Sharks

Power play at the center of Sharks' downfall in 2016-17

Power play at the center of Sharks' downfall in 2016-17

SAN JOSE – There was an NHL coaching casualty on Monday on a team that flamed out in the first round.

No, it wasn’t in San Jose. It was in Chicago, as the Blackhawks fired assistant coach Mike Kitchen, who was in charge of their penalty kill. Chicago, swept by Nashville despite finishing atop the Western Conference, finished 24th on the PK in the regular season.

When it comes to the Sharks’ coaching staff, there’s no doubt that head coach Pete DeBoer will return, but it’s fair to wonder if assistant coach Steve Spott is feeling a little heat right now. The Sharks’ power play, a primary focus of Spott’s, finished just 25th in the NHL this season (16.7 percent) after it was third in the league in 2015-16 (22.5 percent).

When asked if the full Sharks’ coaching staff would return next season, general manager Doug Wilson didn’t offer anything definitive.

“I haven’t sat down with them yet. I think they did an outstanding job,” Wilson said. “You go through the last 12 months with a compressed schedule, very few practices, integrating players. I’m very pleased with their performance.

“I think there are things that they want to do better. We all have to take a look back and be honest, and say since we’re not playing right now, what can we do better? I think that transparency and honesty is a really good part of this group. We’ll do that in the next week.”

And what was Wilson’s perspective of the power play?

“It’s got to be better. [The coaches] will tell you. …  It’s not [always] the percentage or the number, it’s when you score goals. We certainly have the talent, and historically we’ve done very well,” Wilson said.

There was no part of the Sharks’ game during the regular season and in the playoffs that was more baffling and frustrating than its performance with a man advantage. Last season’s success seemed to bleed into October as the Sharks were running at a 24.1 percent rate through the first month of the 2016-17 season, but after November 1 and through the end of the season, the power play was a miserable 15.7 percent (34-for-217).

In the playoffs the Sharks were a more respectable 5-for-28, but even DeBoer called that misleading as four of those came in the 7-0 blowout in Game 4. They were 1-for-18 the rest of the series.

DeBoer, as the head coach, took responsibility for that part of the Sharks’ game when asked how much the miserable power play grinded on Spott.

“It grinds on all of us,” he said. “This isn’t about Steve. The power play is not about Steve. The power play is about our whole staff. We sit on all those situations as a group, and I’m the ultimate guy responsible for all those things. 

“I think it ground on all of us. It didn’t give us momentum, it didn’t create momentum even when it wasn’t scoring. That’s what you want your power play to do, is at least give you some momentum that you’re feeling good coming out of it. We didn’t get that, so that’s something that’s right at the top of our list.”

One baffling aspect of the power play is that the coaching staff hardly ever tried anything different with its units unless it was forced into it due to injury. Patrick Marleau was bumped from the top unit for a brief stretch in the middle of the season, but it didn’t last very long.

The second unit generated just seven goals in the 82-game season, and none after Feb. 2 other than rookie Danny O’Regan’s score in the final game when several Sharks regulars were resting.

One argument regarding the top unit is that it simply became too predictable. Joe Thornton could be counted on to pass, Brent Burns was going to shoot any chance he got, and Joe Pavelski would be hovering somewhere around the slot looking for a deflection.

Pavelski said: “There were times where maybe we rushed it, forced a few things. Definitely all year it could have been a little better, a little more of our identity and what it has been in the past. So, that’s on us as players.”

DeBoer said: “I think we got a little stagnant. I don’t think we had as much motion as we usually have and as much movement, and that comes with some confidence. You lose confidence, you tend to stand still. That’s something that we’ve got to get back.”

Play of Jones, Khudobin this season proof of how fickle goaltending can be

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USATSI

Play of Jones, Khudobin this season proof of how fickle goaltending can be

Martin Jones was a Boston Bruin for less than a week.

The “Original Six” franchise acquired Jones from the Los Angeles Kings on June 26, 2015. Four days later, Jones was traded back into the Pacific Division, this time to Northern California.

The Sharks gave up a first round pick and prospect Sean Kuraly for Jones. It seemed like a fairly high price at the time, but it’s one San Jose was happy to pay: No goalie started more games than Jones over the last two seasons, and the team signed him to a five-year extension this summer.

