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Sharks defensemen playing more aggressive in offensive zone, safer in neutral zone

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Brent Burns #88 and Erik Karlsson #65 of the San Jose Sharks celebrate scoring a goal against the Dallas Stars at SAP Center on January 11, 2020 in San Jose, California. Photo by Brandon Magnus/NHLI via Getty Images

The San Jose Sharks might be “ready to punt on this season and regroup for next year,” but Bob Boughner isn’t giving up.

“We’ve changed the rules a little bit on offensive zone play. We want our D to be more active,” Boughner offered, after San Jose edged Dallas 2-1 last Saturday.

Active defensemen certainly helped the Sharks sweep the short home-stand, starting with the Blue Jackets:

Once Evander Kane (9) re-groups in his zone with a stretch pass in mind, Erik Karlsson (65) jets up the right lane like a forward, creating a 3-on-2. In effect, Kane and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44) are the defensive pairing at the Sharks’ initial point of attack.

After Kevin Labanc (62) gains the zone, Karlsson goes below the dot twice, executing a switch with Labanc that results in a Karlsson shot near the goal line. Eventually, it’s Labanc that pots the goal after a Karlsson fake shot-pass.

Boughner noted, “When we’re grinding teams and we got an opportunity to jump into the play, it’s helped us as a team offensively.”

Sending Karlsson and Brent Burns down low helps offensively by creating mismatches, like the 6-foot-5 Burns (88) against the 5-foot-5 Nathan Gerbe (24) here. Meanwhile, perhaps Riley Nash (20) doesn’t expect Burns to cut to the front of the net, so he’s slow to help.

A couple fortunate bounces lead to this goal, but Burns’s switch with Timo Meier (28) is a set faceoff play.

For those clamoring for Burns to return to forward, Boughner giving his defensemen more of a green light might be the next best thing.

A green light in the offensive zone, however, doesn’t mean a green light everywhere.

Sportsnet’s Andrew Berkshire, supported by data from SPORTLOGiQ, wrote in early January: “There’s lots of reasons why the San Jose Sharks have been such a disappointment this season, but one of the main reasons has been their poor play in the neutral zone. No team turns the puck over more often in the middle of the ice.”

Neutral zone turnovers like Karlsson’s on New Year’s Eve have sunk San Jose all season:

Of course, it’s not as simple as blaming Karlsson and Burns, despite massive contracts and expectations. And it’s not as simple as getting these offense-first blueliners to play it safe.

Throughout their careers, both Karlsson and Burns are better, on the balance, when they’re taking chances.

It’s about degrees. And Boughner appears to be dialing defensemen up in the offensive zone, while dialing them down in the neutral zone.

“I use the term north-south. That’s the kind of game we have to play. The minute we start going east-west is when we get into a little trouble,” Boughner opined. “Our theory is, putting pucks behind teams, make them go back for it. We’re working off of forechecks, really. Instead of getting overcomplicated with things in the neutral zone, we want to put pucks past them.”

It’s a trade-off: Play it safer in the neutral zone, focus on getting the puck in deep — be more aggressive in the offensive zone, whether it’s through a two-man forecheck or a more active defense.

There’s also some defensive value in this line of thinking. More often than not, getting caught in the defensive zone should be less dangerous than in the neutral zone.

Will this trade-off work?

It’s something to watch, even if the Sharks are indeed setting their sights lower this season. Getting the best out of Karlsson and Burns might be the interim head coach’s best chance to keep his job.