Player Power Rankings, Week 4: Rock bottom

Nowhere to go but up! Right, guys? Right?

San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer was unkind in his analysis of his team’s position after their embarrassing 5-2 loss on the road to the league-worst (at the time) Ottawa Senators, using the phrase “rock-bottom” to refer to their performance. Unfortunately, “rock-bottom” may be a little overly optimistic.

That phrase carries an implication that improvement in the near future is necessary, that things cannot get any worse than they are right now and, after losing to Ottawa, the concept has a certain appeal. But things can get worse. If the Sharks were to continue to manage nine points out of every 12 games, they’d finish the season with 62 points, two points fewer than the total with which the last-in-the-NHL Senators finished 2018-19. The Sharks aren’t likely to continue at this pace; their travel schedule has been brutal, they’re missing a top-four defender, and a few of those points have been lost to some of the NHL’s hottest teams in its early going.

What’s more, this wouldn’t be the first time in recent history that the Sharks ended a 12-game stretch of futility with a loss in Ottawa: last year’s trip to the capital of America’s favourite hat brought no points but brought seven wins in the team’s next eight games and was a turning point in the season. Why can’t this Ottawa loss do the same thing?

Well, it can, but there are a few reasons to be skeptical of that kind of optimism. First, in the 12-game stretch ending in last year’s loss to the Sens, the Sharks recorded ten points, just one more than this year’s opening, but there were signs that the team was doing some of the right things, and that the points would come. Check it out:

12-game misery stretches

YearGames playedPointsGoal difference% xGF% actual GF% Corsi for% Shots forPDOShooting %Save %

That Sharks team’s 5-on-5 PDO was league worst, fifteen points below the 30th ranked New Jersey Devils, powered by an unsustainable shooting percentage, and a save percentage that was similarly unsus—okay, that part turned out to be pretty sustainable. Every stat under the hood pointed to a team that was playing well, out-possessing their opponents and just scoring less.

This 12-game stretch is different. Their PDO is still pretty low, second-last in the league, but all of their possession-based rate stats are underwater, and the goaltending is somehow even worse. That -15 goal differential in 12 games at evens is worst in the NHL by six. The point is that this may well not be rock-bottom. It could get worse before it gets better, and the question is how much worse will it have to get for something big to change? Regular readers and listeners to Fear the Fin can probably tell where this is going.

Before it gets there, though, we should head off the inevitable comparisons to last season’s St. Louis Blues. Heading into this season, we all knew that there would be teams that underperformed for the first few weeks/months that would point to last year’s Blues as a ray of hope that all was not lost. After all, the Blues were in last place in the league on January 1, and they won the Stanley Cup, so please keep buying tickets to our games, oh God please, I have a family to feed.

First, the “last in the league” narrative is intentionally misleading: the Blues were last in the league in points, tied with the Senators at 34, but they’d only played 37 games, and their point percentage of .459 was 26th. They were three points below .500 after 37 games; the Sharks are three points below .500 after 12. At this pace, San Jose would be nine points below .500 at game 37, which is quite a bit worse. Also, similarly to the above table, the Blues had decent underlying numbers (pretty close to break even on all accounts), but were being undone by a veteran goaltender the team insisted on sticking by for no apparent reason, and a rigid and inflexible coaching staff that — okay, maybe there’s something there.

This team has endemic problems in net, in generating scoring chances and in defensive coverage, maybe caused and definitely exacerbated by a coaching staff that refuses to change systems or adapt strategies anywhere except on the penalty kill, and that took a change in staff. The allocation of 14.1 percent of the salary cap ceiling to Erik Karlsson should have spurred a change in systems, but it didn’t. The losses of Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi, Gustav Nyquist and Justin Braun in the off-season should have spurred a change in strategy, but it hasn’t. The team is still bombing shots from the point for tips, and the tips aren’t there.

