What Are “Chokers”: The San Jose Sharks Playoff Failures

In the first round of the 2013-14 NHL playoffs, the San Jose Sharks were eliminated by the Los Angeles Kings in seven games for the second straight year. But what made the Sharks’ defeat by the eventual Stanley Cup Champions such a monumental occurrence this time around was that they had jumped out to a 3-0 series lead to start the series, before becoming just the fourth team in NHL history to lose after holding such an advantage.

The loss justified to many their long-held perceptions of the Sharks, and more specifically their aging top players Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, as being “chokers” who could put up strong regular season numbers but ultimately could never get it done in the playoffs. But is this really a fair assessment of them or of the Sharks as a whole? Let’s take a deeper look back at the Sharks’ recent history and try to find out.

What are “chokers”: The San Jose Sharks Playoff Failures

The Early Years of Contention

Following the 2004-05 lockout, the Sharks had three strong years of regular season success that saw them ultimately unable to advance past the second round of the playoffs. The Joe Thornton era officially began midway through the 05-06 season, as Thornton became the first player in NHL history to win the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league MVP while playing on two different teams following his trade from Boston. But Thornton and the Sharks would get upset by an Edmonton Oilers team whose seed was artificially low due to poor goaltending (which they would ultimately fix at the trade deadline by acquiring Dwayne Roloson from Minnesota). The Oilers were a much better team than their 95 points would have suggested, and they would later come just one win short of the Stanley Cup.

In 06-07 and 07-08, the Sharks would lose to a pair of long-time Western Conference powerhouses in the Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars, respectively. Neither team was an embarrassment to lose to (though the Stars series was a bit of an upset), but as a whole the “can’t get it done in the playoffs” label was starting to build. Coach Ron Wilson was dismissed following the 07-08 exit (despite leading the team to a then-franchise-record 108 point season and a division title), replaced by Stanley Cup-winning assistant Todd McLellan of the very same Red Wings who had eliminated the Sharks the year prior. Clearly a page had been turned in San Jose.

 

The Duck Debacle

While losing valuable trade deadline acquisition Brian Campbell to an enormous free agent contract from Chicago hurt, the Sharks moved quickly to replace him in the offseason with defenders Rob Blake and Dan Boyle. Under their new coach, and with their new additions, the Sharks would eclipse their previous regular season in 2008-09, finishing with 53 wins, 117 points, and the President’s Trophy for the league’s best record. Just as they had last year, the Sharks entered the playoffs as a near-consensus Stanley Cup favorite.

In the first round the Sharks drew a matchup with the Anaheim Ducks, another California team who was just two years removed from a Stanley Cup. The Ducks had underachieved during the regular season and finished in 8th, and it set up a matchup that would appear to have been more difficult for a first seeded, President’s Trophy-winning team than you would have expected. Still, the Sharks were the heavy favorites, and what ultimately ended up happening was stunning.

San Jose were defeated by the Ducks in just 6 games, ending their Cup quest far more prematurely than most could have ever imagined. But here’s a little secret that you may not know: the Sharks absolutely should have won that series. They controlled 55.06% of all shot attempts and 55.54% of unblocked shot attempts during the six games; if you are unaware of shot attempt statistics, these are extremely strong numbers that will see the team come out on top much more often than not. So what happened?

Simply put, Jonas Hiller happened.

Hiller, a Swiss goalie who had actually managed to unseat the Ducks’ Stanley Cup Champion netminder J.S. Giguere during the regular season, had a simply phenomenal playoffs for the Ducks. Hiller finished the Ducks’ playoff run with a superb .943 sv%, but that even included a second round loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

In the first round against the Sharks, Hiller stopped an amazing 220 of the 230 shots he faced, good for a .956 save percentage. That kind of absolute insanity from your goaltender can make up for an awful lot of deficiencies, in puck possession and overall play.

Meanwhile, in the Sharks’ net, longtime goalie Evgeni Nabokov had a horrific series, ending up with an .890 sv% in the same six games (somehow finding a level well below the previous year’s putrid .907 sv%). Ultimately, the series was both won and lost on goaltending above all else. The Ducks’ upset had been, until this past season at least, the Sharks’ greatest example of playoff ineptitude, but it could actually be explained rather easily (and had almost nothing to do with any lack of compete, heart, or “clutch”-ness from Thornton and/or Marleau).

