The 2011-2012 campaign for the San Jose Sharks has reached the 10 game mark. And already, the team has seen a bit of everything. A dominating win against Phoenix that showed that the current squad is capable of, a pair of controversial wins in Detroit and Long Island that featured some dubious decisions that impacted the final outcome in a big way, a comeback shootout win in New Jersey, a nearly blown lead in Boston and some textbook road hockey in Nashville. There have been disappointing loses, including a shutout by noted Shark killer Jonas Hiller, a pair of star performances by backup netminders, and a general all around stinker most recently in New York.
The team has seen a significant amount of roster turnover, and some key players in key positions are either new to the team, or new to their role. Most notably, Brent Burns, Martin Havlat and Michael Handzus joined the team in the offseason as a #1 defenseman, a top-6 winger and a shutdown center. Joe Pavelski finds himself with new linemates (also, the sky is blue), and several young players are fighting for roster spots. So while several big names are the same, this is a very different team from last year’s squad. Some growing pains are inevitable. While no one expected the team to be 10-0 at this point, a 6-4 record tastes sour for some fans, as the manner of the losses seems all too familiar.
This has reignited a mini-debate that has been following the team for several seasons now: should the Sharks commit to screening the opposition goaltender? Many expected Coach Todd McLellan to emphasize this strategy, given his work with the Detroit Red Wings, and players such as Thomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen. The strategy has made the Detroit Red Wings one of the premier teams in the NHL since the lockout. And fans in San Jose have heard the mantra of "pucks and people to the net" in many interviews with the coaching staff and the players.
So when the Sharks lose, it seems as though there is a huge imbalance between the pucks and the people to the net. Many fans are left puzzling over loses where the Sharks outshoot their opposition by a significant margin, but are not able to win. There’s a perception that there are too many "easy" shots.
So, at the 10 game mark, a point at which the Sharks have scored 30 goals, it seems a good time to take a quick qualitative look at the offense.
I’m going to take a quick look at the goals scored so far, and try to assess a few things. I’m going to look at Even Strength versus Special Teams, whether the team was trailing or leading or tied, the relative position of players (by trying to assess how many players were above the circles versus below the circles), whether there was any significant net front presence, and whether the defense was involved.
Quick disclaimer, I’m relying on highlights from NHL.com, and my own memory of the games. The assessments are my own opinions, and you’re free to view the highlights and see if you see something I don’t. I’ll draw my own conclusions, and leave you to draw yours as well.
GAME 1, vs. Phoenix, 6-3 W
1. Pavelski, PPG, 4:01 1st period, 1-0
Joe nets his first of the season on a feed from Marleau behind the net. Brent Burns jumps up on the play to get the puck low to Marleau, and Pavelski goes to the front of the net to receive Patty’s pass. When Burns jumps up, he goes down to about the circles, and keeps the play alive. Patty does a good job staying with the puck.
2. Handzus, ES, 8:23 1st period, 2-0
Torrey Mitchell skates down the wing and manages to cycle the puck down low to Handzus, despite being covered by two Coyotes. Handzus scores a bit of a flukey goal from almost behind the net. Mike Smith should stop this one. All three forwards got deep in the zone off the rush here and backed in the Coyotes defense.
3. Clowe, PPG, 7:33 2nd period, 3-0
Some very slick passing and good movement off the puck creates the goal here. Clowe is isolated on the far side, nearly at the blue line while the Power Play operates at the near boards. Logan Couture goes deep and attracts the attention of the Penalty Killers before slotting a beautiful pass to Clowe in the slot. Clowe makes a nice move and lets a backhand shot go just as Tommy Wingels skates through Smith’s line of sight. It’s a partial screen a few feet out from the net, but beautifully timed. Demers does a good job skating towards the top of the circles and makes the Penalty Kill respect him as a passing and shooting option. Kyle Chipchura SHOULD have Clowe on the play, but Demers’ weaving kept him engaged just long enough for Clowe to get to space where Couture finds him with the pass.
4. Desjardins, ES, 8:33 2nd period, 4-0
Desjardins gets himself a breakaway by getting a good jump on a puck just exiting the zone. Andrew Murray does a great job of pressuring the puck carrier, and Desjardins has speed to gain separation and makes a great move.
