April 30 2013 02:41PM
Photograph by Thearon W Henderson/Getty
In analyzing the Canucks's upcoming first round series matchup against the San Jose Sharks, many commentators have noted the similarities between the two teams, the two coaches (and their perch upon a rather hot seat), and the two organizations as a whole. Beyond being evenly matched heading into their first round matchup, both the Canucks and Sharks have sustained regular season success over the years, and have maintained their core group despite the temptation to tear it all apart after repeated postseason failure.
For all of the "mirror image" talk, there is a major difference between these two teams that will shape how the series ultimately plays out. In particular, the Sharks strength as a hockey club is in their enviable depth and special teams play, while Vancouver's is at the top-end of their roster and at even-strength. This series looks to be very close and we'll get into why it's such a coin flip, in exhausting details, after the jump.
Read past the jump.
One thing I'd mention about both the Sharks and the Canucks is that they're pretty tough clubs to evaluate after only 48 games. The Sharks were extremely reliant on stellar goaltending and were somewhat inexplicably among the league's worst offensive clubs at five-on-five. This season the Sharks posted a negative goal differential at five a side and only outscored opponents by two in score close situations.
San Jose had a negative clear victory margin on the year too, and without the club's dominance of the skills competition (they went 8-4 in the shootout) they might not have even been a playoff team.
But the shot record would suggest that this Sharks club isn't actually a sub-average offensive team at even-strength, after all they generated shots for in a five-on-five game state at a top-ten rate this season. So it would appear that the devil was in the percentages for San Jose this past season, and that can be a dangerous prospect (as Canucks fans found out last year when Los Angeles' percentages normalized and then some in the playoffs).
If you believe that the Sharks offense is significantly better than they demonstrated this season, and I very much do, then you can overlook some of the other data which suggests they might be a soft sixth seed. As you know if you read this blog regularly, I tend to trust the possession data more than I trust results, and make no mistake: this Sharks club is, if not an outright juggernaut, just next to being one.
The Canucks are also a very difficult team to get a firm grasp on. As a one-line team for much of the season, the Canucks were an astonishingly good puck possession club. At the trade deadline the Canucks added Derek Roy, and Ryan Kesler returned from injury shortly thereafter. But instead of finding an extra gear as many (myself included) assumed they would, the Canucks somehow transformed into one of the league's worse five-on-five teams in the twelve games thereafter.
Since the Derek Roy acquisition, Vancouver has been outshot 186 to 222 at even-strength in a score close game state (so counting only situations in which it was a "one goal game". Was it just organizational lethargy since that third spot in the West was all but locked up? Maybe, but that fact doesn't exactlly inspire confidence.
The Sharks went in a different direction at the trade deadline. They sold Ryane Clowe (nearly to Vancouver) and molasses-footed defenceman Douglas Murray, both for an exorbitant price. Doug Wilson (San Jose's extremely bright General Manager) then replaced those pieces with comparables ones in Raffi Torres and Scott Hannan at a much more reasonable rate.
While some read the tea leaves and concluded that the Sharks were dismantling, the club actually took a really smart hybrid approach to the trade deadline and took off thereafter from a possession standpoint, though the team's on-ice shooting percentage continued to drop through the floor. We have to be careful about putting too much stock into the twelve games that each team played following the trade deadline (small sample size, and all that). But that the Sharks improved after the trade deadline, while the Canucks struggled to get their ducks in a row, is a data point that's at least worth mentioning.
As I pointed out earlier this week over at Canucks.com, San Jose's 3-0-0 record in the season series has zero functional predictive value. Two of those games were played in San Jose, in one of those games the Canucks iced a third line that included Nicklas Jensen and Bill Sweatt, and in neither contest did Ryan Kesler or Derek Roy dress for Vancouver. Still, I suppose we might as well look briefly at how the club's matched up against one another in their previous meetings this season.
Over the course of those three games, the Sharks scored one clear victory, one narrow regulation victory and one very fortunate shootout victory. Score effects skew the underlying numbers here but the Canucks did manage to out-shoot the Sharks pretty handily at even-strength in these three contests and controlled 57% of shot attempts at five-on-five. That aside, the Sharks did generate more quality looks at even-strength, as they averaged 10.3 even-strength scoring chances per game to 8 for the Canucks in the season series.
Where the Sharks did much of their damage on the scoreboard against Vancouver was on special teams. San Jose's power-play, which was the best in the leauge this season in my opinion, scored three goals in the season series on fourteen opportunities. Making matters worse for the Canucks is that the Sharks successfully killed off all twelve short-handed situations they faced against Vancouver, and added a short-handed marker for good measure.
