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May 1, 2013
NHL Playoffs, First Round
Vancouver Canucks vs. San Jose Sharks

by Jonathan Willis

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The semi-good news for both the Vancouver Canucks and the San Jose Sharks—teams often decried as playoff flops—is that only one of them can lose in the first round. The question is which falls and which advances, and that's an incredibly difficult one to answer as the Sharks and Canucks were neck-and-neck in virtually every category this season.

Even strength

Vancouver Canucks close-game Fenwick: 51.7% (Rank: 12th in NHL)
San Jose Sharks close-game Fenwick: 52.4% (Rank: 9th in NHL)
Total: San Jose Sharks, +0.7%

Both of these clubs are above-average possession teams, and have been for years. Going back over the past four seasons, the Sharks have persistently been just slightly better than Vancouver in this department—never by very much, just by enough to be noticed. In a seven-game series, and particularly a seven-game series where Vancouver has home ice advantage, either team could end up with a shot differential advantage.

Advantage: Basically even

Vancouver offense vs. San Jose defense

Vancouver Canucks offense: -5.4 GVT (Rank: 20th in NHL)
San Jose Sharks defense: 5.0 GVT (Rank: 11th in NHL)
San Jose Sharks goaltending: 9.9 GVT (8th in NHL)
Total: Vancouver Canucks, -10.3 GVT

In 2011-12, the Canucks scored 2.94 goals per game, the most in the Western Conference and the fifth-best total in NHL. This season, one has to scroll all the way down to 19th overall to find Vancouver at 2.54 goals per game—nearly half a goal per game less than the year prior, and back of teams like Calgary, Dallas, and Edmonton in the West.

So what happened? At both even strength and on the power play, the Canucks saw dropoffs, and they weren't based on percentages—in terms of shots per 60 minutes of play, in both 5-on-5 and 5-on-4 situations, Vancouver's totals fell. The reasons are open to interpretation, but the absence of key secondary scorers like Ryan Kesler and David Booth certainly didn't help, particularly when combined with a revolving door in the second line center slot that saw both Jordan Schroeder and Andrew Ebbett fail miserably in the position.

San Jose won't surrender goals easily. The Sharks finished sixth in the league in goals against and were an above-average team at shot prevention in 5-on-5 situations. The Sharks were so deep on the blue line that they could afford to play swingman Brent Burns up front. Dan Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic each anchor one of the top two pairings, and the rest of the group is a nice mix of up-and-comers like Matt Irwin and veterans like Brad Stuart.

In net, Antti Niemi has proved a lot since leaving Chicago, with .920, .915 and .924 save percentage seasons; 2012-13 is his finest campaign, and he has been mentioned as a Vezina candidate.

Advantage: San Jose Sharks

San Jose offense vs. Vancouver defense

San Jose Sharks offense: -11.4 GVT (Rank: 24th in NHL)
Vancouver Canucks defense: 2.9 GVT (Rank: 13th in NHL)
Vancouver Canucks goaltending: 8.1 GVT (Rank: 9th in NHL)
Total: San Jose Sharks, -22.4 GVT

Like Vancouver, San Jose's offensive production declined steeply year-over-year, though the Sharks' dropoff came almost entirely at even strength. Also like Vancouver, most of San Jose's problems came from a fall in shot generation rather than a significant fluctuation in shooting percentage. Superficially, their top forwards seem to have produced at similar rates, but it's worth noting that last season the Sharks had five forwards double digits in the black in shot attempts for and against 5-on-5; this year, only Thornton was +10 or better in that department over an average hour of even strength play.

Vancouver, a stingy defensive team with a strong defense corps, isn't exactly a dream matchup for a team with a sputtering offense. Even ignoring quality defensive forwards like Kesler (back for the postseason) and Alex Burrows, the Canucks' blue line group is deep and capable. The top four of Dan Hamhuis, Alex Edler, Kevin Bieksa, and Jason Garrison has a nice blend of skills, and they are supported by quality depth players. Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo give the Canucks both quality and depth between the pipes.

Advantage: Vancouver Canucks

Vancouver power play vs. San Jose penalty kill

Vancouver Canucks power play: -3.8 GVT (Rank: 20th in NHL)
San Jose Sharks penalty kill: 4.9 GVT (rank: 7th in NHL)
Total: Vancouver Canucks, -8.7 GVT

The most baffling change in Vancouver is their suddenly impotent power play. A year ago, the team was firing almost a shot per minute in 5-on-4 situations, and had the third-highest shot volume in the league. This year, they are down to 43.8 shots per 60 minutes, only the 23rd-best rate in the league. It is a staggering drop. The absence of Ryan Kelser has been tagged by some analysts as a principle contributor, so perhaps they will have this fixed for the postseason. But by the regular season numbers, it looks like San Jose can expect to win this particular special teams battle handily.

Advantage: San Jose Sharks

San Jose power play vs. Vancouver penalty kill

San Jose Sharks power play: 2.5 GVT (Rank: 10th in NHL)
Vancouver Canucks penalty kill: 2.5 GVT (Rank: 11th in NHL)
Total: San Jose Sharks, 0.0 GVT

San Jose has a very good power play; Vancouver has a very good penalty kill. This is a power-vs.-power matchup, and as such, isn't likely to be the deciding factor in the series.

Advantage: Even

Season Series

San Jose and Vancouver played three times, and the Sharks won 4-1, 3-2 in the shootout, and 3-2 in regulation. Vancouver's presumptive starter Cory Schneider took the loss in all three contests. San Jose held a narrow edge in shots over the three games, 92 to 87.

Advantage: San Jose Sharks

Faceoffs

Vancouver Canucks faceoff percentage: 47.6% (Rank: 25th in NHL)
San Jose Sharks faceoff percentage: 53.4% (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Total: San Jose Sharks, +5.8%

This matchup favors San Jose, but probably not by quite as much as the overall numbers make it seem. Vancouver's best faceoff man, Ryan Kesler, was hurt all year. However, San Jose is likely going to win this battle anyway—they have five regular faceoff men over 51.5% in the circle, led by Joe Thornton's 58.5% win rate.

Advantage: San Jose Sharks

Injuries and intangibles

Vancouver has some significant injury problems. Starting goaltender Cory Schneider is day-to-day and questionable for game one, but he is the tip of the iceberg. David Booth is out after undergoing ankle surgery in March, Manny Malhotra is out for the season due to a horrific eye injury suffered in 2011, and Chris Tanev is also listed as day-to-day and is not expected to be ready for the first game of the series. Additionally, defensemen Kevin Bieksa and Keith Ballard are only recently back from day-to-day status.

San Jose is relatively healthy entering this series, with defenseman Jason Demers the only injury of note. Demers is expected back in the lineup for game two.

Advantage: San Jose Sharks

Prediction

Vancouver Canucks: 6.0 GVT (Rank: 14th in NHL)
San Jose Sharks: 8.0 GVT (Rank: 13th in NHL)
Total: San Jose Sharks, 2.0 GVT

This is a closely matched series. Despite Vancouver holding the third seed and home ice advantage, the Sharks only finished two points back and actually had a better goal differential (+8 vs. +6) than the Canucks—though that modest goal differential advantage reverses when the shootout is taken out of consideration (+7 for Vancouver vs. +4 for San Jose). This is a coin flip, but Vancouver gets the nod by virtue of home ice advantage.

Vancouver Canucks in seven games

Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Jonathan by clicking here or click here to see Jonathan's other articles.

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