Fear the Five: Five things we learned about the Sharks in February

Where has all the defense gone?

Cue the Imperial March, we’ve got a bad omen on our hands. Despite the injection of excitement into the San Jose Sharks’ play over the past few games, the team is suffering from poor defensive form. Your friendly neighborhood Sharks have gradually allowed a higher and higher rate of 5v5 shots, unblocked shots, and expected goals against as the season has worn on. In February, all of these rates began to skyrocket. While there is evidence to suggest that, in the NHL, offense wins championships, a defense that consistently allows shots and chances against is a bad sign for the postseason. Here are a few things we learned about the Sharks in February and what they tell us about the team’s ability to compete for the Cup.

What’s up with San Jose’s defense?

The image below is a graph (from Matt Barlowe) that displays the San Jose Sharks’ 5v5 shots against per 60 minutes, in a five-game rolling average. The dotted line represents league average (right around 57 unblocked shots per 60 minutes.) As the season has moved forward, San Jose has allowed a higher and higher amount of 5v5 shots.

The same is true of unblocked shots:

and expected goals against:

The team’s defense has been trending in the wrong direction since just about opening day. It appears that when the calendar turned to December the Sharks fell below average relative to the rest of the league. They haven’t been able to turn back. Below are charts showing individual players’ performances relative to their teammates. These calculations attempt to isolate a player’s performance by weighting his impact relative to the teammates he plays with most when they are on the ice without him. The measurements are imperfect, but they provide a glimpse of who might be dragging the team’s performance in a certain direction.

The numbers in these charts are all from naturalstattrick.com. Eric Fehr and Evander Kane are not included in these charts, as they’ve each only played a handful of games with the team. You can see here that Joe Pavelski, Mikkel Boedker, Daniel O’Regan, Justin Braun and Melker Karlsson are allowing the most shots against relative to the teammates they play against.

Here we see Brent Burns appear.

Some of the same players show up here: Justin Braun, Mikkel Boedker, and Brent Burns. A few new names appear: Brenden Dillon, and Chris Tierney. The players who appear to be having the biggest impact on the team’s overall defense are: Mikkel Boedker, Melker Karlsson, Brent Burns and Justin Braun. A few other players are close to falling into their category defensively: Joe Pavelski and Chris Tierney. Trading Danny O’Regan appears to have been addition by subtraction.

Since December 1, 2017, Brent Burns and Justin Braun have played the most 5v5 time on ice per game among of any Sharks player. Pavelski has played the most 5v5 hockey among forwards during that time frame. Tierney ranks fifth, though that number shot up after Joe Thornton and then Tomas Hertl were hurt. His ice time has come back down after Hertl’s return and Evander Kane’s addition. Karlsson and Boedker have played the eighth and ninth-most 5v5 time among forwards.

The Sharks’ forward line combinations that allow more shots relative to the team tend to have at least one of these forwards in them. Though Brent Burns absorbs most fans’ and commentators’ ire for his defensive lapses, The Wookie is not all alone in giving up shots against. It’s clear the Sharks must find ways to hide their defensive liabilities, such as looking into new line combinations or defense partners, if they want to last longer than a few games come April.

Offense: A shot in the arm or more of the same?

Since 2018 started, San Jose has scored the second-most 5v5 goals and have scored 5v5 goals at the sixth-highest rate relative to the NHL. The new year’s offense seems like it has made strides since a dismal opening stretch, but has the team turned a corner offensively?

Yes and no. The team’s overall rate of shots — unblocked and otherwise — has slipped somewhat, relative to the league, but San Jose’s rate of scoring chances for has improved during that time. (Note: There is debate about the legitimacy/accuracy of scoring chance and high-danger numbers naturalstattrick and others provide. We will refer to them as a baseline number, but we will not consider them the only word when it comes to describing shot quality.)

For our purposes, however, the team’s shot and scoring chance rates have changed very little. The change in rankings equate to, at most, a handful of extra or fewer shots per hour. The largest change to San Jose’s offense? Shooting percentage. The Sharks were very unlucky early this season, shooting just below six percent (league-average for team 5v5 shooting percentage is about eight percent.) During the 2018 calendar year, that number has risen to an entire percentage point above league average.

