Playoff Power Rankings Week 6: Logan-omic anxiety

There are positives to be had from the week, we’re just not sure what they are yet.

Welcome to Fear the Fin’s weekly(ish) player power rankings. Who had the biggest impact, the best goals or the prettiest smile in the week that was and who you should totally grab off of waivers in your fantasy league to stick it to Derek in accounts receivable. All rankings subject to the whims of fate and whatever we’re feeling in the moment, postseason power rankings are prone to being particularly mercurial.

If there’s one thing we can learn from the San Jose Sharks’ brutal 5-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues in Game 5, it’s that the Blues are a strong, defensively responsible team that comes in waves, earning scoring from all over the lineup to overwhelm their opponents. If there’s a second thing, it’s that the NHL is not serious about preventing head injuries.

The Sharks’ bench during the third period of the game looked like the waiting area of a three-star sandwich shop. With Erik Karlsson, Tomas Hertl, Joe Pavelski and others in the dressing room for various reasons, the Sharks were merely the latest in a long list of victims to the NHL’s willful ignorance regarding the dangers of concussions.

Testifying before a parliamentary subcommittee on May 1, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was asked to clarify his, and the league’s, position on the link between repetitive brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a deadly degenerative disease characterized by behavioral problems, mood disorders and dementia. Despite the link between brain injuries and CTE being repeatedly and exhaustively demonstrated, Bettman’s response was predictable: “Based on everything I’ve been told — and if anybody has any information to the contrary, we’d be happy to hear it — other than some anecdotal evidence, there has not been that conclusive link.”

Bettman has apparently either not seen any of the above linked articles or, more likely, chosen to ignore them. Were he, and the league’s cadre of team owners by whom he is employed, to take this problem more seriously, the league may have instituted more serious rules to prevent hits like the ones we saw last night.

In the first period, Blues forward Ivan Barbashev caught Hertl coming through the neutral zone with a high hit to the head. Hertl finished the period and played a few shifts in the second, but did not return to the Sharks’ bench for the third. There are two problems with how this was handled: first, Barbashev was not disciplined on the play. This is exactly the kind of hit for which supplementary discipline was created. When Joe Thornton hit Tomas Nosek of the Vegas Golden Knights in round one, he was penalized for an illegal check to the head and later suspended for one game. I made no attempt to defend Thornton, and most reasonable fans, in this comments section and elsewhere, understood the league’s need to suspend him. The same criteria should be applied here.

The second problem is that Hertl was allowed to continue playing. The Sharks are one of 31 teams in the NHL that are not taking these injuries seriously enough, and are not exempt from blame. The league’s baseline testing for players looking to return from head hits, when actually implemented, is insufficient. According to Marc-Edouard Vlasic: “It’s just a written test. In order for me to fail that, I’d have to be in a coma … The baseline cannot show how I’m feeling.”

Brenden Dillon's hit on Alex Pietrangelo was similarly borderline, both in contact and in allowing the hit player to continue playing. Gray areas like these hits need to be eliminated.

In the third period, Blues captain Pietrangelo hit Pavelski at the blueline, jostling the linesman with the impact. Pietrangelo, knowing Pavelski’s recent history with head injuries because the defenseman does not, as far as I know, live under a rock, threw in an elbow to the face on his way out. No penalty was called, and Pavelski did not return to the game.

The fact that this kind of play is still happening and going unpunished in a league that is being sued for it’s ambivalence about head injuries is shameful. During that same hearing, Bettman waved away the suggestion that the league institute a no tolerance policy on head hits: “It would not be possible to consistently and fairly enforce a rule that prohibits head contact of any kind or nature if the NHL is to be maintained as a physical, contact sport.” While this postseason’s officiating has provided a strong argument that consistent and fair rule enforcement is in fact impossible, Bettman provides no evidence that this is the case.

