Patrick Marleau: The straw that stirs the Sharks' drink

Apart from Antti Niemi, no player has been more valuable to the Sharks this season than their oft-maligned former captain.

As the idiom goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. And so Patrick Marleau's listless performance against the St. Louis Blues last spring proved to be life-affirming for his hordes of braying detractors, overjoyed that after years of crucifying Marleau for lackluster postseasons (despite the fact that only four players scored more playoff goals between lockouts), they had finally been vindicated by a five-game sample.

To be sure, Marleau was genuinely dreadful in that series. He failed to record a single shot on goal or scoring chance at even-strength over those five games. But the conclusions drawn from a week of hockey against one of the best teams in the league were overblown to say the least. Every player has sub-par stretches and given Marleau's impressive track record, it would have been foolish to give up on him this past offseason. So far in 2013, Doug Wilson has been immensely rewarded for refraining from a knee-jerk reaction (not that he would have been able to do much anyway considering Marleau's no-movement clause). As ineffective as Marleau was against St. Louis a year ago, he's been that vital to the Sharks through the first half of this truncated season, which really shouldn't be much of a surprise to anyone who's watched him play on a consistent basis over the past five years.

With San Jose set to face the Canucks this evening, they find themselves one of six teams in the Western Conference with 24 points, all of whom are essentially tied for 5th place. Despite the tumultuous process that has brought them here, that's more or less an accurate portrayal of this team's ability; they're either the 4th or 5th best team in the West. But it's frightening to contemplate how much worse off they would be this year without Marleau playing as well as he has. Even ignoring the fact that he's accounted for a staggering 27% of the Sharks' goal output thus far, his impact on San Jose's territorial play has been unparalleled. Here's a look at the percentage of even-strength shot attempts (a strong indicator of the extent to which a team controls possession and outchances the opposition) the Sharks earn when each of Marleau's most common linemates are on the ice with him and without him.

Player With Marleau Without Marleau Difference

Joe Pavelski 167:07
Joe Thornton 141:57
Scott Gomez 36:08
Logan Couture 35:12
Martin Havlat 33:59

Marc-Edouard Vlasic 103:20
Brad Stuart 93:43
Dan Boyle 76:27
Justin Braun 51:45
Douglas Murray 45:10
Matt Irwin 37:02

Team 225:51

These numbers should certainly be taken with multiple grains of salt considering we're only 20 games in, but every single Shark who has shared the ice with Marleau for at least 30 even-strength minutes this season has performed better with him than without him, almost always by a substantial margin. This isn't a deployment effect either; the traditional quality of competition metrics don't tell us a whole lot this early in the year but based on them and a cursory glance at the opposing players Marleau and his linemates have been on the ice against this season indicate that they've faced either an identical or substantially lower caliber of opponent in their minutes away from him. And apart from Gomez, Vlasic and Irwin, they're also starting a roughly equal or lesser percentage of their shifts away from Marleau in the defensive zone too.

Although the decrepit state of the bottom half of the Sharks' roster is probably to blame as much as Marleau's contributions, the final line of that table is particularly jarring. San Jose goes from controlling play at a level comparable to the Kings and Blackhawks with Marleau on the ice to Colorado/Minnesota territory when he's on the bench. There's making players around you better and then there's what Marleau has accomplished this year.

A lot of this can be traced to the dominance Marleau displays in the neutral zone. As Eric and Geoff at Broad Street Hockey discovered when tracking the Flyers, Capitals and a host of other teams last season, teams generate twice as many shots and goals per possession when they enter the offensive zone with control of the puck rather than dumping or deflecting it in. I've only tracked seven Sharks games so far this season, so I certainly wouldn't read too much into these numbers, but here's how San Jose's forwards who entered the offensive zone at least 10 times during 5-on-5 play in those games stack up in terms of the number of times they entered the zone overall and the percentage of those entries for which they retained control of the puck.

Player Overall entries Entries with control % of entries with control
Patrick Marleau 33 25 75.7%
Logan Couture 37 26 70.3%
Joe Pavelski 33 20 60.6%
Joe Thornton 29 16 55.2%
Martin Havlat 26 14 53.8%
Scott Gomez 15 8 53.3%
Ryane Clowe 38 16 42.1%
Michal Handzus 17 7 41.2%

At least over this (admittedly limited) sample, no Shark managed to carry the puck in for the proportion of their zone entries that Marleau did, although Couture's numbers look mighty impressive as well. Assuming this trend persisted over the 13 games I've yet to track, it isn't remotely surprising that, both individually and as a team, the Sharks are far more territorially dominant with Marleau on the ice. He drives play at an elite level (by comparison, Anze Kopitar carries the puck in 66% of the time, Claude Giroux 68% of the time, John Tavares 74% of the time and Taylor Hall 80% of the time), backing off opposing defensemen with his blazing speed to set up the Sharks' attack.

Whether or not Marleau will be able to keep playing at this caliber is difficult to tell but what isn't hard to gauge is the value he's provided to the Sharks so far this season. Many have wondered aloud about where the Sharks would be this year without Antti Niemi and it's certain the answer is "nowhere good." But it's equally disturbing to consider how much worse of a team they would be sans Marleau.