February is probably the most accurate representation of what the Sharks are today, offensively. With above-average shot and chance rates and near-average shooting, San Jose is scoring at the 10th-highest 5v5 rate in the league. Unless they suffer from another lengthy shooting slump or go on a shooting-percentage bender, this is about what you’re going to see from the team down the stretch.

How have the new guys impacted the team so far?

Evander Kane

Since the beginning of the 2014-15 season, Evander Kane ranks among the top-36 forwards in 5v5:

  • Shots per 60 minutes, relative to his teammates
  • Unblocked shots per 60 minutes, relative to his teammates
  • Expected goals for per 60 minutes, relative to his teammates/

While “relative to teammate” metrics can artificially inflate the numbers of good players on bad teams, it’s fairly safe to say that Kane is a good offensive player. With just a two-game sample size on the Sharks, it’s too early to tell Kane’s impact on the team, but it looks promising so far. Joonas Donskoi, Kane, and Joe Pavelski rank first, second, and third respectively on the team in shots, unblocked shots, and scoring chances for per 60 minutes of 5v5 ice time. That line has generally been dominant, and, while those numbers will come back down to earth eventually, it appears Kane’s three points over that stretch isn’t a mistake.

Eric Fehr

With Eric Fehr, we also encounter some sample size issues. Fehr’s relative-to-teammate numbers also contain four games with the Leafs earlier this season. Of the San Jose skaters who have played fourth-line center this season, Fehr brings the team a sizable positive shot and expected goal impact over Danny O’Regan and Joel Ward.

Fehr hasn’t been as impactful offensively as Barclay Goodrow, but he has been better defensively. Their respective strengths and weaknesses average out to a very similar net impact on the team. Only in the expected goal differential ledger does young Barclay seem to offer more help than Fehr.

Though Goodrow spent most of his season at the fourth-line center position, it is clear the team would prefer to play him as a winger. Given that knowledge, it’s “Fehr” to say Fehr has been a generally positive addition to the team in his brief time in teal and currently is their best option at fourth-line center.

Has the power play gone dry?

Between November 18 — when San Jose implemented changes to its power play against the Bruins — through January 21, the last full game Joe Thornton played, San Jose’s power play was doing this (league ranks):

  • Seventh-most shots per hour
  • Eighth-most unblocked shots per hour
  • Seventh-most scoring chances per hour
  • Fourth-most expected goals for per hour/

During that stretch, the team scored 11.1 goals per hour, league best. Their shooting percentage: just under 16 percent, fifth-highest.

Without Jumbo, the power play looks like this:

  • Eighth-most shots per hour (and a slightly higher rate than with Jumbo)
  • Ninth-most unblocked shots per hour
  • 14th-most scoring chances for per hour
  • Fifth-best expected goals for per hour/

Just 5.3 goals for per hour, 28th in the league. Their shooting percentage? You guessed it: Just a hair under nine percent, 29th in the league.

Thornton has certainly been shooting the puck well on the power play this season. His absence is likely part of the reason why the team’s been unable to convert their shots into goals as well of late. Luckily, however, the power play hasn’t skipped a beat otherwise. In their next five games, San Jose plays the Columbus Blue Jackets, St. Louis Blues, Washington Capitals, Detroit Red Wings, and Edmonton Oilers. During the 2018 calendar year, each of those teams, with the exception of St. Louis, ranks bottom-10 at expected goals against per hour of 4v5 penalty kill time. The Sharks’ power play percentage should rebound here soon.

Are the Sharks a contender this year?

In February, San Jose took just 49 percent of all 5v5 shots, a mark good for 20th in the league. The team generated just 48 percent of expected goals, also 20th-best in the league. On the season to date, San Jose has taken about 51 percent of all 5v5 shots and generated about the same percentage of expected goals. We’ve detailed the Sharks’ solid offense, as well as their lingering defensive problems. Unless something changes soon, it’s likely that this team’s defensive deficiencies are too much for their offense to overcome. The team will need a hot shooting streak and a flaming hot goalie — two things you’d prefer not to lean on too heavily — to go deep into the postseason.