Player Power Rankings, Week 7: O captain, my captain

Oh, also, somebody named Karlsson?

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.

The Sharks’ 2-1-0 week brought us to 21 games into the 2018-19 regular season, which means two things: we all need to come to terms with the fact that none of our favorite hockey pundits know what the term “quarter pole” means, and the Sharks’ defensive pairs probably aren’t going anywhere.

Head coach Peter DeBoer’s decision to spread his most effective defensemen across his three defensive pairs has been the subject of much debate. Aside from the Brent Burns - Joakim Ryan pairing, which seems to be an effective mainstay of the team’s back end, Deboer’s decision to play Marc-Edouard Vlasic with Justin Braun and Erik Karlsson with Brenden Dillon raises eyebrows.

The difference in opinion here seems to be philosophical: DeBoer seems to be of the mind that splitting up Vlasic and Karlsson allows for one or the other of them to be on the ice for most of the game, all but eliminating any risk that would come with having Braun and Dillon on the ice together for any significant amount of time. On its surface, this seems like a reasonable strategy: if the team can ensure that one of Burns, Karlsson, or Vlasic is on the ice for 60 minutes a night, they should win more often than not, choosing to out-possess opponents by 55 percent all night rather than 65 percent for 45 minutes and 40 percent the remaining 15.

Unfortunately, the Sharks’ defensive pairs’ possession numbers don’t bear this out. First, let’s look at Karlsson. In 153 minutes of 5-on-5 with Vlasic, Karlsson holds a 61.64 percent shot attempt share. For those who are not immediately familiar with the ranges expected of these kinds of data, that is dominant. Alternately, in 164 minutes with Dillon, Karlsson sees that same rate stat fall to 61.51 percent. This is a minuscule difference that speaks either to Karlsson’s ability to elevate the play driving abilities of his partners or to the ability of Dillon to adapt his play style to suit that of his partner (probably both).

This is all still in keeping with DeBoer’s strategy: split Karlsson and Vlasic up, and they’ll elevate their other partners, rather than selfishly hoard their talent like hungry dragons. If that were true, than we’d see a similarly minor difference with Vlasic’s partners. Not so. As mentioned previously, Vlasic’s shot share in 153 minutes of 5-on-5 with Karlsson is 61.64 percent. In 174 minutes with Braun, that number drops precipitously to 43.5 percent. If Karlsson is equally effective with Vlasic and with Dillon, but Vlasic is much less effective with Braun than with Vlasic, it must be that Dillon and Braun are so unreliable that they cannot be trusted to share the ice as a third pair, right?

Again, not so. Braun’s 43.5 percent shot share with Vlasic is much lower than his 60.44 percent shot share in 95 minutes (admittedly, a small sample) with Dillon. From these numbers, it seems clear that a Vlasic-Karlsson and a Dillon-Braun pairing would be the most effective way to maximize shot attempt impact, but in the words of Han Solo: would that it were so simple.

In what is starting to look like an aggressive perversion of the farmer trying to cross a river with his fox, his chicken, and his grain, there are pretty stark differences in the situations in which these pairings have been deployed, and to assume these strategies do not affect their possession impact would be specious. The Sharks’ coaching staff heavily leans toward using Vlasic as a shut down defenseman, starting him in the defensive zone more often than not, sometimes coaching him to leave the ice as soon as the immediate threat is over. If they want to maximize Karlsson’s offensive impact, playing him with a defensive wizard like Vlasic could limit both of their abilities.

Sharks Defensive Pairings

PairingTOI 5v5CF%ZSR

There’s a strong correlation here between zone start ratio (ZSR, the percentage of shifts a pair starts in the offensive zone) and shot attempt share (CF%), but even here, the impact of a Karlsson-Vlasic pairing defies expectations: a full ten percent fewer shift starts in the offensive zone as compared to the Karlsson-Dillon pairing results in a minor increase in shot attempt share.

All this to say that this is a complicated situation, and the Sharks’ embarrassment of riches on the back end is bound to lead to some experimenting and a delay in immediate dominance as the coaching staff finds the most effective way to utilize all of their talents. They seem to be pretty committed to using Vlasic to hold down the defensive zone and limit the liability of Braun’s likely age-related decline, and to mix and match pairs as the game situation warrants. Over time, and as these players develop chemistry and the ability to predict each other, this kind of versatility is the optimal solution, but it will take time to solidify.

That’s enough of that, let’s get to the fun part!

1. Joe Pavelski

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This Week351660950.92

Last week: 2

Joe Pavelski had himself a week. Scoring five of the Sharks’ twelve goals this week, Pavelski took the team lead in goals on the season. In fact, Pavelski’s five goals led the league in that span, tied with Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point and ColumbusCam Atkinson. Two of the captain’s tallies were classic Pavelski tips, one was a persistent chop at poor Chad Johnson’s pads, and two were snap snipes from the dot off the rush. Versatility seems to be a theme here, as does this: trying the same thing multiple times and expecting a different result:

Depending on who you ask, that’s either the definition of insanity or stupidity. In a game as dictated by luck as ice hockey is, however, the confidence that a play will result in a goal more often than not is rewarded. Here, Pavelski tips a Kevin Labanc shot from the point right into the pads of Juuse Saros, but as soon as Logan Couture regains possession in the corner, the captain resumes his position. The puck moves back up to the blue line, Karlsson fires, and the same thing produces a different result.

