Can the Sharks make playoffs? What they can learn from a history of bad starts
“But Erik, it’s too early to talk about playoff probabilities!” Oh, just you wait, friendos, just you wait.
The San Jose Sharks’ nine points in 13 games marks the worst 12-game start for the team in the salary cap era, and it’s among the lowest point totals through that span among any team since the NHL introduced the ahem “Upper Limit of the Payroll Range” in 2005. Currently, there are six teams below the Sharks in the standings, but three of those have played fewer games. By point percentage — you know, the way the standings should actually be ordered — the Sharks sit tied for 26th, sliding down below the Chicago Blackhawks relative to the NHL standings.
While we wring our hands about even strength production, order blame by the AAV column on CapFriendly, and try to justify the team’s performance by gesturing at the road-heavy early season schedule with a resigned shrug, let’s zoom out a little bit. The regular season of the NHL year serves three purposes: first, it makes loads of money for the league and its owners; second, it’s fun (not now, but sometimes); and third, it determines qualification and seeding for the real show: the NHL playoffs.
It feels pretty early to talk about the current standings in terms of playoff probabilities, but 13 games makes up 16 percent of the total season, and a start this bad has a very real impact on a team’s fortunes come April and May. You see, since the salary cap era, 32 teams have recorded nine or fewer points in their first 12 contests. That’s not very many, and that’s bad. Three of those teams have rebounded to make the postseason (even less many, even more bad), and none made it out of the first round. Check it out:
|Team||Points in first 13||End of season points||Outcome|
|St. Louis Blues||7||57||Missed playoffs|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||8||74||Missed playoffs|
|Chicago Blackhawks||8||65||Missed playoffs|
|Atlanta Thrashers||9||90||Missed playoffs|
|Phoenix Coyotes||6||67||Missed playoffs|
|Philadelphia Flyers||7||56||Missed playoffs|
|Chicago Blackhawks||8||71||Missed playoffs|
|Atlanta Thrashers||8||76||Missed playoffs|
|New York Islanders||9||61||Missed playoffs|
|Florida Panthers||9||93||Missed playoffs|
|Carolina Hurricanes||7||80||Missed playoffs|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||7||74||Missed playoffs|
|New Jersey Devils||7||81||Missed playoffs|
|Buffalo Sabres||8||96||First round exit|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||5||65||Missed playoffs|
|Washington Capitals||9||57||First round exit|
|Buffalo Sabres||5||52||Missed playoffs|
|Edmonton Oilers||8||67||Missed playoffs|
|Florida Panthers||8||66||Missed playoffs|
|Philadelphia Flyers||8||94||First round exit|
|Buffalo Sabres||7||54||Missed playoffs|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||9||89||Missed playoffs|
|Edmonton Oilers||9||62||Missed playoffs|
|Calgary Flames||7||77||Missed playoffs|
|Colorado Avalanche||9||82||Missed playoffs|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||6||76||Missed playoffs|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||7||69||Missed playoffs|
|Vancouver Canucks||9||69||Missed playoffs|
|Arizona Coyotes||3||70||Missed playoffs|
|Edmonton Oilers||9||78||Missed playoffs|
|Montreal Canadiens||9||71||Missed playoffs|
|Los Angeles Kings||9||71||Missed playoffs|
Note the absence of the Stanley Cup champion 2018-19 St. Louis Blues. That team had 13 points in their first 13 games, and no regulation losses. On the first of the year, the most often quoted excuse for why teams that are struggling now will find their foothold like the Blues did, St. Louis had 34 points which, yes, was last, but it was tied with the Ottawa Senators, who had played three more games, so even in the NHL standings that use games played as a tie breaker, they weren’t dead last. Their point percentage of .459 was 26th, and they were one three-game win streak under .500. It is a very tidy narrative that is not slowed at all by being untrue, and will outlive us all, I’m afraid.
This is naught but a very large table, though. Maybe if we dig a little deeper into those three seasons we can see if we can’t find some tips as to what went right for those teams. What can these Sharks learn from teams that climbed out of this hole in the past?
2010-11 Buffalo Sabres
What happened? The Sabres’ start to the 2010-11 season was awful, recording a 3-8-2 record and eight points, while ending their first 13 games by allowing five goals in an embarrassing loss to the Boston Bruins. That is uncomfortably familiar. They lost one more before turning it around and winning four out of five (all in extra time) to get back above .500 and into the early playoff conversation in the top-heavy Northeast division. In order to hit the 96 points they finished with to place third in their division, the Sabres played at a 105-point pace from game 15 on and, for perspective, just two teams tallied more than 105 points last season: the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Calgary Flames.