Because of the differing strengths of the two rosters, I suspect that the matchups battle in this series is going to be particularly fascinating. Henrik Sedin played nearly twenty-minutes against Joe Thornton during the regular season, and I'd wager that'll be the matchup that Alain Vigneault prefers on home-ice. Since the trade deadilne Jumbo has skated mostly on a line with T.J. Galiardi on his left and Brent Burns at right-wing. Brent Burns playing out of position isn't that strange (he's long been considered a "swing man") but how productive he's been since moving forward in San Jose's lineup has been nothing short of astonishing.
Thronton's a tough matchup for the Sedin twins, but it's a matchup that I do think favours the Canucks. Henrik and Daniel have been more dominant at five-on-five this season than they've ever been, frankly. In score close situations this season the Canucks have outscored opponents nearly three-to-one with Henrik Sedin on the ice (29 goals for, 10 goals against) while controlling 62% of the shots attempted. That's just absurd even if the resutls are inflated by the percentages. The Sharks with Thornton on the ice in one goal games, by the way, have outscored opponents by six (19 goals for, 13 goals against) while controlling 56% of the shots attempted. Those numbers are good, but I really don't think that Thornton at this point in his career can match the sort of nasty fastball that Henrik has brought throughout this season...
A major key to this series for the Sharks then is figuring out a way to neuter the probable advantage that Vancouver's top-line will have in this series. One thing about the Canucks in the Mike Gillis era is that they've generally rolled over clubs that don't employ guys named Chara, Doughty, Keith and Seabrook.
The Sharks have a really good defensive group, and it could get even better whenever Jason Demers returns from injury, but they don't really have that ace top-pairing (at least not when compared with Chicago's, Boston's and Los Angeles'). For the most part Dan Boyle has skated with Matt Irwin this season, while Marc-Edouard Vlasic skates most commonly on a pairing with Justin Braun on what I'd describe as San Jose's top-pairing.
Throughout the three regular season matchups between these two clubs, Vlasic drew the primary assignment against the Sedin twins. In a seven game playoff series, I tend to think Vlasic and Braun will be in very tough in trying to contain Henrik and Daniel, and limit the damage.
For the Canucks, Jason Garrison and Dan Hamhuis are arguably Vancouver's ace-in-the-hole this postseason, and I really like how they matchup against the Thornton and Joe Pavelski lines. If Martin Havlat gets back into San Jose's lineup (and I assume he will dress for game one), however, I'm not sure Hamhuis and Garrison have enough speed to matchup quite as well with that deadly Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Martin Havlat second-line...
One thing the Sharks may end up attempting in an effort to try and neuter the effectiveness of Vancouver's first line, is look to get the Joe Pavelski, Raffi Torres, Tommy Wingels line out against the twins whenever possible. If McLellan can get that matchup on home-ice, or occassionally in Vancouver, then he can probably get the Thornton line some shifts against Vancouver's third line. Thornton, Burns and Galiardi have a massive size advantage over Derek Roy, Jannik Hansen and Mason Raymond, and that could ultimately be a severe mismatch for Vancouver.
Though one of the two headcoaches in this series may be out of a job once it's over, both Todd McLellan and Alain Vigneault are competent bench managers who are very smart in creating favourable matchups. In other words, the coach that loses this series might find themselves unemployed for all of three days before they're hired by another team. In the meantime, expect one hell of a chess match in this series.
Antii Niemi is a slam dunk Vezina nominee, and for my money, he should probably take the award home for his performance this season. The Sharks couldn't buy an even-strength goal all year and are only in the postseason because Niemi gave them a chance to win every night. I'm not just saying that as a cliche either, it's absolutely true, Niemi was only "blown up" (in other words, he only posted a save percentage below .850 in a game he started) three times in forty-three games. He was just ridiculously consistent all season long.
Here's how Niemi did this season according to the numbers I most like to use when evaluating goaltender performance. The table below includes Niemi's total starts, his even-strength save percentage (EV SV%), his total save percentage (Total SV%) and his quality start (QS%) and blow up rate (BU%). A quality start is counted any time a goaltender records a save percentage above .913%, or allows two goals against or fewer while facing fewer than twenty shots against. A "blow up" meanwhile is recorded anytime a goalteder stops fewer than .850% of shots.
|Starts||EV SV%||Total SV%||QS%||BU%|
Niemi's numbers are basically unconscious. Antii Niemi's blow-up rate is particularly low, and his quality-start% is high enough to have been very probably unsustainable over the course of an 82 game season. Niemi has now posted an elite save-percentage in three straight seasons and is beginning to stake an increasingly serious claim as one of the NHL's elite puck stoppers.
Kevin Woodley was a guest on our podcast earlier this week and he had a detailed scouting report on Niemi for any of you who are curious. The Canucks have had success against the unorthodox Finnish butterfly goalie in the past, but Niemi has improved enormously since the Canucks last got a good look at him in a postseason series.
