Fear the Five: Five things we learned in November

Contenders or pretenders?

1) Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard...

...is just something a bunch of big dumb idiots made up. The Sharks are evidence to the contrary of this statement. They have talent, but it’s not executing at the level we’re used to seeing. Meanwhile, the team’s hard working, but less talented players (looking at you, Melker Karlsson, Marcus Sorensen and Dylan Gambrell) aren’t able to prop the team up when its stars falter.

For the first time in a long time, the Sharks are at the bottom of the NHL’s teams in terms of how many goals above a replacement (GAR) level team they produce. The drop off in talent shouldn’t come as a huge surprise — the team lost three top-six forwards over the summer — but this sort of precipitous plunge wasn’t expected, either.

Before the season started, modelers using the same data that goes into a calculation like GAR pegged the Sharks as a 90-93-point team. As of the loss to Washington, the Sharks are playing at an 87-point pace. That’s only a few wins away from their projected totals, but the team is only at this threshold after storming to an 11-4 November record. With a tougher schedule during December, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Sharks emerged in the new year closer to the division basement than the playoff cutoff.

2) The offense still isn’t there

In November, the Sharks scored four or more goals in six of their games (not counting shootouts). That output seems impressive, until you look at the underlying offensive numbers.

This chart shows the rate of 5-on-5 expected goals the team has generated during the course of the season. Expected goals essentially measure how likely it is an unblocked shot becomes a goal based historical goal rates of shots from similar locations.

The good news is that the team improved its shot quality during November. The bad news is that improvement took the team to just above league-average. The worst news is that you can see the team’s shot quality may have peaked already. Eleven of the 23 Sharks skaters to play in a game during that November 4 to November 29 stretch were on the ice for at least 2.25 expected goals or more. That includes the top two lines of Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier and Barclay Goodrow; and Logan Couture, Evander Kane and Kevin Labanc; as well as Brent Burns. Ten of the remaining 12 skaters were on the ice for a rate of two expected goals or fewer. Any offensive improvement was a top-heavy effort, and after Hertl’s injury and some line shuffling that magic wore off quickly.

If expected goals are a measure of how often we can expect unblocked shots to go in, we should look at how many unblocked shots the team takes to begin with. It appears that this season, they don’t take many. While teams have been able to sustain scoring with quality shots without quantity, it will be difficult to keep filling the net without either. It would be surprising if San Jose is able to keep taking high-quality shots if they don’t take many unblocked shots to begin with.

Sheng Peng recently tapped into some statistics that aren’t publicly available. There’s some evidence the Sharks have begun to turn their offense around for the better. Until we see those tracking stats manifest themselves in dangerous shot volume, it will be hard to consider the Sharks attack anything other than toothless.

3) Burns and Simek aren’t working as planned

Radim Simek’s reinsertion into the lineup was positive for the team. It allowed the coaching staff to play Erik Karlsson with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, important because Karlsson might be the only human on the planet who can sustain positive play alongside Vlasic in their shutdown role. It’s unclear why the coaches didn’t try that tandem to begin with, but we digress.

The other perceived benefit of Simek’s return to the lineup was a Brent Burns-centric defense pair that wasn’t a total defensive disaster. Last season, the Sharks were outstanding defensively with that pair on the ice.

This year, the team has been awful in its own end with those two on the ice together:

Not only is this year’s version of the duo poor in it’s on end, it’s also been surprisingly ineffective at producing offense. Unless the coaching staff elects to try new defense pairs, this might be the new reality for a declining offensive defender and a guy working his way back from major knee surgery.

4) Timo Meier has started to find his game

The first month of the season was a difficult one for a number of Sharks. After the coaching staff rearranged its forward lines and defense pairs in early November, things started to come together for some of the team’s most important players. Timo Meier, in particular has come around after a slow start.

One of the league’s premier offensive talents the last two seasons, Meier began this year on a line with Logan Couture. The results the two produced were nowhere near those of the world-beating offense-generating machine they were last season.

This is Meier now, on December 4. His impact on expected goals has dropped somewhat, but he’s been better at driving shot differential on both sides of the ice. The forward is still a far cry from where he was last season, but it seems he and Hertl and figuring out how to make things happen together.

5) November wasn’t sustainable

It’s fun to sit back and enjoy the glory of an 11-4 run through November, especially after the Sharks’ start to this season. Unfortunately, everything under that winning record points to a team that still hasn’t figured it out this year. In November, the Sharks scored on 10 percent of their shots on goal at 5-on-5.

Between the 2014-15 and 2018-19 seasons, the highest full-season 5-on-5 shooting percentage by a team was 9.97 percent. The highest shooting percentage the Sharks finished with over those five seasons was 8.93 percent, which they achieved last year. It’s difficult to believe that a team without three of its top-six forwards from that strong-shooting season is going to finish this year anywhere near last year’s mark, let alone 10 percent.

Unless San Jose’s offense starts firing more quality looks at opponents’ nets, it’s unlikely this hot shooting streak will continue the way it has.

A long December

And there’s no reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last unless a lot of things change. Though the Sharks did elevate their play during the season’s second month, they haven’t quite convinced us that the turnaround was anything other than a slick-shooting streak. If the team doesn’t figure out how to generate more offense regularly and soon, it will be a long December, truly.