- The Sharks allowed the second fewest shots against in the league this year.
- The Sharks had the best penalty killing percentage in the league at 85.8%.
- According to Alan Ryder, the Sharks had the 6th best shot quality rating in the league. According to Hockey Numbers, they had the 4th best.
- A group of 3 probably replacement-level backup goalies combined for 3-2-2, 2.63, .896.
- Every single player on the San Jose Sharks averaged less than 25 shots against per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time. Twelve of their regular players averaged less than 22 shots against per 60 (source: Behind the Net)
I think the view that the Sharks defence isn't that good is coloured by two things: the no-name defencemen and the fact that the Sharks struggled early in the season. I don't care how famous the defencemen are, just how well they play defence, and the Sharks' defence put up pretty solid numbers. From Behind the Net, four of their regulars (Rivet, Ehrhoff, Vlasic, and Murray) allowed less than 2 goals against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Also, forwards play a very important role in team defence. The Sharks not only have some very good defensive forwards (7 of them were also sub-2.00 players at 5-on-5), but they also help their defencemen by keeping the puck at the other end of the ice (every single player on the team was on for more shots for than shots against at even strength).
As for their early season struggles, The Forechecker has some defensive stats from mid-December. At that time, he ranked the Sharks 5th in shots against and 11th in shot quality against. Not terrible, but admittedly not among the best in the league either. Back then Nabokov's save percentage was up around .920, so his performance to that point did rank among the league's best. As the season went on, however, the Sharks defensive effort improved substantially while Nabokov's success rate fell dramatically. The reduced level of goaltending was obscured by the fact that the Sharks starting winning games at a much higher rate:
Oct-Dec: .919 save %, 22-12-5
Jan-Apr: .899 save %, 24-9-3
Was Nabokov the Sharks' most valuable player and the key to their defensive results? I think he might very well have been their first half MVP, but in the second half and playoffs the Sharks won because of a great all-around game, and more often than not won despite, not because of, their goaltending.
I think an interesting comparison to Nabokov, and one that shows how perception and team factors often overshadow actual results, is Roberto Luongo. Like Nabokov, Luongo had a much better first half than second half this year. However, unlike Nabokov, Luongo took a lot of heat for his second half decline, and as a result finished 7th in Vezina Trophy voting. The reason was that the Canucks got worse in the second half of the season, and so Luongo's slip became more noticeable. Here are Luongo's splits:
Oct-Dec: 18-12-3, .928, 2.03
Jan-Apr: 17-17-6, .908, 2.69
Just like Nabokov, Luongo was very valuable to his team in the first half of the season. However, the Canucks slipped in the second half because of declining play and defensive injuries, and they starting give up a higher number and difficulty of shots. Luongo's performance got worse as well, and as the team's star player his poor results were magnified in the glare of the spotlight. So Luongo probably outplayed Nabokov in both the first and second halves of the season, but simply because the Canucks were going in the opposite direction of the Sharks Nabokov ended up with the credit while Luongo got the blame.
Were the Sharks an elite defensive unit in the first half of the season? Evidence suggests that they weren't. However, taking everything, including their torrid second half, into account I think it is fair to say that the Sharks were a top defensive team overall, and that they helped produce the GAA and wins numbers that vaulted Nabokov into Vezina consideration.