Through the San Jose Sharks’ early struggles, Peter DeBoer has maintained belief in his special teams.
“I know it didn’t look good early, but I thought our special teams, I’m comfortable by the end of the year, they’ll be good,” DeBoer said. “For me, we’ve got to continue to work on establishing a four-line game. That’s what wins. That’s what wins in the playoffs. That’s what wins against good teams. We’re not there yet.”
San Jose’s penalty kill might be the beleaguered squad’s lone constant this year, allowing just two goals in 20 opportunities. Meanwhile, the power play, after surrendering three shorthanded goals in the first two games of the season, has rebounded to collect three goals in the last three.
So what’s clicking with the Sharks’ power play? And what’s in store?
Erik Karlsson & Zone Entries
Like most of his teammates, Karlsson has struggled at times in the early-going.
“I thought he’s had at least one excellent game. Then there’s some things he knows he can do better,” DeBoer acknowledged. “It’s been a little inconsistent and he’s the first to admit that.”
Noting that Karlsson went through groin surgery during the summer, DeBoer added, “That’s tough when you’re laying around, recovering from surgery. You’re not on the ice, you’re not getting the reps, you’re not scrimmaging like the other guys are in summer. We expected a little bit of this. I’m not worried about him. He’s going to get his game in the right spot.”
Karlsson’s game does appear to be in the right spot when it comes to helping his power play gain the offensive zone cleanly.
Karlsson boasts a 85.7 percent controlled zone entry success rate as power play quarterback this season, compared to 50.0 percent for the rest of San Jose’s defensemen. It’s telling that when Karlsson shares the ice on the man advantage with Brent Burns, Burns usually defers to Karlsson to quarterback. Burns, by the way, has a 56 percent zone entry success rate as power play quarterback this year.
The world’s highest-paid defenseman has shown just flashes of greatness so far, but these are some of them:
What makes Karlsson’s skating special isn’t pure speed, but his talent for changing speeds on a dime.
Karlsson (65) toys with Mark Stone (61), ambling toward Stone before jetting by his former teammate on the outside. Stone and Tomas Nosek (92) converge on Karlsson at center ice. But two penalty killers on one Karlsson makes space for the drop pass, which Timo Meier (28) and Tomas Hertl (48) complete to perfection.
Against Anaheim’s more passive penalty kill, Karlsson glides into the zone from center ice in. It’s a sight to behold, the respect paid by Rickard Rakell (67) and Devin Shore (29) to Karlsson: They know if they’re too aggressive, Karlsson will simply sidestep them.
Play Karlsson and Burns Together?
When the Sharks acquired Karlsson last September, the expectation was that Karlsson and Burns would team up to form a veritable power play super-group.
Results, however, were mixed, and by the playoffs, Karlsson and Burns played mostly apart on the man advantage.
While Burns and Karlsson together, in limited time, scored at a high clip in the post-season, it’s telling that when the games counted most, DeBoer usually deployed them on different units. The underlying numbers support the coaching staff’s decision here.
There remains, understandably, a fascination with joining the two super-powers together. This isn’t confined solely to the fans.
During training camp, more often than not, Karlsson and Burns were sent out on the power play together, with Karlsson up top and Burns occupying the “Ovechkin spot” on the left flank.
This has continued into the regular season. There’s been a fairly even distribution of power play minutes together and apart.
In a reversal of playoff results — and it’s a small, small sample size — the power play goals have come with Karlsson and Burns split up, but together, their underlying figures have been strong.
As mentioned, Burns appears to defer now to Karlsson to carry the puck up, which wasn’t always the case last year. But it remains an open question as to whether or not Burns is best utilized away from the puck when the power play is set up. Karlsson is clearly superior at gaining the zone — but in zone, Burns is at least Karlsson’s equal, if not his superior, at controlling the power play up top.
In some ways, it’s not fair to relegate Burns to the “Ovechkin spot,” if for the simple fact that he’s not Alex Ovechkin. That’s not a slight on Burns — in fact, it’s Burns’ world-class abilities that suggest an Ovechkin-like impact from the left flank is plausible.
But Burns’ skills aren’t Ovechkin’s skills.
Like Burns, when people think about Ovechkin, they think about his shot. But Ovechkin also has an underrated knack for getting open, which is an essential ability, considering how much defensive attention he commands.