5. Pavelski, PPG, 16:54 2nd period, 5-1
Some good work from Thornton and Marleau down low gets the puck back to the point where Dan Boyle lets a rocket of a shot go. Pavelski gets a stick on it the inside edge of the faceoff circle. Thornton is right in Smith’s face. This is a classic case of screens in layers, and shows good work by Joe to go to the net after winning the puck. The shot arrives at just about the time Thornton gets there. Patty and Joe do the work at the boards, leaving Pavelski free to go to the slot, and Joe does a good job getting to the net.
6. Desjardins, ES, 18:42 2nd period, 6-1
Andrew Desjardin slays a hundred men and impregnates every female in a ten mile radius. He gets hit in the head, gets up, and just skates for the net, and puts an awkward backhander by Smith. This is another bad goal that comes out of basically nothing. Smith should stop this, but good work by Desjardins to stick with the play.
GAME 2, at Anaheim, L 1-0
The Sharks scored no goals. This is a bad thing.
GAME 3, vs. St. Louis, L 4-2
1. Handsuz, PPG, 18:44 1st period, 1-1
A good cross ice feed allows Demers to skate down to the half boards and take a shot which Handzus cleans up. Handzus and Clowe both go to the net off the faceoff win, going in layers. Clowe gets there first, but it’s Handzus who gets to the rebound first. This isn’t a screen, but there are players going to the net once the shot is taken.
2. Burns, ES, 11:18 2nd period, 2-1
Brent Burns lets his freak flag fly, letting off a monster shot from the point, off a feed from down low by Ryane Clowe. Couture and Mitchell are both trying to get open for Clowe as he works it along the boards, but as soon as he makes the pass to Burns, both head for the net. The puck deflects off a St. Louis player and Elliot isn’t able to field it cleanly. All three forwards were low, and there was significant traffic for Elliot to deal with.
GAME 4, vs. Anaheim, L 3-2
1. Vlasic, ES, 6:39 2nd period, 1-2
The highlight says this is Vlasic’s goal, but it’s actually an own goal off an Anaheim defenseman on a botched clear. Torrey Mitchell and Vlasic skate together and get the puck in deep. Mitchell falls but manages to get the puck to Vlasic who puts a pretty innocent looking backhand towards Ellis, who kicks out a rebound. His own man then puts it through his five hole. That sounds just about as dirty as this goal looked. The positives are that Vlasic continued to go to the net to create the scoring chance. Patrick Marleau is in position for the rebound as well, but the Sharks catch a break here on a flukey goal.
2. Burns, PPG (2 man advantage), 11:01 3rd period, 3-2
Brent Burns with another rocket. The Ducks actually do managed to clear the zone, but some good skating by Dan Boyle lets them re-enter the zone before the Ducks can complete a change. Everyone does a good job of touching up and turning back towards the net. Boyle sends the puck wide to Thornton who holds up, allowing Pavelski and Marleau to go to the net, which backs the Ducks in. This opens up the ice for Burns who skates in. Thornton puts it right in his wheelhouse, and Burns rings one in off the piping.
GAME 5, at New Jersey, W 4-3 (SO)
1. Thornton, PPG, 15:18 2nd period, 1-2
There’s no substitute for being a stud. Joe Thornton enters the zone after a good up pass from Boyle springs Pavelski and Thornton on a 2 on 1. Pavelski dishes off to Thornton who disguises his release beautifully, using the defenseman as a partial screen to beat Hedberg. This goal happens because Joe Thornton is very good at hockey.
2. Clowe, ES, 16:21 2nd period, 2-2
Ryane Clowe and Logan Couture just have a bromance going. No big deal. Some sustained pressure in the zone results in a classic mad scramble around the net. Couture gets a point blank chance that’s saved. Martin Havlat collects the rebound and skates it out to the boards, giving Couture time to regain his skates and get in Hedberg’s eyes. Havlat sends a puck to the crease that’s kicked out and Clowe just fights to get to the rebound. This is a perfect mix of puck retrieval and being stronger in the opponent’s crease.