2. Erik Karlsson

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This Week314540958.35

Ladies and gentlemen, Erik Karlsson has arrived.

Statements like that are a little facetious. Karlsson’s impact on this club was significant and all but immediate, to the point where his first goal as a Shark on Saturday night against the St. Louis Blues was almost a formality, but its realization comes as a sigh of relief to us nonetheless. Karlsson’s pre-goal impact on this team came in many ways, some of which were outlined above. He leads the Sharks in ice time in all situations and at even strength, and his shot attempt share is the fifth-best on the team this season. A high-event player, Karlsson’s aggressiveness can lead to dangerous chances against, but those risks are far outweighed by his positive impact.

Karlsson’s goal on Saturday had a bit in common with Pavelski’s tip in goal against Nashville on Tuesday, in that both were the result of persistence. In this case, Karlsson attempts a similar corner shot three times before finally burying one in the second period. While some of these don’t show up on the shot counter, this kind of persistence is why Karlsson’s shot attempt count is second on the team. It shows that when great players are confident that what they are doing has a positive effect on their team, they keep doing it and, when the opportunity arises, they capitalize.

3. Marcus Sorensen

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This Week312330468.36

Marcus Sorensen played with some special sauce this week. Okay, it was mostly just Tuesday, where he recorded all three of his points, but what a Tuesday! Sorensen’s three points were overshadowed by two major milestones reached by his fellow Sharks that evening, including Karlsson’s 400th career assist. While the younger Swede did not find his way back onto the scoreboard, he continued to drive play, sharing most of his ice time as a finisher with Kevin Labanc and Joe Thornton. Sorensen recorded the second highest shot attempt share among all Sharks players this week and, while that is related to sharing so much ice with our dear friend Canadian surfer Santa Claus Jumbo Joe Thornton, the kid has some moves of his own:

We’ve come to expect this kind of sticktoitiveness, dogged perseverance, and tenacity, to borrow some vocabulary, from power forwards and grinders like Timo Meier and Barclay Goodrow, but its always a joy to see a player fight through four (4) defending players en route to a goal. While some of this is the Keystone Cops-esque ineffectiveness of defenders Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber, Sorensen really effectively impedes Irwin with his right elbow. The presence of mind required to kick the puck up to his stick in a way that brings the puck around Saros while protecting it from backchecking forward Craig Smith is the real highlight here.

4. Joe Thornton

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This Week310010769.06

Last week: 5

Thornton is, as you may have heard, a possession monster in all meanings of the phrase. Jumbo leads the team in shot attempt share both this week and this season, and when watching Thornton, it’s easy to see why. Thornton uses his frame, his foot positioning, and his reach in a way that limits access to the area directly in front of him almost entirely. That’s one of many reasons that Thornton scored his 400th goal this week, joining some pretty elite company in the process:

In a hugely emotion moment, both for Thornton’s career and the game at hand, Jumbo receives a slick pass from Sorensen and buries it past Saros for the lead, just 13 seconds after Pavelski tied the game at four. Thornton became just the seventh player in NHL history to record 400 goals, 1000 assists, and 1500 games played, sharing the honor with names like Howe, Messier, Yzerman, and others. What’s more, he isn’t done yet.

5. Antti Suomela

TimeGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPrimary PointsPenalty MinutesShots on Goal5v5 adj Corsi for %
This Week311210248.71

Antti Suomela, though demoted to the fourth line with Thornton’s return, has provided some welcome stability down the middle for the Sharks, reeling after the inestimable loss of my best friend Chris Tierney. However, the young Finn is here for one reason and one reason only: to spite Pete DeBoer, who held him to just 6:35 of ice time Tuesday night. No, that doesn’t sound right, it must be this:

This is why coaches always tell you to forecheck. Suomela’s doggedness is rewarded as Mattias Ekholm’s indecision impedes P.K. Subban’s breakout in the corner. Assisted by the immovable object that is Melker Karlsson, Suomela’s persistence is rewarded almost immediately as the rushed pass that Filip Forsberg launches across the ice to a woefully underprepared Ryan Hartman leads to a point blank slot opportunity thanks to SAP Center’s notoriously lively boards. Suomela anticipates the bounce, moves to center ice, and victimizes his fellow Finn for the three goal lead.

Hono(u)rable Mentions

Aaron Dell: Lost in all this talk about defensive pairings is what is becoming a very real goalie controversy in San Jose. It’s no secret that Martin Jones has struggled this season, and Dell has played much better in a small sample. Jones’ difference in expected versus actual save percentage of -3.34 percent is second-last in the league, better than only familiar name Antti Niemi. Still, with the Pacific Division as weak as it is this year, the Sharks are in a unique position where they can let Jones work through these struggles and leave some points on the table here and there. A 50-50 split seems like the most amenable solution here, allowing Dell to play a large enough sample of games to establish some reliable stats, and allowing Jones to work through his disappointing play thus far.

Brenden Dillon: We talked earlier about Dillon’s ability to adapt his play to his teammates and his situation, and he appears to have really started generating some chemistry with Karlsson as a partner.

Frederik Andersen: 42 saves on 45 shots. After a tragic, but very funny, miscalculation regarding puck-board physics leading to Labanc’s goal, Andersen was lights out. We’ll get him next time, friends.