There’s almost nothing more dependable in the NHL than a Todd McLellan power play.
Since the Sharks head coach arrived in San Jose in time for the 2008-09 campaign, his team has consistently been at the top of the NHL in power-play efficiency. In his first four seasons, the team finished between second and fourth overall in the NHL, before dipping slightly last season.
So it was reasonable to expect that once again the Sharks would have one of the league’s most fearsome power plays in 2013-14. The only problem is that it hasn’t worked out that way:
What’s happened in San Jose? Has McLellan lost his touch?
The first thing to rule out is personnel changes, and that’s easy to do. The 2011-12 Sharks power play that was so successful relied on forwards Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, swingman Brent Burns and defenceman Dan Boyle. This year’s power play has the same top-six forwards in terms of ice time. It seems fair to say that an overhauled group of players isn’t the problem for the Sharks.
Another area to look is at shot rates. If San Jose’s power play has been redone, the problem might be that the team isn’t getting as many shots on net as it once did.
|Five-on-four: Shots, goals and shooting percentage|
We see that in five-on-four situations, San Jose’s shot rate has actually rebounded slightly from where it was last season. The difference is shooting percentage: After five seasons in the double digits, the Sharks’ shooting percentage has fallen to just 9.0 percent, the lowest it has been under Todd McLellan.
The thing about shooting percentage is that it tends to fluctuate significantly over the course of the season. Our 9.0 percent number is neat and tidy, but it doesn’t reflect the streaky randomness of NHL reality. Using the game logs at ExtraSkater.com, we can calculate the Sharks’ rolling 10-game shooting percentage for each of the last three seasons:
The teal line represents this year’s numbers, and for the first half of the current campaign there’s basically nothing to differentiate the performance from the two seasons that preceded it. In 2011-12, the Sharks’ regular-season power-play numbers were basically made at this point; after underwhelming at the start of the year, the team went on a stretch where better than one-in-five shots went into the net.
This year, we’ve seen the opposite trend: a long run of games where San Jose’s shooters were putting in about one shot for every 20 attempts. The problem period started in mid-January and ended a little over a week ago. The numbers for this span are remarkable:
|San Jose Sharks' power play by segment|
|First 45 games||34||315||10.8%|
|Middle 28 games||7||132||5.3%|
|Last four games||7||31||22.6%|
The Sharks have scored as many goals in the last four games as they did in that 28-contest span in the new year. So what happened? Not external factors: San Jose played more games at home than on the road during that span and didn’t face a particularly strong group of penalty-killing clubs either (in the aggregate, the opponents here were actually a hair below NHL average).
Injury might help explain the lapse—Logan Couture missed a significant portion of these games—but given that the power play survived the losses of Brent Burns and Dan Boyle earlier in 2013-14, that too seems like an insufficient explanation.
Might it be something as simple as variance? We’re only talking about a span of 132 shots; we know NHL shooters can post wildly different results over such a small sample (Joe Pavelski, for example, has had seasons of 200-plus shots where he scored on 7.1 percent of them and seasons where he’s scored on 18.2 percent of them).
Whatever the answer, it seems the dry spell is now in the rear-view mirror, and given how competent the Sharks’ man-advantage unit has been under McLellan, it would be a mistake to expect anything else the rest of the way.
Statistics are courtesy of BehindtheNet.ca, ExtraSkater.com, and NHL.com and were compiled prior to San Jose's April 3 victory over Los Angeles, where the team scored another power-play marker.