Occam's Sharks and a Stanley Cup playoff struggle

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Occam's Sharks and a Stanley Cup playoff struggle

David Koppett
CSNBayArea.com

Are you familiar with the precept of Occams razor?

Although the idea was known earlier, Occam's razor is attributed to the 14th Century English logician, Father William of Ockham. It essentially states that, all things being equal, the simplest possible explanation for a phenomenon is preferable to a more complex one.

Many theories have been proposed for the San Jose Sharks drop in the standings this season ... from a lack to team speed to a dearth of effort to a decline in goaltending to a change in the NHLs general style of play. But if we apply the principle of Occams razor, a different story emerges, one based on the simplest requirement for winning hockey games: scoring goals. You cant win if you cant score, and these Sharks have plenty of trouble scoring, as anyone who watched them score one goal in 120 minutes of hockey the last two nights can attest.

In 2010-11, the Sharks finished 48-25-9 for 105 points, winning their fourth straight Pacific Division title and finishing second overall in the Western Conference. They scored 248 goals (sixth in the NHL) and allowed 213 (tenth in the NHL,) a goal differential of 35.

In 2011-12, the Sharks are 39-29-10 for 88 points. They sit in ninth place in the West with four games remaining and are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in nine years.

Heres the interesting part. It is said that championships are won with defense, and thats often the first place to look when a teams results drop off from one season to the next. But defensively, the Sharks havent dropped off at all.

The Sharks have allowed 201 goals this season, seventh-fewest in the NHL. Given their per-game pace, its very likely that they will finish almost precisely upon last years total. And goaltending isnt the problem either. Although Antti Niemis save percentage is down just a tick, from .920 to .914, his goals-against average is almost identical, barely moving from 2.38 to 2.43. Hes right at his career averages in both categories.

How about the other end of the rink? Aha. The Sharks have declined to 211 goals scored this season, meaning they will fall considerably below last seasons output. Theyve fallen from sixth in the league in scoring to thirteenth, and their goal differential has dropped to a mere 10.

How come? Again, lets look for the simplest possible explanation. There have been a number of roster changes this season, but the ones toward the bottom of the roster -- third and fourth liners, fifth and sixth defensemen -- havent had a major impact on the teams scoring, because those players dont score much anyhow. Outside of their Top Six forwards last season -- Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Logan Couture, Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski -- the Sharks had only one double-figure goal scorer, Devin Setoguchi (more on him in a moment.) This year, Martin Havlat has replaced Heatley in that Top Six, and again, the Sharks have had only one additional double-figure goal scorer, Jamie McGinn -- and hes no longer on the roster, having been traded to Colorado for a pair of non-scorers.

So, in strict terms of output, all those other roster changes havent really affected much. The numbers show that the Sharks are still strong defensively, theyre still good in the faceoff circle, theyre still lousy at killing penalties and they still dont have much secondary scoring. So the question is, what happened in that goal-scoring segment of the roster?

The answer is that the Sharks traded two goal-scorers in the offseason, and the players they received in return havent been able to replace their production.

Heatley and Setoguchi combined to score 48 goals in 2010-11. The players they were traded for, Havlat and Brent Burns, have scored 17 in 2011-12. That difference of 31 goals is very close to what has been subtracted from the teams overall output.

Does this mean that those two trades were bad deals for the Sharks? Not necessarily. Many observers, both inside and outside team management, agreed that the Sharks were outgunned on the blue line in one-sided Western Conference Final losses to the Blackhawks and Canucks the last two seasons. Both of those teams boasted superior speed, puck-moving ability and scoring in their defense corps. So the addition of the talented, sizeable and still-young Burns seemed to make sense. Havlat also figured to add speed and skill to a lineup that was losing both with the subtraction of Setoguchi.

And Heatley and Setoguchi werent exactly problem-free players. Heatley was a disappointment in 2010-11, struggling with injuries and conditioning and dropping from 39 to 26 goals. And Setoguchi, despite some huge playoff tallies, was maddeningly inconsistent throughout his Sharks career, going through lengthy scoring droughts in addition to electric scoring streaks.

But both players know how to, as they say, put the biscuit in the basket. Heatley has posted six NHL seasons of 39 or more goals, totals no current Sharks can match. And Setoguchi has averaged 23 per season over the last four years. This season in Minnesota, with considerably less talented teammates around them, the two have combined for 39 goals, so its hardly a stretch to imagine that, with Thornton, Couture et al feeding them juicy passes in San Jose, theyd have at least matched their 48 of a year ago here.

How about what came back in these trades? Burns has certainly provided much of what was advertised -- speed, physicality and puck-moving ability. But the question arises, with fewer goal scorers up front, to whom is he moving the puck? Of course, hes not the goal-scorer that either Heatley or Setoguchi were (11 this season,) and at the defensive end of the rink, the teams performance hasnt significantly changed.

Havlat has been a huge disappointment. He began the season with a known shoulder injury, started slowly, and then missed half the season due to what one could only call a freak accident (a partially torn hamstring as he caught a skate coming over the boards on a line change.) But it would also be disingenuous to claim that his injury risk factor was a surprise. This will be the fourth time in his career hes played fewer than 60 regular-season games, and the third time hell play fewer than 40. He has scored six goals.

