Shark-Infested Blogger

July 31, 2009 9:46 AM

Will Beats Skill

The San Jose Sharks are known for two things in the hockey world. One is speed; the other is premature playoff exits.

It is time to accept that the two go hand-in-hand. You know the adage: Will Beats Skill.

For Sharks fans, I give fair warning: I am about to re-hash all of these exits yet again. Please scroll down below the bullet points and continue.

  • In the second round of 2006, a hit by Raffi Torres took then-leading goal scorer Milan Michalek out of the playoffs. Edmonton went on to win in overtime and the Sharks did not win another game.
  • In the second round of 2007, Patrick Marleau ignored his defensive responsibilities, leading to a goal by Robert Lang with the Sharks 35 seconds away fromtaking a commanding 3-1 series lead. The Red Wings went on to win in overtime and the Sharks did not win another game.
  • In the second round of 2008, Marleau lept out of the way of a shot, blocking his goalie's view rather than blocking the shot. The Stars went on to win in overtime and the Sharks eventually went down three games to none. Unable to get out of the hole they dug, they lost a four-OT thriller in which Brenden Morrow again knocked Michalek out of the game.
  • The coach was fired and a blockbuster trade was made to change the fortunes of the team by adding more offence. It worked to change the team's fortunes--they did not collapse in overtime, nor the second round. Instead, in the first round of 2008, the Sharks did not show up offensively in four of the six games and lost all four.

See a pattern here? The skilled players are knocked out by adversity, be it a fierce hit or goal that is a punch in the gut. They simply lack the grit to overcome.

In fact, I tracked nine statistics per game played to compare regular season vs. post-season performance--goals, assists, points, +/-, power play goals, shorthanded goals, game-winning goals, shots, and shooting percentage. There were 83 player/seasons between the four playoffs--i.e. since Joe Thornton was on the team all four years, he accounts for four player seasons; Scott Hannan was on for just two years, and accounts for two player seasons.

That leaves a total of 747 statistics tracked. Of those, 118 (or 15.8 percent) were no change--most (64) of those are in shorthanded goals. The Sharks were better in the post-season in 165 statistics (22.1 percent), and they were worse in 464 categories (62.1 percent).

This drop-off is especially pronounced for several of the more skilled Sharks:

  1. Christian Ehrhoff's production dropped in 21 of 27 (77.8 percent) categories over the last three seasons.
  2. Devin Setoguchi's production dropped in 16 of 18 (88.9 percent) categories over his two seasons.
  3. Joe Thornton's dropped in 27 of 36 categories (75 percent).
  4. Jonathan Cheechoo dropped in 24 of 36 categories (66.7 percent).
  5. Marc-Edouard Vlasic dropped in 20 of 27 categories (74.1 percent).
  6. Milan Michalek has suffered a drop-off in 12 of 18 (66.7 percent) categories over the past two post-seasons and had over a 30 percent drop in points per game in each of the last three seasons.
  7. Even Patrick Marleau has suffered a drop off in 17 of 27 (63 percent) since his great 2006 post-season.

Looking at this for some of the grittier Sharks gives a different picture. (Note: We must ignore those not expected to score, such as Douglas Murray and Brad Lukowich, who produced about the same in regular and post-season, since only +/- is significant among these stats for what is expected of them.)

  1. Craig Rivet improved in eight categories and was worse in only six.
  2. Rob Blake improved in four and was worse in four.
  3. Ryane Clowe was worse in only 20 of 36 categories (55.6 percent).
  4. Joe Pavelski was worse in only 16 of 27 categories (59.3 percent), and only seven of 18 (38.9 percent) prior to 2009.

Of course, there are some prominent counter-examples...

  1. Bill Guerin and Travis Moen did not improve in a single category and were worse in eight of nine (88.9 percent).
  2. Mike Grier was worse in 23 of 27 categories (85.2 percent).

But the teams that have been successful have gritty players who got the job done in April and May. The Western Conference champions over those four years include the uber-gritty Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers, as well as the gritty and skilled Red Wings. The teams that beat the Sharks in each of those seasons--Edmonton, Detroit, Dallas, and Anaheim--had grit.

Contrast them to the Sharks. Patrick Marleau epitomizes this team, and is the face of the Sharks in every way.

He is the all-time leader in almost every statistic for the franchise. He is its longest-tenured player. He is its captain.

He is also highly skilled and one of the best skaters in the world. He is also soft-spoken, does not play with fire, and is prone to costly let-downs. In every season but the last, when he was a left wing on Joe Thornton's line, it was Marleau's line that failed to come through in the elimination series.

Yet as I have stated in an earlier article, I do not think Marleau should be replaced. Not everyone on the roster has to have grit. But you need more gritty players than the Sharks have, and you need grit in your leaders.

There is no one in San Jose's leadership group described with that characteristic. Until there is, summer will continue to start early for the Sharks every year.

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