Five questions for the Sharks' stretch run


Five questions for the Sharks' stretch run

As the Sharks prepare for the stretch run and the calendar turns to February, here are five questions to ponder about the Pacific Division leaders.

Is the Pacific Division race in the bag?

Maybe not in the bag, but it sure seems like the Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings are the only two teams with a chance to capture that automatic high seed in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The division as a whole has taken a step backwards this season, as Dallas, Phoenix and Anaheim are all but out of the race for first place. The Kings, meanwhile, are the worst team in the league when it comes to goal scoring (2.16 per game), although a solid defense corps and goaltender Jonathan Quick help to make up for their lack of firepower. Its the Sharks division to lose, as San Jose still leads it with several games on hand with the Kings. They would be wise to wrap it up before the final two games of the season though, when the Sharks and Kings face off in a home-and-home series to conclude the regular season. Theres still a distinct possibility those two games will determine the Pacific Division championship.

Do the Sharks need to upgrade at forward?

Yes. As they stand right now, the Sharks' depth up front cant compare to fellow Western Conference powers like Vancouver, Chicago and Detroit. The third liners have had their moments, and Jamie McGinns 10 goals are a pleasant surprise, but players like Torrey Mitchell and Michal Handzus have been inconsistent. Injuries to forwards Marty Havlat and Ryane Clowe exposed San Joses offense, which struggled mightily with two goals or less in six of the eight games before the All-Star break. Whether or not the Sharks can make a move to upgrade the position will be determined in the next couple of weeks leading up to the February 27 trade deadline, but you have to believe Doug Wilson is seeking help.

How will the schedule affect the Sharks?

San Jose arguably has the toughest schedule of any team in the league from now until the end of the regular season. February includes a 16-day, nine-game road trip, while March has no less than 17 games on the schedule a franchise high for any month in team history. The Sharks wont be able to rely on goaltender Antti Niemi this time around, either, as Todd McLellan has remarked that Niemi may have been a bit tired when the playoffs began last April. Fortunately, he has Thomas Greiss at his disposal, and Greiss has been outstanding as the backup goaltender. Hell have to keep up his strong play, too, as McLellan is likely to give him at least six-to-eight starts during what is a grueling couple of months.

Will Havlat and Burns have better second halves?

Brent Burns, yes; Havlat...tough to say. The two big additions this offseason havent exactly performed up to their potential, leading many to question the trades with Minnesota over the summer. Still, Burns appeared to be getting more and more comfortable headed into the All-Star break, and was showing some of his flash on offensive by jumping into the zone to generate scoring chances. His defensive play has been very good for most of the year, but he can do more than 17 points in 47 games. As for Havlat, a hamstring injury will keep him sidelined until March. That will give him time to get back his skating legs as the team prepares for the playoffs, but the Sharks will simply need more out of him than they got in his first 26 games while wearing a teal uniform (2g, 13a). If they dont, and the team makes an early playoff exit, it will be safe to say that the Havlat acquisition was a bust.

Will the power play improve?

As well as the Sharks have played five-on-five this season, the power play was dismal in the two months leading into the All-Star break. With so much talent at forward and on the points, its difficult to determine why, although the team could probably be accused of trying to be too fancy at times. That includes Joe Thornton, who has thrived with a man advantage in his career but whose numbers are way down in that category. The power play runs through Thornton, and its a good sign that the Sharks captain has a power play assist in two of his last three games. If the Sharks are going to make any noise in the playoffs, the power play absolutely has to produce more than it has.

DeBoer's defense of Jones doesn't paint the whole picture


DeBoer's defense of Jones doesn't paint the whole picture

Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer passionately defended goaltender Martin Jones following San Jose's 5-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night. For the eighth time in his last 14 starts, Jones allowed four goals, but DeBoer tried to take a look at the bigger picture. 

"You guys like to grab little pictures of things that work for the story your writing," DeBoer told reporters in Denver after he was asked about Jones' recent struggles. 

"It's 14 games. You can go back six games and write whatever story you want. He's having a great year for us. Our goaltending has been excellent all year."

If you look at his save percentage, Jones is not having a great season.

His save percentage in all situations (.9097) is the lowest in his three seasons in teal, and ranks 22nd out of the 34 goalies that have played 1000 minutes in all situations, according to Corsica Hockey. His five-on-five save percentage (.9147) is also the lowest of his teal tenure, and sits 26th out of 30 goalies that have played 1000 five-on-five minutes. 

