The 2011-12 San Jose Sharks were limited by their special teams.
Even though San Jose scored on 21.1 percent of their power plays last season—good for second in the NHL—there was no question that the Sharks' penalty kill was more of a hindrance—76.9 percent, 29th in the league—than the power play was an asset.
This isn't because San Jose gave up more goals on the penalty kill than they scored on the power play. In fact, the Sharks finished with 57 power play goals scored and only 52 penalty-kill goals allowed.
It isn't because the Sharks were better five-on-five than they were on special teams—their five-on-five ratio (1.1/1) and their special teams ratio (1.09/1) were virtually identical
The reason that San Jose's special teams play was a weakness last year was simple: a bad penalty kill hurts a team more than a good power play.
Of the nine teams to finish below 81 percent on the penalty kill last season, only San Jose and Chicago finished with winning records. Both teams were knocked out of the playoffs quickly due to an inability to kill penalties.
Meanwhile, of the league's elite power plays (18 percent or higher), only five of 11 finished with winning records. Seven of the teams made the playoffs, but only two advanced past the first round.
There are three main reasons for this phenomenon.
The first is fairly philosophical: Defense wins championships. Teams with bad penalty kills generally have worse defenses, and the old adage appears—on the surface—to ring true.
The second reason is that, although they are shorthanded, the penalty-killing team still controls the outcome of their opponent's power play.
There are rules in place such as legal icing and strategic changes—less focus on offense and better defensive personnel on the ice while shorthanded—that put the penalty-killing team in better position to succeed than the team on the power play.
Because of this, teams with good penalty kills rarely allow power-play goals—even to elite power-play units. Conversely, all power plays tend to score the bulk of their goals against bad penalty kills, because that is when they truly have the advantage.
This put San Jose at a great disadvantage last season when taking on teams with good penalty kills. The Sharks' biggest threat as a team was their power play, but good penalty kills would neutralize this, placing the real battle on the other end of the ice. Because San Jose's penalty kill was so atrocious, this was a battle they lost more than won.
The third and most important reason a bad penalty kill hurts a team more than a good power play helps is that a bad penalty kill changes the way a team plays five-on-five.
The bigger problem
Winning in sports (especially hockey) requires many of the same things it takes to win in war—aggression, risk-taking, physical dominance and cheating.
A bad penalty kill limits all of these things.
The Sharks coaching staff and players knew they had a problem killing penalties last season, so they made a tough choice. They altered their style of play so that they would limit the number of penalties they committed, and did so well enough to finish best in the NHL in times shorthanded.
Smart, on the surface. The Sharks may have had the second worst penalty kill in the NHL, but they only allowed the ninth most power-play goals. Their 52 power-play goals allowed left them tied with the Dallas Stars and Edmonton Oilers, both of which were in the upper half of the league in penalty killing.
The problem was that San Jose's altered style of play made them a far less effective team.
Afraid to draw penalties, the Sharks finished the 2011-12 season 27th in hits. No team wants to be near the bottom of the league in hits and be considered soft, but when you are the second biggest team in the NHL, something is wrong.
Their fear to assert themselves physically allowed other teams to push back, and the Sharks were generally more bumped and bruised by the third period than their smaller opponents.
The 2011-12 Sharks also finished 22nd in the league in takeaways despite having more quality backcheckers—Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat, Michal Handzus—than just about anyone.
This lack of defensive aggression allowed other teams to skate through the neutral zone with ease, leading to transition offense and deep pucks that the Sharks defensemen were forced to turn around and sprint to.
This left the team tired and on their heels. What appeared on the surface as a "lack of five-on-five intensity" was in reality a direct result of the lack of a decent penalty kill.
Statistics don't even begin to explain what the "avoid penalties at all costs" approach did to San Jose's offense. Players such as Ryane Clowe and Joe Thornton—puck-possession experts who are normally unmovable—spent less time protecting the puck with their elbows and more time getting shoved off.
Logan Couture, a loose-puck hound dog as a rookie, was far more timid with his stick and his body positioning in year two. Once again, what came off as "uninspired offense" was actually due to a fear of drawing penalties.
This is why San Jose's penalty kill must improve if the Sharks are going to contend for a Stanley Cup.
If new penalty-kill experts Larry Robinson and Jim Johnson and new defenseman Brad Stuart can turn the penalty kill into a simply average unit, the Sharks could find themselves back atop the Western Conference.
The NHL-average penalty kill last season was just above 82 percent. If the Sharks could get there, they could conceivably commit 75 more penalties than last year while still allowing the same number of power play goals.
There's no real way to statistically break down what the freedom to commit 75 more penalties would do for the team, but there are ways to think about it somewhat abstractly.
What if the Sharks stopped 150 more odd-man rushes with hooks? 75 penalties may get called, but what about the other 75 that don't?
What if the Sharks deliver 500 more bruising hits? Sure, an opposing player may be able to sell an extra call about once per game, but what about the 17 other skaters who simply enter the locker room between each period more physically and mentally banged up?
What if Joe Thornton threw more elbows when protecting the puck, and what if Logan Couture shoved 100 more bodies while fighting for a loose puck? The Sharks penalty kill would still allow the same number of goals as last year, but their offense could score dozens more.
There are countless scenarios to play around with here. But no matter how one looks at it, a Sharks team with an average penalty kill would be a team free to play much better, more inspired, aggressive hockey.
And a fiery Sharks team has never been something anyone in the NHL wants a part of.