LAS VEGAS — “Correlation does not imply causation.”
If you’ve followed hockey analytics over the last decade or so, you’ve probably heard the maxim.
If you haven’t, what it means is that because there’s a correlation between Event A and Event B, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Event A caused Event B.
Here’s a hockey example of that — this is from seven years ago, when I used to regularly write about the Los Angeles Kings: “20-14-5 without this Mystery Player is clearly better than 19-21-5 with. So I guess the 1992-93 Kings should’ve considered scratching Wayne Gretzky in the playoffs?”
That oldie comes to mind because the San Jose Sharks’ James Reimer, starting his 13th straight contest, exited the 3-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights with a lower-body injury after the first period.
Or, Reimer has been overworked, therefore he got hurt.
Reimer will not return tonight, lower-body injury
— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) March 2, 2022
Even San Jose Sharks head coach Bob Boughner had to concede that Reimer’s injury could’ve come from fatigue.
“Possibly. All these guys looked really tired tonight, to be honest with you,” he said. “The big guys have all played a lot and no one’s played more than Reims.”
But also, possibly not.
There’s a lot going on physically, a lot of moving body parts, when a goaltender is trying to make a save.
In other words, there are a lot of ways that Reimer could’ve got hurt that have nothing to do with fatigue.
To already conclude otherwise is premature.
All this brings me back to Jan. 17, when Timo Meier set a San Jose Sharks’ franchise record with five goals against the Kings. The Sharks were 21-17-2, on pace for a 90-point campaign, which would’ve been a notable improvement over last year’s 72-point full-season pace, and probably put them right there for a wild card berth.
That might’ve been the high point of San Jose’s season.
Little did we know that the Sharks’ next game on Jan. 20 in Seattle would be Erik Karlsson’s last before left forearm surgery. Or that the next game after that on Jan. 22 versus Tampa Bay would be Adin Hill’s last before he was felled by a still-undisclosed lower-body injury.
“Our big guys played a ton of minutes this past week, last 10 days,” Boughner said. “And I could see the effects of that tonight.”
Now that’s the Sharks’ bench boss perhaps taking causation from correlation.
But it’s fair to wonder, especially after last night, where the San Jose Sharks’ path might have winded had Karlsson and Hill remained healthy.
Since Karlsson’s injury, 36-year-old Brent Burns has had to take on a tremendous load, averaging 27:48 a night. That leads the NHL in that period of time.
With Karlsson this season, Burns was playing about 25 minutes a night.
The obvious question: Why not give more responsibility to the other San Jose Sharks’ defenseman?
The obvious answer: Boughner and company aren’t sure that the other defensemen, be it Jake Middleton, Nicolas Meloche, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Ryan Merkley, Jaycob Megna, or Radim Simek give them a better chance to win than Burns.
Since Hill’s injury, 33-year-old Reimer has had to take on a tremendous load, starting 13 straight.
The obvious question: Why not start Zachary Sawchenko?
The obvious answer: Boughner and goaltending coach Evgeni Nabokov aren’t sure that Sawchenko gives them a better chance to win than Reimer.
You never know, of course…except, you usually do know if as an organization, you’re watching each of these players day in and day out at practice, in the training room, or in minor league action.
NHL teams, of course, make their share of talent evaluation errors — but they’re also, I wager, probably right a lot more often than not. We spotlight the gross misjudgments — say Martin St. Louis — without acknowledging the scores of skaters and goalies that they’ve more or less pegged right.
So is there a Dan Boyle among the Sharks’ current crop of mostly-unproven blueliners? A Jordan Binnington in Zachary Sawchenko?
You never know…but probably not.
And we haven’t even talked about San Jose’s forward depth, which was shallow to begin with this season.
All this leads me to a correlation where I’m comfortable to declare causation.
The San Jose Sharks are 24-24-6 right now, their .500 Points % 22nd in the NHL. That’s not an awful record, but it’s a decidedly below-average one.
I would say that the San Jose Sharks’ overall depth is below-average — and guess what, that’s caused a below-average record.
With Hill and (especially) Karlsson healthy, maybe they’re closer to average — but on the other hand, any NHL team has to have the depth to weather injuries to even their best players. You’re not going to be 100 percent healthy as a team for 82 games. Look, for example, across T-Mobile Arena at the Vegas Golden Knights, who are still in the playoffs despite Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Alec Martinez, and Robin Lehner, among others, missing significant time.
Good teams find a way.
The other teams? They bemoan the loss of a defenseman, a goaltender.
Speaking of Karlsson and Hill — they’re both scheduled to participate fully in Thursday’s practice, with an eye toward returning on Saturday against Nashville.
It’s a cold comfort though, too little, too late, as the Sharks continue to spiral out of the playoff chase.
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