For the Canucks we'll include the numbers for both Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo this season, since Vancouver's club has yet to confirm the identity of their game one starter (Schneider, of course, has been out with a mysterious "body injury" since late last week).
|Starts||EV SV%||Total SV%||QS%||BU%|
Neither Schneider nor Luongo have been quite as consistent as Antii Niemi this past season, but otherwise their numbers stack up pretty well against him. In fact Schneider's "by the number" performance has been even better albeit in a smaller sample of starts.
If Cory Schneider starts on Wednesday night - and it sure looks like he will - and isn't too rusty after ten days off, I think the goaltending matchup is essentially a wash. If Roberto Luongo starts on Wednesday, I think the edge tilts ever so slightly to Antii Niemi.
As I've already mentioned, I tend to think that the performance of Marc-Edouard Vlasic is going to be the key to this series for the San Jose Sharks. Vlasic is a two-way ace with an exceptional ability to turn play the other way and defend without ever really taking a penalty. The task of containing the Sedin twins will almost surely fall on him, and if he's not up to the task then the Canucks will probably escape this series with their playoff lives. If, however, San Jose manages to play the Canucks to a draw when the Sedin twins are on the ice, then the advantage in this series tilts strongly in their favour. Having pored over the data for a couple of days I'm essentially convinced that Vlasic versus the Sedin twins is the critical matchup in this series.
Beyond the Justin Braun, M. E. Vlasic top-pairing, the Sharks have a second pair featuring Dan Boyle and Matt Irwin. That second pair is nails and they've dominated against second line competition all season long. The speed of Boyle and Irwin could well make any disruptive forechecking efforts from the likes of Jannik Hansen and Ryan Kesler a moot point. I think this is a pretty significant matchup edge for the Sharks, frankly.
Vancouver's second pairing is likely to be Kevin Bieksa and Alex Edler. Those two were Vancouver's first pair at the start of the postseason a year ago and they struggled in the first two games of the series against Los Angeles before being separated. Playing regularly together this season, Bieksa and Hamhuis seemed to find some chemistry, and Alex Edler in particular is coming off of his strongest couple of weeks of the regular season heading into the playoffs. I'd expect Edler and Bieksa to see a steady diet of Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat (if he's healthy) and Logan Couture and that's a tough matchup that I do think marginally favours the Sharks. If Bieksa and Edler are going to come out ahead the key will be to limit turnovers while also regularly busting the usually aggressive Sharks forecheck.
One thing the Sharks and the Canucks have in common is that their third-pairings could be an Achillies heel, at least until a talented right-shooting defenceman returns from injury (for both clubs, seriously). For the Canucks, it appears that Frank Corrado and Andrew Alberts will start the series as the bottom pair. Alberts is a steady low-event player, but the Canucks regularly get outshot when he's on the ice. Against a team that generates shots in bunches like the Sharks do, that could be playing with fire. On the other hand Alberts takes fewer penalties than Keith Ballard, so I'm okay with him remaining in the lineup against a team as dominant on the power-play as the Sharks are.
As for Frank Corrado, he's been impressive for a twenty year old defenceman in his first three games wearing Canucks blue. But the postseason is a whole different animal than, say, facing off against an unmotivated Blackhawks team or an Anaheim Ducks side that's resting all of their key players. Corrado is fast, physical and poised, but so far the Canucks have been outshot pretty dramatically with him in the lineup.
I'm not too concerned about a Corrado and Alberts pairing though, because I'm not expecting the Canucks third-pairing to play all that much until Tanev's return. The Canucks made a scheme this regular season of limiting the minutes played by their top-four blueliners, and I'd suspect that we'll see that payoff beginning on Wednesday. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Hamhuis and Garrison touched twenty-seven, to twenty-eight minutes with regularity in this series while Bieksa and Edler get twenty-two to twenty-three minutes a piece (not including the power-play). Once Chris Tanev returns from injury, and he's still expected to be back at somepoint in this series though who knows when, then Vancouver's third-pairing will instantly go from a question mark to very competent.
The Sharks are in an eerily similar situation. To start the series they'll likely roll with a Scott Hannan, Brad Stuart third pairing that, yeah, sounds like a massive mismatch that Vancouver's skaters should be able to exploit. Scott Hannan is well past his expiry date, while Brad Stuart is a penalty-killing ace who has been buried with some consistency at even-strength this season. Like with Vancouver's situation with Chris Tanev, San Jose's third pairing issues will be ameliorated the moment Jason Demers returns from injury.
Both defense-corps are filled with quality two-way players, but Vancouver's defenders have more offensive upside. Even if we count Brent Burns, who did most of his damage as a forward this season, Vancouver's defense-corps still outscored San Jose's by 17 to 15 goals at even-strength. Add in the fact that Burns didn't score a single even-strength goal from the blue-line this year, and it becomes a steep 17 to 8 edge in defenceman goals at evens in Vancouver's favour.