On November 3, the Sabres were last in the NHL with their eight points (actually last, not St. Louis last), and above them in the division were the Montreal Canadiens, Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Senators, the latter two just clinging to .500. To recover from that start, not only did the Sabres have to record a hugely winning pace, winning 40 of the 69 remaining games, they needed help. Luckily for them, no one else in the conference wanted to make the playoffs, and, from that date on, four of the five worst records in the league belonged to Eastern teams that had been between the Sabres and the post-season: the Atlanta Thrashers, Florida Panthers, Senators and New York Islanders all won fewer than 30 games of their last 70.
This was before the league’s most recent realignment, and the top eight teams in each conference made the postseason, which meant that, while Buffalo had more teams to leapfrog to get back into contention, they also had less stringent requirements regarding exactly which squads needed to fall apart.
Okay, can the Sharks do that? Doubtful. One of the primary keys to this bounce back was that the Sabres were getting no helpful bounces during the season’s first month: they were recording 54 percent of shot attempts, and 53 percent of expected goals at 5-on-5, largely undone by a seven percent shot success rate at evens, and allowing 13 shorthanded goals in as many games. They also had a 30-year-old Ryan Miller in net, whose 29th-ranked .883 save percentage in the first month of the season (helped down by a 28th-ranked .829 on the penalty kill) rebounded nicely to .909 by the end of the season. None of these numbers are insane, lending some credence to the idea that Buffalo went on a hot streak in the beginning of November, played well the rest of the way, and had more than a few teams ahead of them completely implode.
The Sharks aren’t likely to be able to rely on the goaltending cleaning up, as both Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have been basement-level keepers for well over a year now, but implosion ahead of them in the Pacific is pretty possible. The Edmonton Oilers lead the Pacific division right now, mostly on the strength of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl playing, let me see here, yes, 75 minutes a night. The Vancouver Canucks are converting on almost ten percent of their 5-on-5 shots, about three percentage points above league average, and don’t seem likely to have the depth of elite talent to sustain it beyond small alien boy Elias Petterson and actual lake monster Brock Boeser.
Further, the Canucks and Oilers have had the two easiest schedules in the league, according to Dom Luszczyszyn at the Athletic, with the Arizona Coyotes and Flames ranking sixth and seventh in that same category. The Sharks have an opportunity to deprive those very same Canucks of two of those points this Saturday at home and, by that same metric, the Sharks have the second easiest schedule by opponent strength in November.
If the Sharks start turning it around right now, and teams like the Canucks and Oilers fall back to Earth, they can still sneak in.
Then what? The Sabres matched up with the second-seeded leaders of the Atlantic, the Philadelphia Flyers. There was hope for the underdogs, as they stole home ice on the strength of a Ryan Miller shut out and a single Patrick Kaleta goal in Game 1. Two overtime contests in the next six and five Thomas Vanek goals couldn’t save the Sabres from a 5-2 trouncing in Game 7. The Flyers went on to be embarrassingly swept by the eventual Cup champion Bruins in a series in which they were out-scored 20-7, despite a desperate change of goaltender from Brian Boucher to Sergei Bobrovsky in Game 4.
2012-13 Washington Capitals
What happened? Referring to this season as 2012-13 is a matter of course and symmetry, as the Gary Bettman-era’s third lockout prevented the festivities from starting until January of 2013. While the Caps had just nine points through 13 games, they had already begun turning it around, winning a home-and-home series against Southeast division rivals the Florida Panthers on February 9 and 12 in games 12 and 13. The Caps’ 48 points in the remaining 35 games of the season marked a point percentage of .686, a pace that ranked third best in the league, and one only nine teams since have been able to sustain over a full season.
How did they do it? Partially, the Caps were helped more than hurt by the shortened season, as their league-leading PDO of 1.013 would likely have regressed over the course of 36 more games, but then, maybe it wouldn’t. See, Washington took third in the East with 57 points, but that total was lower than that of the Leafs in fifth place. Division leaders in each conference were guaranteed the top three spots in playoff seeding, and only the Caps qualified out of the generally miserable Southeast. In a system that earned the Canucks two straight Presidents’ Trophies in 2010 and ‘11 due to the similarly impotent Northwest division, the Caps were helped by playing more games of their last 35 against eventual non-playoff teams than any other team in 2013, and recorded a dominant record of 14-3 against them.
Okay, can the Sharks do that? To a degree, maybe. The Pacific division has, on paper, three good teams in it and, depending on how completely the other five regress to expectations, there could be a lot of points sitting on tables for the Sharks to scoop up as the season wears on. San Jose is scheduled to play 20 games against Pacific division teams not from Vegas or Calgary from today onward, including five of their last six into April. If they earn the same points percentage that the 2013 Caps did from their top heavy division, that would net the Sharks 33 points, meaning they’d only need to earn 48 in the remaining 49 games, an 80-point pace, to tally 90 points, the lowest total of a playoff team last year. There are a lot of assumptions in that, though, and at least one of these Pacific upstarts is probably for real, but it’s possible.
