Player Power Rankings, Week 6: Tomas the tank engine

The Sharks are Radim-ing themselves with some solid play. I’m not sorry.

Back to our normally scheduled programming this week, friendos, now that the Sharks played a hockey. Thanks for indulging us our Power Rankings, existential dread edition, but there’s hope now, so everything is fine. All of it.

Last week in this space, some idiot said this: “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.”

With three wins in three games, the San Jose Sharks have not proven that dumb stupid boy totally wrong quite yet, but they are doing what needs to be done so far to climb back into the playoff picture. They’ve done their best this week to follow the path laid forth for them by the 2013-14 Philadelphia Flyers, the only team in the salary cap era to make the playoffs after recording nine points or fewer in their first 15 games (the only team in the salary cap era to make the playoffs after recording nine points or fewer in their first 15 games so far). That team went 6-0-1 in their next seven, and the Sharks could very well accomplish something similar with what’s left of November.

Of the remaining ten games on the Sharks’ schedule this month, six are at home, seven are against Pacific division teams (five of whom are ahead of the Sharks in the standings, the other two are against the Los Angeles Kings, who apparently forgot Halloween was over because they keep giving points away to anyone who swings by and asks nicely), five are against teams currently in a playoff spot (but two of those are against the Edmonton Oilers who, well, we’ll get to that), and just two are against teams in the top 12 for adjusted shot attempt share at 5-on-5. If the Sharks are going to make a playoff push, it needs to have already started, and it needs to continue for the rest of the month.

There’s good and bad news on that front. The bad news is that, in the modern NHL, making up ground in the standings is particularly difficult, as teams one needs to pass are often gaining points even while losing, that’s the reason I limited the above Flyers comment to the salary cap era. The good news, though, is that the Pacific division is upside-down, so the teams that the Sharks need to pass may have a higher likelihood of falling back to the proverbial pack than in many other divisions. Let’s build on what you’ve all learned from our very good Pacific Division round ups, and take a look at how that might come about.

Edmonton Oilers (12-5-2, 1st)

After a scorching start, coming out of the gate with seven wins in their first eight, the Oilers are falling back to Earth, losing six of the next eight before their last two wins against the New Jersey Devils (who are quite bad) and the Anaheim Ducks (who we’ll get to on their turn). The Oilers’ schedule is not particularly challenging through the rest of November, so don’t expect them to implode right away (tonight would be nice), but the real deal himself, James Neal, seems to have already regressed: after scoring nine goals in his first eight games, including six in his first three, he’s lodged just three in his next 11, and of those 12 goals, eight were scored on a power play unit from which he has since been removed. Additionally, Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid are first and second in the NHL in ice time per game among forwards, and as they get tired (McDavid gets tired, right? Is that possible? I actually don’t have any evidence that that is the case), it will become more apparent that the team doesn’t have the depth to sustain this kind of success.

Calgary Flames (10-7-3, 2nd)

With 12 points in their last ten games, the Flames may be turning a corner, but their 0.913 save percentage at even strength is 20th place in the league, and their 7.24 5-on-5 shooting percentage is 25th. The latter of those two will likely rebound to something approaching or surpassing league average, given the Flames’ talent at forward, but how much more can David Rittich and Cam Talbot give them? The concept of a talented team, beset by bad bounces and puck luck, and being undone by sub par goaltending may trigger us, but in this case it could be just what the Sharks need to eventually try to close the eight point gap that separates these two teams.

Arizona Coyotes (10-6-2, 3rd)

Are the Coyotes good? What is this crazy world we’ve built? While Darcy Kuemper is running his own campaign for the Vezina already, and will likely upgrade his ambitions to a nomination for governor before the season is over, are the ‘Yotes going to continue to get the top-four in the league goaltending for the rest of the season that they’d need to hold onto a playoff spot? Actually, they might: Kuemper is continuing the stellar play that he put up last year after ostensible starter Antti Raanta went down with injury. Even if Kuemper’s 0.930 in 13 games this season drops down to his 0.925 in 55 games last season, the Coyotes may be for real, which is bad news for the Sharks. They'll have to stop blowing leads like they have in all of their last five games, though, and that could be a real weakness.

Vancouver Canucks (9-6-3, 4th)

After flying high through the season’s first month largely on the strengths of a young and dynamic offense, the goals seem to have dried up for the Canucks. Vancouver’s 30 5-on-5 goals were seventh in the league in October, but they’ve scored #2orfewer in every November game except one (you remember that one, let’s not talk about that one). Their seven goals so far in November is 23rd. Blame a 4.20 shooting percentage that’s likely to regress upward if you like, but there’s also a 0.952 save percentage sitting there that’s just as likely to correct in the other direction.