 

2010 & 2011: The Sharks Run Into Strong Teams

Regardless of the circumstances behind that loss, the Sharks promised major changes in the offseason and delivered, shipping out strong defenseman (and enemy of crossbars everywhere) Christian Erhroff to Vancouver in order to make room for Dany Heatley’s exodus from Ottawa. Heatley was still several years away from becoming a punchline and his decline would not start in earnest until the following season, though many were a tad disappointed that he only managed to equal his goal production from his last year with the Senators (39) while playing on a superior team.

The Sharks had another strong regular season in 2009-10, leading the West once again with 113 points and (more importantly) finally returning to the conference finals for the first time since 2003-04. Once they got there, however, they met a Chicago Blackhawks team who finished just one point behind them during the regular season. The Blackhawks, despite being the lower-seeded team, were a juggernaut that was superior to the Sharks in almost every single way. This isn’t to say the Sharks weren’t a good team, but even a cursory glance at this table of various statistics from the season should show how far the gap really was between the two clubs.

 

Team

Goal Differential

Corsi %

Fenwick %

PDO

CHI

+25

56.88%(1st)

58.05% (1st)

99.43 (21st)

SJ +23 51.63% (11th) 51.12% (14th)

101.71 (3rd)

 

All of these stats are based on even strength play when the score was close (defined as when the game was within one goal or tied during the 1st and 2nd periods and tied in the 3rd period). As you can clearly see, the edge to the Blackhawks here was enormous. In fact, the Blackhawks were dominant when compared to the entire rest of the league that season, as the 2nd best teams in these key possession stats (Corsi is overall shot attempts and Fenwick is unblocked attempts, both of which are great proxies for possession) were Boston at 53.31% Corsi and Pittsburgh at 53.57% Fenwick. That’s not just a gap, that’s a gulf.

The only stat of importance the Sharks lead the Hawks in was PDO, a combination of shooting percentage and save percentage that, in a sample size of just a single season, tends to imply good or bad luck. The Sharks’ sky-high number and the Hawks’ much lower number, combined with their stats in other areas, show pretty conclusively that San Jose were the benefits of good fortune just to finish a single standings point ahead of Chicago.

So when the Sharks were unceremoniously swept out of the conference finals by the Hawks, it wasn’t a choke job by Thornton, Marleau, or anyone else on the team; rather, it was exactly what should have happened given the relative strength of the two teams during the regular season. Perhaps the Sharks were unlucky not to win a game or two, but the ultimate result- the Hawks moving on to the Stanley Cup Final- was not due to any kind of choke, collapse, or upset. The Sharks simply lost to a far superior team. Of course, the Blackhawks would go on to win the Stanley Cup over the Flyers in the following round.

Next season, the Sharks would regress a tad in their point total (though as we’ll see in a second they were actually a stronger team than the one from a year prior), but still finished with 105 points and won their fourth straight Pacific Division title. They would survive a scare from the Detroit Red Wings, who nearly did to them what the Kings would end up doing three years later. The Wings came back from a 3-0 deficit to force a deciding Game seven, and only a Logan Couture overtime goal kept the Sharks from becoming the second team in two years to blow a three-game lead in the playoffs. Despite that drama, for the second straight year the Sharks would advance to the Western Conference Final, and this time around they looked to have a (very) slight edge against their opponents.

 

Team

Goal Differential Corsi % Fenwick % PDO

VAN

+23

53.62% (3rd)

53.52% (4th)

101.16 (3rd)

SJ +23 54.16% (1st) 54.60% (1st)

100.11 (15th)

 

These Sharks were a much stronger puck possession team than the 2009-10 squad, leading the league in both categories (though by much, much slimmer margins than the Blackhawks had the year prior). What regressed a bit was their shooting and save percentage luck, represented in the form of PDO and mostly explaining their 8-point-drop in the standings (along with sheer randomness, of course). But the Canucks were also an elite team, finishing very close to the Sharks in both categories and getting better luck during the regular season to go along with it. With two teams who were this close, goaltending could- and ultimately, did- end up deciding it.

