San Jose Sharks: 2015 First-Quarter Report

21 games through the season the San Jose Sharks are 10-9-2 with 22 points which is good enough for eighth in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, San Jose has played the most games in the NHL and numerous teams are right behind them in the standings. Looking at point percentage the San Jose Sharks are currently tenth in the Western Conference. Not only are the Sharks performing far worse than last season, but they are even doing worse than during the lockout shortened season so far. There are still 61 games left in the season and by no means should the San Jose Sharks be in full panic mode but you have to think that the personnel in San Jose are looking around wondering how to improve the team.

Lessons From the Past

Instead of focusing on a single player or line let’s look at the team’s performance so far. During the month of November scoring has started to evaporate. The Shark have gone six straight games and, seven of their last eight, scoring two or less goals. The last time this happened was during the 2013 season in February when the Sharks only won two games. They went on to finish the season with a goals per game average of 2.42 which is the lowest since the 2005 lockout. If it wasn’t for Antti Niemi’s Vezina caliber season San Jose would not have made the playoffs that year let alone take the Kings to game seven in the second round.

The Sharks offense is generating a mere 2.62 goals per game through 21 games this season and if they want to start winning games again that needs to be fixed. In 2013, one thing that solved the Sharks offensive struggles was moving Brent Burns to forward on March 12th. He was injured twice during the season and was not contributing much offensively before the move. On top of that the Sharks were not getting much help from Ryane Clowe or TJ Galiardi and no player had truly taken over Dany Heatley’s production from the 2010 and 2011 seasons. The Sharks still struggled to score consistently but it was more than enough for Niemi to work with.

Goals vs Shots

The longer Matt Nieto goes without contributing offensively the more likely he is to lose his position.
The longer Matt Nieto goes without a goal, the more likely he is to lose his starting job, and possibly becoming trade bait on a team that could become desperate.

During the 2015 season the Sharks need offensive help but moving Brent Burns to forward isn’t much of a solution. He is producing an abundance of offense from the blue line already. Moving him back up front with Joe Thornton wouldn’t accomplish anything offensively as he is already just below a point per game player and it is highly doubtful that even Joe Thornton will elevate Burns beyond that. Obviously moving Burns back to forward could perhaps shift the lineup so that Joe Pavelski may be moved to the third line. This could lead to more offense from that line but it would also decrease Pavleski’s current output leading to an equilibrium. Comparing situations in the past to those in the present have their limitations.

Besides the fact that moving Burns would leave the Sharks with one of the worst defenses in the league and certainly the worst in their own division it makes no sense. At the time the Sharks never replaced Heatley’s production while Clowe and Galiardi were struggling offensively. Burns involvement up front helped to alleviate that hole offensively. During the present day Brent Burns wouldn’t alleviate any offensive deficiencies since he is already among the leaders in points.

“When you are top-six forward the offensive production is expected.” Randy Hahn speaking about Matt Nieto during the Florida Panthers game on Thursday.

At this point the Sharks offense needs to improve internally first. Matt Nieto still had ZERO goals since the first game of the season. His one and only goal was due to a gaffe by Jonathan Quick which Patrick Marleau could have tucked home himself. In spite of Nieto’s ability to generate shots he has been a huge liability of generating offense which is not what you want in a top-six forward. It doesn’t matter how many shots you or your line-mates take if none enter the net. Take the 2014 New Jersey Devils for example, they finished the season 3rd in 5v5 Corsi and still missed the playoffs. To put things into perspective, Matt Nieto has as many points 21 games into the season as Ryane Clowe did 21 games into the 2013 season, arguably the worst of his career. It is atrocious for a top-six forward to be held goal-less for 20 straight games on any team. Nieto is not the only one forward struggling. After a strong start, Tommy Wingels only has two points in his past nine games and Patrick Marleau has only one goal in his past sixteen games.

Real Problem on Defense

Jason Demers is having a tough start to the season.
Jason Demers is having a tough start to the season but it’s tough to blame him when he is on the ice with the fourth line more than any other defensemen.

Speaking of shots the Sharks are currently generating over 31 shots on net, but they are also allowing over 31 shots on net. There are two reasons for this, the first being a horribly thin defense but also poor defensive effort put on by their forwards. Turning the puck over and missing the net isn’t helping either. At the end of the day the Sharks need to be better from Joe Thornton down to John Scott.

Vlasic is the only defensemen with a 5v5 Corsi over 51% but Burns, Braun and Mueller are all over 50% as well. Burns and Mueller struggled to begin the season and are still a major defensive liability but have recently tightened up compared to early in the season. Regrettably, shot differential does not win games, goals do. This is where the Sharks defense really struggle. Vlasic and Braun have excelled in being on the ice for goals and keeping the puck out of the net. Matt Irwin and Jason Demers lead the team with the worst even strength goal differential despite being scratched multiple times this season. Hanna, Mueller and Burns are also on the negative side of things. While Burns may be making up for some of his mistakes on the power play it still has not been enough.

  • PDO= (Save Percentage + Shooting Percentage) x 100
  • example (.927 + .114) x 100 = 104.1
  • Sharks current team PDO is 100.4

Of course both Vlasic and Braun have the added benefit of the highest PDO on the team of over 104%. Every other defensemen on the team has endured PDO ratings below 100. The reason this is important is because of the differences in goaltender support and shooting percentage while different players are on the ice. Right now Burns and Mueller’s shooting percentages are far greater than that of Vlasic and Braun yet they fall far below them on the PDO chart. This can obviously be attributed to worse defensively play, but where do you draw the line between their play and bad luck? Perhaps the goaltenders have been allowing softer goals while other have been on the ice, or forwards have not been back-checking as hard. It is true that both Vlasic and Braun share the most ice time with the Sharks top six forwards so it would not be a stretch to say that Demers has succumbed to being most often stuck with the fourth line.

Solutions?

Can Antti Niemi rebound this season and have another Vezina caliber year?
Will Antti Niemi rebound this season or will San Jose have to look elsewhere to find relief in net?

So far this season the Sharks have not played well. There have been maybe two or three games that Sane Jose put on a solid sixty minute effort. Beyond that only a handful of players are playing better than they did at the end of last season. If the Sharks want to beat the teams in the west they need to be better than they were last season and so far most of the team is either worse or just matching how they played in 2014. Justin Braun, Matt Irwin, Joe Pavelski, Matt Nieto, Tommy Wingels, Tyler Kennedy, Andrew Desjardins, Adam Burish, Antti Niemi and many others have to improve their current level of play if the Sharks even dream of making a legitimate run at the Cup this season.

This far into the season the season the Sharks are only five points out of first place in the west, hardly a distance. Some adjustments in the lineup, the end of the ridiculously road excursion and perhaps some practice time can alleviate what is troubling the team. When all is said and done San Jose should be able to correct some of the errors that have plagued them so far but only so much can be done internally. Doug Wilson will need to work some magic in the trade market at some point. The only question is what will it cost San Jose?