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On the honey hole, hits and Burns’s changing role under Boughner

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Interim head coach Bob Boughner (right) of the San Jose Sharks and associate coach Roy Sommer (left) watch their team play against the New York Rangers during Boughner’s first game as interim coach at SAP Center on December 12, 2019 in San Jose, California. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This coaching change might be lipstick on a pig.

The San Jose Sharks failed to fly in Bob Boughner’s inaugural homestand, going 2-4-1. For what it’s worth, we did get a better look at how the interim head coach is re-making the Sharks.

After Boughner’s first two games, it appeared San Jose was trying to institute a more aggressive forecheck and emphasize greater shot volume at 5-on-5 from their forwards.

Now, let’s dive into how the Sharks are defending differently, among other things.

Protect the House

Doug Wilson noted, after firing Peter DeBoer: “We gave up the most quality scoring chances in our own slot area of any team in the league.”

Boughner is trying to improve on that by keeping more manpower “in the house.”

Under DeBoer, it wasn’t uncommon to see a San Jose defenseman chase an attacking forward from below the goal line to the point.

Here’s an example from last season:

There’s a lot of movement here, but concentrate on Brent Burns (88) following James Neal (18) from behind the net to the blueline.

This is effective team defense if everybody stays with their man, as the Sharks do here. But these rotations can also lead to a diminished defensive presence in the slot, if the defenseman chases the attacker to the point, and/or the attacking side has more men up top.

In contrast, look how Erik Karlsson (65) “chased” Matt Luff (64) on Friday:

There are two San Jose players up high and three, including a planted Karlsson, in the slot.

“If you keep teams to the outside, your goalies are so good usually, they’ll be able to make those saves. When you take away that middle area where teams want to get to, you want your five guys taking that away best you can,” Brenden Dillon offered. “At the very least, have the low three guys, the two D and the forward.”

Boughner added, “The biggest difference is, we’re not getting too spread out in the d-zone. We’re trying to have five tight, five tight in the quadrant.”

This is fine in theory, but in practice, it appears the Sharks are still struggling to contain the slot defensively. Per Natural Stat Trick, they’re allowing 12.03 High-danger Corsi Against Per 60 Minutes at 5-on-5 under Boughner. That’s 26th in the NHL.

Under DeBoer?

They were 27th in the league, surrendering 11.73 High-danger Corsi Against Per 60 Minutes. Granted, Natural Stat Trick’s figures may not align with the team’s internal tracking; however, they should provide a reasonable-enough proxy.

Boughner believes there’s been incremental improvement though: “I think we’re checking off the intersect a little more, the scoring hole, the honey hole, I like to call it.”

All the Hits

This Boughner quote after beating Philadelphia got my attention:

This was interesting for a couple reasons. First, this was a statistic that DeBoer, to my recollection, never cited. Second, DeBoer’s San Jose squads, cumulatively from 2015-19, were 27th in the NHL in Hits.

My colleague Erik Fowle chimed in:

So are the Sharks taking on the Boogieman’s on-the-ice persona?

According to Boughner, no.

“I don’t think I differ too much in that philosophy [than DeBoer],” Boughner offered. “The team was a little different last year, built a little different than it is right now.”

The numbers appear to back up Boughner’s claim.

Under DeBoer at SAP Center this season — we’re looking just at home, to keep the bias inherent in the Hits stat consistent — San Jose ranked ninth in the NHL with 4.64 Hits Per 60. Under Boughner, they’re 14th in the league with 4.6.

If there’s been a transformation with the Sharks under Boughner, it hasn’t been captured by these stats.

Instead, the transformation may have occurred over the summer, when San Jose lost some skill up front.

Dillon echoed Boughner, “We’re not a team that is built to be like a Tampa Bay, a super high-end Dallas Stars or Colorado, where you can make plays and saucer passes. We’re get pucks in, play heavy, wear teams down, take advantage.”

Speaking of getting pucks in, Dillon added,

“When we’re playing physical — it means when you get on the forecheck, the F1 takes the body on the defenseman. The defensemen on the other team looking at each other after a period or game like ‘Holy smokes, that’s a hard game.’

“I think that’s what physicality means. Winning one-on-one puck battles.”

Here’s an example from the victory over the Flyers of the first forechecker Tomas Hertl (48) forcing an Ivan Provorov (9) giveaway:

“The guys watching the video this morning, watching us finish on the forecheck, watching us finish down low, we separated them hard down low,” Boughner indicated.

All this said, recorded Hit or not, there does seem to be a slightly-greater emphasis on physicality from the new bench boss.

“Yeah, I would say that,” agreed Dillon.

Boughner himself said of Brent Burns last week: “The last couple games he’s defending very well, and he’s a little more physical in front of his own net. That’s something we’re asking of him.”

Boughner’s desire for an uptick of physicality appears to be more tweak than something to freak out about.

Another Week, Another Power Play Set-up

Since November 19, the Sharks have gone 2-for-46 on the power play. That’s 4.3 percent — dead-last in the NHL, well behind 30th-ranked Nashville’s 11.1.

Under Boughner, San Jose has scored just one power play goal.

After trying Kevin Labanc in the high slot on the first power play unit for a couple games, Boughner has adopted this top-heavy configuration:

Most importantly, both right-handed Burns and left-handed Couture are in their one-timer positions.

While the results haven’t been fruitful, what’s interesting are the underlying stats, compared to DeBoer’s Sharks earlier this year and last season:

It’s a small sample size, but that’s a striking drop in high-danger opportunities.

That’s not necessarily alarming, by the way — for years, the Tampa Bay power play has flourished without a particular emphasis on net-front chances.

Instead, this might signal a subtle-but-important shift in Burns’s objectives on the power play.

When Burns manned the top, where Karlsson is now, he was asked to shoot as much to set up as to score. Look for sticks, tips and deflections. From that distance, it was a sensible use of his unique shot/pass creation skills, and led to many high-danger power play chances.

Lower in the zone, however, there isn’t as much time or space to look for other sticks — there’s more of an emphasis on shooting to score.

Case in point, the lone power play goal under Boughner:

“Any time Burnzie can get loaded up for a one-timer, you want to take that shot,” Couture said. “He’s got such a good shot and Erik’s so good at faking the shot at the top and looking over there.”

“On Brent’s side, we want him to shoot as much as possible.”

Burns is still clearly the focal point of the San Jose power play, but more as a pure shooter than shot-pass threat.

On Couture’s side, the captain volunteered: “I try not to take as many one-timers. In that spot, I want to try to climb up the wall and get it, take a step to the middle. For my side of the ice, we have two lefties down low, maybe look down low.”

As with the rest of Boughner’s adjustments, time will tell if this is a winning approach. Time, of course, is something that the Sharks don’t have much of.