Continuing our look at the 2015-16 playoffs, we now move onto the Western Conference first round series between the San Jose Shark and the Los Angeles Kings. On paper, this series was basically a coin-flip because you had two teams with similar regular season numbers and they were both incredibly strong possession teams to boot, LA ranking first and San Jose ranking fifth in Score Adjusted Fenwick respectively. Despite that, the series ended up not being very long at all.
San Jose finished this series in five games, capping things off with a 6-3 win where they scored three unanswered goals to put the final nails in the coffin. That said, this series was a little closer if you look at things on a game-by-game basis. All but one game was decided by one-goal (Game 5 being the one that wasn’t, unfortunately for the Kings) and like most playoff series, this could have easily gone to seven games if a few bounces went the other way. Did the Sharks really outplay the Kings and what led to them winning in such quick fashion?
(Shot stats were tabulated by yours truly)
Above are the shot statistics for each team at five-on-five, most of them explain themselves but I’ll break things down for you if the volume of data is overwhelming. In addition to counting shot attempts, I’ve included some info on how the shot was created (the type of entry it came after or if it came off a turnover within the offensive zone) and whether or not there was a deflection or a screen after the shot was taken. I also noted whether or not the opposing goaltender had to move laterally to make a save and how many shots came off a passing play.
A few things that stick out here, the first one being that the Kings had a pretty sizable advantage in overall shot attempts (54.9%) and a slight disadvantage in scoring chances. They also had a good chunk of their shots blocked by the Sharks, much more than the other way around. Chances in general were hard to come by at even strength (both teams averaged 19 per game at five-on-five) and generating them was like pulling teeth for the Kings.
Now, a team that controls over 54% of the shot attempts at even strength usually has a better chance of winning long-term, but randomness creeps in when you’re limited to only five games and the Kings fell victim to that here. Some might debate that it’s more than just luck because the Sharks did a good job with blocking shots and LA had a miserable time at finding the net. I can see that argument, but it seems like a pretty big reach. First of all, LA only hitting the net on 41% of their shots seems random even if you think shot accuracy is a repeatable team skill. If that’s the Kings’ “true” team talent, then they probably wouldn’t be a playoff team, much less a two seed. Secondly, shot accuracy is repeatable as a team skill, but shot generation/volume has a stronger correlation with goals & points, which is ultimately what matters.
San Jose only had a small edge in scoring chances despite LA’s offensive woes, so this is probably a small factor but sometimes that’s enough to sink your team in the playoffs, especially if you are falling short in special teams and goaltending. As you can probably guess, Los Angeles came out on the short end of both situations.
Power Play Shots
The Sharks spent about eight more minutes on the power play than the Kings, so they ended up with the advantage in every shot generation category, even though they had as much trouble hitting the net as LA did. With that being said, they still scored five power play goals, three of which coming in one game, and outscored LA on the power play overall. The Kings didn’t perform that badly on special teams, scoring three power play goals and generating only one fewer chance than the Sharks despite taking more penalties. They also added a shorthanded tally to boot. San Jose still had the edge over them, though and that proved to be enough.
Another thing San Jose had an advantage in was creating passing plays and getting the opposing goalie to move laterally to make a save on a higher percentage of their shots. This is something derived from Ryan Stimson’s passing project, which gives us some fantastic insight into how teams & players contribute to winning the possession battle and creating offense. The link contains more information on how the data is tracked & why it’s important but I’ll give a brief summary here.
To track this data, I followed Stimson’s method by counting every shot in the offensive zone and noted if there was a passing play that directly led to it. I also tracked which players were involved in those passes and the area of the ice where they occurred. The only thing I did differently from Stimson was that I didn’t include the direction of the pass and I added in whether or not the goaltender had to move laterally to make a save. This is data that has been shown to be repeatable through Stimson’s research and there is some evidence that shots off passing plays have a higher shooting percentage than ones with no passes. It might require further research, but the early evidence is promising.
Did it play a factor in this series? A quick skim of the overall numbers shows that there might be something to it. The Sharks were especially effective at moving the puck around and making Jonathan Quick work to make saves on the power play. Quick’s aggressive style might play into that, but the difference between the two teams here stands out in a big way. With that in mind, five games of data isn’t going to tell you a whole lot, so everything we’re looking at here is more descriptive than anything and it’s best to not get carried away with the results. Still, there’s some interesting data to look over here.
Next up, we’re going to look at how much of a role each team’s players had in generating offense. Normally I would start with the home team, but since the Sharks won the series and have more interesting data to examine, we’re going to lead off with them.
San Jose Sharks Offensive Contributions
Contribution Percentage is the percentage of shots a player was on the ice for that he either took or recorded a primary assist on, so basically how often he was directly involved in the play. Linemates Logan Couture and Joonas Donskoi shine here, as the two created nearly half the shots they were on the ice for. The two did a pretty spectacular job of locating each other on the ice and gave the Kings lots of trouble when they were on the ice. Unsurprisingly, Joe Thornton is also on this list, leading both of his linemates, Joe Pavelski & Tomas Hertl) by a pretty decent margin while Matt Nieto & Tommy Wingles led the charge on their respective lines.