Offense aside I wouldn't describe the Canucks as having a "better" defence-corps than the Sharks do. But I do think Vancouver's group matches up better with the forwards in teal than the Sharks defenders do with the forwards wearing royal blue. As such I'd give the Canucks a slight edge here.
We covered this a bit in the "Matchups" section, but I'll restate my overall take on how these forward groups matchup with one another. Vancouver's first line is probably better than any line the Sharks possess, but that top-nine Sharks forward group will be very difficult for the Canucks to counter. Also we won't really get into it but in Gomez, Burish and Desjardins the Sharks have a far superior fourth line to boot.
At the team's practice on Monday the Canucks took line-rushes with their usual first line (Sedin twins and Alex Burrows), with a sand-paper type second line including Ryan Kesler, Zack Kassian and Chris Higgins, and a speedy third-line featuring Derek Roy, Mason Raymond and Jannik Hansen.
My guess would be that, at least for the first two games of the series at home, Vigneault will look to play strength-on-strength with the Sedin twins matching up against Joe Thornton's group. Beyond that, the Derek Roy, Mason Raymond, Jannik Hansen line looks like a group designed to matchup against a Couture, Marleau, Havlat line; while Ryan Kesler, Zack Kassian and Chris Higgins face-off against the bizarro versions of themselves in Wingels, Pavelski and Raffi Torres.
Once the series shifts to San Jose, I'd bet McLellan looks to get the Pavelski line out against the twins, which would free up Joe Thornton to wreck havoc against Vancouver's second or third line. We'll keep close tabs on how the matchups develop as the series unfolds, and I really do think it'll be fascinating to watch how these coaches play their hands in this series.
Overall I'd say that San Jose possesses the advantage up-front in this matchup, though I'm not very confident that it'll actually show up in the series. The reason for my uncertainty is Ryan Kesler. He enters the postseason as a big wild card, and his play at even-strength will go a long way towards determining the outcome of this series.
We know from Ryan Kesler's long track record of doing so that when he's healthy Kesler is an elite two-way forward who can drive play by his lonesome against difficult competition. The problem is that he's not at full speed, and I don't think he's all that close. In the ten games since he returned from his second injury of the season, the Canucks have been outshot with Kesler on the ice in score-close situations by a count of 40 to 58. That suggests to me that those Canucks fans expecting 2010-11 Nashville series Ryan Kesler to magically reappear on Wednesday night may want to recalibrate their expectations...
If Kesler's line gets their teeth kicked in by whomever the Sharks choose to matchup against them, then the Canucks will very probably be reduced to being a one-line team. If that occurs, and I don't think it's a big long-shot that it will, then it'll be on Cory Schneider and the Sedin twins to carry a pretty exhausting load.
The Sharks are the best power-play team in the league and have been for several seasons. They led all NHL teams in five-on-four shot rate this season and finished in the top-five in terms of their capitalization percentage. The Sharks also killed off 85% of penalties they took this year, a rate that was good for sixth in the league.
Vancouver's power-play regressed significantly this season, though it has picked up some steam since Ryan Kesler returned to the fold. Kesler's even-strength proficiency hasn't returned to its normal levels yet, but at least he's given the power-play and penalty-kill a shot of concentrated adrenaline.
Vancouver's penalty-killing units were beyond stingy down the stretch as the team somehow climbed into the top-10 in the league in shot prevention and eighth overall in kill percentage. Looking at both club's 5on4 shot rate and accounting for the fact that Vancouver's penaty-kill made do for most of the season with only one centreman (Max Lapierre) and is now able to lean on Ryan Kesler and Derek Roy, I think we can arguably describe the Canucks as having an edge in penalty-killing in this series. But that edge is at least somewhat speculative and modest anyway. It's also undone by the fact that San Jose boasts the league's best power-play.
San Jose has a dramatic edge on special teams in my view, so the Canucks would be wise to stay disciplined throughout the series.
The Sharks have only the slightest edge between the pipes in this series, and a significant edge in terms of special teams and forward depth. That said I like how Vancouver's blue-line matches up with San Jose's forwards, and there's no better forward line in the series than the one that includes Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin and Alex Burrows. As such, I'm thinking what everyone else is too, namely that this series is going to be extremely tight. I've vacilated between picking the Sharks in seven and the Canucks in seven multiple times over the course of writing and researching this preview.
The Sharks are the hotter team coming in, and have posted better possession numbers at five-on-five this season. Vancouver's special teams play meanwhile is rounding into form, and they've outscored the Sharks at five-on-five pretty dramatically over the course of the year. Looking over the data I tend to think that Vancouver's edge at the top of their lineup will prove decisive, and I'd wager that they'll manage to capitalize on that advantage especially in their four home games this series. As such, I'm going to pick the Canucks to triumph in seven.