Sharks

The key to Joe Thornton's recent scoring surge

jumbo-ap.jpg
AP

The key to Joe Thornton's recent scoring surge

Last season was the first time since his rookie year that Joe Thornton scored less than ten goals in an 82-game season. 

It was no coincidence that his 1.03 shots per game were his lowest since his first campaign, according to Hockey Reference, and that his 2.95 shots on goal per 60 minutes in five-on-five situations were his lowest since the NHL first began tracking shot attempts in 2007-08, according to Corsica Hockey.

This season, Thornton’s just three goals away from matching his total from a season ago after scoring his fourth in Tuesday night’s win over the Philadelphia Flyers. He’s now scored two goals in his last four games, after scoring the same amount in his previous 19. 

That mark ties him with linemate Joe Pavelski, and fellow member of the over-35 club Joel Ward, for fifth on the team. How’s Thornton managed to do it? 

Simply put, he’s shooting the puck more.

Much to the delight of Sharks fans that have cried out for him to shoot whenever he has the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, he’s shooting a hair over two more shots every 60 minutes of five-on-five play (5.05 iSF/60, per Corsica) than he did last year. Across all situations, he’s shooting nearly half-a-shot more per game than last year (1.49, per Hockey Reference).

The former matches his rate from 2014-15, and is the fourth-highest Thornton’s posted since 2007-08. The latter is more than Thornton’s managed in all but one of the last five seasons (2014-15; 1.68).

Thornton’s always had a good shot. Of the players that have played 200 games since Thornton entered the league, his shooting percentage (13.9 percent) is tied for 81st, ahead of players far more known for goal-scoring such as Patrick Marleau (13.4), Corey Perry (13.1), and even Pavelski (12.0). 

Those differences are miniscule, but still speak well of Thornton’s shooting ability. He’s actually shooting below his career average this season (11.4 percent), and a bit more regression to the mean would ensure Thornton surpasses the 15-goal mark, as he’s done in all but three full NHL seasons. 

The Sharks have continued to put the 38-year-old in positions to succeed coming off of significant knee injuries last spring, but his age and those injuries make his shooting turnaround all the more impressive.

Erik Karlsson: New Sharks defenseman explained in four key stats

Erik Karlsson: New Sharks defenseman explained in four key stats

The moment has arrived. After almost a week of waiting, Wednesday marks the beginning of defenseman Erik Karlsson’s time with the Sharks.  

San Jose general manager Doug Wilson has made it clear he wants to lock up the Swedish superstar for a long time, and the Sharks have emerged as one of the league’s most intriguing teams after acquiring the two-time Norris Trophy winner. 

So what, exactly, is all the hubbub about? Here a four stats and figures that describe just what kind of player he is. 

96

Since entering the league in 2009, that’s how many more points Karlsson has scored than the next closest defenseman, Florida Panthers blueliner Keith Yandle. In fact, Karlsson’s 518 points through his first nine NHL seasons are more than all but 10 defensemen in league history. One of those 10? Doug Wilson.

That’s impressive, regardless of context, but it’s worth remembering that Karlsson plays in a much different era than those ahead of him. Goaltending is better right now than it’s ever been, indicated by the fact that each of Karlsson’s nine NHL seasons rank in the top-12 by average save percentage. When you adjust for era, the start of Karlsson’s career is even more impressive.

Among defensemen in their first nine seasons, Karlsson ranks fifth in Hockey Reference’s adjusted points (576). He’s third in adjusted assists (431), only behind Bobby Orr (593) and Paul Coffey (477). In other words: Karlsson is a generational offensive talent. 

114

There is, perhaps, no better number to encapsulate Karlsson’s unique combination of vision and playmaking ability. 114 is approximately how many feet this saucer pass traveled off of Karlsson’s stick and into the path of a wide-open Mike Hoffman during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

That was the last time Karlsson and the Senators made the playoffs, finishing a double-overtime goal away from facing the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Final. Playing on an ankle that ultimately required offseason surgery, Karlsson led Ottawa with 18 points in 19 games, 13 of which came at even strength.

After a disastrous season, both Hoffman and Karlsson are no longer in Ottawa. The Sharks briefly acquired Hoffman this summer, and flipped him to the Florida Panthers hours later. The trades came days after the Ottawa Citizen reported that Karlsson’s wife, Melinda, filed an order of protection after Hoffman’s fiancee allegedly harassed her repeatedly online. 

Plus-4.35 

243 defenseman have logged 3000, five-on-five minutes since the start of the 2009-10 season. Of that group, only five players have posted a better adjusted corsi-for percentage relative to their teammates than Karlsson’s mark of plus-4.35, according to Corsica Hockey.

What does that mean? When Karlsson was on the ice, the Senators attempted 52.05 percent of the shots. When his teammates were on the ice without him, that number fell to 48.7 percent. 4.35, then, is the difference in those percentages, and its positive value means his teammates attempted a smaller share of shots when they weren't playing with him.

