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.

Analysis: Scoring winger a need for Sharks ahead of trade deadline

Analysis: Scoring winger a need for Sharks ahead of trade deadline

SAN JOSE – There are no glaring holes for the San Jose Sharks to fill ahead of next week's NHL trade deadline on March 1.

Still, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson is a notorious tire-kicker, and he’s surely working the phones these days to see if there’s anything out there that could help his hockey club, which has a comfortable five-point lead on the Pacific Division midway through its bye week.

“We’ll see, but we do feel really good about this group,” Wilson told CSN earlier this month. “We believe in our players and we believe in our guys on the Barracuda, because they’ve earned that.

“Having said that, our history speaks for itself. If there’s a way to help this hockey team or add something, we’ve always done it, and we’ll always explore it.”

So, what might the Sharks be exploring? There are two areas that make the most sense – a backup goaltender, and a scoring winger.

* * *

No question Aaron Dell has exceeded expectations in his first NHL season. He’s 7-3-1 with a 1.95 GAA and .934 SP in 12 games, and his .953 even-strength save percentage is tops in the league among goalies that have played at least 10 games.

Still, it’s unknown if Dell would be able to handle the day-to-day grind, if anything were to happen to Jones. Even in the minors last season when he earned the number one job with the Barracuda, he wasn’t playing three and four games a week due to the AHL’s Pacific Division having fewer games than the rest of the league. He’s also not been overly tested at the NHL level – of Dell’s 10 starts, only one has come against a team currently in playoff position, and the Calgary Flames are only barely in the second Wild Card spot.

There are some goalies thought to be trade bait as pending unrestricted free agents. They include Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop, Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavalec, the Islanders’ Jaroslav Halak, or Philadelphia goalies Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth. All could likely be gotten for some combination of young players and/or draft picks.

But is it worth it for the Sharks to make a move for a player that might not even be needed in the postseason? According to one NHL analyst, the Sharks should just take their chances with the inexperienced North Dakota product.

“I probably wouldn’t put a whole lot of resources in [finding a backup goalie],” NBCSN analyst Keith Jones told CSN on the latest Sharks Insider Podcast. “If Martin Jones was injured you’d have a real problem, it would be tough to find a goalie to replace what he brings to the table. I know they tried James Reimer last year, and the book is out on him. … I’m not sure that that’s a major upgrade on Aaron Dell.”

That said, Keith Jones would like to see Martin Jones – who’s on pace to play 69.5 games – get more time off after the schedule resumes. That means increased playing time for Dell.

“I think you might just want to take a chance with your backup a little more frequently,” Jones said. “You may want to sacrifice a few games along the way. [Dell] gains some experience, and Jones gets some rest.”

The impression here is that the Sharks will probably stick with Dell. Sharks coach Pete DeBoer has been nothing short of glowing in his reviews of Dell lately, as well he should be. The goalie has earned his place on this team, and none of the other goalies that the Sharks could acquire would be obvious upgrades at this stage of the season.

* * *

A much stronger case can be made that the Sharks are in need of another scoring winger. 

While the offense has been more dangerous in recent weeks than it was over the first half of the season, it still doesn’t look as effective as it was last season going into the playoffs, when it finished fourth in the league. Yes, the power play has been relatively power-less, but there’s more to it than that.

Mikkel Boedker has been a disappointment after signing a four-year deal as a free agent, and was benched yet again on Sunday. Joonas Donskoi, still out with what looks like a shoulder injury, hasn’t taken that next step after his strong playoff run last season. Joel Ward is off his scoring pace from last year. Patrick Marleau has been outstanding, but remains streaky. Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier have done some nice things as rookies, but neither of them has “arrived” yet, to borrow a word commonly used by DeBoer. Nikolay Goldobin failed in his two-game tryout last week, too.

Finding a winger to play on the Joe Thornton-Joe Pavelski line should be a priority, as DeBoer has tried seven different wingers there this season without finding a permanent fit. 

Among the veterans that could be available are Dallas’ Patrick Sharp or Patrick Eaves, Arizona’s Shane Doan, Colorado’s Jarome Iginla, Detroit's Thomas Vanek, or even Vancouver’s Alex Burrows or Jannik Hansen, if the club is looking for a more agitating type.

Sharp is perhaps the most intriguing name on that list. Although he’s been hurt off and on this season and his numbers are down on a bad Dallas team, he’s a veteran scorer that has won three Stanley Cups as part of Chicago’s dynasty. He’s an obvious upgrade over the players that have rotated through the Thornton line.