To get out in front of a counter argument, I am not arguing that officiating malfeasance had an impact on the Sharks’ dismal loss. The Sharks lost yesterday because the Blues were the better team in almost every measurable way. I am arguing that the current state of NHL rule enforcement is woefully inadequate, and that teams losing games or series due to bad or missed calls pales in comparison to the real damage being done to players’ brains and lives.

Yes, missed hand passes are a problem. Yes, nit-picky offside reviews are a problem. Yes, calling majors after the fact based on outcome instead of contact is a problem. But missing hits to the head and failing to enforce effective and consistent post-hoc punishment is the problem of the modern NHL, and last night’s game was a shining example of why ignoring the problem will make it worse. The Boston Bruins were not punished for Brad Marchand’s punch to the head of Scott Harrington. The Columbus Blue Jackets were not punished for Dean Kukan’s elbow to the head of David Backes. The St. Louis Blues were not punished for Sammy Blais’ headshot to Justin Braun in Game 3.

Why were these hits considered acceptable, while Thornton’s hit on Nosek and Charlie McAvoy’s hit on Josh Anderson were not? Why were any of these hits considered acceptable?

When officiating is inconsistent, the rules no longer serve as deterrents to illegal behavior, and teams that break the rules most often will win more games, reinforcing dangerous play and encouraging injury. The league needs to institute real, radical change to protect its players. Borrow an idea from Carolina Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’amour and take an official off the ice so he’s more likely to see these kinds of infractions behind the play. Ban hits to the head. Outlaw fighting. Large issues require bold solutions.

This problem is real, it is current, it is massive. This is not a matter of who wins a trophy, or the integrity of the game. It’s bigger than that. It’s existential. There are many possible options, all of which are better than doing nothing. We’re not asking the NHL to fix it overnight, we’re just asking them to do something.

Anyway, you didn’t come here for a diatribe, you came here for something positive in a time of the season where such somethings are hard to come by and, after sitting through that tirade, the least I can do is deliver the goods.

1. Logan Couture

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week4303301354.51

Last week: 5

As willing as Logan Couture seems to be to drag this team to victory, he may need some help before it’s all over. With two goals in Game 2 and a third in Game 3, Couture leads the NHL in goals with 14, two more than St. Louis’ Jaden Schwartz after his Game 5 hat trick, and in points with 20, two more than Boston’s Marchand. What’s more, Couture’s 14 goals ties the Sharks lead for any one player during a postseason, matching Pavelski’s output in 2016. Couture is the future leader of the Sharks, and will have to be counted upon heavily to win the next two elimination games.

With the Sharks reeling at home in Game 2, Couture did everything he could to power the team to a win, starting with a shorthanded goal early in the second period. Starting with a read on Pietrangelo’s pass, Couture created his own space in the defensive zone and, using arm and body positioning, got in alone on goaltender Jordan Binnington. The heroics did not end there, as Couture flipped the puck to his forehand, forcing Binnington to drop his right pad. Once the goaltender bit on the forehand, Couture had the time and space to kick the puck back to the backhand, and slip it through the five-hole.

2. Joe Thornton

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week421322652.18

Game 3 of the 2019 Western Conference Final was Joe Thornton’s 176th playoff game, and the first in which he tallied more than one goal. While that may not come as a huge shock, considering the legend’s tendency to pass the glory to others, Thornton also became the oldest player in NHL history to post a multi-goal game in the postseason, besting Jeremy Roenick for that honor, who scored two goals in Game 7 of the first round in 2008 at age 38. With three points in that game, winning a cup with Thornton has to be the Sharks’ primary motivation to succeed this year, as it may be his last. Knowing Thornton, though, he’ll probably play well into his eighties.

While not generally Thornton’s strength, the big man can be pretty dangerous in and around the net. For once the beneficiary of a pass from behind the net instead of its generator, Thornton’s ability to kick the puck into a shooting position and then take advantage of a just-barely-too-slow Binnington is admirable. As Binnington pushed over to gain position on the post, Thornton wisely shot for the middle of the net, taking advantage of the space between the goalie’s skates for his second of the game.

