Player Power Rankings, Week 5: Zooming out

Let’s try this a different way.

Before we get started, this week’s power rankings are going to be looking at a larger picture of player performance. This is partially due to the fact that a number of Sharks players are performing at a rate well below their career paces to date, and partially due to the fact that this week didn’t provide very much to highlight as, for lack of a better word, good. With that in mind, we’ll look at contributions, in fancy stats terms, of veteran or key Sharks players over the past few years, how that has changed heading into this lackluster season, and how we can use those data to better calibrate expectations from them going forward.

The San Jose Sharks are in free-fall.

By now, you’ve probably seen this:

In fairness, that is a bear-ish take on the Sharks’ playoff chances; there are models that have San Jose’s post-season odds as high as 22 percent, which is still bad. With that in mind, and barring a miraculous recovery, there’s not a whole lot we can look forward to as a fan base: the Sharks have no first round pick in a draft with, depending on your source, between one and five franchise changing talents; the cap is loaded until 2024 with $47.25 million in AAV spread between six players whose average current age is 30.3; and the Sharks just lost their fifth game in a row in regulation, are currently a six-game winning streak away from .500, and on pace for 49 points in 82 games (I know, they won’t tally that many total, there will be peaks and valleys, but it illustrates just how high they have to climb back to respectability).

Last week we looked at teams with slow starts in the salary cap era and how those teams that made the playoffs pulled it off. At the time, the Sharks had nine points in 13 games, and three teams with that many standings points or fewer after that many games had made the second season since 2005. With the games played number bumped up to 15, that corollary drops to one: the 2013-14 Philadelphia Flyers. Those Flyers had an identical 4-10-1 record through their first 15, then they rattled off the equivalent of that aforementioned six-game winning streak: winning six of the next seven, pointing even in the loss, to get back to .500. That Flyers team could blame a lot of their early season struggles on roster and coaching turnover: they’d fired their coach after Game 3, and bought out two big minute players in the preceding off-season, but the Sharks can similarly point to the heavy travel and low on-ice shooting percentage in their first month.

There is still a path back from a wasted season, but if you were to ask me honestly if the Sharks were likely to take that path, I would tell you no.

So, rather than dig through the two embarrassing losses and one frustrating loss the Sharks subjected us to this week for something tangible to praise about Noah Gregor, let’s take a longer look at how many of these individual player performances are likely to continue in this depressing fashion.

I looked at 15 current Sharks over the past three years (and this one) to find outliers and trends in two metrics: shot attempt percentage and expected goals percentage. For the purposes of this exercise both are calculated at 5-on-5, adjusted for score and venue effects, and, most importantly, relative to the team at large. What that means is that, if a player’s xGF% (expected goals for percentage) in the chart is 4.6, it means that, while that player was on the ice, at 5-on-5, the team’s on-ice expected goals percentage was 4.6 percentage points higher than when that player was on the bench. These caveats help control for teammate quality, team quality (in the case of Erik Karlsson and Evander Kane, both of whom spent some time in this period on very bad teams (like this one, aw there we go again, sorry)), and opportunity. They’re not perfect, but they give us a starting point for discussion.

Check it out:

Of note is that both Barclay Goodrow and Tim Heed played fewer than 30 games in the NHL in 2016-17, so that year is not included in these charts, but their prominence on the team has grown such that I felt they should be included in the exercise. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Logan Couture stick out as the most consistently bad, but that could be at least partially a factor of usage: an idea that is corroborated by their offensive zone start ratios which are 30th (Couture) and 40th (Vlasic) among 41 eligible skaters over that time frame.

The greatest area of concern if we’re considering contract status is, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, Vlasic. There’s an almost year-by-year decline in both of these metrics and, with his ranking in the bottom two of both categories on the team this year, we can’t just blame Justin Braun any more. There is a similarly consistent drop of year to year in Patrick Marleau’s numbers here, but the veteran missed training camp, and is 40, so that’s more easily explicable.

What positives can we pull out of these data to assemble a half-way competent power rankings, which would be at least half-way more competent than usual?

1. Joe Thornton

One of just a few players whose shot attempt percentages have increased this year, this could very well be due to the old man’s remarkable consistency. Thornton has held his own on the expected goals front pretty well over the past few seasons which, considering the fact that we’re talking about his age 36-40 seasons, is pretty remarkable. One of the things we learned from the eventual yet sudden decline of players like Jaromir Jagr and Jarome Iginla in the recent past (and Marleau in the present) is that hockey players often play very well and effectively right up until they don’t. It appears that this year is not that year for Thornton, and he probably isn’t the problem in San Jose, any more than anyone in particular is.

The question, then, is what does Thornton do next? The man himself made it clear in no uncertain terms last off-season that he was not interested in playing anywhere else, but with every loss this season, it’s becoming clear that that may be what he has to do if he wants to compete for a Cup. Is Thornton content to pad his millions playing on a losing team with his old pal, Patty, or is he an asset that General Manager Doug Wilson can look to move before the deadline to recoup some draft capital?

