Sharks

With Devils in town, Sharks will get firsthand look at top contender for MVP

taylor-hall-devils-ap.jpg
AP

With Devils in town, Sharks will get firsthand look at top contender for MVP

As the season winds down, whispers surrounding players’ awards candidacies are turning into full-blown conversations. None are more interesting than those surrounding the Hart Trophy, awarded to “the player judged to be the most valuable to his team,” according to the NHL’s criteria.

The Sharks have already seen their fair share of MVP candidates since the trade deadline, and will encounter yet another one on Tuesday when Taylor Hall and the New Jersey Devils stop by SAP Center. They’ll see a couple more beyond Hall over the next three weeks, too.

Who do we think has the best case? With no disrespect meant to Nikita Kucherov or Anze Kopitar, Hart Trophy candidates that the Sharks won’t play before the playoffs, we’ll look at the ones the Sharks have played since the deadline or will play before the end of the regular season.

The Dark Horses
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: The demise of the ‘Great Eight’ was greatly exaggerated. In his 13th NHL season, the 32-year-old is tied for the league lead in goals (43), 11th in points (78), and has led a depleted Capitals roster to the precipice of a third-straight division title. That probably won’t be enough to earn his fourth Hart Trophy, but this is undoubtedly one of Ovi’s best seasons.

Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild: Staal was a pleasant surprise when he scored 65 points last year, but has been even better this season. He’s tied for fourth in the in goals (39), tied for fifth in even strength goals (26), tied for 19th in points (71), and leading his team in each category as a 33-year-old. The Wild are a near-lock for the postseason at this point, and a resurgent Staal deserves much of the credit.

The Frontrunners
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: McDavid’s candidacy comes down to where you fall on the “non-playoff players winning MVP” debate, but his value to the lottery-bound Oilers cannot be denied. Edmonton is 28-19-3 when he’s scored a point, and 3-17-2 when he hasn’t.

The former is about a 97-point pace in the standings over an 82-game season, while the latter is about a 30-point pace. In other words, the Oilers are basically a playoff team when McDavid scores, and historically bad when he doesn’t.

We’re sympathetic to questions about how valuable a player can be when his team will finish so far out of the postseason. However, imagining how much worse the poorly-constructed Oilers would be without him makes him a worthy candidate alone.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche: The Colorado Avalanche were 31 points worse than the league’s second-worst team last season, and finished 46 points out of the postseason. A full offseason with second-year coach Jared Bednar, as well as some under-the-radar acquisitions have helped the Avalanche’s remarkable turnaround into a Wild Card team, but Nathan MacKinnon is undoubtedly the catalyst.

The former No. 1 pick has put it all together this season, and is tied-for-second in points (89) with McDavid, despite playing eight fewer games. His 1.39 points per game are the most in the league, as are his 3.49 points per 60 minutes of five-on-five play, according to Natural Stat Trick (minimum 500 minutes played).

The Avalanche is the league’s fifth-worst five-on-five puck possession team overall (47.42 percent corsi-for), but are right around league-average with MacKinnon on the ice (50.96 percent). He’d be a very worthy Hart Trophy winner, and likely would be the clear-cut frontrunner if not for the man leading the Devils into SAP Center on Tuesday.

The Favorite
Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils: McDavid is not the only No. 1 pick the Oilers drafted that’s in the MVP conversation, but he’s the only one still on their roster. The other is Taylor Hall, who has the best Hart Trophy case in our eyes.

Hall strikes the sweet spot between McDavid’s case, as a superstar with little support around him, and MacKinnon’s, as an emergent force leading a resurgence, and he has a 26-game point streak to his name. He sits outside the top 10 in points (77), goals (31), and assists (46), but has scored points at a higher rate per game (1.15) than all but six qualifying players.

He also doesn’t have Mikko Rantanen or Leon Draisaitl skating alongside him as MacKinnon and McDavid do, nor does he have a supporting cast like Kucherov and Kopitar. Of all the players the Sharks have and will face down the stretch, Hall’s been the player most valuable to his team this season.

All eyes on the goaltenders ahead of Sharks-Golden Knights series

martinjonesflueryusatsi.jpg
USATSI

All eyes on the goaltenders ahead of Sharks-Golden Knights series

Don't expect a lot of goals in the second-round playoff series between the Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights. The goaltending matchup, featuring red-hot shot-stoppers Martin Jones and Marc-Andre Fleury, is arguably one of the best in postseason history. 

Since the NHL changed up its playoff format in 2014, no two opposing starting goalies have entered a round with a higher combined save percentage than  Jones and Fleury (.973). Among goalies that played at least 175 minutes in a playoff round (or, about three games) all-time, Fleury and Jones' first-round performances rank 8th and 20th, respectively, in single-series save percentage. No other goaltenders in the top-20 played another in the following round. 

It shouldn't surprise you, then, that Fleury and Jones sit atop the league leaderboard in save percentage and goals-against average during the Stanley Cup playoffs this year. It's also shouldn't surprise you that both goaltenders stopped pretty much every shot they faced, no matter the type, in the first round. 