Sociologists like to look for natural experiments in the real world, because they cant run controlled experiments on entire countries over periods of hundreds of years. Hispanola in the Caribbean is a good example of such an accidental experiment, because it consists of an island divided roughly equally into two countries (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) that have experienced significantly different cultures, governmental styles and outcomes despite sharing similar natural resources and conditions.

The 2010-11 and 2011-12 Sharks comprise a rare natural experiment in the hockey world. In most areas of their team, we see control factors between seasons -- the same coach, system, goaltender and nearly identical defensive performance, and similar contributions from holdover stars and from the third and fourth lines despite personnel changes. That leaves the top scorers and the goal scoring, and we can draw a fairly straight line between the subtraction of two of the former and a major drop in the latter.

After making the playoffs in six straight seasons but failing to reach the Stanley Cup Final, it was reasonable to expect the Sharks to make their roster decisions based on how theyd fare in the postseason, rather than worrying about simply reaching it. But this year, the attempt to survive into June may have resulted in a miscalculation that could end their season in the first week of April. Of course, all of these goal-scoring issues might be forgotten if the Sharks manage to finish among the Wests elite eight. Could the addition of Burns and Havlat make the difference the Sharks have been seeking in the playoffs? Lets hope we get a chance to find out.
David Koppett is the senior executive producer-live events with Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.

Thornton, Marleau now permitted to speak with other teams

Thornton, Marleau now permitted to speak with other teams

Their futures with the Sharks more uncertain than ever, pending unrestricted free agents Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are now free to take calls from other teams to gauge their potential interest.

Nothing can be signed with a new team before July 1, and there is a ban on discussing terms of any potential deal. Teams have already reached out to Marleau, per TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, while Thornton is also reportedly receiving interest around the league.

While they could still return to the Sharks, it’s new territory for both, as neither Thornton nor Marleau has ever tested the unrestricted free agent waters. Most recently, they agreed to three-year contract extensions with the Sharks on the same day – Jan. 24, 2014 – in what was the final year of their current deals.

Whether they return to the Sharks could depend on the length of the deal. If other teams are willing to offer multiple-year deals to Thornton and Marleau, it makes their return to the Sharks less likely – particularly in Marleau’s case. Earlier in the offseason, NBC Sports California confirmed that Thornton was seeking a three-year deal, while Marleau preferred a deal of at least three years.

General manager Doug Wilson’s top priority this offseason is to re-sign goalie Martin Jones and defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic to long term extensions. Those contracts would likely cost the team a combined $12-14 million, and would begin in the 2018-19 season.

There is an added risk to any team that signs a player over the age of 35, as it would be on the hook for the entire salary cap hit regardless of whether that player is active (unless that player is on long-term injured reserve). 

Thornton turns 38 on Sunday, while Marleau turns 38 on Sep. 15.

Sharks conclude 2017 NHL Draft with five more forwards in the system

Sharks conclude 2017 NHL Draft with five more forwards in the system

CHICAGO – After nabbing a center in the first round on Friday, the Sharks added four more forwards and one defenseman to conclude the second day of the annual NHL Entry Draft on Saturday, held this year at United Center.

The Sharks weren’t explicitly trying to restock their forward cabinet, according to general manager Doug Wilson and scouting director Tim Burke, although the club did make two separate moves in surrendering some later round picks to move up in the fourth round (to take center Scott Reedy) and sixth round (to take left wing Sasha Chmelevski).

First, though, it was defenseman Mario Ferraro in the second round at 49th overall. The offensive defenseman was a player that the Sharks targeted, using the pick they acquired from New Jersey last Friday as part of the trade for Mirco Mueller.

“He’s got a lot of speed, offensive guy, exciting,” Burke said. “Puck-moving type of guy.”

Wilson said: “We’re very pleased with the d-man. He’s a very dynamic, athletic guy, great skater. He was a guy that we moved up a little bit aggressively to get because that round, you could see people going after who they wanted. He is a guy that we identified.”

After moving up from the fifth round to the fourth round last Friday, again because of the Mueller trade, the Sharks jumped up 21 more spots in the fourth round by obtaining the Rangers pick at 102nd overall for the 123rd and 174th selections.

Center Scott Reedy is a player that Burke has high hopes for, projecting the Minnesota native as a “second line right winger [with] high-end potential.” Burke pointed out that Reedy, who is friends with first round pick Josh Norris, occasionally played on the same line with Norris for each of the last two seasons with the U.S. Under-18 team.

“He’s a big, strong forward that can play both positions (center and right wing),” Burke said.

Right wing Jacob McGrew, an Orange, CA native, went to the Sharks in the fifth round despite missing all of his first season in junior with a lower body injury suffered in training camp with Spokane (WHL).

“We knew about him before he went up there,” Burke said. “He’s a California kid. … If he was healthy he probably would have gone earlier.”

The Sharks again moved up to snag Huntington Beach native and center Chmelevski at 185 overall, and made their sixth and final pick in the 212th position by taking left wing Ivan Chekhovich in the seventh round. Both players look to have some offensive skill, based on their numbers and Youtube highlights.

Burke was surprised that both players were around so late.

“I thought they had pretty good years and they kind of slipped in the draft,” he said. “We weighed that versus some other more project-type guys, and we thought they had more offense and finish to their game. They just kept sliding, so we took a chance on them.”

Wilson said: “We moved up for the guys we wanted, and then there were some skilled guys at the end that we were surprised were still there. … We’ll go back and take a look how it all went, but we feel, I think, really good about where we ended up with this.”