The San Jose Sharks and Boston Bruins, two perennial contenders over the past five seasons, are teetering on the edge of losing their wild-card spots in their respective conferences. What’s to blame? For the most part, it’s a lack of depth.
With just about 20 games left in the season, the Bruins and Sharks find themselves in uncharted territory: fighting for a playoff spot. The two teams have been perennial contenders for a long time so to see them this low in the standings is completely unexpected. Both teams had over 110 points last season, but this year they’re on pace for a total in the low 90s. The 20-point drop-off from last season’s mark can mostly be explained by a much lower goal differential. Both teams are hovering around the break-even point, which is not where they usually stand as Boston led the league last season while San Jose finished 4th. For the majority of teams, goals are a byproduct of creating chances on offence and stifling the opposition on defence; puck possession. That’s why it’s better to look at shot attempt differentials – they’re proven to be more predictive of future goal differential than goals themselves thanks to a larger sample of data.
For both teams, the drop-off in meaningful puck possession has been a contributing factor to their drop-off in their ability to outscore opponents. It’s a ripple effect: less chances, less goals, less wins. Last year’s Bruins ranked 4th in unblocked shot attempt percentage adjusted for score while the Sharks ranked third. This year San Jose sits in 12th while Boston is 18th. Casual observers might suggest that the drop for both teams in shot attempts, goals and points stems from the age of their core players. While both teams are led by star players over the age of 35 in
Joe Thornton and
Zdeno Chara, the underlying numbers suggest they’ve been as dominant as they’ve ever been in controlling play. The reality for both teams is that it’s not the top guys faltering, it’s their depth. In the Sharks case, most people saw the depth issues coming in the summertime when they let
Dan Boyle go, put
Brent Burns back on defense and signed
John Scott. Burns was terrific at forward and has seen his possession play drop on defence this season, while the fourth line has been downright abysmal. It’s not fair to expect superb play from players lower on the roster, but the bottom tier guys on the Sharks have played at a level below
what’s expected of an average fourth liner. The chart below shows what each line and pairing is expected to contribute in terms of shot attempt percentage and how far away each Sharks player is this season from what’s expected compared to last season.
Just one player was below what was expected of his role last season and that was
Mike Brown. This year that’s up to eight with Scott predictably leading the way. That’s the issue for San Jose this season, they don’t have four lines and three pairings that can contribute night in and night out which was their strength last season. Boston’s biggest problem comes from trading
Johnny Boychuk in the off-season a move that has left a gaping hole in the top four that neither
Dennis Seidenberg nor
Adam McQuaid can fill. When
Zdeno Chara was injured earlier in the season that problem was exacerbated which is a big part of their early season woes.
But Boston’s main issue is one they had last season that went unfixed: their fourth line.
Daniel Paille and
Gregory Campbell have been literal boat anchors for the Bruins while
Ryan Spooner and
Jordan Caron have seen their play diminish this season leaving Boston with no viable options to rejuvenate the bottom end of the roster. For both Boston and San Jose, misguided off-season moves have created significant holes in their lineups and it’s why two teams that look not so different on paper have looked very different on the ice.