Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Know Your Enemy: San Jose Sharks

With the playoffs now upon us and mere hours until the puck drops in Vancouver's 2013 postseason, now is as good a time as any to really get to know that Canucks' first round opponent, the veteran-laden San Jose Sharks. I'll focus on the forwards here, mainly because I think this is where the key matchups are, and where the outcome of the series will be determined. Also, CanucksArmy has an excellent breakdown of the defense, goaltending and special teams of the two squads, so go read that too, if you haven't already. This post will cover how Todd McLellan deploys his team, how they perform, and ultimately how we can expect the Canucks to counter. So, let's get to it.

The Sharks boast a very deep forwards corps, especially with the re-emergence of Brent Burns as a Byfuglien-like power forward flanking Joe Thornton on the Sharks' top line. Based on Thomas Drance's series preview at CanucksArmy, here's what we can expect San Jose's lines to look like and how they will be deployed:

Galiardi - Thornton - Burns
Havlat - Couture - Marleau
Torres - Pavelski - Wingles
Desjardins - Gomez - Burish

Player usage chart courtesy of
Unlike we've seen from the Canucks, it does not appear that Todd McLellan likes to spot offensive of defensive zone starts to any of his players, Adam Burish notwithstanding (Torres spent most of his season in Phoenix, so I'm not sure how much of his 58.5% OZone start rate is due to Dave Tippett). As such, we can expect McLellan to aggressively try and line-match with Vigneault. The second line of Couture, Marleau and Havlat will probably be tasked with handling the Sedins, while McLellan will want the Pavelski line against Kesler and have Thornton's group up against Raymond, Roy and Hansen.

Alain Vigneault has been more than comfortable playing power-on-power most of this season, as the Sedins and Burrows lead the all Canucks forwards in Corsi Rel QoC. As such, he probably will not run from the Couture matchup if he perceives that to be San Jose's most dangerous line. If not, he'll run the Sedins out against Joe Thornton. Meanwhile, splitting up two of their better defensive wingers in Higgins and Hansen gives the Canucks two forward pairs (Higgins-Kesler, and Roy-Hansen) that they can use in a similar manner while matching up against the Pavelski line and whichever line the Sedins aren't playing against.

Based on possession metrics, it's quite clear just how these two teams differ in their construction. While the Canucks have largely been a one-line team for most of the year, the Sharks boast enviable depth up front, as shown by the following two graphs:

I'm not too worried about San Jose's comparatively overpowering 4th line, but the difference between the Higgins-Kesler-Kassian unit and the Havlat-Couture-Marleau line is very concerning. Fortunately for Vancouver, Kesler has proven to be a consistently strong possession player as he posted Corsi per 60 minute rates of +11.77, +17.73, and +13.24 in the three seasons before an injury-diluted -0.27 in 2013. If he can return to that form, his group and the dominant Sedin line should be enough to sink the Sharks. If not, Logan Couture and co. could be the difference in the series.

Another thing to look out for is that after a ridiculously hot start, Patrick Marleau's luck seems to have swung in the other direction, as he finished the season with a 6.81% on ice shooting percentage. In the ebb and flow of an 82-game season, he'd be due for a hot streak. The Canucks hope that it doesn't come in the next 4-7 game stretch.

Oh, and the Sedins are still good. Really good.

In a lot of ways, who wins the forward matchup depends on if Ryan Kesler can outplay Logan Couture. Even if the Sedins can win whichever matchup they're tasked with, the Canucks can't afford to give it all back with poor middle-6 play. If Kesler can't step up his game, the Sharks will simply overpower Vancouver's bottom 3 lines, and probably win the series.