The Sharks enter game six with the Kings having scored just two PP goals in the series. In accordance with tradition, Joe Thornton is taking a bit of beating. I’ve never been entirely convinced by the “Thornton sucks in the playoffs” crew. To start with, he’s actually scored pretty well in the playoffs since moving to San Jose, considering that he plays in the adult conference, in which goals actually are scarce in the playoffs.
Thornton’s name came up on Twitter, as Bruce Arthur defended his view that there’s something wrong with Luongo, either in the playoffs or versus the Blackhawks by saying “Sample size of regular season doesn’t mean much in playoffs. Joe Thornton.” After I pointed out that, broadly speaking, teams that do well in the regular season do well in the playoffs, Bruce responded “Not talking teams. Talking players. And if you want to defend Joe’s playoff work, go ahead.” He added “I’ve watched him closely in games that mattered. It’s not a coincidence.”
I’m pretty big on the idea that I should be able to find tracks in the snow if something’s true. There’s a huge volume of numbers that the NHL collects; we should be able to sift through it and understand how, specifically, Thornton has struggled in the playoffs. Let’s start with the PP, which is Thornton’s forte. I’ve gone and gathered the on-ice data for the 69 forwards who’ve played at least 60 minutes of PPTOI in the playoffs over the course of the last four years, in order to see who has had trouble on the PP and why. I’ve then sorted my table by difference in GFON/60 in the playoffs versus GFON/60 in the regular season.
I’m sure regular readers will know what caught my eye. Curiously, the Sharks haven’t a real problem with generating shots in the playoffs on the PP. They generate a ton of them, more than they have in the regular season. The shooting percentage has plunged through the floor though – most of them have an on-ice shooting percentage less than half of what they’ve put up in the regular season over that time.
Keep in mind though, the samples are small. This is the amount of ice time that the Sharks under discussion would play in less than half of a season. If you read Behind the Net, you’ll have seen a post recently in which Gabe talked about power plays and predictive value. This is, for me, the critical thing to take away from that:
Shooting percentage has very little predictive data as we might have expected, but surprisingly (or not surprisingly to those who follow the line of reasoning behind shot differential metrics), the rate at which teams shoot on the PP is a better indicator of their future power-play “efficiency” than their past power-play efficiency.
If you buy into what Gabe’s saying, you wouldn’t hang the choker tag on Thornton on the basis of his PP performance. There’s a perfectly good alternative explanation here: the Sharks have had a miserable run of luck on the PP in the playoffs since 2007-08. The sample is small enough that it’s not unusual – someone has to get the raw end of randomness and Dustin Byfuglien and Ryan Malone aren’t making what they do without getting some randomness at the right time.
Remember though, Arthur says he’s watched Thornton in games that matter and it’s not a coincidence. As far as the PP goes, I’m at a loss to explain how these numbers support the theory that Thornton is a choking dog. Consider his role on the PP – he’s the playmaker on the San Jose team. I would expect his contribution to the Sharks PP to be almost directly measured by their shot rate. If he isn’t getting possession in the other team’s end on the PP or making good passes, it’s going to show up in the shot rates. Which have increased, despite the quality of competition in the playoffs being higher.
It’s possible, I suppose that Thornton isn’t making passes to the tough spots on the ice because his teammates won’t pay the price to go there in the playoffs (although it’s hard to see how this would be his failing as opposed to that of his teammates), which has resulted in a reduction in the Sharks’ shooting percentage, rendering their PP toothless. Possible, but not, on the basis of everything Gabe’s talking about in his post, likely. Shooting percentage regresses like crazy. If there was a workable way to make the Sharks PP shoot 6 or 7% in the long run, teams would do it in the regular season. Nobody’s managed to shut them down there.
The Sharks generate tons of PP shots in the playoffs. Their area of failing is an area that is known to regress heavily. To the extent that his failings on the PP form part of the basis of the “Thornton chokes” meme, it’s tough to give it much credence.