Player Power Rankings Week 16: Hertl-ing toward disaster

Digging deep for positivity this week!

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.

While the Sharks’ 1-2-0 week will do little to spark joy in the hearts of the faithful, it seems to pale in comparison to concerns about the health of two of their most stalwart blueliners. In placing Marc-Edouard Vlasic on the injured reserve list yesterday morning, the Sharks confirmed suspicions that he would be shut down into and through the All-Star break, missing two more games to bring the total to ten and setting his earliest possible return at Saturday, Feb. 2 at home against the Arizona Coyotes.

Compounding the loss of Vlasic is the apparent and undisclosed injury to Erik Karlsson. After sitting out the final six minutes of the Sharks’ Tuesday shellacking of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Karlsson played over 25 minutes the very next night in Arizona, but then missed both practice on Friday morning and, as a last minute scratch, Saturday’s loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

According to head coach Peter DeBoer: “He’s been dealing with something for a little while here, and he felt that he was going to be able to play through and just couldn’t.” The acknowledgement of Karlsson’s injury combined with the break’s proximity makes it possible that we may not see Karlsson back on the ice until the All-Star festivities begin on Friday.

While it seems to be common knowledge that Vlasic had been having a bit of a down year before his injury, it may be instructive to look at some of the reasons why, and what the Sharks look like depending on the deployment of him and his most common partner, Justin Braun.

So far this season, Vlasic has spend just over 62 percent of his even-strength ice time with Braun, and 24 percent with his second-most common partner, Karlsson. Braun’s spent 61 percent of his even strength time with Vlasic and just under 18 percent with Brenden Dillon. Karlsson’s most common partner is Dillon and second-most is Vlasic, so it appears that these four have rotated around independently of Brent Burns and Radim Simek, pending availability and injury. As Vlasic and Braun (and now Karlsson) miss time, these pairings become more volatile.

Sharks’ Defensive Pairs

Player 1Player 2Player 3Player 4GPTOICF%SF%GF%PDOOff. Zone Faceoff %
Marc-Edouard VlasicJustin Braunw/o Erik Karlssonw/o Brenden Dillon42470.7546.447.5339.470.97137.58
Marc-Edouard Vlasicw/o Justin BraunErik Karlssonw/o Brenden Dillon40170.1859.7357.8142.110.93647.73
w/o Marc-Edouard VlasicJustin Braunw/o Erik KarlssonBrenden Dillon46139.8357.8261.1555.560.98555.56
w/o Marc-Edouard Vlasicw/o Justin BraunErik KarlssonBrenden Dillon47497.4360.8559.361.111.00856.12

CF%: Corsi for percentage, SF%: Shots for percentage, GF%: Goals for percentage. All numbers 5-on-5 adjusted for score and venue courtesy Natural Stat Trick.

There is a lot to unpack here. First, the Vlasic-Braun and Karlsson-Dillon pairings are the most instructive, since they’ve been the most consistent as is demonstrated by the larger sample. From a few games into the season until Vlasic’s injury, these have been the coaching staff’s preferred groupings in addition to Burns-whoever. The Vlasic-Braun pairings unenviable shot attempt share is, maybe surprisingly, consistent with previous seasons. The last time these two have carried a Corsi-for percentage above 50 though a full season was 2015-16, and their offensive zone faceoff percentage was in the 40s.

What may be fueling the narrative of Vlasic’s decline, then, is their precipitous drop off in goals-for percentage. While their shot attempt share and possession metrics have not differed hugely from previous seasons, their goals-for percentage in a season has never been below 47. Part of this is due to a decline in PDO (the combination of a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage) that, in large enough sample sizes, can be a proxy for puck luck, part may be attributable to the more aggressive style that DeBoer has spoken of employing this year and part may be the natural consequence of playing against top competition in a faster and faster NHL.

Second, noting that both Vlasic’s and Braun’s possession numbers increase substantially when they are playing with other partners probably doesn’t mean that they lost their mojo when one of them kept eating the other one’s peanut butter and they haven’t spoken since. It is more probably a factor of deployment. (As an aside: I use zone start ratios (ZSR) as a proxy for difficulty of deployment instead of quality of competition (QoC) in part because QoC metrics are controversial in regards to their replicability. ZSR may be an extra step removed from deployment, but tends to be more reliable and measurable with a large enough sample. This is not to say that QoC does not matter, it almost certainly does, just that our metrics for measuring it may not be sufficient or consistent enough from which to draw these kinds of conclusions just yet).

All three other pairings shown here have an offensive zone start ratio at least ten percentage points higher than Vlasic-Braun. It cannot go unmentioned how tragic it is that Vlasic-Karlsson lasted such a short time, looking at the synergistic blend of responsibility and effectiveness that they brought to the table. Their comically low PDO may have been a factor in the pairing’s demise.

All this to say that Vlasic’s decline this season is probably not quite as precipitous as the narrative would have you believe. Most of his possession numbers with Braun have been in line with previous seasons, and goals have been going in more often behind him. This could be a factor of luck, a different style of play or an increased reliance on the pair to shoulder minutes against the toughest competition. Regardless, his absence is significant and, if Karlsson is to miss any serious amount of time, the team could be in for a rough patch.

There is a benefit to the team weathering these injuries now; the extra ten or so days of rest that Vlasic will get as Karlsson and pals play pond hockey stick puck at SAP Center this weekend may be four or five games that he doesn’t have to miss. The Sharks’ position in the Pacific division playoff race is all but secured, but the difference between the number one position and either of the other two is significant. If San Jose wants to ensure that they have the easiest possible route through the postseason, they’ll need to bank as many points as possible, Vlasic or not.