Here’s a surely familiar recent example:
On a Capitals power play, Bryan Rust (17) chases the far point. Look where Ovechkin (8) places himself, away from Rust: Not around the top of the left circle, but lower, closer to the dot. Ovechkin knows that Rust will return to him, but setting up lower in the zone will give John Carlson (74) more time and space to thread the seam. Also, Ovechkin hangs out by the wall and not the dot, to avoid attracting Kris Letang’s (58) attention until it’s time to strike.
Meanwhile, Burns isn’t quite as adept at getting open. Not that he’s bad at it, it’s just not a Hall of Fame-level skill for him, as it is for Ovechkin.
Keeping in mind that Ovechkin set up exclusively on the left flank last year, whereas Burns played relatively little there, the comparison of Burns and Ovechkin’s power play shot charts is still interesting:
What catches my eye here is Ovechkin’s ability to get open up and down the left flank, from above the circle to below, a necessity considering how closely he’s monitored. While Ovechkin isn’t a dervish of energy on the power play, he moves efficiently to get to open areas. Meanwhile, Burns doesn’t look nearly as comfortable sliding below the dot.
Going back to shooting, Ovechkin’s combination of velocity and release make him a scoring threat from anywere. There’s pretty much no bad angle shot for the winger, which makes him that much harder to guard.
Braden Holtby told NHL.com last year, speaking of his teammate’s facility with blasting the puck from above the circle, “Not many guys can score from out there, and he’s one of the guys that can.”
A scout added, “Ovechkin has a special release. His timing is incredible. Burns doesn’t have that timing.”
Burns’s shot is special too, but in a different way.
It’s not so much velocity, though it’s plenty hard, but his one-of-a-kind ability to be off-balance and transform a bouncing puck into a missile. Burns doesn’t get open like Ovechkin, but he can pull shots out of his backpocket like nobody else. Get the puck toward the point, and chances are, Burns will rifle it toward the front.
“It’s amazing, his ability to get the shot off. It’s as elite as I’ve seen,” Jeff Blashill said last year. “He’s able to take it off the yellow in one motion and shoot it. Got an unbelievable ability to change the angle and get it through.”
The same scout noted, “Burns is amazing at wrist shooting the puck quickly for guys like Pavelski to tip.”
Ovechkin always shoots to score, whereas Burns’s shot is dangerous as both a scoring and set-up weapon.
Asking Burns to just churn out one-timers from the “Ovechkin spot” isn’t an optimal usage of his skills.
“Burns is just much better at the top,” the scout offered. He believes Karlsson and Burns are generally better off apart on the power play, pointing out, “Both players want the puck to set up goals. Only one can do that at a time. Their skill-sets, albeit both incredible, don’t work together.”
I don’t want to overstate the significance of Patrick Marleau’s return. After all, the 40-year-old winger is far from his prime. But the future Hall of Famer can still help a top-heavy Sharks power play.
DeBoer agreed, “Having Patty back helps stabilize both units a little bit.”
Marleau still owns quick hands, which he flashed in his season debut:
Marleau scores in his first game back pic.twitter.com/MEolEhtlbO— Sharks on NBCS (@NBCSSharks) October 11, 2019
Since 2017, Marleau ranks fourth in the league with 12 tipped goals.
Point shot toward traffic in front has been the heart of the San Jose power play for years, and remains so, even in the wake of Joe Pavelski’s departure. Marleau, and in particular, Evander Kane, can fortify this area.
“We just play simple,” Tomas Hertl said, of the team’s recent success on the man advantage. “We’re just getting shots. Me or Kane or Timo, we front the net.”
Remembering that net front and high slot roles, along with Burns and Karlsson, are interchangeable, this is what a healthy Sharks power play looks like right now.
If Marleau remains effective as a net-front or high slot option on the man advantage, this at least buys time for Doug Wilson to add to the second unit at a later date. This also means not forcing less-than-ideal power play options like Barclay Goodrow into undiscovered country.
Of course, the operative word is “healthy.” The San Jose man advantage is just an injury or two away from this opening night look:
Some prospects better grow up fast or Wilson needs a trade up his sleeve — the returns of Marleau (and Kane) have indeed stabilized the power play, but for how long?