Friday, November 14, 2008

Sharks Analysis, One Month In

(I am writing this article as I watch a recording of tonight's game; all stats and analysis are prior to that game.)

After one month, we can get a pretty good read on the Sharks. The tone of all teams is set behind the bench, so looking at how the team looks starts there.

Coaching

This has been their best start ever even after losing two in a row, one of which was in overtime. They are still 13-3-1, good for 27 points (out of a possible 34, a .794 clip) and are on pace for 130 points and the President's Trophy.

They are winning at home this year, going 9-0-1 so far. There have been 10 different players to score the 11 game winners, so everyone's getting involved. Players are going until the clock runs out, like when Christian Ehrhoff blocked a shot with less than five seconds left and the Sharks up by more than one goal.

The Sharks have a gear they never have had before this year, and lead the league in both shots on goal and fewest shots against per game. The team has already set the record for most games with 40-plus shots in a season (eight) just over one-fifth of the way into the season, hitting that mark 47.1 percent of the time so far.

They also have tied their franchise record of 50 shots on the road and broke their franchise record of 49 shots at home with their 57-shot performance Tuesday; 55 of those were in regulation. Ironically, those two games account for half of the Sharks' losses.

(As a sidenote, I have noticed that the Sharks score more often when my wife is in the room; now she must watch every minute of every game until we win the President's Trophy, then every minute of every playoff game until we win the one that matters.)

All of these things point to an excellent system and excellent attention to detail. Only in the Phoenix game did the team lack intensity. All of these things suggest to me great coaching.

Goaltending

This is the most important unit on any team, but it is easily the worst unit on the Sharks. Evgeni Nabokov has a 10-2 record but a 2.72 GAA and a save percentage of just .891 with no shutouts.

By contrast, back-up goalie Brian Boucher, he entered Thursday's game with an inferior 3-1-1 record but otherwise much better statistics. His save percentage was .936 and he had two shutouts with a 1.59 GAA. His only loss in regulation came in a game in which he had finished playing another game less than 20 hours earlier and had to travel in between.

Nabokov is currently out with an undisclosed lower-body injury that everyone knows is his left knee, but no one outside of the franchise knows how serious it is. However, he is doing light skating and is not on injured reserve, so it is not believed to be serious.

The team has called Tomas Greiss up, but he has seen no action. Thus, their overall stats are 13-3-1, 2.39 GAA, .904 save percentage and two shutouts--very average.

Defencemen

This is the unit that is most different from last season, both in personnel and play. The Sharks have always had a young and inexperienced blueline that pretty much stayed at home; last season the Sharks had the fewest points by this unit in the league. Now they have a dynamic and veteran blueline that is leading the lead in points.

Christian Ehrhoff, the whipping boy of so many Sharks fans last season, leads NHL defencemen in points (2 G, 10 A) and is +4. (The fact that I pointed that out should tell you I was an Ehrhoff apologist, but even I thought the team overpaid for him with his new contract.)

The teammates who came over in the trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning have also been stellar, being tied for the team lead with a +7 rating. Dan Boyle leads the unit with four goals, and Lukowich, a stay-at-home defenceman and penalty-killer, has four assists.

The other veteran, Rob Blake, has two goals and seven assists. Marc-Eduoard Vlasic has one goal and seven assists. Douglas Murray is pointless and -2, but as much a physical force as ever but has taken only one minor penalty. Even my personal whipping boy, Alexei Semenov, has an assist and even rating in seven games.

In all, the unit is an average of better than +2, with nine goals and 36 assists. That is outstanding.

Forwards

This unit has been among the league's best since Joe Thornton arrived in late 2005. However, they seem to have reached a new level with the extra support of the defence in the offensive zone.

Patrick Marleau had struggled mightily since the end of the first round of the 2007 playoffs. In the 101 games that the team played since then, Marleau had 46 points and a -26 rating. I was able to recall those statistics from memory I had espoused them so much--I spent much of last season calling for or lamenting the lack of a trade of him for more blueline talent.

But General Manager Doug Wilson found a way to improve the blueline without trading the captain, and coach Todd McLellan found a way to make his captain his best player again. Marleau leads the team with 18 points, and is tied with Lukowich and Boyle with a +7 rating. He has even been used on the penalty kill and has two short-handed goals.

Devin Setoguchi was moved up to the first line and has played better than anyone should have expected. He leads the team in goals with nine and has eight assists and a +6 rating. Joe Pavelski has five goals and five assists and Ryan Clowe has nine goals (five on the power play) and five assists.

Even the rookies are getting into the scoring act. Jamie McGinn has two goals and one assist in five games with a game-winner, and rookie Lukas Kaspar has a game-winning goal in six games.

Even the Sharks top scorers who could be considered to be having off years have been productive. Thornton once again leads the team with 13 assists, Jonathan Cheechoo (four goals, three assists in 14 games) was leading the team in hits before being scratched for injury.

The only real disappointment would have to be Jeremy Roenick, who has just three assists and no goals with a -1 rating. This unit is performing top-to-bottom, with all four lines producing.

Special Teams

The Sharks have a penalty kill that is not only in the top quarter of the league, but is at the top with five shorthanded goals. The net of goals for and against for this unit is the best in the league.

However, the power play has been a big disappointment. Not only does it rank just under the league's mid-point, it has given up more than its share of shorthanded goals--three in two games with Philadelphia alone. Teams will get the idea that they can take a run at San Jose's best players if the power play doesn't start making them pay for it.

Still, what I would consider the league's best penalty kill and a power play just barely in the bottom third of the league balances out to a pretty good special teams unit.

Final Report Card of General Manager Doug Wilson, responsible for assembling players and coaches...

Coaching: A-

Goaltending: C

Defence: A

Forwards: A-

Special Teams: B-

Overall GPA: 3.40

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