Vegas Golden Knights (9-7-3, 5th)

This is a team that the Sharks aren’t likely to pass. There’s so much talent at every spot on this Vegas roster that the only way they fall any further than fourth for any significant period of time is for the rest of the team to maybe brush up against Valentin Zykov’s stall too many times and all get spontaneously drug-tested scurrilously and scandalously framed by an unreasonable rules system that “outlaws” “drugs” that make players “better” at a “sport.”

Anaheim Ducks (9-8-1, 6th)

Another team that started strong, but has since turned back into, well, into the Ducks. They currently have a 0.528 point percentage and a 27th-overall 47.25 shot attempt share at 5-on-5, two numbers that don’t seem to go together. American hero John Gibson is doing his best, but it isn’t good enough, and his 0.42 goals saved above expected is not approaching his own lofty standards. The Ducks are not likely to be a threat to anyone other than, apparently, the Winnipeg Jets.

Los Angeles Kings (5-11-1 8th)

These guys are doomed and, no matter what San Jose does the rest of this season, we will always have this.

In short, if there was ever a division in 2019 in which to make a miraculous comeback from a terrible start to make the postseason, it’s this one. There’s a window for the Sharks, and it isn’t closed yet. Time to bank some easy (ish) points.

1. Tomas Hertl

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week333652959.55

There may be, at some point, a reckoning among national hockey writers to accept that they’ve been underrated Tomas Hertl all this time because his boyish grin and choppy-English charm makes him easy to overlook as one of the league’s best two-way centers, probably after he signs in New York as a 34-year-old or something. Until then, he’s all ours, and not only did he lead the Sharks in points this week with six in three games, he (deep breath) leads the team in points on the season with 18 through 18 games, has eight points in the team’s last six games, and sits sixth in the NHL in individual expected goals in all situations, right between two schmucks named McDavid and Draisaitl.

This video was apparently recorded with a series of knobs and dials on a switchboard, but it smooths out before the good bit. When you see Jamie Baker do a video segment on Hertl’s tendency to come around the back of the net with the puck on his backhand to shake off pursuers and then either turn right for a snapshot, or left for a wraparound or backhand pass through the slot, remember your boy. This is quickly becoming Hertl’s move and, considering how much tape of it I have, one has to assume that Jeremy Colliton has shown some of it to Robin Lehner and Duncan Keith, but it didn’t seem to help them very much. The speed that Hertl carried around the net prevented him from cutting as close as he probably would have liked, but he cut to his right so quickly he was able to use Keith’s momentum against him. The NHL’s 100th best player of all time committed inside too much, and Hertl was able to snap home a clean shot right through Lehner’s body, no doubt damaging many internal organs.

2. Radim Simek

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week310110553.18

It’s hard to overstate the impact that Radim Simek has had on this team both times he’s entered mid-season, but we’ll try to do it anyway. The Sharks recorded a 29-9-3 record with Simek in the lineup last season, and are undefeated through three games with him this year. While those paces are unlikely to sustain, the man can definitely play. Maybe more importantly, Simek brings a stability to the Sharks’ blue line that had been absent all season. With Brent Burns taken care of, partner-wise, responsibility-wise, and otherwise-wise, Peter DeBoer is free to play Erik Karlsson with Marc-Edouard Vlasic as God intended, play veteran every-man Brenden Dillon with young upstart Mario Ferraro, and chain Tim Heed to a radiator. That leads to more even ice time distribution among defenders, and a better sense of what to expect when they head over the boards together. In short, yes, Simek is very good, but his presence and capability does so much more to the roster than what he contributes during his shifts.

This video threatens to be a Hertl highlight, but they kind of all do this week, hey? Similarly, we’ll talk more about Barclay Goodrow later, but his ability to tie up both Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon in the slot is amazing. It creates what is effectively a 3-on-0 with Hertl, Simek, and Timo Meier. A lot of the success here is based on Hertl’s deceptive posture down low. As Meier passed the puck back to Hertl, you can almost see Alex Stalock thinking what we were all thinking at home: “okay, enough passing, he’s too low, here’s the shot.” That assumption is clear in Stalock’s posture as, in a behavior with which long time Sharks fans are all too familiar, he came way out of the crease toward Hertl to challenge. That’s not a crazy calculation to make on Al’s part, as he was focused on the forwards directly in front of him, and didn’t seem to pick up on Simek’s late zone entry. Simek launched the puck as soon as it hit his stick at what was mostly empty net between Suter and Spurgeon. Our poor friend, Alex, never stood a chance, which is also all too familiar.

3. Timo Meier

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week323546760.57

Timo Meier is starting to make good on that $24-million deal he signed in the off-season. In a way, he scored three goals in three games this week, as long as we count that round seven shootout marathon winner on Saturday (we do). It’s interesting how all the shootout needed to gain more widespread acceptance among hockey fans was scarcity, but that’s a topic for a later rant. Not counting the shootout winner, Meier put up two goals and five points in three games, and we should maybe call it two and a half, considering how well the Swiss wizard used Patrick Marleau’s foot as a backboard on Tuesday. If we give him half credit for the shootout, too, that’s six points, which ties Hertl for the team lead. That seems fair to you, right?

