Around these parts on Wednesday, we touched on the mind-boggling offensive struggles of Brent Burns. And, to be sure, his scoring difficulties are about as head-scratching as anyone’s this season. Months removed from completing a 29-goal campaign in what was basically a pole-to-pole Norris Trophy-winning season, the San Jose Sharks rearguard remains without a goal despite the fact he’s fired more shots this season than almost any other skater in the league.
Understated or possibly lost entirely in the entire discussion of Burns’ zero-goal season, though, was a bigger problem and one that has gone far beyond the bearded blueliner’s inability to find twine at the quarter-mark of the campaign. Because the scoring issues in San Jose don’t start and end with Burns. No, the reality is his scoring struggle is only a small part of what has plagued the Sharks this season, and that’s that the offense, as a whole, simply hasn’t been clicking.
How bad have things been in San Jose? Well, consider this: through 20 games, the Sharks have only scored 49 goals. No team, not even the lowly Arizona Coyotes or Buffalo Sabres, had fewer tallies than San Jose entering Friday’s slate. At 2.45 goals per game, the Sharks boast the fourth-least effective offense in the league, better than only the Coyotes, Sabres and Montreal Canadiens, but only by a narrow margin. Less than one-fifth of a goal per outing is separating San Jose from the bottom of the pile.
With an offense so seemingly inept, though, it’s worth wondering how the Sharks have managed to stay afloat in the Pacific Division and Western Conference wild-card race. The answer, of course, is that while the attack is among the league’s worst, there are few defensive units stymying the opposition quite like that of the Sharks.
As poor as the offense has been, San Jose’s defense has been exceptional. Heading into Friday, no team in the league has allowed fewer goals per game than the Sharks’ 2.20 — the next-best are the Los Angeles Kings and Columbus Blue Jackets at 2.36 — and no other team has been as adept at slowing down the opposition's attack. On a per-game basis, the Sharks are allowing 28.3 shots, the fewest in the league, and San Jose’s effectiveness defensively also shows up in the underlying numbers. Per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, the Sharks have allowed the fewest shots (27.8), seventh-fewest shot attempts (55.9) and are right in the middle of the pack, 14th and 15th, respectively, in scoring chances (27.4) and high-danger attempts (10.5) against, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Furthermore, the play of San Jose’s defensive pairings has been impressive. According to Corsica’s pairing statistics, the duos of Burns and Joakim Ryan and Brenden Dillon and Tim Heed both rank among the top 10 in Corsi for percentage among tandems to skate at least 100 5-on-5 minutes together. The only Sharks pairing with a sub-50 percent possession rate is Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, but the duo has taken a heavy, heavy slant of defensive-zone starts. And that the three pairings have performed so well and insulated the crease in the way they have makes goaltender Martin Jones’ life that much easier. Jones has been stellar, too.
There are 33 goaltenders who have started at least 10 games thus far, and of the qualifying netminders, Jones boasts the fifth-best all-strengths save percentage, .928, and the only goaltender with a better goals-against average is the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Sergei Bobrovsky. Jones has played well at 5-on-5, too, posting a .922 SP, but his biggest strength this season has been on the penalty kill, where he boasts a .941 SP and has allowed only five goals against in nearly 80 minutes of work. The result of Jones’ play is a top-ranked Sharks penalty kill that is operating at an 89.7-percent clip. Beyond the Los Angeles Kings, there is no other team within five percent of San Jose’s league-leading mark.
But the defensive strength of the team has made its offensive shortcomings all the more glaring. When a club has surrendered three or fewer goals against in 16 of 20 outings, the expectation is they’d have a much better record than 11-8-1 and be sitting prettier than the second wild-card spot in the conference.
The good news for the Sharks, though, is it’s hard to fathom any way in which the scoring issues persist for the final three-quarters of the campaign. Really, everything points in the direction of an offensive breakout in the near future. While the Sharks have been strong defending, they’ve been equally as great at generating offense, even if they aren't lighting the lamp. Only four teams boast a better Corsi for per 60 minutes at five-a-side, and San Jose has the eighth-most shots for and ranks 14th in scoring chances and seventh in high-danger attempts for per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. Percentage-wise, be it shots, attempts or chances, there isn’t a single category in which the Sharks rate lower than 52 percent.
By all appearances, this has come down to nothing more than a bout of bad puck luck. Only three teams have a lower PDO, combined shooting and save percentage, than the Sharks at 5-on-5, and San Jose’s shooting percentage is among the very worst. At 5.65 percent, only the Pittsburgh Penguins have had struggled more when it comes to making good on scoring opportunities. And given we expect the Penguins roster to come around at some point, we should expect the same of the Sharks' top scoring trio of Burns, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. The three combined for 82 goals last season and have only 15 between them at the moment. This struggle shouldn't -- and likely won't -- last.
And if the offense starts clicking like it should be, the rest of the Pacific Division should be on notice. Because with the way San Jose has played defensively, a strong attack could rocket the Sharks right to the top of the pack.
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