The gap was especially stark in Karlsson’s last season in the Canadian capital. Last season, Ottawa just about broke even with him on the ice, and attempted 49.68 percent of the shots. Meanwhile, the Senators attempted only 44.9 percent of the shots without him. That latter mark would have been dead-last out of 31 teams in the league last year. 

33.98

Sharks defenseman Brent Burns is also a Norris Trophy winner (2017), and since the bearded blueliner moved back to the position in 2014-15, only Karlsson (281) has scored more points (278). This number equals their combined shot attempts per hour of five-on-five play over that span. 

Burns ranks first (20.06) by the metric among defenseman (min. 1000 minutes) during that time, while Karlsson (13.86) ranks sixth, per Corsica Hockey. No two defenseman on the same team (as of this writing) eclipse that combined total. 

The Sharks, for reference, attempted 58.49 five-on-five shots per hour over the last four seasons. Plugging in Karlsson doesn’t mean San Jose will attempt nearly 14 more shots per 60 minutes, but it does mean they’ll be able to rely on the two blueliners to put a lot of pucks on net this season.

On Wednesday, be sure to watch Erik Karlsson’s first practice with the Sharks at approximately 10:30 a.m., streaming live at facebook.com/nbcsauthentic. At 3 p.m., tune into Karlsson’s introductory press conference on NBC Sports California and also streaming live at facebook.com/nbcsauthentic.

Top Sharks prospect Merkley soaking in lessons, warm weather in first training camp

merkleyryansharksdraft.jpg
USATI

Top Sharks prospect Merkley soaking in lessons, warm weather in first training camp

Out of his pads, Sharks prospect Ryan Merkley looked like someone who just turned 18. 

Well, that’s because he did. 

The right-shooting defenseman became old enough to buy a lottery ticket on Aug. 14, 53 days after San Jose selected him in the first round, No. 21 overall, at the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas. The Sharks list Merkley as 5-foot-11, 170 pounds on their training camp roster. Naturally, one difference between junior hockey and the pros stood out to the teenager. 

“The strength. These guys are a lot bigger, stronger, quicker,” Merkley said Monday after the Sharks’ second scrimmage of camp. “[Monday was], what, my fourth practice with these guys who have been doing it for years. The way they move and pass the puck and work the corners is pretty unreal.”

In his pads, he’s looked like a teenager at times, too. Late in Monday’s scrimmage, Sharks defenseman Brent Burns pounced on Merkley’s errant clearing attempt from the right corner of the defensive zone, and wristed a shot just under the crossbar. Merkley also got caught up the ice at times as well, ensuring an odd-man rush the other way.

But the talent was on display, too. More often than not, the defenseman jumped into the play at the right time. He learned from his mistakes, too: At one point after the aforementioned odd-man rush, Merkley hustled back to deny forward prospect Ivan Chekhovich on a breakaway, preventing the winger from getting a clean look at the net. 

Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said that’s just part of the development process. 

“It’s about him getting used to the speed, and the time, and that not ever play has to be a great play,” DeBoer said Monday. “But that’s part of being a young defenseman, and I really like what I’ve seen so far out of him.”

Merkley could get another taste of that speed on Tuesday, in the Sharks’ preseason opener at SAP Center against the Anaheim Ducks. Early preseason games don’t feature the full cadre of NHL regulars, but the vast majority of Anaheim’s traveling roster for the game played professionally at one level or another last season.

Even for a player of Merkley’s pedigree, that’s a step up. He has spent the last two seasons with the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), one of the top-three major junior leagues in Canada. He scored 67 points in 63 games last year, the third-highest total among OHL defensemen. It was also the highest mark of any under-18 blueliner by 22 points. 

Guelph is likely where he will return soon, as he continues to develop on and off the ice. His talent was never in question, but the talented defenseman slipped to the back-end of the first round, at least in part, due to perceived maturity issues. 

He was benched in his first OHL season following an argument with his coach, and he was suspended three games last season for a retaliatory slash in a game against the North Bay Battalion. That didn’t deter the Sharks from selecting Merkley, who was also one of the youngest draft-eligible players. 

San Jose has time to be patient. After the acquisition of two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, the Sharks aren’t hurting for depth down the right side. For now, the focus lies on ensuring Merkley soaks everything in before returning to Guelph.  

“We had [Merkley] stay with [Burns during July’s rookie camp], and he couldn’t believe it,” general manager Doug Wilson said. “[Seeing] everything he eats, how he trains. For an 18-year-old kid to see a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman and that’s what he does? You go back to junior and remember what you just learned.”

Merkley said he’s spent most of camp observing how the Sharks veterans train and practice. If he ultimately suits up Tuesday against the Ducks, he’ll get a chance to show what he’s learned in a professional game. 

The 18-year-old could get used to playing in the cities of the Pacific Division. He said he was hoping to play somewhere warm when he entered the draft, and that he’s enjoyed his time in San Jose so far.

Will that make another winter in Ontario harder to deal with?

“I could leave that behind for sure,” he said with a laugh. 

If all goes as planned, Merkley may get to spend a winter in California soon enough.