Roberto Luongo would have his fair share of meltdowns in the following round, but he was superb during the WCF, stopping 176 of 189 shots for a .931 sv%. Meanwhile, the Sharks had at this point transitioned from the aging Nabokov to the man who had eliminated them the prior year, ex-Blackhawk Antti Niemi. Niemi started off the series well, but a disastrous final two games ultimately saw him finish with 133 saves on 153 shots, only a .869 sv%. Once again, goaltending at both ends was the deciding factor, and again it went against the Sharks.

This isn’t to say they played great for the entire series, as Vancouver outshot them early on at home and was probably the better team, deserving the 2-0 series lead they ended up with. But once the Sharks got back to San Jose, they absolutely deserved a better fate. Following a close 4-3 win in Game 3, the Sharks amazingly outshot the Canucks by a margin of 33-13 in Game 4, but were ultimately undone by shaky goaltending from Niemi and a seemingly never ending trip to the penalty box (all of the game’s final six penalties- including a delay of game call AND a too many men on the ice call- went against the Sharks). In Game 5, the Sharks again held a huge advantage in shots at 56-34, but were once again unable to put enough pucks past Luongo to get the victory and were eliminated in double overtime.

Does this series fit the choker label? I’m really not sure how it can really be blamed on Thornton, Marleau, or any of the Sharks’ other skaters that their goaltending managed to come up small yet again (even with a different goaltender this time!) while at the same time running into a strong goaltending performance at the other end. The regular season statistics showed a slight advantage for the Sharks with a margin-of-error so small that there’s no way they could have possibly overcome a .869 performance from their starting goaltender. Unlike in 2010, the Sharks at least had a fighting chance heading into their 2011 Western Conference Final, but the final result of these two years- two Conference Final appearances with just one win between them to show for it- would ultimately be hard to swallow.

 

Retooling

The Sharks once again made changes following the 2010-11 season, making a number of moves designed to acquire younger, faster players to play a more north-south, aggressive forechecking game. GM Doug Wilson saw this kind of game as what the entire NHL was transitioning to, and ultimately he appears to have been right when you look at the kind of teams that have been successful in the league over the last few seasons.

The Sharks got defenseman Brent Burns from Minnesota for forward Devin Setoguchi, prospect Charlie Coyle, and a 1st round draft pick. They later made another trade with the Wild, swapping out the rapidly declining Heatley (who had dropped off from 39 goals to just 26 in his second year with the Sharks) for Marty Havlat. Wilson would continue what he would call a “retool” (rather than a rebuild) in a five-player trade with Colorado in February, acquiring TJ Galiardi and Daniel Winnik for Jame McGinn and a couple other spare parts.

But the end result of all the change was a disappointing year where the Sharks had trouble scoring at even strength, and ultimately finished with just 96 points, their lowest point total since 2002-03. In the playoffs they drew a tough first round matchup with the 2nd seeded St. Louis Blues, and after winning Game 1 in overtime they bowed out rather meekly by losing four straight.

Following the low point of the 11-12 campaign, the Sharks were written off as a serious contender by many in the mainstream hockey media, their window declared to finally be closed for good. But when the puck finally dropped to start the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, the Sharks went a perfect 7-0-0 in the month of January, briefly reestablishing themselves as contenders in the eyes of many. However, they followed that up with a 2-6-4 record in February that again had pundits questioning the Sharks’ continued ability to compete with the best in the loaded Western Conference.

As the deadline approached, the Sharks shipped out a number of slow veterans like Douglas Murray, Michael Handzus, and Ryane Clowe to teams that considered themselves contenders (Pittsburgh, Chicago, and the Rangers, to be precise), leading to speculation that they were beginning a full-on rebuild. But instead, this was just another step in the process that had begun the previous season.

The team brought in the controversial but hard-hitting and fast Raffi Torres from Phoenix to continue reshaping their roster. Between this addition and the addition-by-subtraction of losing the deteriorating veterans, the Sharks played better down the stretch into the playoffs. But it was a different sort of move that really put them over the top.