3. Pavelski, ES (Sharks Empty Net), 19:27 3rd period, 3-3
Just your average clutch goal from Joe Pavelski. With the net empty, Marc-Edouard Vlasic jumps up to keep the puck in. Thornton works the puck to the front of the net. Logan Couture comes flying in to try and stuff it home. Three Devils come with him. The rebound comes out to Pavelski who snipes it home. Hedberg never sees it as there is a mass of humanity between him and the puck. Super Slow Motion replay shows Pavelski clearly mouthing the words "yippee ki yay m***********" before picking his corner.
GAME 6, at Boston, W 4-2
1. Pavelski, ES, 1:12 1st period, 1-0
Joe Thornton makes a steal at center and dishes to Pavelski who comes into the zone with Marleau. Both have speed and the lone Bruin defender is forced to back in. Pavelski can be seen on Super Slow Motion replay revealing that he does, in fact, have the All Spark in his chest before letting off a rocket that beats Thomas. Thornton does a great job making the steal, and Patty and Pav’s speed do the rest.
2. Couture, ES, 8:54 2nd period, 2-0
Ryane Clowe came to do two things, kick ass and chew bubble gum, and he left the gum on the bench this shift. Clowe follows the puck behind the net. He plays the body and the puck squirts out to Havlat, who’s providing him with good puck support. Havlat makes a beauty of a pass to Couture who’s waiting at the top of the crease because that’s where he had the best view of Clowe’s booty. This is again a good mix of puck retrieval and having someone go to a good scoring area.
3. Ferriero, ES, 8:48 3rd period, 3-2
Benn Ferriero is obviously not ready for the big club, because he only ever scores goals. Ferriero chases the puck into the Bruins’ zone and manages to win it in the corner. He sends the puck back up high to Jim Vandermeer and immediately heads to the front of the net. Thomas does not field Vandermeer’s shot cleanly, and Ferriero cleans up, beating his man to the puck. This is great work by Ferriero who stats skating the moment the puck leaves his stick, and is rewarded for it while most everyone else, including his man, are puck watching.
4. Marleau, Empty Net, 19:55 3rd period, 4-2
Mike Grier was not consulted on this goal.
GAME 7, at Nashville, W 3-1
1. Couture, SHG, 14:22 1st period, 1-0
Havlat breaks up the power play and breaks out with Couture. He dishes to Logan who dishes back and then drives the net, taking both Predators with him. Havlat takes a shot, and Couture collects it, putting it over Rinne. This is all possible because Havlat and Couture back back the D in. Couture drives the net to open up space for Havlat, and is rewarded when he finds the rebound.
2. Pavelski, ES, 14:09 3rd period, 2-1
Joe Pavelski does not like it when other teams score. So less than a minute after they do, he tells them to turn that sumbitch sideways, and stick it straight up their candy ass. Thornton, Marleau and Pavelski get a good cycle going. Pavelski gets the puck from Patty, walks out from behind the net and slips one past Rinne. You expect Rinne to make those saves, but the good cycle clears out the front on the net and gives Pavelski a chance to go one on one with the big Finn. Pavelski tells him to Fear The Fin.
3. Pavelski, Empty Net, 18:49 3rd period, 3-1
Joe Pavelski finds your lack of a goaltender disturbing.
GAME 8, at Detroit, 4-2
1. Clowe, PPG, 2:10 2nd period, 1-1
The Power Play is able to enter the zone cleanly and get set up deep, thanks to some nice work by Havlat. Everyone comes in with speed. The puck comes to Havlat in the middle who quickly turns and finds Clowe driving the net. Clowe gets his shot off before Howard has time to make the read. This play looks almost effortless, but it’s very good execution with speed. Detroit is never able to establish any pressure because the Sharks are skating so well on this play. The play goes deep and the point of attack changes quickly, which is pretty much a death sentence for the PK.
2. Marleau, ES, 7:56 2nd period, 2-1
Patrick Marleau is a lousy model of consistency. But it turns out he’s a great hockey player. Ian White definitely misplays this puck, and Jimmy Howard should probably stop this, but take nothing away from Patty. This play happens because Marleau gets on his horse and makes something happen. Jamie and Dan noted on the radio that they liked this play because Patty didn’t line up as a stretch forward. He was, in fact, deep in the zone, playing good D, and he had to really skate hard to go get this puck. They liked the fact it forced him to use his best asset, which is his skating. With results like this, how can you argue?