After Hertl, we see the players who we might label as “passengers,” as they played small roles in shot creation on their lines. The most startling name here is Patrick Marleau, who you would assume is a major catalyst for the Sharks offense. He also had four points in five games, but three of them came on the power play. The Sharks were also outshot by 21 at five-on-five when Marleau was on the ice and he ranked third from last in terms of the number of shot attempts he was on the ice for (according to War-on-Ice’s series summary which I can’t link to at the moment). So maybe it isn’t that surprising at all within context. I didn’t expect Matt Nieto to be the key play-driver on this line, though.
Sharks Forwards Shooters vs. Passers
This graph shows what each player did to contribute to the offense at even strength and gives us a look at what their tendencies might be. You might remember that Wingles had a big lead on his linemates in terms of offensive contribution, and it was mostly due to him shooting every chance he got. Melker Karlsson is also in that category to a lesser degree while Ward, Marleau & Spaling were pretty low event.
The rest of the Sharks forwards are clumped together in the same part of the graph. This is where the majority of their top-six is, so that’s probably not too surprising. What is a shocker is that Thornton had more shots than primary shot assists AND shot the puck more often than Pavelski. Who woulda thought?
If you paid any attention to this series and expected anyone but Brent Burns to lead the Sharks in this category then I don’t know what to tell you. The Norris finalist has always been known as a rover and had a career season offensively to boot, and he carried that over to the post-season. The degree that he leads the Sharks defense is a little staggering when it’s mapped out like this because the gap between him and the next Sharks defenseman is larger than it is from Marc-Edouard Vlasic to Paul Martin.
Sharks Defense Passers vs. Shooters
Burns finds himself on an island yet again, completing much more passes than the rest of the defense corps and shooting the puck just as often. Dual threat, he is. The rest of the Sharks defense was more one-dimensional, with most of them opting to shoot first. Not exactly breaking any new ground with that, as it’s pretty common for defensemen to try to get pucks on net rather than go for a fancy play. The Sharks seemed to adopt this strategy with the exception of Burns, who still shoots a lot in his own right.
Now let’s look at the Kings.
A little interesting to see three linemates at the top of the list for the Kings, but they seemed to red off each other to create offense, Tyler Toffoli being the main triggerman and play-driver on that line. Carter also took his share of shots while Lucic was more of a set-up guy but Toffoli did most of the bullwork according to this. After him, there is a huge drop-off and most of their forwards are pretty jumbled here. It’s also weird to see Kopitar directly contribute to such a low percentage of shots that he was on the ice for, especially when you consider that his linemates (Marian Gaborik & Dwight King) don’t rank highly in this regard either. A closer look into their individual numbers might make things more clear.
Forwards Shooters vs. Passers
The different types of players are a little easier to spot here with Versteeg, Kopitar & Lucic opting to pass more than shoot while Toffoli, Brown, Gaborik, Shore, King and Carter are at the other end of the spectrum. The other thing that sticks out is that the Kings forwards seemed to have more of a shoot-first mentality compared to Sharks, whose top forwards seemed to pass more often. I’m not sure what the reasoning behind that is or if it’s significant, but it’s an odd quirk here. The separation between the Kings three main passers and the rest of the forwards is a bit alarming, though.
Jake Muzzin has been a Corsi darling for years now and he backed it up this series with his on-ice contributions. The Kings always dominate the shot battle when he’s on the ice and he led the Kings defense in shot generation this series, posting a higher contribution percentage than most of their forwards. Granted, some might argue that last point is a bad thing for the Kings because while Muzzin led the team with 26 attempted shots, half of them were blocked and only nine of them got on goal. How much control he has over that is up in the air, but I would assume the Kings would want to see their forwards contribute more in terms of shot generation.
Kings Defense Shooters vs. Passers
Muzzin had trouble with getting shots through but he did redeem himself by being pretty effective as a passing option in the offensive zone, so his strong possession play goes beyond just firing shots from the blue line. Doughty also has some strong numbers here, being the best passer on the Kings defense and generating plenty of shots on his own. After him, there’s a big drop off in terms of players with passing ability. Luke Schenn, Rob Scuderi & Brayden McNabb were about the same in terms of passing while Jamie McBain didn’t have one single completed pass that led to a shot.
One thing I love about the playoffs is that even in a five game series, there’s plenty to dive into and there isn’t one easy answer as to what went right and what went wrong for either team. This one was no different. The Kings had the edge in possession but struggled to scoring chances while the Sharks had a slight edge in most of the categories outside of that. They marginally outchanced the Kings, outscored them on the power play by two goals, received better goaltending and seemed to have more creativity in the offensive zone. Over a full-season, who knows what would happen but in the playoffs, sometimes that’s enough to make it a short series.
Stats not tracked by me were taken from War-on-Ice’s series tool, Corsica.hockey & hockeystats.ca. Shoutout to Ryan Stimson for creating the passing project and giving me the idea for this post. Make sure to read and support his project.