomenal penalty kill numbers, the skaters in front of him are doing their ‘tender no favors. Though the Sharks limit shots against, they allow plenty of dangerous chances while killing penalties. In what should be a point in their favor, the Knights neither take nor draw many penalties, keeping the amount of man-(dis)advantage hockey to a minimum.
That’s a benefit for the Sharks because Vegas’ power play poses a decent threat. Though the Knights’ pattern of unblocked shots on the man advantage isn’t as intimidating as that of their even-strength offense, a plus-four figure here is among the league’s better power plays. San Jose will have to be wary of the Knights’ side-to-side movement if it is to avoid allowing goals from above the dots.
There are no surprises among the Knights’ forward group. Paul Stastny and Mark Stone have combined to form a monster, allowing the previously feared William Karlsson line to take advantage of lesser matchups. For the Sharks, uncertainty reigns, as two of their current defense pairs are works in progress with very little history together. It would not surprise any onlooker to see different variations of the defense pairs we see today before us during this series, depending on how the first game or two go.
One thing is for sure: Much will depend on how the Sharks’ depth pairs pan out and perform against a dangerous Vegas offense.