The Sharks sit in first place in the Pacific Division and their offense has not yet taken full flight. One reason might be their grittiness in other parts of the game. Following Monday’s victory in Vancouver, the Sharks were leading the league in faceoff-winning percentage.
Team Teal’s 58.4 winning percentage is three points ahead of Detroit who is at 55.5 percent. It is a stat the Sharks did not necessarily excel in as recently as the 2005-06 season. Two years ago, the Sharks ranked a paltry 25th out of 30 NHL clubs with a 48.4 success rate.
However, last season, using much of the same personnel, they showed a significant turnaround with a jump to 11th overall and a 51.1 percent success rate. It might be unfair to expect San Jose to keep their current streak going, as the last two NHL leaders (Nashville 53.8 percent in 05-06, Detroit 53.6 percent in 06-07) were well below San Jose’s current clip, but they have shown they will be among the League’s leaders.
So why is San Jose at the forefront of the NHL, with many of the same people handling faceoffs? Improvement from the top two centers, Joe Thornton
and Patrick Marleau
It starts with Thornton whose torrid pace currently leads the NHL. Six games into the season, Thornton has been effective at a 72.9 percent clip, five percent better than Tampa Bay’s Chris Gratton who is second. There are only nine NHLers winning more that 60 percent of their faceoffs.
Right behind him is Marleau, who if he had one more effort in the faceoff circle (remember he began the year as Thornton’s winger), would rank second in the league at 69 percent. Joe Thornton
put on an absolute clinic Monday night in Vancouver, swiping possession on 18 of 20 shots for the best faceoff night he could remember.
“Never,” said Thornton trying to recall a better effort. “Obviously a lot goes into it. You’ve got to get a lot of bounces. It’s been going good all year and when you feel confident, it feels like you can do whatever you want.”Joe Pavelski
recalls similar type nights in junior or college hockey, but has not witnessed it in his brief NHL career.
“At times at Wisconsin or a time or two in the AHL,” said Pavelski of his own best efforts. “In the NHL, everyone has a power move. To win that many, you have to be pretty good.”
It is no surprise to Sharks Head Coach Ron Wilson that Thornton is leading the NHL.
“Joe has been dominant on faceoffs this year and Patty has started well,” said Wilson. “All the guys have been working on it and Joe doesn’t even practice them. He’s just decided to win every faceoff and he’s really good. Maybe the other guys shouldn’t be practicing.”
Marleau, an All-Star centerman, noted that the individual statistic is a team effort.
“Everyone is jumping in and helping out the centermen,” said Marleau. “The wingers are coming in and so are the defensemen.”
The Sharks even put to use their newest hockey front office executive.
“Mike Ricci came in and gave a big clinic,” said Marleau.
Players taking the draw have a variety of factors to deal with. Are they in the offensive or defensive zone? Are they at a faceoff circle that favors their dominate hand? Who is the opponent? Who is the linesman dropping the puck?
“Some linesmen drop the puck really quick,” said Marleau. “Each game is different. Is the faceoff in the right faceoff circle or the left? In the defensive zone, you definitely try to tie them up. If you’re in the offensive zone and can, you try to win it clean, but you don’t want them to win it clean in their offensive zone. You have to be strong on your stick. Usually if you’re strong on your stick, the puck will bounce back to your end of the ice.”
As for their best games this season, as a team, it was an impressive 69 percent success rate against Boston. It was a game the Sharks lost, but one where they clearly dominated in every facet and likely would have won had they gotten the right bounce on a few of the five posts they hit.
Two other contests have seen the Sharks break the 60 percent mark and in two others they won the faceoff zone draws 58 and 57 percent of the time. Their only losing outing in the circles came at Edmonton on opening night when they took just 45 percent of the dropped pucks.
Indirectly, the faceoff wins benefit teams in the offensive end.
“It can give you a clear breakout of the zone instead of spending 30 seconds chasing the other team,” said Pavelski. “It can wear a team down.”
There was a direct link to a goal Monday night from a Thornton faceoff win. On the play, Thornton cleanly pulled the puck back to Craig Rivet, whose shot bounced to Pavelski, who stuffed in the tally.
“Usually you don’t win it that clean and it’s rarer when it’s in the offensive zone,” said Thornton.
Even with all these statistics, the Sharks know they can always improve. Thornton and Marleau are currently driving the bus, but Marcel Goc and Pavelski are looking to make strides as well.
“Everybody else who takes a lot of faceoffs is under .500,” said Wilson. “We’ve got to get better winning faceoffs when we’re killing penalties. I would like to see all our centers at 60 percent. It’s two guys now. I’d like to get four to five going.”
The younger centermen are hoping to join the top two centers.
“I’ve got another year under my belt,” said Pavelski. “Every job is big and it’s a simple thing that can pick up a lot of goals and a countless number of possessions.”
The good news is that the Sharks should not expect a drop off anytime soon in their success rate.
“Normally how you start is how you will continue for awhile,” said Wilson.
Hopefully it will continue all season.
“Really, it’s the little things that separate the last four teams and what lets teams move on,” said Thornton. “It’s good to get the bad habits out of the way and get the good habits in.”
LOOKING FOR A POINT
Mike Grier has come up empty on the scoreboard in the first six games, but has a great sense of humor about the situation. When asked if he was waiting for someone to ask him about the minor scoreless streak, he had a nice response.
“Next you will be asking about Nabby having more points that me,” joked Grier.
Nabokov registered an assist on Steve Bernier’s tally in Vancouver.
The delay to Saturday’s home opener forced the prevention of several opening night festivities. Thus, most items scheduled for last Satruday, including the Mike Ricci puck drop and the pre-game play introductions, will take place on Thursday evening versus Detroit.
The Sharks will face Detroit Thursday night at HP Pavilion at 7:30 p.m. PST. Limited tickets will be released for the Detroit game at Noon and the wristband numbering procedure will be in effect, in essence, letting a random drawing decide who will be first in line. The game will be available on FSN Bay Area, 98.5 KFOX and sjsharks.com.