2. Brenden Dillon

The evolution of Brenden Dillon over the last few years has been remarkable. No doubt, some portion of the increase in his effectiveness the past two seasons has been a change in his most common partners. In 2017-18, Dillon split his even strength time between Brent Burns (30.35%) and Dylan DeMelo (35.89%), last year it was between Erik Karlsson (37.27%) and Justin Braun (36.72%), and this season it’s a preponderance of Karlsson time for the big man (51.33%). While it would be easy to suggest that time with Karlsson is largely to blame for Dillon’s increases in effectiveness, that hypothesis is partially belied by Karlsson’s step back in shot attempt share this year and Dillon’s peak.

What to do with Dillon in the future seems a little more apparent, as his $3.27 million AAV contract expires at the end of this season, and is absent of any trade protection clause. If the Sharks continue in the way they are so far this year, it seems almost guaranteed that Dillon will be on the move to a contender in exchange for draft picks.

3. Kevin Labanc

By way of the eye test alone, this year appears to be the year that Kevin Labanc decided defense was for babies, and he was just going to score all day and let the nerds deal with the other 120 feet of ice. Labanc is second on the team with five goals on 37 shots, a shooting percentage of 13.71 that is unlikely to sustain itself, but his on-ice shot attempts against of 150 is ninth, supporting that theory.

It’s hard to say exactly what it was that spurred Labanc to leave defense to the birds, but maybe it has to do with a new impetus to earn a larger contract by scoring as many points as possible this year, after signing a very strange one-year, one million dollar deal as a restricted free agent this past off-season. As an arbitration eligible restricted free agent, if Labanc’s goal and point totals continue to climb, and the team’s fortunes continue to fall, he may be another name on the block as we get closer to February, and could be sold as a top-six forward for some sweet picks in June.

4. Evander Kane

If there’s been one caveat-free bright spot for the Sharks this year, it’s been the play of Evander Kane. Kane’s eight goals in 12 games played leads the team by three, as does his 51 shots on goal. While six of those goals have come on the power play where he sports a sterling 40 percent conversion rate, the Sharks will take his goals however they can get them, sustainability be damned. What we see in the chart is a pretty steady expected goals percentage, and a big bump in shot attempt share, possibly attributable to his role higher in the lineup, spending a majority of his time with Tomas Hertl.

With that in mind, Kane’s bump in actual goals is almost definitely due to his inclusion at the net front (or just off to its side) on the Sharks’ first power play, where he’s picked up a fair share of loose pucks and point shot tips for his huge goal tallies. Much like the Sharks’ slow start, Kane isn’t likely to continue to pace for 53 goals, but if he can break 30 consistently on the Sharks, his $7 million price tag won’t look nearly as bad as it did at first.

5. Erik Karlsson

As you’ve probably noticed, these aren’t in any particular order like they normally would be. I wanted to save Karlsson for last because there’s a disturbing trend here that’s probably not entirely his fault. Both Karlsson and Burns have seen big drops in shot attempt percentage and, while some of that is due to allowing more chances (Burns’ 54.09 on-ice shot attempts against per 60 minutes and Karlsson’s 50.9 are bumps from their 50.79 and 47.65 in 2018-19, respectively, but not large enough ones to explain the drops in percentage), the lion’s share of it is that they just aren’t shooting as much as they used to.

In all situations (included because power play shooting is particularly relevant) Burns’ 20.09 individual shot attempts per 60 and Karlsson’s 17.98 ranked second and fourth on the team last season. This season, they’ve paced for 14.93 and 10.5, respectively, which rank fourth and twelfth. If the two players who lead the team in time on ice per game, and who ranked eighth and tenth in points per 60 minutes last year stop shooting (coupled with the loss of the players who ranked sixth, ninth and eleventh, in Joe Pavelski, Gustav Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi, respectively), it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the team scores less.

Frankly, it just feels strange to see that the Sharks attempt more shots when Brent Burns is off the ice, even if that is partially due to the team having the puck less.

Other concerns from these data are numerous. Timo Meier may not be the game breaker we hoped he would become, even considering his 66-point break out last year. Marleau is almost definitely finished as an NHL regular, at least with his current usage. Melker Karlsson’s inclusion as a regular over unknown quantities like Jonny Brodzinski and Lean Bergmann continues to perplex.

Something that these charts do not show, and that is definitely relevant to the team’s outcomes so far, is goaltending. If the Sharks continue to receive sub-.850 goaltending on many nights, their shot attempt percentage won’t matter, and their expected goals differential will just make us all sad, a phenomenon we witnessed first-hand on Friday night in San Jose.

The team’s problems are numerous, and there doesn’t seem to be anything being done to fix them, not that it’s clear what that thing should even be. The Sharks are in free fall, and, as high as they’re climbing on that sadness scale, they haven’t found rock bottom yet.