If the Sharks start turning it around right now, and win a dominant percentage of their intra-division games, they can still sneak in.
Then what? The Caps hosted the 56-point New York Rangers in the first round, again taking the series to seven. Starting goaltender Braden Holtby stood tall, holding the Rangers to just one goal through both of Washington’s first two home games, the second of which was a 1-0 overtime offensive slug fest. The home team won every game in the series until Game 7, which John Tortorella’s Rangers dominated by a score of 5-0 on the back of Henrik Lundqvist’s second straight shutout, and after the fifth straight game decided by one goal. The Rangers went on to drop a 4-1 series to the Bruins (again) who had bested the Maple Leafs in seven in the first round, because some things never change.
2013-14 Philadelphia Flyers
What happened? On November 2, 2013, the Flyers had eight points and sat dead last (actual last, not — okay, you get it) in the newly christened Metropolitan division. The season had just started, but a lot had already changed in the city of brotherly love. After their second straight 0-3 start to a season, the Flyers fired head coach Peter Laviolette and assistant coach Kevin McCarthy to promote assistant coach Craig Berube to the top job; they’d used their two compliance buyouts awarded by the 2012 lockout during the 2013 off-season to jettison Daniel Briere and Ilya Bryzgalov (the latter’s contract would otherwise have run through the end of this season), brought in Vincent Lecavalier (bought out by the Lightning) and Ray Emery from free agency, and extended some guy named Claude Giroux for eight years.
The team struggled early, as most teams with such turmoil early in the season do, but started to right the ship in November, winning six of seven in the middle of the month, and then stringing together a 13-3-1 stretch from the beginning of February through most of March. Their underlying possession numbers aren’t anything to sing songs about: a shot attempt percentage of 50.02 and expected goals share of 48.89, but they were getting goals at the right time. Their goal differential of +1 was better than just one other playoff team, and their eight shootout losses were the fifth most of any team in the league. This is largely due to the fact that these Flyers won 18 games by one goal, and 12 by two goals including an empty netter (third most in the league). Seven of those wins were in extra time. As a general rule, success based on one-goal games is not sustainable, due to the prevalence of luck in where pucks go in hockey and the value of goals in such a low-scoring sport (see: the 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres).
Okay, can the Sharks do that? Well, it’s a little too late to fire the coach on day five, and Craig Berube is still with the last team he joined mid-season and dragged to a miraculous playoff berth, and they don’t have any compliance buyouts to use on goaltenders with bloated contracts, and they didn’t acquire a former Calder trophy winning keeper last trade deadline who can post a miraculous .917 after posting a .904 in 239 career games before that point, but they can win a whole grip of one-goal games and stack up loser points over the rest of the season and, stop me if you’ve heard this too much lately, it’s not too late to fire a few coaches and call Sheldon Keefe. You don’t have to make an offer or anything, just call him, maybe he’s lonely. Chat.
So yes, the Sharks can do some of that, but there isn’t a whole lot they can actively do to make that happen, other than sacrifice the right goat on the right full moon, but there isn’t another full moon until November 12, and by then it may be too late.
If the Sharks start turning it around right now, and get lucky enough to win most of their one goal games, and lose in extra time whenever possible, they can still sneak in.
Then what? The Flyers lost a seven-game series (again) to the New York Rangers (again) in the first round, largely due to inconsistent goaltending which, considering how much they were paying Bryzgalov to go away, is very funny. Emery was relieved of starting duties after allowing four goals in three straight games, one of which the Flyers won, and Steve Mason went on to allow 13 goals in the last four games of the series. The Rangers went on to the Stanley Cup Final, where they lost in five games to the Los Angeles Kings and world renowned sniper, Alec Martinez.
In short, the Sharks are in trouble. Real trouble. 13 games into the season is too late to be too early, but there are examples, however few, of teams that have salvaged similarly bad seasons. They’ll need a fair amount of luck, some help from within the division, and more than a few hot streaks to do it, but they’ve got 11 of 15 November games at home, and five in a row against not particularly scary opponents starting tonight.
If the Sharks start turning it around right now, pull 24-ish points out of November, adapt their systems to account for the talent lost in the off-season and insulate their goaltenders, coupled with regression from other Pacific teams, they just might still be in this thing. If, however, you listen to History, and you believe that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, the odds aren’t on their side, and their start is probably enough to preclude a playoff appearance, giving Ottawa two lottery shots in a historically deep 2020 Entry Draft.
Luckily, history is boring and for nerds.