Will the San Jose Sharks Power Play Woes Continue this Season?

SAN JOSE, CA - SEPTEMBER 22: San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns (88) finishes a check on Vegas Golden Knights center T.J. Tynan (68) during the San Jose Sharks game versus the Vegas Golden Knights on September 22, 2018, at SAP Center at San Jose in San Jose, CA. (Photo by Matt Cohen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
SAN JOSE, CA - SEPTEMBER 22: San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns (88) finishes a check on Vegas Golden Knights center T.J. Tynan (68) during the San Jose Sharks game versus the Vegas Golden Knights on September 22, 2018, at SAP Center at San Jose in San Jose, CA. (Photo by Matt Cohen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The San Jose Sharks have struggled on the power play over the past few seasons. While we did see some improvement at the beginning of last season, it was the result of a very high shooting percentage as opposed to true quality.

Oh the San Jose Sharks power play…I think quite a few of you know what I mean.  The Sharks have struggled to put an impressive PP on the ice after years of dominance in the area. This has continued into this preseason, going 1 for 19 in five games. To put this plainly, it’s a problem.  Or rather, the continuation of a problem.

“But Dave, its only the preseason, don’t worry about it.” “It has been awhile since the guys played at full speed, they’re just rusty.” “The team is still working out the kinks.” “A preseason game is never as precise as a regular season game.”

All of those are quite valid reasons why the power play wouldn’t be humming along in mid-season form. Yet, it raises some eyebrows when current Sharks broadcaster Bret Hedican verbally echo’s my thoughts during the Sharks second power play of the night by calling it “a cluster”.  It shows there is probably more to the lack of success than a lack of sharpness.

Make no mistake about it, the Sharks power play has been not good this preseason, other than a few bright moments.  Seemingly, for a few reasons listed below, there is concern the issue is more than just preseason play.

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Against the Golden Knights and Flames, we saw the first Power Play unit get most of the minutes. The unit was loaded with talent and yet it still struggled. Some of this struggle was rust, but not all of it.

Over five preseason games, the Sharks have iced a mix of veteran PP units as well as groups filled with prospects. Familiarity with the system should have allowed the vets to produce some result on the Power Play, however slight.  Unfortunately, the rookies had more success.

Since 2015, the Power Play has steadily decreased in effectiveness. Don’t let this last season fool you. The San Jose Sharks had a higher PP% than in ‘16-‘17, but were riding a very high PDO (basically they were very lucky).

Over the last three seasons, the Sharks Fenwick (FF) percentage has steadily decreased. FF has a strong correlation to scoring chances and is likely a better indicator of probable sustained success than PP%.  According to hockey-reference.com, the Sharks FF% since the ‘15-‘16 season has dropped from 87.6%, to 86.8% in ‘16-‘17, to 84.9% in ‘17-‘18.

A sound Power Play is supposed to provide some semblance of structure to increase the efficiency of the group of individuals on the ice. Obviously, when the word cluster is used to describe a Power Play, it indicates a clear lack of structure.

The San Jose Sharks system seems to be flawed.  However, there are a few things that can increase the Sharks efficiency (no we are not going to advocate the firing of Steve Spott in this article).  These are 1) Player utilization (Erik Karlsson, Pickles and Pavs) 2) a one time option and 3) to some extent the Sharks PP system.

Player Utilization

The first adjustment is easy.  Add the newly acquired Erik Karlsson.  Yeah, this is clearly a no duh, but its important to show just how effective Karlsson is on the power play.  Below are the with or without charts from Micah Blake McCurdy’s Hockeyviz:

Sens PP with Karlsson
Sens PP with Karlsson /

As you can see, the guy is good on the man advantage.

The second personnel adjustment that needs to be made is to remove Vlasic from the Power Play altogether.  The guy is a great defenseman, no doubt about it, but he is just not meant to be a Power Play defenseman.  Looking at the HockeyViz charts below, it fairly astounding how much better the Sharks do at generating PP shots when Vlasic is not on the ice.

Sharks PP with Vlasic
Sharks PP with Vlasic /

It is very rare that a Power Play defenseman makes his team worse.  Vlasic has never been great delivering passes to high danger areas on the ice and he is showing this gap (albeit minor) in his game on the Power Play.  Replacing Vlasic for just about anyone will likely produce significantly better results.

The final personnel adjustment, which would benefit the Sharks, is probably not a popular one with the coaches or fans.  The San Jose Sharks really need to seriously think about taking Joe Pavelski off of the first Power Play unit.

This will require a structural change, that will be discussed later. Pavs is primarily used as a tip in specialist, and he is very good at it.  However, a shot from the point for a tip opportunity is still a very low percentage option, especially on special teams where the team up a man should be able to work and create a higher danger option.  As long as Pavs is on the Power Play, this will continue.

One Time Option

One of the weapons the Sharks are lacking on the Power Play is the one time shot from the wing.  Some of the most deadly Power Plays cultivate multiple options. The have a deadly point shot, a slot option, a net front option, and a one time option. Take away one of the options and the power play becomes that much less effective.

Lacking the one time option, the Sharks Power Play is more predictable.  Additionally, without a one timer, the Sharks must catch the pass then release their shot of choice.  This gives the opposing goaltender time to move cross crease to make the save.

Power Play Structure 

The most effective method to improving the San Jose Sharks Power Play would be to change the structure of the 5v4 altogether. The most lethal power plays generate the majority of their shots from the high danger area (generally considered between the face-off dots down to the red line) on the ice. Referring again to HockeyViz, the visualization below shows where the Sharks generate the majority of their shots.

http://hockeyviz.com/fixedImg/shotLocOffPP/1718/S.J/ /

It’s important to note, the majority of shots the Sharks generate on the Power Play are not within the high danger area.  This is due to the Pavelski-Burns tipping relationship, as well as shots unleashed from Burns hoping against all odds for a goal. High point shots are almost as low percentage shots as tip shots.  The nice dark maroon spot just below the left face-off circle is Jumbo’s office.  As we know, Joe is not the most prolific goal scorer.

Just for contrast, let’s look at Toronto and Tampa Bay’s deadly man advantage, in that order.

Toronto Power Play
Toronto Power Play /

Note where the majority of these two Power Plays generate the majority of their shots. Thats right, in the high danger area.

So what do the San Jose Sharks need to do to change their structure?  The first has already been discussed, which is the removal of Pavs, and therefore the tip, as a primary power play shot option.

The second would be to modify Sharks entries to allow for more successful carry in of the puck.  The Sharks are rarely successful in carrying the puck into the offensive zone without having to dump and chase. If the Sharks are able to retrieve the puck, the opposition team has in the meantime collapsed down low, leaving the point as the only relief option available. The result is a high percentage of shots being generated from the blue line because of how difficult it is to find the inside option once the oppositions penalty kill box has collapsed.

The San Jose Sharks utilize a structure that has two point men, two players around the dots, and a net front presence which rotates on the fly to one point man, two face-off dot players, a net front presence, and a man down low around the red line.

A system change to a single point man, a net front presence and three players between the face-off dots would allow a puck mover to feed the players in high danger areas and occasionally take the point shot.

Alternatively, the creation of a fluid power play system, where the players other than the point feeder, are moving in and through the high danger areas, might be a way for the Sharks to create more power play offense.  This will remove a significant flaw in DeBoer’s current system, its predictability, which means easy to defend.

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Hopefully, the San Jose Sharks will surprise this year and none of the suggestions will be required.  However, history has shown this is unlikely.  If the Sharks power play woe’s continue, we should not be surprised, and hopefully the Sharks staff will fix it before its to late.