3. Kevin Labanc

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week402210755.18

If Thornton is net front receiving saucer passes from the office, than who is dishing them? Enter Kevin Labanc, the Sharks’ very own Thornton-in-training. Labanc’s two assists paced the team through four games (oof) and his shot attempt share was fifth best on the squad through four games. While he and Thornton had a few different looks on the other side of their line throughout the week, they managed to get the better share of opportunities against a seriously powerful St. Louis third line. Mostly.

Part of Labanc’s game in the offensive zone has always been deception. Watching him mature, we’ve learned to recognize certain moves. Labanc likes to post up at the half wall or the point, receive the puck, and move in toward the net to either shoot or pass across the slot to an open forward. Here, he was playing with the Blues’ likelihood to anticipate one of those options. You can see defender Joel Edmundson dropping to block Labanc’s shot very early, allowing the youngster to drop a pass backward to a waiting Brent Burns for a great opportunity.

4. Erik Karlsson

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week4213201253.76

I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking about Oskar Sundqvist’s first goal yesterday off of a failed clear through Dillon’s legs, but hear me out. That was one misread compounded by another misread from Dillon compounded by what should have been a dangerous, but not impossible save. Otherwise, Karlsson scored a game-winning goal in overtime, a beautiful wrist shot from the faceoff dot, and leads all skaters in the playoffs in assists. Skating on what appears to be one leg and a piece of driftwood held to his torso by wet string, Karlsson is still one of the most effective players the Sharks have, to the point where the team’s expected goals differential with him on the ice is +1.928 and without him on the ice is -3.472. That’s a 5.4 expected goals swing. He’s still good, you guys, honest.

The patience that Karlsson displayed here was the key to making the play work, and a lot of what’s been missing from the Sharks’ game the past two contests. Credit the Blues for recognizing that and taking time away from the points yesterday. Karlsson waited for Tyler Bozak to drift into and back out of his shooting lane before letting fly, also allowing Micheal Haley and Joonas Donskoi to create chaos in front of Binnington’s net. Between the empty shooting lane and the goaltender’s crowded visual field, one of the league’s best offensive blueliners had everything he needed to convert.

5. Melker Karlsson

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week400000361.05

As you may have guessed, it was a challenge to find five players worth of superlatives after a 1-3 week and a less-than-stellar effort the afternoon of Game 5. Yet, the play of Melker Karlsson after being elevated to the third line with Thornton and Labanc was a pleasant surprise. His elevation was a shock to many of us, but his no nonsense, north-south, puck retrieval game complemented the two playmakers, and powered them to a strong shot attempt share and no shortage of chances. Indeed Karlsson led all Sharks skaters in adjusted on ice shot share this week, which may earn him more ice time going forward.

This was an example of a player maybe overthinking an opportunity. Still, Karlsson’s ability and decision to go short side corner is a good one, excellent save from Binnington aside. When playing with skilled players like Thornton, going to the net is never a bad idea, and Karlsson did just that. He was rewarded with a prime scoring chance and, in the next two games, more plays like this one will lead to more success.

The Sharks are 4-0 in elimination games this postseason, and tomorrow is just a chance to expand that already tilted stat.

Hono(u)rable mentions

Timo Meier: While the Swiss stud didn’t score this week, it wasn’t for lack of opportunities. Particularly in Game 4, Meier was all over the ice, in Binnington’s face, and creating chances.

Brent Burns: The Sharks may not be getting the results they’ve been looking for, but Burns is doing what he’s paid to do. With 15 shots on goal, and 48 (!) shot attempts, Burns is firing from all angles, and it’s likely only a matter of time before they start going in. How much of that time the Sharks have, however, is debatable.

Oskar Sundqvist: If there’s one thing that we didn’t expect going into this series, it’s the danger and staying power of the Blues third and fourth lines. Sundqvist is the most dangerous of the bottom half of the roster, and will be a household name for hockey fans whatever the outcome of the series.