The first Jones trade in 2015 set off a flood of goalie transactions, as five netminders were traded during Jones’ extremely brief Boston tenure. One of those was Anton Khudobin, who will start for the Bruins as Jones backs up Aaron Dell against  his “former team” on Saturday night.

Khudobin was traded from Carolina to Anaheim, where he started seven games before getting sent down to the AHL. He then signed with Boston in 2016, returning to his former club as the Bruins tried to fill the hole that trading Jones left behind entrenched starter Tuukka Rask.

Jones and Khudobin will have taken vastly different paths to their respective creases on Saturday night. The former enters the game as his club’s undisputed franchise goalie, and the latter the unheralded backup.

Naturally then, Khudobin’s been the better goaltender this season.

Among the 46 goalies that have played 200 five-on-five minutes this season, Khudobin’s .962 five-on-five save percentage was the best entering Saturday, according to Corsica.  So, too, is his .954 save percentage off of high-danger shots.

Jones, meanwhile, ranks 27th (.920) and 14th (.833) in those respective categories.

What does it all mean? For one, it’s early in the season, and the fact that Khudobin’s made seven fewer starts undoubtedly plays a role in his superior performance to Jones.

Mainly, it speaks to just how fickle goaltending can be.

The Bruins backup is arguably getting the nod Saturday night because of how bad the man ahead of him has been. Rask, once one of the league’s best goaltenders, has steadily declined over the last three years and reached a new low this season: This year, he’s 40th out of 46 qualifying goalies in five-on-five save percentage.

Jones has demonstrated this, too. He’s stopped a lower percentage of low-and-medium danger shots at even strength than the last two seasons, but has stopped a higher percentage of high-danger shots.

Plus, he’s played behind one of the league’s best penalty-killing teams after playing behind one of its worst last season, and has benefitted from a corresponding bump in his shorthanded save percentage.

So much of what a goalie does is out of their control. Yet who’s playing in front of them, what kind of shots they see, and how often they see those shots all can affect their performance.

Khudobin and Jones are living proof of that this season.

Sharks fall to Bruins for second straight loss

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Sharks fall to Bruins for second straight loss

BOX SCORE

SAN JOSE -- Anton Khudobin stopped 36 shots to lead the Boston Bruins to a 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Saturday night.

Peter CehlarikJake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen scored to help the Bruins get their second straight win after a four-game skid (0-3-1). Boston had totaled nine goals in its previous five games, scoring more than two for just the second time in nine November games.

Khudobin remained unbeaten in regulation (5-0-2) and improved to 4-1 with a 0.99 goals-against average in five games against the Sharks.

Timo Meier scored and Aaron Dell finished with 18 saves for the Sharks, one of the lowest scoring teams in the league. San Jose has been held to two of fewer goals in five of their seven games this month.

Meier gave the Sharks, losers of two straight following wins in six of seven, a short-lived 1-0 lead after tapping in a rebound 4:50 into the game. Daniel O'Regan, making his season debut, won the puck behind the net and skated around to take the shot that bounced to Meier. It was O'Regan's first career assist and second career point.

Cehlarik, in his 14th game, scored his first career goal about 1 1/2 minutes later to tie it for the Bruins.

Boston took the lead on DeBrusk's goal with 9:14 left in the first. Charlie McAvoy cleared a puck in his zone that DeBrusk chased down and easily beat Dell 1-on-1.

Heinen made it 3-1 with 5:51 left in the third. Kevan Miller skated down the ice, drawing all the attention on the right side. He passed across the crease, from where Heinen tapped it in.

The Sharks had a goal negated for the second straight game, this one two minutes in.

NOTES: Sharks F Danny O'Regan was recalled before the game. He's the leading scorer for the Barracuda of the AHL. ... The Sharks have had three consecutive goals reversed after challenges dating to Thursday's game against the Florida Panthers. ... Sharks F Joel Ward has recorded points in six of his last eight games. ... DeBrusk, who assisted on Cehlarik's goal, recorded his first multi-point game since Oct. 14, a span of 14 games.

UP NEXT

Bruins: At the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday night.

Sharks: Host the Anaheim Ducks on Monday night.