Being a fan of an elite team for multiple seasons is an ideal situation for a sports junkie such as myself, but because of the exponentially increased expectations, the negativity (in the fan base and media) increases tenfold, as well. It always bemuses me the minute the Yankees lose the first 3 games of the season, ESPN starts off Sportscenter with “Should the Yankees be worried?” Uhm…no. First of all, they lost 3 of 162 games. And it’s the Yankees, they can easily roll off the next 159 games and end 159-3. So chill. Second of all, it’s the Yankees. They aren’t going to miss the playoffs. They’re fine.
And these chicken littles, my dear friends, are the reason valium exists.
The San Jose Sharks lost again on Sunday night. They are 2-5-1 over the last 8 games and currently sitting at 8th in the conference. For a team that’s as loaded in talent as the Sharks, this is unexpected and unacceptable and unfortunately, causes some unnecessary, and irritating trepidation.
Now if you know me personally or have read various entries in this blog, you know I’m not exactly Miss Optimistic when it comes to my teams. In fact, I may be so far away from optimistic that some people don’t consider me a true fan because I talk so much trash about my supposed “favorite” team. But when it comes to the Sharks this year, I am one of those who adamantly tries to avoid the chicken little mentality of the “TRADE MARLEAU! TRADE BOYLE! FIRE MCCLELLAN!”-ilk. Despite this slump, I try to put everything in perspective, and relax by analyzing some good ol’ fashioned statistics. Time to have some fun with numbers, kids!
As a fan of the NHL, as well as the NBA and MLB, it helps your sanity to keep this cliche in your head: The season is a marathon, not a sprint. A slight losing streak does not mean the team is missing the playoffs. A slight losing streak does not make the team bad. The Sharks have played 27 games amassing 32 points, compared to the division leaders (the Dallas Stars) who have played 28 games accumulating 33 points. The Sharks are only 1 point away from the division lead with a game-in-hand. As “crappy” as they’ve been playing, that’s not a bad position to be in.
Now let’s expand to the bigger picture of the Western Conference. To the dismay of many Sharks fans, the new and improved Minnesota Wild are sitting atop the conference and the league with 43 points in 30 games prompting quick snap, definitive judgements of the offseason transactions involving Devin Setoguchi, Dany Heatley, Brent Burns and Martin Havlat saying we lost both trades. That’s not even close to being true, at least, one cannot make that statement quite yet.
If we were judging the results of the trade based on player production, then sure, Heatley and Seto win. They have a combined 33 points versus Burns/Havlat with 22. But that’s ignoring the fact that the Wild have played 3 more games than the Sharks, and Havlat missed the first 4 games of the season. Burns’ defensive game is slowly improving and top 3 in Corsi Rel, and Havlat is shooting at an atrocious 1.7%, when his career average is 12.7%. Marty is snake bit, at the moment, but he’s a darn good player who should progress closer to his mean as the season goes on.
It’s also ignoring the fact that the Wild are getting some unsustainably spectacular goaltending while their offense is struggling mightily. The numbers are illustrated here on the fantastic SBNation blog Copper and Blue, using FENWICK as the measure of the Wild’s play. They’re big on using advanced statistics over there, and they act as a decent indicator of a team’s future success. FENWICK and the aforementioned CORSI, if you don’t know, are metrics to measure puck possession at even-strength. In theory, the more you have the puck, the more you control the game, the better chance you have of winning. So the better those numbers are, the better the player and team likely is. And sure, the only stat that matters in the end is total points, and at this moment, the Wild lead in total points. But living in the moment during the first third of an 82-game season is a bit futile, considering it’s where you are at the end of the season that counts. Since none of us are psychics, the best way to measure for future success is to look at statistical trends.
The Sharks, opposed to the beginning of last season, are among the league leaders in even-strength production, and for better or worse, not having to rely on their power play as much. This is a huge improvement and a very important thing to keep in mind as special teams can go cold during the playoffs, and you HAVE to score 5-on-5 goals even more so. They also still are amongst top 10 when it comes to goal differential. With the Sharks losing some offensive fire power this offseason, it’s refreshing to know that they’re limiting their opponents chances regardless of that fact.
And if the trends in the advanced statistics hold up, Sharks fans needn’t worry. The Wild won’t stay there for long, and the Sharks won’t suck for long. It’s not fun when they lose, but that’s no reason to start jumping off the cliff (err — bandwagon?).
But I’m not one of those who only relies on advanced stats to make an argument for a team’s success either. The team is simply too talented to continue at the rate they’re going. Can they play better? Sure. Are there some players on the team who I think can be trade bait to improve the club? Absolutely. But the team isn’t going to win EVERY game. I’ve been a sports fan long enough to know that every team goes through these kinds of streaks — the Red Wings went on a 6-game losing streak to start the season, the Canucks were treading at the bottom of the division through November, and the Bruins were at the bottom of the conference in October. These things happen. Good teams know how to weather the storm.
The Sharks are making the playoffs this year and will be seeded no lower than 4. They are still considered Stanley Cup contenders, and they will continue to be until they’re no longer playing. It’s great to be a fan of an elite team who make the playoffs year in, year out, but unfortunately, it tends to make the regular season extremely agonizing. Every loss is dissected meticulously, whether merited or not. Criticism is welcome sure, but one must keep perspective. There’s more than half the season left and more than enough time to right the ship.
By using a combination of regular statistics, advanced statistics and just pure sports-intuition, I think they’re all pretty good indicators that the sky is not falling in teal town. Once the Sharks knock off a 5-game winning streak, fans will once again talk about how poised this team looks for a strong playoff run. And then they’ll go on another bad streak and the chicken littles will come back. It’s a vicious cycle.
The only acceptable time to start freaking out is when the Shark are down 0-2 in a playoff series. Until then, there’s no way to possibly know how this team is going to perform in the playoffs until they’re there. But that’s 5 months away. There’s no need to have a panic button til April (unless you’re Columbus or Anaheim). Though they’ve seemed to already pressed it.