Bringing in one of those aforementioned forwards would require some salary cap juggling (especially Sharp, who carries a $5.9 million cap hit) and perhaps a salary from the current roster going the other way, as the Sharks don’t have a whole lot of room right now. But it’s worth exploring, as a consistent offensive attack should be this team’s biggest worry right now with seven weeks until the postseason.

* * *

If the Sharks don’t make a move, DeBoer and company are still confident with the team in the dressing room. After all, most of those players were a part of the team’s run last season, when the Sharks were just two wins from capturing the Stanley Cup.

“For us, it’s not whether a piece comes in or whether we don’t bring any pieces in, I think we’re confident in our group,” DeBoer said. “It’s about us…playing to our identity for as long a stretch as is possible, because that’s what wins in the playoffs. Whether we don’t do anything or whether a piece comes in here, I don’t think that mindset changes.”

Justin Braun said: “Management is going to do what they’re going to do, but if they don’t do anything, we have confidence with everyone in here to get the job done.”

Despite loss, Sharks 'in a good spot' headed into bye week

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USATSI

Despite loss, Sharks 'in a good spot' headed into bye week

SAN JOSE – Despite what was technically their sixth loss in the last eight games, the Sharks seemed to put more stock in the point they gained in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Bruins on Sunday night at SAP Center, rather than the one they left on the table.

They have that luxury. 

The Sharks will enter their bye week five points ahead of Edmonton and Anaheim for first place in the Pacific Division, and figure they’re due for some time off after a short summer followed by a World Cup for some, and a brutal condensed NHL schedule for all.

“[We’ve] showed up and played hard,” Joe Pavelski said. “We’ve been in a lot of games. Games we’ve lost, we’ve battled. There hasn’t been any cheat in [our] game. Defensively, we’ve been strong. There’s a lot of good areas in our game that we like right now.”

Playing in the second of a back-to-back against a Bruins team had was coming off of its own bye week, the Sharks fell behind 1-0 on a first period goal by Ryan Spooner, but notched a Patrick Marleau equalizer in a second period in which they outshot the Bruins 16-9. An evenly played third period gave way to overtime, where Brad Marchand scored on a breakaway to give the Bruins their fourth straight win since changing head coaches.

The Sharks spoke before the weekend about finishing the final two games strong before the respite. They ended up gaining three of four points, including Saturday’s 4-1 win in Arizona, and were pleased with their effort against the Bruins as they capped off 10 games in 20 days since the All-Star break.

“It was an important push into this break,” Pete DeBoer said. “To go in up [five points] on the next closest team is a real testament to our group.”

Paul Martin said: “I thought we played pretty well, considering the back-to-back with some travel, and a team that was waiting for us.”

Perhaps the most encouraging performance came from Martin Jones, who was one of a number of Sharks players that was looking particularly fatigued lately. The goaltender entered the game with a 1-0-2 record, 4.46 goals-against average and .837 save percentage in his last four starts, including getting pulled after the first period in Boston just 10 days ago.

Jones was impressive, though, making a vital pad stop on the dangerous David Pastrnak in front of the net midway through the third period to keep it a 1-1 score.

“It was a good game. Two teams playing hard,” Jones said. “We can take a lot of positives from that one. It was a good hard game, just didn’t go our way tonight.”

Overtimes have been an issue lately, though. The Sharks have lost their last four games decided during the three-on-three, all coming within the last two weeks. As satisfied as they are with their cushion in the division, it could have been cushier.

Against the Bruins, Tuukka Rask denied Brent Burns on a two-on-one in overtime, and Marchand scored off of the ensuing faceoff, blowing the zone past Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic and corralling a long toss from Torey Krug before sliding it home.

“We get to overtime, shootouts – we expect to get that extra point,” Pavelski said. “We haven’t found it lately. We’ll just keep looking for it.”

DeBoer said: “The points are critical, they’re valuable. I don’t read a lot into [overtime decisions], we’ve won our share over the time I’ve been here. We had a chance to win tonight, too. … I concentrate on the effort, and I thought we got better as the game went on.”

Being focused and energized, as they have been most of the season to this point, shouldn’t be a problem when the season resumes next Saturday in Vancouver. The Sharks are in prime position to win their first division title since 2010-11, and a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final is a distinct possibility.

Losing six of eight won’t be nearly as acceptable coming out of the break as it apparently is going into it, but that’s not something to worry about now, even after another defeat. 

“There are some games you wish you could get back and get those points, but we’re still in a good spot,” Marleau said.