Fear the Five: Five things we learned in October

One: it’s gonna be a long season.

The Sharks are actually bad

You don’t need a full article to tell you that. But I think it’s worth discussing just how poorly the team has played this season (at even strength, anyway). First, we’ll see what suck looks like in visual form:

The red line represents the 50/50 line. Teams lined up near there have taken about 50 percent of all 5-on-5 shots, after adjusting for the score and venue. Shockingly, the Sharks haven’t allowed a high rate of shots relative to league average. In fact, they’ve been slightly better than league average at limiting opponents shots. It’s offensively where this team falls apart. San Jose allows the 14th-lowest rate of shots against, but it takes the fifth-lowest rate of shots itself.

Put those two items together, and you have a team that has taken just 48 percent of all 5-on-5 shots, good for 24th in the league. Sitting in the shot-differential cellar along with Detroit, Ottawa and the New York teams is not where anyone expected these guys to find themselves when the season opened against Vegas.

Things go from bad to worse as you whittle your way down from shots to expected goals. The Sharks take the second-lowest rate of unblocked shots and allow the ninth-highest rate. San Jose has generated the lowest rate of offensive 5-on-5 expected goals, meaning the unblocked shots they do take and the rush chances they accumulate typically produce low-probability shots. Defensively, the team allows the third-highest rate of expected goals. Last season, the Sharks traded chances. This year, they’re giving up plenty, but not sending much back in return.

How the team performs at 5-on-5 isn’t everything (we’ll get to special teams in a moment), but it’s a lot of things, and 5-on-5 shot differential is still the best predictor of 5-on-5 goal differential. Unless things change drastically, this team won’t be outscoring its opponents at 5-on-5 any time soon.

The kids aren’t alright

Plenty of excitement surrounded the cadre of 20-year-old prospects that seemed destined for their first NHL action this year. So far, Mario Ferraro, Lean Bergmann, Danil Yurtaykin and Noah Gregor have laced up their skates and exited through the Shark head. And, so far, the results aren’t great.

This chart reads the same way as the teams chart above. The thin red line is the 50/50 line. You can see the entire team, save Joe Thornton, Kevin Labanc, Erik Karlsson, Tomas Hertl and Evander Kane have been pretty poor. Bergmann, Yurtaykin and Gregor have all been on the wrong side of that line so far. Bergmann in particular appears to have been a drag on his teammates in the early goings this year. This type of measurement is fairly rudimentary, and we can evaluate individual play a bit more accurately by looking at relative-to-teammate statistics.

Thanks to Evolving Hockey, we have this same measurement, but adjusted for many minutes a player has spent with his teammates. Bergmann’s 5-on-5 shot differential is particularly gruesome. With him on the ice the Sharks have been outshot by 26, relative to his teammates. Gregor has been only slightly better, registering the fourth-worst mark on the team in this capacity.

Yurtaykin, thanks in part to replacement Patrick Marleau’s poor play, doesn’t look half bad. He’s about team-average in the shot-differential column. The issue with Yurtaykin’s play is that, on a team starved for offense, he’s commanded the fourth-lowest rate of expected goals relative to his teammates. He’s not been very helpful where the Sharks need him most, so it’s fairly easy to see why the mother club sent him down.

(Except two)

Though his fellow rookie teammates have mostly struggled, blueliner Mario Ferraro has been a positive contributor during the first month of the season. He’s logged the Sharks’ fifth-best 5-on-5 shot differential relative to his teammates and is tied for the 10th-best expected goal-differential mark. He’s been one of the better San Jose skaters this season despite spending most of his time partnered with Tim Heed, who played poorly early on.

On the other side of the red line, Dylan Gambrell seems to have turned a corner in his development. The late-blooming forward has spent time at wing and at center this season, collecting the team’s seventh-best 5-on-5 shot differential relative to his teammates. Gambrell could still improve the way he turns those shots into high-probability shots and keeping dangerous looks away from his own net. A 22-year-old who will be four years removed from his draft at the completion of this season, Gambrell is at a make-or-break point in his career. Despite a slow first few NHL seasons, he looks to be nearer to the “make” side of the continuum with his play in October.

Neither are the vets

After Bergmann, the next seven poorest-performing players in terms of driving 5-on-5 shot differential are veteran Sharks. The list, in order of worst to not-as-bad: Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Patrick Marleau, Melker Karlsson, Barclay Goodrow, Marcus Sorensen, Lukas Radil and Logan Couture. We could have predicted this list with decent certainty after last season. Vlasic’s play has taken a nose dive since the team’s Cup run. Marleau’s impact on even-strength play has also disintegrated of late. Melker has been at the bottom of these types of lists for years, and Goodrow, Sorensen and Radil were always going to be better off in bottom-of-the-lineup roles.

Most concerning to the team’s prospects this year is Couture’s appearance on this list. Once a strong two-way center, there’s evidence he’s declining faster than the Sharks are able to handle. Micah Blake McCurdy (of HockeyViz)’s latest model of isolated player impact shows evident decline during the past few seasons:

These images show Couture’s isolated impact on the team’s unblocked shot share. The heatmaps can be read like a hockey rink looks from above: The frames on top represent Couture’s impact on offensive unblocked shots (the darker red, the more shots the heatmap shows), and the frames on the bottom represent his defensive impact (the darker the blue the greater the dearth of shots).

As recently as three seasons ago, Couture’s impact was that of a true number-one center. These days, he’d be better off playing third-line minutes. Timo Meier hasn’t exactly been himself so far this season, either. Between that fact, Couture’s decline, and Marleau’s continued ineptitude, it’s no wonder the team’s second line seems to be skating at a clip slower than its opponents.

It will be exceedingly difficult for the Sharks to break out of their October doldrums so long as Vlasic plays the third-most 5-on-5 minutes of the team’s defensemen, and Marleau and Couture play together in top-six 5-on-5 roles.

At least the power play is good

It just wouldn’t be right to send you all home sad. So, we’ll end on a high note. The power play! I for one, have never understood the Steve Spott criticism. His power play has been a shot-producing machine for most of his tenure in teal. The season after it hit some bumps in the road, he made adjustments and brought the unit back to its league-leading glory.

Dark orange represents a higher volume of unblocked shots compared to the league-average power play. Numerically, that orange blob represents (at 5-on-4) the league’s third-highest rate of unblocked shots, the highest rate of expected goals and the ninth-highest rate of goals for. It’s early in the season, so those rates are going to fall back toward league average eventually. Even with that regression, the team should be able to maintain a goal-scoring rate near the top of the league. San Jose should be exceedingly happy when it has an opportunity to play with a man advantage.

It’s going to be a long season

The reality of this team as it is currently composed is that it’s not prepared to be anything more than a bottom-half unit. Many of its key, minute-gobbling players are aging quickly, and the youth the organization has brought in has so far been hit or miss. The good news on the personnel front is that guys like Sasha Chmelevski, Ivan Chekhovich and Joel Kellman have yet to lace up for the mother club. It’s doubtful any of them turns into a superstar, but if any of these three can provide even the impact of an average NHL forward, that should help immensely.

Of course, much of the potential for improvement lies in the coaching staff’s decisions. At the moment, that group doesn’t seem willing to pry its flailing veterans away from top-of-the-lineup roles. This mindset has been and will continue to be detrimental to the team’s chances for as long as it continues. For now, cross your fingers and hope for a huge positive penalty differential.