In March, a spark was ignited that put the Sharks’ season back on track, and ultimately proved to be the real final piece of the “retool”. Brent Burns was moved from defenseman to forward, and instantly became one of the most tenacious forecheckers in the entire NHL. His ability to pound opponents into submission added an entirely new dynamic to the Sharks’ top line, and he also showed a great deal of skill to go along with it. He would finish the season with 20 points in just 23 games as a forward, with most of those points coming at even strength (scoring at 5v5 had become a major issue with the Sharks, as mentioned). He was exactly what the Sharks needed, and in the first round the team rolled through the Vancouver Canucks, sweeping them out of the playoffs and ultimately costing Vancouver’s head coach his job.

However, in the second round the Sharks once again ran into a very strong team: the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings. The Kings were everything the Sharks were and more, as their level of puck possession dominance was almost unheard of (for instance, they had a 58.02% Corsi at 5v5 close, compared to just a respectable 52.1% Corsi by the Sharks in the same situation).

Despite this gap, the Sharks would give the defending champs a hell of a scare. The series was incredibly close and ultimately came down to a deciding 7th game, won by the Kings to once again send the Sharks home empty-handed. Still, taking a dominant defending championship team like the Kings to seven games before bowing out was nothing to really be ashamed of, so the 2012-13 season ended up looking like a slight step forward following 11-12’s big step back. Perhaps the Sharks were ready to finally take that big next step that had constantly eluded them.

 

Making History (for all the wrong reasons)

In 2013-14, the Sharks built on the previous season’s success with yet another strong regular season, finishing with 111 points and narrowly missing out on yet another Pacific division crown. As a “reward” for their play, the Sharks found themselves staring down the LA Kings once again, this time in the very first round.

The Kings had finished 11 points behind them in the standings, but were once again stronger than the Sharks in key puck possession metrics (though the margin was quite a bit slimmer this time around). Pundits and prognosticators who paid close enough attention to this kind of analytics ruled the series to be a “virtual coin flip”; in another words, the two teams were so close overall that it was almost impossible to pick a winner before the series started.

The Sharks made those people look pretty dumb through Games 1 & 2, however. They improbably stomped the Kings on home ice, outscoring them by a combined total of 13-5. The reeling Kings regrouped, corrected some key mistakes with their lineup (like scratching strong rookie Tanner Pearson in favor of the beyond-underwhelming Jordan Nolan), and came out with a much stronger effort in Game 3, which went to overtime. The Kings controlled play in the OT, but the Sharks would score a weird, bouncing game winner on what wasn’t just their first shot, but was even their first shot attempt of the entire period. Suddenly the Sharks had the Kings on the brink of elimination.

And, well, you probably know what happened from there: the Sharks lost the next four straight. A combination of poor goaltending (Niemi finished the series with a horrific .884 sv%, and was even benched in Game 6 in favor of starting untested rookie backup Alex Stalock), bad luck, perplexing lineup decisions, and- it must be said- wildly ineffective play at times (especially in Game five, where the Sharks came out inexplicably flat with a chance to eliminate the Kings on home ice) combined to result in the historic collapse. Once again, the Sharks were beaten by the Kings in seven.

An overall view of the series shows yet another incredibly close one, with both teams controlling nearly a perfect 50% of shot attempts, but the order of the victories could not be ignored by Sharks management. But we’ll save GM Doug Wilson’s, uh, curious off-season for a different article.

 

Are they chokers?

Answering this question has been the theme of this article, and I think we can say pretty definitively that the “choker” label is quite a bit unfair. Focusing on Thornton and Marleau alone for a moment, their playoff production is actually far stronger than most are willing to give them credit for.

Thornton has scored 0.85 points-per-game in his Sharks playoff career, which is a bit of a drop from his regular season totals (scoring in the playoffs overall drops from the regular season, it should be noted), but still very strong. Consider that Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews, both two-time Cup-winning centers, have both scored around 0.86 PPG during their own playoff careers. That’s basically a statistically insignificant difference. Anyone who would try to tell you the problem with the Sharks in the playoffs is that Joe Thornton doesn’t score enough is either not paying attention or being intentionally dishonest.

