Occam's Sharks and a Stanley Cup playoff struggle

718240.jpg

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.

In return to San Jose, McLellan emerges victorious, ends Sharks' season

In return to San Jose, McLellan emerges victorious, ends Sharks' season

SAN JOSE – To borrow a phrase from Chuck Woolery, Todd McLellan was back in two and two.

Saturday’s Game 6 between the Sharks and Oilers marked exactly two years and two days since the Sharks-McLellan love connection was broken up, as the coach and his staff were all essentially fired on April 20, 2015. But McLellan and assistants Jim Johnson and Jay Woodcroft quickly resurfaced with the Oilers a few weeks later, and now they’re moving on to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the expense of their former employer.

At what was his home for seven seasons, McLellan took the press conference podium at SAP Center as the victorious visiting coach after Edmonton’s 3-1 win clinched the series in six games. Asked what the moment meant to him, McLellan preferred not to focus on himself or his staff.

“It’s not about Todd, it’s not about Jay or Jimmy. It’s about the Oilers and the group of players there that are growing up in front of us,” McLellan said.

“We’re part of this team now. I obviously have a soft spot for a lot of the players that are here in San Jose. They gave us a hell of a series. They helped us grow up by pushing us, and we’re lucky to get through. That’s an important thing for us.”

Amazingly, the Oilers managed to prevail with just one even strength point from Connor McDavid, who led the league in scoring in the regular season. That point came with less than a second remaining on the clock on Sunday when McDavid converted on an empty net.

The focus from the outside, among many of the Edmonton and San Jose media, was that the Sharks were doing an admirable job of defending the 20-year-old, who had 30 goals and 100 points in the regular season. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, in particular, were keeping McDavid frustrated.

While that may be the case, McLellan said after Game 6 that he had no problem with the McDavid vs. Vlasic showdown. In his view, the Oilers could win the series elsewhere.

“There was a lot of talk in this series about us trying to get Connor away from Vlasic and Braun. Obviously we don’t want to talk about it during the series, but we had an eye on [Ryan Nugent-Hopkins] against [Joe Thornton’s] line, especially since they put them together. That was a match we were looking for.

“You can’t get everything. When you’re a coach, the media experts find something and they keep going to it. But coaches have different plans sometimes. Peter [DeBoer] had his plan, we had ours. Ours wasn’t about getting Connor away from Vlasic and Braun, ours was getting [Nugent-Hopkins] on the ice against [Joe] Pavelski and Jumbo and Patty Marleau. For the most part, it worked in our favor.”

It worked, because as the stars on both teams were essentially neutralized, the Oilers’ depth players contributed just a little bit more than the Sharks group did and at more opportune times.

Zack Kassian had a pair of game-winning goals in games two and three; David Desharnais was the Game 5 hero with a game-tying assist and game-winning goal; and Anton Slepyshev posted the game-winner with a breakaway in Game 6. Not exactly big names.

DeBoer was particularly disappointed with Game 3, a 1-0 loss on Kassian’s third period goal; and Game 5, in which the Sharks had a 3-1 lead that they couldn’t protect. That the Sharks only got one power play goal in 18 chances not counting the Game 4 blowout was also one of the reasons for their downfall.

“If you had told me before the series we would have held McDavid in check, we would have won the special teams battle on paper, I probably would have felt pretty good about our chances,” DeBoer said.

Instead, McLellan will take his up-and-coming team to the next round, where it will face off with the Anaheim Ducks.

“For our team, we’re watching them grow up right in front of us, which is a great thing,” he said.

 

Sharks rue 'key moments' as they are knocked out by Oilers

Sharks rue 'key moments' as they are knocked out by Oilers

SAN JOSE – The clock said there was seven minutes and 48 seconds remaining in the third period. It was frozen there for a bit after Patrick Marleau’s goal brought the Sharks back to within a single score of Edmonton.

Filled to capacity, the Shark Tank came to life, ravenous for the equalizer. The next several minutes offered a reminder of the team’s thrilling 2016 playoff run, when the Sharks finished just two wins away from a championship while taking their fans along for a ride they had never been on in a quarter-century.

But those seven minutes and 48 seconds quickly wound down, leaving the Sharks worlds away from what they did just a year ago. The Oilers held on for a 3-1 win, ending the Sharks’ season in a first round series that lasted six games.

Other than Game 4, a Sharks blowout victory, all the games were competitive.

“There were just a couple key moments in the series,” Joe Pavelski said.

In Game 6, the key moments that won the game for Edmonton came early in the second period. Justin Braun’s point shot was blocked leading to Leon Draisaitl’s goal to open the scoring, and Chris Tierney’s pass to Paul Martin at the point was just off the mark, allowing Anton Slepyshev to glide ahead untouched for another goal. The scores both came within the first two minutes of the middle frame, and were just 56 seconds apart.

That was probably poetic justice in that the Oilers were the much more aggressive and hungry team in the first period, they just weren't rewarded on the scoreboard.

Joe Thornton agreed with a suggestion that the Sharks were “a little bit sloppy” early, “but we got better. I thought we played a great second period and pushed in the third period. Just not enough time left on the clock.”

The Sharks did seem to get their game going just after Slepyshev’s score, but couldn’t solve Cam Talbot more than once. Pavelski nearly tied it with 3:45 to go, but his backhander from down low glanced off of both the crossbar and the post.

Key moments.

“It felt good coming off the stick, it really did,” Pavelski said of his chance. “It was there.”

Connor McDavid’s empty net goal with less than a second on the clock capped the scoring, sending the Oilers and former Sharks coach Todd McLellan on to the second round. 

Other than Game 4, which they dominated 7-0, the Sharks managed just seven goals in the other five games. Brent Burns failed to record a point in five of the six games, while Pavelski had just a single assist outside of Game 4.

The depth scorers also failed to come through, no surprise after the Sharks got little from them for much of the season.

“They defended well, Talbot played well. They were all close games,” Pete DeBoer said. “You’ve got to find a way to win 1-0, 2-1 in the playoffs. It’s not realistic you’re going to get three or four every night. They found a way to win more of the close games than we did.”

Burns said: “Series was pretty tight. I think it’s like Pavs said, it’s just little moments here and there. So much is luck, just puck luck, creating that luck. It’s a tight series, back and forth.”

The Sharks face an uncertain offseason, as there is little reason to believe their current roster, as constructed, will be able to compete with an Oilers team that has not only proven to be better now but is only going to improve. Whether Thornton and Marleau return remains an uncertainty, too.

“This is a big summer. We’ve got some guys that are up, and the expansion draft and whatnot,” Logan Couture said. 

“Every year I’ve been in this league, the team has never been the same the next year. There’s always been changes. Unfortunately, that’s the way that this league works. We’ll see what happens this summer, and come back hungrier next year.”

In the meantime, the Oilers will continue their push for a Stanley Cup while San Jose’s visit to the final round last year will only become more and more of a distant memory.