Why the Sharks' hot start is more encouraging than their last one
While last season's early run was chiefly fueled by a hot power play, the Sharks' latest season-opening winning streak has shown signs of them being a legitimately dominant team.
And then there were two. Following the Sharks' rout of the Blues in St. Louis Tuesday night that improved their record to a perfect 6-0, San Jose and Colorado stand alone (or with each other, I suppose) as the only undefeated teams remaining two weeks into the NHL's regular season.
If any of this sounds familiar, it should. Just ten months ago, the Sharks kicked off the lockout-shortened 2013 season by rattling off seven straight victories, at which point they and eventual champions Chicago were the only perfect clubs left, before stumbling through an equivalent winless streak that sowed the seeds for a roster overhaul prior to the trade deadline.
So a healthy dose of skepticism about whether the Sharks' latest undefeated streak to open a season will really mean anything in the long run is certainly warranted. Given that it's a brutally long season and San Jose has played just 7.3% of it so far, it's probably even necessary. But it isn't as simple as merely dismissing the Sharks' early success this season just because their early success last season proved to be built on a house of cards. Despite the similar records, these have been very different runs.
Where the Sharks' quick start to 2013 was largely predicated on a potent top line, off-the-charts goaltending and particularly a dominant power play, the 13-14 Sharks have thus far gotten it done with depth scoring and contributions from all over their lineup. And, most importantly, they've gotten it done at even-strength. Here's a comparison of the Sharks' 5v5 performance through six games of the 2012*-13 season to their first six games of 2013-14:
|Season||5v5 SF/60||5v5 SH%||5v5 GF/60||5v5 SA/60||5v5 SV%||5v5 GA/60||5v5 Chances For%||Fenwick Close%|
The statistics listed include the team's shots for and against and goals for and against rates per sixty minutes of 5v5 play, their shooting and save percentages and, in the final two columns, their percentage of scoring chances earned and percentage of shots attempted in score-close situations.
You don't need to be Jim Corsi in order to decipher that the numbers in the second row blow away those in the first almost across the board. Despite a comparable shooting percentage, the Sharks are scoring nearly a goal and a half more per even-strength hour than they did during last season's run thanks entirely to generating shots at an unreal rate. Those additional scoring opportunities have largely been a function of their significantly improved possession numbers; through six games last season, San Jose was a league-average team in score-close shot differential. This season, they're not only tops in the league but nearly three percentage points clear of second place.
As much as special teams matter, they generally pale in importance and repeatability compared to even-strength play. To quote from the third installment of Patrick's offseason series discussing how to predict special teams performance, "Laugh at your friends who speak of teams as 'strong' or 'elite' citing a top PP%." (Of course, the Sharks are still best in the league so far in 5v4 shot attempts per sixty, the metric those posts identified as the most predictive measure of power play success). Even-strength performance, on the other hand, tends to be a much more reliable indicator of team talent. As Chris Boyle of Habs Eyes On The Prize demonstrated earlier this year in visually stunning fashion, clubs over the past six seasons that have managed a Fenwick Close north of 50% have about a 75% chance of making the playoffs, while those who top 55% win the Cup a quarter of the time. The last four Stanley Cup champions have ranked 1st, 15th, 1st and 4th, respectively, in even-strength goal differential and 2nd, 4th, 14th, and 1st in Fenwick Close. San Jose is currently 1st in both categories.
A lot of this traces back to the aforementioned changes made by management and the coaching staff prior to last season's deadline. What's instructive in looking back at 2013's season-opening run is that the players responsible for the team's average possession numbers in the early going weren't Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture or Dan Boyle. Unsurprisingly, the players bringing up the rear were the likes of Michal Handzus, T.J. Galiardi, Scott Gomez, Adam Burish and Douglas Murray. All of them, apart from the injured Burish who has yet to play in a game this season, are now gone, replaced by younger, better pieces in Tomas Hertl, Matthew Nieto, Tyler Kennedy and Matt Irwin. The bearded cherry on top was converting Brent Burns from a top-tier defenseman into a top-tier power forward, thereby bumping Joe Pavelski into a newfound role as the league's best third-line center.
In all, the moves made by the team after the Sharks' early promise last season was inevitably dashed have worked out as well as anyone could have expected. They've led to the formation of a roster that was strong down the stretch and into the playoffs last season and has looked even stronger in the early going this year. It's still much too early to draw any far-reaching conclusions about where this team is headed but, for whatever it's worth, these six wins paint a much brighter picture of what's in store for the Sharks than the victories they opened last season with.