3. Thornton, ES, 18:18 2nd period, 3-2
JOE THORNTON SHOT THE PUCK!!!111!!! Another defensive breakdown from the Red Wings lets Joe Thornton skate in all alone on Howard. Joe just has an amazing wrist shot. He’s so good at disguising his release, it’s almost not fair. If only he’d do this more often… This is another goal that happens because we have someone on our team who is very good at hockey.
4. Thornton, Empty Net, 19:25 3rd period, 4-2
This is probably the softest goal scored on the entire road trip.
GAME 9, at New York Islanders, W 3-2 OT
1. Pavelski, PPG, 0:17 1st period, 1-0
Joe Pavelski. Okay, fine, for those of you who need more of a description, Joe Pavelski wins the puck in the corner and dishes up top to Dan Boyle. Pavelski skates immediately to the front of the net and collects the rebound. Pavelski does pause momentarily to submit a formula for curing cancer, but no one understands how his plan of "just be awesome like me" is supposed to work.
2. Couture, 13:19 2nd period, 2-2
Sometimes, it’s good to be lucky. Couture collects the rebound in the high slot and pounds it back at the net. No one is doing anything in particular here, but the puck hits someone in front and deflects past DiPietro.
3. Burns, 1:07 OT, 3-2
Never look a gift horse in the mouth. Boyle calls for Burns to switch places with him before dishing down low to Pavelski, who immediately dishes to Burns, who makes no mistake. The interchange and quick passing, combined with all the open ice give DiPietro and the PK no chance.
GAME 10, at New York Rangers, L 5-2
1. Pavelski, 17:50 1st period, 1-2
After this goal, a young man, who would only give the name Clark Kent, walked into the arena store at the Tank and asked if they had any Joe Pavelski jerseys in stock. Thornton makes a nice dish up top to Murray, who rattles one off the pipe. Pavelski, who had been providing a partial screen, is first to pounce on the rebound.
2. Couture, 11:03 2nd period, 2-2
For really the first time that night, the Sharks were able to pin the Rangers deep, matching the Thornton line against the bottom pairing. The Rangers were able to clear after a full two minutes of pressure, but some good work by the Sharks in the neutral zone was able to turn the play right back the other way and lets them enter the zone with speed, backing in the D. Pavelski gives Couture a beautiful pass right in his wheelhouse that Logan cranks home.
So, from just looking at the highlights, I still think getting people and pucks to the net is the way to go. It doesn’t have to be a screen, but the Sharks have had success getting to rebounds first. A LOT of this, in my opinion, happens when the man making the pass makes a move to the net.
The other thing that is obvious is that when the Sharks use their speed, they’re lethal. Good teams and good defenses have been made to look silly when the Sharks are able to skate with any semblance of speed through the neutral zone. The passing in those cases has been superb.
Getting shots from the blueline also appears to be key, as it forces the defense to spread itself a bit thinner, opening up some of those lanes where guys can get to the net and find rebounds.
The Sharks have been the beneficiary of some fluky goals as well, but in each case, the fluke goal seemed to have happened because someone went to the net.
In either case, whether it’s a screen, someone chasing down a rebound, or driving to the net with speed, or watching the goaltender flub one, I still see a common thread of the Sharks needing to get pucks AND people to the net, preferably at the same time. The Sharks should be an up tempo skating team, and they can score from a lot of different ways: off the cycle, off the rush, from the point, on breakaways.
Any and all of this can be made moot by a game in New York where the team is clearly tired and can not skate. The Sharks MUST skate if they want to be successful. The results are pretty clear when they do. There are some pretty goals scored by this team.
But when they stagnate… it’s pretty awful. So far, at 6-4, they’ve been good. They could be better, but they certainly could be worse.
At the end of the day, this is still a very good hockey team, but they have big expectations, the biggest of which they put on themselves. The evidence shows that they’re clearly aware of what works for them, and they probably don’t need to be told how to play the game. It just means that the losses are all the more frustrating, because everyone in Teal knows what works for them, and they just can’t always deliver.