In five-on-five situations, where they've played the vast majority of their minutes, neither Jones nor Fleury allowed a goal off of a low-danger shot, according to Corsica Hockey. They each allowed one medium-danger goal, and Jones allowed the only high-danger tally.

Their save percentage against each type of five-on-five shot represented an improvement over the regular season, but some of their biggest improvements were arguably a result of improved play in front of them.

During the regular season, Jones ranked 46th out of 51 goaltenders that played a minimum of 1000 five-on-five minutes in medium-danger save percentage (.900), while facing the 11th-highest percentage of medium-danger shots. In the postseason, Jones has faced the lowest percentage of medium danger shots (25.53), and has the fourth-best save percentage (.958), per Corsica. 

Fleury, meanwhile, cleaned up on high-danger shots in the first round while his teammates limited those opportunities. In the regular season, Fleury's five-on-five high-danger save percentage (.768) ranked 44th out of 51 goalies (minimum 1000 minutes), according to Corsica. While he faced the 10th-lowest percentage of high-danger shots (16.91), he faced an even lower one (9.28) against the Los Angeles Kings. 

If the first round was any indication, though, the improvements of both goaltenders will be tested in the second. In four games against the Golden Knights, 42.71 percent of the five-on-five shots Kings netminder Jonathan Quick faced were of the medium-danger variety, the third-highest percentage of the 18 goalies that played at least 100 five-on-five minutes in the playoffs entering Monday. Against the Sharks, nearly a fifth of the five-on-five shots Ducks goaltender John Gibson saw were high-danger, the fifth-highest percentage (19.51 percent) among those aforementioned goalies, per Corsica. 

Some regression should be expected, but just how much is anyone's guess. Jones has plenty of playoff pedigree, and although Fleury doesn't (.912 career playoff save percentage entering this postseason), he's in the middle of what is easily the best season of his career. Plus, an additional four-to-seven games may not be enough of a representative sample size to expect any meaningful returns to normalcy. 

In other words, if you like to see pucks cross the goal line, there's a good chance this series will disappoint you. 

Sharks will have hands full with top Golden Knights line

marchy_sharks.jpg
USATSI

Sharks will have hands full with top Golden Knights line

The Vegas Golden Knights are not a one-line team, but one line will worry the Sharks most in the second round. 

The top trio of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Reilly Smith was one of the league's best this season. Only Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen were on the ice for more five-on-five goals together in the regular season (47) than Vegas' first line (46), according to Corsica Hockey. In just under 700 five-on-five minutes together, they controlled 55.54 percent of the shot attempts, 56.55 percent of the shots, 56.41 percent of the expected goals, and two-thirds of the goals, outscoring opponents 46-23. 

They did so playing primarily against the team's top players. According to HockeyViz, Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith spent an above-average amount of time matched with their opponent's top-four forwards and top-three defensemen. Per Corsica, no Vegas forwards faced competition that accounted for a higher percentage of their team's ice time, a higher percentage of shot attempts, or a higher percentage of expected goals in the regular season.

Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant continued to use them this way in the first round against the Los Angeles Kings. They were attached to the hips of Los Angeles' top line, playing nearly an hour of five-on-five time against Anze Kopitar alone, according to Natural Stat Trick. Kopitar's next-most common forward opponent, James Neal, played only 15 minutes against him five-on-five in the entire series. 

When the Sharks and Golden Knights face off in Sin City later this week, Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith will undoubtedly see a lot of San Jose defensemen Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Gallant will likely primarily ice his first line against Peter DeBoer's top trio of Joonas Donskoi, Evander Kane, and Joe Pavelski, especially if recent history is any indication. Smith was injured the last time the teams played on March 31, but Marchessault and Karlsson played (at least) three more minutes against Donskoi, Kane, and Pavelski than any other San Jose forwards. 

It will be interesting if those same matchups are used when the series shifts to SAP Center for Games 3, 4, and possibly 6. On March 22, the last Sharks-Golden Knights game in San Jose, Mikkel Boedker, Logan Couture, and Tomas Hertl drew Marchessault and Karlsson (Smith was hurt then, too) most of the game. Boedker, Couture, and Hertl functioned as San Jose's shutdown line in the first round, playing most of their minutes against Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell, who consistently remained on the Anaheim Ducks' top line.

No matter which Sharks line draws Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith, it will need to improve on its first-round performance. San Jose's top-six forwards, who spent most of their time against Anaheim's top-two lines, were the team's six-worst forwards in terms of five-on-five corsi-for percentage (none eclipsed 43 percent), and only Couture was not outshot, according to Corsica Hockey. None of them were outscored five-on-five, but that was largely owed to the team's strong finishing ability and the outstanding play of Martin Jones in net. 

Jones is a proven playoff performer, but the Sharks were unlikely to continue to score on nearly 12 percent of their five-on-five shots before factoring in the presence of Marc-Andre Fleury, the playoff leader in five-on-five save percentage, in the opposite crease. That's even less likely now. Plus, the Golden Knights are far more disciplined (plus-16 penalty differential in the regular season) than the Ducks (minus-60), so San Jose likely won't be able to mask any five-on-five mismatches with a strong power play.  

Thus, it'll go a long way for the Sharks if their top-six forwards keep pace with Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith. Getting the best of the matchup would go even further.