But save percentage doesn't always tell the whole story, as it doesn't take into account shot quality. As we've written previously, Jones has played behind a loose defense this season.

Among those aforementioned 30 goalies, Jones has faced the highest percentage of high-danger shots, the second-highest percentage of medium-danger shots, and fourth-lowest percentage of low-danger shots. 

Luckily, there's a metric that does take into account shot quality: goals saved above average (GSAA). GSAA works much like Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in baseball, and considers how well a league-average goaltender would do "based on the shot danger faced," according to Corsica's definition.

Jones has been better than his save percentage would indicate. His 0.54 five-on-five GSAA ranks 17th out of the 30 goalies that have played 1000 five-on-five minutes, and his all situations GSAA (8.69) ranks 11th out of 34 goalies that have played 1000 minutes in all situations. 

GSAA has the same downside as WAR, in that it's an accumulative statistic, and favors players that have played more. In order to equalize for playing time, we can look at GSAA/30 shots faced. 

Jones ranks 17th and 10th in five-on-five (0.03) and all situations (0.31) GSAA/30, respectively, among goaltenders that have played 1000 minutes in such circumstances. In other words, Jones has been about average during five-on-five play, and one of the league's better goalies across all situations, at least based on the kind of shots he's faced.

That's not neccessarily "great," but Jones has been better on the whole than his recent play would indicate. Of course, he's also been outplayed in his own crease.

Backup goaltender Aaron Dell not only boasts a higher save percentage than Jones, but his GSAA/30 in five-on-five situations (0.15) and across all strengths (0.44) are also higher than Jones'. Every 30 shots on the penalty kill, Dell (2.05 GSAA/30) saves nearly a goal more than Jones (1.06). 

DeBoer also acknowledged that Dell will have to play more out of necessity, with the Sharks halfway through a stretch of eight games in 13 days. That includes a difficult back-to-back this weekend, hosting the Penguins Saturday and facing the Ducks in Anaheim on Sunday. 

The coach was on to something on Thursday. Yes, Jones has been better than his recenty play, and his season-long save percentage, would indicate. 

But that doesn't mean he's been "great," nor does it mean he's San Jose's better option in net right now. 

Sharks face surprisingly tough test in Avalanche


Sharks face surprisingly tough test in Avalanche

On a night when Eric Lindros is getting his number retired, who would have thought one of the NHL's best games involves a team that was the worst a season ago, and another features a team that didn't even exist last year?

Okay, most of the hockey world's eyes will be glued to tonight's Golden Knights-Lightning tilt in Tampa, which surely felt just as weird to write as it did for you to read. But Sharks-Avalanche could have that game beat, and not just because Long Beach native Matt Nieto will play against his former team.

No, the Sharks and Avalanche just happen to be two of the hottest teams in the league.

San Jose has won three in a row, and along with Nashville, holds the league's third-longest active winning streak. Colorado, meanwhile, has won seven in a row, and along with Calgary, holds the league's longest streak.

The Avalanche have not lost in 2018, and since their streak began on Dec. 29, have scored the third-most goals and allowed the fewest. With starter Semyon Varlamov out with a groin strain, backup netminder Jonathan Bernier has stopped all but seven of the shots he's seen, good for a .962 save percentage.

Nathan Mackinnon has emerged as an under-the-radar Hart Trophy candidate, or at least he would have been under-the-radar if seemingly the entire hockey world hadn't made the same observation. He's no longer a dark horse, though, and may be the frontrunner if Colorado is even sniffing the postseason at the end of the year.

After all, the Avalanche were far closer to the 1992-93 Sharks than Colorado's glory days last season, losing the ninth-most games in a single season in NHL history. Entering Thursday, the Avalanche are just two points out of the final wild card spot.

To further drive home just how remarkable the turnaround's been, the Avalanche already have three more points than last season. In 39 fewer games.

Colorado may not be as good as they've been over the last seven games, when they've also led the league in PDO, the sum of save percentage and shooting percentage often used as a shorthand for luck. But during the stretch, the Avalanche are also a positive puck possession team when adjusting for score and venue, according to Natural Stat Trick, and eighth in adjusted corsi-for percentage during the win streak, per Corsica Hockey.

The Sharks, too, have been playing much better than before the bye. Two of the wins on their three-game streak have come against the cellar-dwelling Coyotes, though, and they needed overtime and a shootout to beat them.

The Avalanche will then represent the toughest test for the Sharks following the week off, and a potentially thorny end to their three-game road trip. Who would have thought?