A common defense of the team’s coaching is that they made the Conference Final last season on the back of a league-worst goaltending tandem, and that is true. Similarly, a common defense of the team’s goaltending woes is that the Sharks play an aggressive system that gives up a large amount of high quality chances and odd-man rushes that aren’t adequately accounted for with our current statistical tools, and that is also true. The assumption that both of these arguments make is that systems and goaltending are totally independent variables. San Jose’s goaltending had a historically bad season last year, and their success in years prior would suggest that the cause was not entirely systems based, but their failure this year suggests that it’s not entirely variance either.

There’s a common thread in Peter DeBoer coached teams, and it’s an unwillingness to adapt. It’s not a coincidence that the Florida Panthers saw an eight-point standings jump the year they hired DeBoer and a 16-point drop in year two. It’s not a coincidence that the Devils went from missing the playoffs to the Conference Final the year they hired DeBoer, and missed the playoffs again the following two years. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Sharks made the Conference Final the year they hired DeBoer, and were bounced in the first round during his second. There were, of course, other factors to all of those occurrences, and maybe it’s just a coincidence, but that seems improbable.

It gets weirder. In 14 playoff series, Peter DeBoer has an 8-6 record in Games 1. After those eight wins, though, he has a 3-5 record in Games 2. This could point to a propensity for opposing teams to figure out how to exploit the X’s and O’s of DeBoer’s strategies, and a tendency not to change those strategies once they stop working. The Sharks’ coaching staff is married to their system to a fault, it’s been shown throughout the head coach’s tenure in other clubs over the course of seasons, and over the course of series.

With a pile of long-term legacy contracts, the team is not built to win in the future and, if nothing changes soon, it isn’t built to win now, either. 12 games is too late to be too early, and they may have already dug themselves a hole too deep to climb out of, even in the top-heavy Pacific division. If the Sharks want to be this season’s St. Louis Blues, they’ll have to play better than they have been even before they fire the coaching staff and bring up their fourth-string goalie.

The Sharks have a visit to the league leading (in points percentage) Boston Bruins tonight, before coming back home to face the Winnipeg Jets, Vancouver Canucks, Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild. In the realistic best case scenario, that four-game homestand is their last chance to salvage the season’s first quarter, but it’s still likely to get worse before it gets better.

In Week 1 of our Power Rankings, we prevailed upon you with what by now should be a familiar mantra: don’t panic. If you wanted to panic now, I understand, I want to panic, too, but the road ahead is smooth, and if the Sharks can bank some points at home, they may solve our immediate concerns. The team has bigger problems, though, and four wins won’t solve those.

1. Evander Kane

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week4314301747.85

Last week: 1

There isn’t a whole lot going right for the Sharks right now, but Evander Kane is on fire. While his scoring isn’t helping prop up the team’s moribund 5-on-5 goal differential, Kane is close to the only reason the team has any goals at all. Of his seven goals in nine games played, six have come on the power play, as Kane seems to have taken Pavelski’s net front position, if not the same ability to tip Brent Burns’ point shots.

Since Kane’s signing, we’ve appreciated his contributions on the ice, if he could just stay out of the damn penalty box, and getting suspended for the first three games of this season for losing his temper didn’t help that concern. Since then, though, he’s been a model player, recording four penalty minutes in his first game back, and none since then, and his production, leading the team in goals despite playing fewer games than most of his mates, has flourished.

There were no shortage of Kane highlights this week, exacerbated by the general lack of highlights from anyone else, but this goal most exemplifies that net-front presence that Kane has been providing. As he entered the zone, look how Kane just glided casually down to the net, taking advantage of the propensity for Nikita Zaitsev and Jean-Gabriel Pageau to double cover Erik Karlsson, despite being down two men. The Sharks are able to excel when they’re able to play the style of game that worked in 2016, which is built on point shots and tips. If Kane can continue getting to the net with the frequency he has so far this season, he could break out in a pretty big way.

2. Brent Burns

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week404432648.54

Don’t look now, but Brent Burns seems to have played a few minutes of real, actual defense this week. The big man still leads the team in points, but his six shots on goal in four games this week seems low, it’s because he may be shooting off the net for Kane tips more than right into goalies’ chests. Burns played his 600th game as a San Jose Sharks in Montreal, so we should know what to expect from him by now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still appreciate it.