It’s not quite Claude Giroux, but it’ll do until Claude Giroux gets here. Meier must have seen all the fancy jukes that Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen were doing and simplified a bit, because he didn’t do much of anything particularly fancy. If the shot goes to the right place, it always goes in, all the deception and fancy stick work is just to create a larger “right place.” The way that Meier pulled his stick back is important, because it created a longer acceleration with the puck on the stick. That kind of shoveling motion throws the puck up into the air, giving Meier a little more control regarding where to put it and, as you can see, it didn’t leave a whole lot of room for error.

4. Erik Karlsson

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week301100265.85

It’s a little curious to see that, for the most part,a Venn diagram that depicts the corners of social media that blame Karlsson for all of the team’s woes and the corners of social media impressed with the recent play of Vlasic are a single circle. Similarly to how the overall play of Brenden Dillon increased last season, commensurate with a larger share of his ice time with Karlsson, Vlasic is seeing a huge bump in his effectiveness this week, just as the return of Simek put him back with the smooth skating Swede. There is nuance here, of course: Vlasic has been better in his own right, and crediting Karlsson with all of that is reductive; Karlsson is making $11.5 million against the cap, and expectations for his production should be higher, but it’s possible to appreciate the skill and effectiveness that Karlsson brings to the team, while also saying he needed to be better early in the season when the team was struggling.

Karlsson’s shot attempt share at even strength is fifth on the team, second among defensemen only to his early season partner, Dillon. His on-ice save percentage of 0.859 is seventh from the bottom. That’s always going to lead to a lot of television shots of Karlsson shaking his head as large men wearing different colors celebrate, which understandably sticks in the memory, but we can be better about how much we let the eye test dictate our assessments. Maybe you can make the argument that his mistakes lead to better chances that lead to a lower save percentage, but when his impact offensively is so good, even if that argument holds that much water, which I doubt, he brings much more good than harm.

Meier started and finished this play, but just about every Shark on the ice had a hand on it in-between, focusing, for the purpose of this paragraph, on Karlsson’s stretch pass. This is what happens when you give Karlsson this much time, Jason Zucker, take notes. You can see Karlsson look around before receiving this pass from Goodrow to make sure he had time to lollygag a bit, but once he realized he had all the time in the world, he used it. He was able to wait until Hertl curled back into the neutral zone before launching a saucer within reach of two Minnesota Wild forecheckers right to Hertl’s tape. There are shades of a certain pass to a certain former Sharks legend if you squint.

5. Logan Couture

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This week313430959.8

Another target of criticism over the team’s early struggles was Logan Couture. Couture’s brand new C on his uniform (the one on the front that is, that one on the back was always there), justified a lot of that criticism, as did his single goal through 16 games and his unflattering underlying metrics. He turned it on this week, though, ending his career-longest 13-game goal drought and putting up three assists that very night to go with it. If his production can improve, even a little, it will mean a lot, since, as usual, Couture gets some of the worst deployment on the team. He regularly faces off against the opposing team’s best, and his four offensive zone starts gave him the lowest ratio on the team this week.

In what has become a bit of an unintentional theme today, a lot of the credit for this goal goes to someone else, in this case, Evander Kane’s Big Sneak. As Marcus Sorensen entered the zone along the wall, Kane snuck back behind Zucker on the left. You can see Zucker tell Spurgeon to cover Kane as the latter heads behind the net, but Zucker over corrected and coasted off to the left for, I dunno, maybe a soda? This left enough room for a coasting Couture to raid the slot like a Zero as Mats Zuccarello panicked at the right dot. Both he and Zucker were far too late to the party, though, and Couture is left with a not-that-easy-but-easy-enough tap-in over Stalock’s frantic right shoulder.

Hono(u)rable mentions

Barclay Goodrow: It was hard leaving Goodrow off the list proper this week, but we had to make room for our captain, you understand. Goodrow was third on the team in shot attempt share, behind only Karlsson and Vlasic, and recorded two assists and is ninth on the team with seven points. Nothing to sing songs about, but his responsible and occasionally productive play has been a pleasant surprise.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic: That whole thing about getting better by playing with Karlsson is true, but Vlasic is still playing the minutes, so credit has to go to the man himself for having an excellent week. Coaching staffs have often tried to unlock Vlasic’s offensive potential, to varying degrees of success, but he’s capitalized on that this week, recording the fourth most shot attempts on the team.

Sidney Crosby: This story is so cool. Sid is so cool. McDavid may well be the best player in the world, but if I’m building a team right now, I’m taking The Kid first. Call me old fashioned.

Or maybe just old.