Almost 18 years ago, then-Los Angeles Kings head coach Andy Murray gave his team a memorable assignment.
Mired in last place in the Pacific with a 4-9-1-2 record, Murray gave the Kings some paper and asked them to complete the following sentence: “When I play my best hockey, I...”
In much the same way, I take pen in hand, to complete the sentence for the 6-10-1 San Jose Sharks.
For what it’s worth, the 2001-02 Kings finished the season 36-18-10-2 to make the playoffs.
The last four games at SAP Center have given plenty examples of what the Sharks do when they play their best — and worst — hockey.
It all starts on the forecheck.
On multiple occasions this season, Logan Couture has talked about the importance of “sustaining offensive zone time.” More offensive zone time not only means more offensive pressure, it also means less stress on the defense and goaltending.
Here are three recent examples of a successful San Jose forecheck. Look for these commonalities:
- Sharks forwards and defensemen are quick and on top of the puck — it’s a five-man forecheck
- The puck is going back to the point, while forwards are rolling hard to the net to create chaos for the incoming point shot
Note Mario Ferraro (38) stepping up on Logan Shaw (38) in the middle of the ice at 00:13. We’ll get back to that later.
Ferraro, once again, stars here, as he joins the forecheck as a forward. Meanwhile, Evander Kane (9) covers for him.
Using his still-present size and speed, Marleau gets on top of no less than three one-on-one battles in this 35-second clip.
Make no mistake, time has robbed the 40-year-old of much, but he can still be an effective forward.
Get Thornton & Marleau Going
Speaking of which, it’s Marleau that hampers Brent Seabrook (7) in the corner, causing the turnover that leads to his own goal.
Marleau and his fellow 40-year-old have not been able to bring it every night — understandably so — but by and large, they’ve played well together as a third line, along with Marcus Sorensen, on this homestand, against admittedly weak competition.
While there might be folly in relying on a pair of declining 40-year-olds to give quality top-nine minutes on a consistent basis, when Thornton and Marleau can bring it, they give San Jose the backbone of three strong lines. If Marleau, and especially Thornton, can discover the fountain of consistency, watch out.
But if they don’t, there’ll be more of this.
As noted, the Sharks heavily involve their defensemen on the forecheck.
There’s a right way to do it:
Brenden Dillon (4) steps up on Adam Gaudette (88) along the left half-wall. It’s a true-true 50-50, as Dillon arrives right when Gaudette receives the puck. Couture is in perfect position to support.
And there’s a wrong way to do it:
Dillon doesn’t time his pinch with precision, so Eric Staal (12) has a little more time to make a play. Kevin Labanc (62) is in a good support position, but he’s gassed, at the end of a minute-plus shift.
Labanc also doesn’t pick out his man — he and Radim Simek (51) converge on one man, Mats Zuccarello (36), leaving Jason Zucker (16) wide-open. More on that later.
For San Jose defensemen, it’s not just about pinching along the wall.
When the opposition tries to break out up the middle, the Sharks give their blueliners, especially the more mobile skaters like Erik Karlsson (65) and Brent Burns — or Ferraro in the aforementioned clip — free license to make a swipe at the puck coming up the middle.
While Gaudette is able to avoid Karlsson’s stick, Dillon does a good job of supporting his partner — they switch, with Dillon taking Gaudette coming down the right lane, while Karlsson rotates onto Bo Horvat (53).
Meanwhile, Couture stays with the trailer, Tanner Pearson (70), before switching with Karlsson to cover Horvat.
Win Neutral Zone Battles
Of course, you’re not always going to be able to sustain offensive zone time. But if you don’t, it doesn’t mean it’s time to shack up in the defensive zone.
The neutral zone is as important a battleground as any other zone: Any team, at their best, is turning around or stopping the puck in this zone with regularity.
Labanc forces Nikolaj Ehlers (27) to the left lane, where Dillon cuts him off at center ice. Ehlers tries to pass it to himself, but Karlsson is there. That’s three layers of defense.
Labanc also switches with Dillon on Ehlers’s center lane pass option.
Lukas Radil (52) does a fine job of anticipating the Adam Boqvist (27) pass to Ryan Carpenter (22).
Sort Man Out
Of course, it’s inevitable that the puck will end up in your zone, and you’ll have to do some defending. It’s a fast-moving game, so it’s paramount to make sure you’re doing your job and rotating correctly.
Going back to the Zucker goal, look at how Marleau picks up the pass option compared to Labanc:
There is such a thing as bend-don’t-break defense. Chicago probes with the puck for nearly a minute here, but San Jose’s tight defensive rotations protect Martin Jones:
Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44) shines here. Vlasic’s defensive positioning and awareness is impeccable, especially on Patrick Kane (88).
His footwork and reach keep Kane (00:45) to the perimeter, forcing a pass back to the point. Kane exits and re-enters the zone, a common Kane trick. But Vlasic reads it — he can focus on Kane because his teammates have the other Blackhawks covered — jumping the Duncan Keith (2) pass to Kane coming back down the slot.
Don’t Puck Watch
A big part of sorting your man out is not puck watching. It’s been an all-too-frequent problem this year for the Sharks.
If you’re wondering why Tim Heed (72) often gets benched in the third period, it’s a play like this.
A lot wrong happened here — an unforced Aaron Dell turnover started it all — but in the end, it’s Heed puck watching Josh Leivo (72), as Brandon Sutter (20) rolls to the net. Heed doesn’t identify the danger man.
Heed has his qualities, and would certainly benefit from a longer leash, but it’s fair to question if his upside is worth gaffes like these. We certainly know Peter DeBoer’s thoughts on the matter.
This was one of Timo Meier’s (28) last shifts in the first period against Vancouver on November 2nd.
Again, there are multiple mistakes, but perhaps none greater than Meier watching J.T. Miller (9) — that’s Ferraro’s man — instead of rolling with Brock Boeser (6) to the net.
Of course, in contrast to Heed, there’s no doubt that Meier’s prodigious talent is worth mistakes like these.
Here’s a similar play, but with better-executed defense: While Dillon is also watching the passer, Alex Nylander (92), he has awareness of the danger man rolling to the net, Brandon Saad (20).
So we know what the Sharks are doing when they play their best hockey. We know what they’re doing when they’re play their worst hockey.
But who are the San Jose Sharks?
They are the second-best combined special teams group in the NHL, trailing only the Boston Bruins. At a -21 goal differential, they are the worst 5-on-5 team in the league. Martin Jones and Dell are the third-worst goaltending tandem in the league, per overall save percentage.
Right now, they’re an offensive team that doesn’t score enough and a defensive team that can’t stop anybody. But tantalizingly, their special teams success suggests they have above-average talent on both sides of the puck.
It’s been a Jekyll and Hyde team, a Jekyll and Hyde homestand, encapsulated by the 6-5 victory last night over the Minnesota Wild that started with a 4-0 lead:
By the way, that's four, count them FOUR 5-on-5 #SJSharks goals. If SJS can end tonight with a +5 on the 5v5 ledger, they'll rise above last-place DET (-16) in 5v5 goal differential. SJS started tonight -20— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) November 8, 2019
If you can believe it, after scoring first 4 5v5 goals tonight, #SJSharks have given up last 5. They're now -1 in 5v5 goal differential tonight & a NHL-worst -21 for the season— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) November 8, 2019
Who are the San Jose Sharks? I’m not sure if they know themselves right now.