1. Evander Kane

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This Week3336521356.98

Last week: 4

One of the bright spots during this trying time has been the play of Evander Kane. While the Sharks largely kept up with the Lightning everywhere except for on the score board on Saturday, skating to a score-adjusted 58 percent shot-attempt share, Kane threw our fancy nerd stats out the window and scored two goals. As usual for Kane, he led all skaters on the ice in shots at home against the Penguins on Tuesday, and leads the Sharks with shots on goal on the season with 181. With a seven-year contract on the books, Kane will be looked upon to be a part of the Sharks’ offensive future, and will have to keep producing like this to seize that opportunity.

All these guys out here playing ice hockey and Kane is playing ice billiards. It seems pretty unlikely that Kane meant to bounce the puck off of the end boards and back to himself in order to lose the coverage from Victor Hedman and Dan Girardi, but it is still very legal and very cool. Even assuming, as we are, that Kane missed his initial shot, the presence of mind to catch the bouncing puck and tuck it in past a sprawling Andrei Vasilevskiy is remarkable, and is a large reason he could keep the Sharks in this game for as long as they were.

2. Tomas Hertl

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This Week330330852.38

Last week: 5

Tomas Hertl cost me a hat on Tuesday night, but I’ll try not to hold it against him. With three goals over the Penguins, Hertl recorded his second career hat trick, and you may remember his first. On the heels of nearly two weeks of third line domination, sharing ice with Kane and Joonas Donskoi, Hertl made his own way onto the stat sheet in a big way, controlling play all over the ice, and using his huge, um, muscles to impose his will on opposing checkers.

Watching Hertl bounce Evgeni Malkin right onto his Russian behind, it’s easy to be surprised by the mismatch. After all, Malkin is huge, and Hertl is a sweet and small and adorable Czech child, right? Well, let this play serve as a reminder that Malkin is a 6-foot-3, 195 pound skin-and-bones will-o’-the-wisp and Hertl is a 6-foot-2, 215 pound refrigerator. After the best part is over, Hertl got to work: aided by a well-executed pick from Donskoi, Hertl faked a cut in toward the net, leaving poor Jack Johnson flailing at air, and took advantage of a Kane screen to shoot the puck past a helpless Matt Murray for the Sharks’ second of the night.

3. Marcus Sorensen

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This Week320220656.53

With two goals this week, Marcus Sorensen celebrated his 100th NHL game in Arizona by scoring in both of the team’s other games. Chemistry with Joe Thornton has paid off for Sorensen in much the same way as it has paid off for wingers past: in a shiny new contract. While locking up one of San Jose’s approximately 70 pending free agents was important, Sorensen stayed focused on his job for this season and put up two goals while sharing a heavy share of the team’s defensive responsibilities.

While the outcome of this game was no longer in doubt, Sorensen wanted to make sure that Andrei Vasilevskiy had as bad a night as possible, as the latter’s tantrum seemed to indicate. Still, Sorensen did a lot of good things in a game that was already over. The Swede stick-lifted Girardi at the half wall, who got caught trying to earn a slashing call instead of continuing to apply pressure toward the slot. Unimpeded, Sorensen cruised toward the center lane and blasted a slap shot underneath a crouching Ryan McDonagh and past a screened Vasilevskiy.

4. Joe Thornton

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This Week311212167.4

Compiling one shot through three games in a week and scoring on that shot is one of the Thornton-est things Thornton could have done. That goal, while it was very pretty and we’ll discuss it in a paragraph or so, is not what earned Thornton his place in these hallowed halls; Thornton recorded the team’s highest shot attempt share this week while simultaneously recorded its lowest offensive zone start percentage. Appropriately enough, Thornton scored his lone goal of the week during his 1000th game as a San Jose Shark.

Watching Joe Thornton shoot is like staying up late to watch a blood moon: it’s so rare, you really have to make time to focus on it. We’ll set Sorensen and his Bobby Orr impression aside for now, Thornton’s exploitation of open space high in the zone was probably counter intuitive for him. Regardless, he blasted in the one timer from a slick feed from Joe Pavelski during the big man’s special night to solidify the Sharks’ lead.

5. Brent Burns

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This Week3000021155.46

As strange as it feels to put Burns in this space when he somehow got through an entire week without recording a point, the wookie still leads the Sharks in points and in assists, and paces all NHL defensemen in that category. Further, Burns was a huge factor in the Sharks’ shot clock dominance of the Lightning on Saturday, as he recorded seven shots on goal and 13 shot attempts, both game highs.

Usually Burns highlights are blistering bombs from the blue line, but he occasionally actually plays defense as well. This save on what Arizona right winger Christian Fischer definitely thought was a sure thing is what we expect from more defensively minded defensemen. This play was one quick Burns stick away from being a precursor to Kane’s goal in Tampa we talked about earlier, but Burns recovered from the 2-on-1 quickly, and made a heads up disruption to keep the one goal lead.

Hono(u)rable mentions

Justin Braun: Without his partner in crime, Braun was the only player other than Thornton this week to post a top-five shot attempt share with a bottom-five offensive zone start percentage.

Erik Karlsson: Before his injury forced him down to only two games played this week, Karlsson recorded two assists and seven shots in two games. His absence was felt in Saturday’s loss, only solidifying his value to the team. If the rumors of contract talks are true, we can all start knocking on wood now.

Dmitri Orlov: Just trying to put some positive energy out into the universe since Jonathan Toews made yesterday the worst day of Orlov’s life.