The marvel that is the Brent Burns point shot is a combination of speed, power and accuracy okay, maybe just speed and power. As Tomas Hertl was headed into the board to retrieve the loose puck and get it back to the point, Burns knew he was shooting this thing before he got on the plane. The last replay of this clip is a great angle from behind Burns on the point, and you can see the torque he’s able to generate on his stick with barely any wind up at all. By the time Frederik Andersen sees that the puck is headed toward the point, it’s already behind him.

3. Dylan Gambrell

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week410110358.43

There aren’t many Sharks players who have been improvements over last season’s versions of themselves, but Dylan Gambrell has to be on that very exclusive list. Early in the season, Gambrell noticeably struggled, but over the past few games, and coinciding with his promotion from the team’s fourth line, his play has flourished. Gambrell scored his first NHL regular season goal in Buffalo, and his 58 percent on-ice shot attempt share led the team through their four games this week, making him one of only five Sharks skaters to post positive possession numbers this week. If he can continue this kind of play over the next few weeks, or even bring it with him lower down the line up, the Sharks could have the depth at center they’ve been looking for.

Again with the tips, eh? This time, Gambrell made sure to keep his stick well below the crossbar, and tallied his second first NHL regular season goal in Buffalo. Before all of that, though, Gambrell did a lot to ensure that the play happened smoothly by challenging Jeff Skinner and Rasmus Dahlin in the corner of Buffalo’s zone. With support from Marcus Sorensen, the Sharks were able to maintain control of the puck and get it up to Karlsson at the right point. By that point, Gambrell had made his way to the opposite side of the net, and was able to get his stick on Karlsson’s point shot, bouncing the puck right by Carter Hutton and in.

4. Kevin Labanc

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week4314421052.6

Kevin Labanc has been a frustrating player this week/season. Some of the decisions he makes directly lead to goals against, like his inexplicable decision to wander off to the half wall in the middle of a 2-on-1 with Karlsson in overtime, or his lingering on that same shift to the point that Jack Eichel could convert on his own odd-man situation and end the game. Still, when only two players on the team are consistently scoring, they pretty much both have to make it onto the power rankings, and Labanc is definitely scoring. With three goals and an assist, Labanc is on a four-game point streak, scoring in each of the last three. His defensive miscues haven’t cost the team four goals, so we’ll keep him in the plus column. For now.

This is the highlight of the week, eh? That stretch pass, that shot fake, that kick, that top corner snipe! Part of the reason Labanc’s defensive game has suffered so much this season is his propensity to hover a bit at the offensive blue line for stretch passes, but this time it paid off. Labanc’s first shot fake forced Anderson to drop his right pad down to cover up his five-hole. That opened up the top of the net for Labanc, and he put the puck up there to fast his lower body had a seizure out of sheer confusion.

5. Nobody

The way the Sharks played this week made it pretty hard to come up with four players to highlight, let alone five. 12 games into the season, the team is in very real trouble of doing damage to their position in the standings that they’ll be looking back at in March. This week and next will have to feature some transcendent hockey if we’re to take any optimism forward into the season at all and, without some major changes to their underlying numbers and eye-test on-ice product, that doesn’t appear particularly likely.

Still, sports is and has always been about building a community out of disparate people through shared suffering. We criticize teams like the three-Cup Blackhawks of the early teens and the Vegas Golden Knights of, well, of right now, for having massive followings who follow winning, and who aren’t loyal to their team through the hard times. Winning builds large fanbases, but losing builds strong ones. We’ll stick with the Sharks through these tough times, like we always do. We’ve had worse.

Hono(u)rable mentions

Aaron Dell: He was not good in Ottawa, but his performance in Montreal was something worth noting. It almost makes it more frustrating when he displays that kind of potential.

Jack Eichel: Eichel has 14 points in six home games this season. It has to be the goal song in Buffalo, take note, Sharks game ops department.

David Pastrnak: We’ll see him up close later today, but Pastrnak has 23 points in his last nine games. Seriously. 23. In nine. It may be hard to appreciate him tonight in particular, but we can still try.