Marleau, on the other hand, is primarily a goal scorer, and he’s scored 0.43 goals-per-game in the playoffs throughout his career. That’s a very strong number for a modern NHL player. It’s tough to point the finger at him and say he’s the problem, either.

So if Thornton & Marleau have both been much better in the playoffs than people give them credit for, and we’re dismissive of the narrative that the Sharks are just perennial playoff “chokers”, what ultimately has caused their run of playoff futility? I think by now we can single out some key causes, some of which we’ve already discussed in detail and some that we haven’t:

Goaltending: The Sharks’ netminders, whether it’s Nabokov or Niemi, have come up small much, much more often than they’ve come up big in the postseason. To recap, here’s the playoff save percentages of the Sharks’ starters during the past six years, starting in 07-08: .907, .890, .907, .896, .914, .930, and .884. You have one year there that would even be above the league average (which is higher in the playoffs than the regular season), Niemi’s .930 in 2012-13. That’s it. It’s very tough to win much of anything in the playoffs when you’re getting goaltending that’s below league average, often by a wide margin.

On the other hand, the Sharks have repeatedly run into opposing goaltenders in the midst of strong playoff runs, like Hiller with Anaheim in 08-09, Luongo with the Canucks in 10-11, and Quick with the Kings in 12-13 (he had an awful regular season but was extremely good in the playoffs basically until the Blackhawks series that year). Poor goaltending at your end and stellar goaltending at the other is a pretty bad combination, one that makes it extremely difficult for your club to advance.

Running into better teams: The Blackhawks in 09-10, the Blues in 11-12, and the Kings in 12-13 were demonstrably better than the Sharks. Losing to any of those teams is pretty impossible to declare a choke job.

-Bad luck: The Sharks lost a couple series that were virtual coin flips before they even started: the Canucks in 10-11 and the Kings in 13-14. In addition, they played the Kings far more even in 12-13 than the regular season statistics would have suggested as likely, but lost another incredibly close series. A few bounces here or there could have changed the outcome in any one of these three playoff rounds, and losing all three of them undoubtedly represents just plain, simple bad luck on the part of the Sharks. If the old saying “you have to be lucky to be good” holds true, the Sharks just weren’t lucky enough to be good enough, and that has been a huge factor in costing them some of their best shots at the Cup.

Ineffective coaching: This one we haven’t really touched upon at all, and I’ll try to be brief since this article is already extremely long: I am not a fan of Todd McLellan as a coach. His insistence on dressing goons like Mike Brown in the postseason over players who could more reasonably contribute (like Havlat or Tyler Kennedy, for instance) is nonsensical.

His use of his lineup during the latest Kings series was horrific, insisting on playing Joe Pavelski and his unsustainably high shooting percentage on Thornton’s wing constantly instead of at 3rd line center. Pavelski not sliding into that 3C hole left James Sheppard there instead and Sheppard is simply not a good enough player to fill that role. He would have been perfectly fine as 4th-line center though, and rolling four centers of Thornton/Couture/Pavelski/Sheppard would have matched up far more evenly with the Kings’ center depth of Kopitar/Carter/Stoll/Richards.

Instead, their suboptimal lineup was a contributing factor in the collapse. McLellan and Wilson are also making another big mistake with the lineup heading into the 2014-15 season, moving Brent Burns from 1st line winger (where, as we discussed earlier, he’s been dominant) to 2nd pairing defenseman (where he’ll be good, but by no means elite), further harming their team’s ability to contend into the future.

The Sharks are a great team, one of the NHL’s elite in the regular season. What will frustrate many Sharks fans is that they had the ability to be better heading into 2014-15, only to watch their management ignore their suddenly abundant cap space (the Sharks had been pushing the cap for basically the entirety of the Thornton/Marleau era) and sign no one other than a bunch of borderline AHL face-punchers.

Perhaps this management group has already written off this core. But regardless of whether or not the Thornton/Marleau era in San Jose ever results in that elusive Stanley Cup, the team should be remembered as one of the strongest clubs in NHL history, at least as far as continual regular season dominance goes. With better luck and goaltending, the Sharks easily could have had a couple Stanley Cup banners to hang with all their regular season ones at the top of the Tank, but perhaps it just wasn’t meant to be.

 

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