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Sharks Preseason Notebook: The need for physical forwards

The Sharks are trying to play a more physical game — did they accomplish that against LA, and what does that mean for their forwards?

Tomas Hertl #48 of the San Jose Sharks skates with the puck against the Los Angeles Kings at SAP Center on September 28, 2021 in San Jose, California.  Photo by Kavin Mistry/NHLI via Getty Images

The San Jose Sharks are looking to increase the physicality of their team (their forwards especially) in the 2021-22 season, and they’ve been using their preseason games to test the waters, with their last preseason game against the Los Angeles Kings on Sept. 28 being no exception.

The game began with a pair of exchanging hits between Mario Ferraro and Lias Andersson (LAK) within the first minute. From then, it was clear the Kings and the Sharks would be playing a high-energy, physical game. In the first period alone, there were 15 recorded hits between the two teams.

For the Sharks, this increased physicality is a good sign. It’s an aspect of the Sharks’ game that head coach Bob Boughner and his staff have been focused on elevating, so to see the Sharks make strides on that in the preseason is a positive sign. The Pacific Division is a physical one, with teams like the Vegas Golden Knights, Anaheim Ducks and Kings thriving on a physical identity. The Sharks have to play up to the dominant narrative in their division in order to have a fighting chance in the standings, so it’s no wonder that physicality had been dictated to be a priority for this coming season.

The NHL follows trends set by the Stanley Cup winner. For a long time, teams prioritized players who played one position really well, so players were typically either big bruisers who could fight, or smaller, skillful guys who were protected by the enforcers. Now in a post-enforcer age, it’s all about versatility. The Tampa Bay Lightning succeeded because they had a lineup of players who were multi-faceted, by being skilled on both the backcheck and forecheck, could dictate plays laterally and end-to-end, and were physical.

The Lightning solidified what has been an evolving understanding of what physicality is; in today’s NHL, it’s a combination of speed, skill and size.

But size doesn’t have to mean height and weight. Because prized players are multi-dimensional, smaller players who ‘play up’ (or, play as if they’re five inches taller and 20 pounds heavier) can excel. The face of ‘small and physical’ is Montreal Canadiens Brendan Gallagher, who has shaped this role in the NHL, but the Sharks have their own group of smaller, younger guys who are embodying this physicality.

On the current training camp roster for the Sharks, there is one forward who is 5-foot-9 (Halbgewachs), six forwards who are 5-foot-10 (Barabanov, Cogliano, Eklund, Raska, Wiesblatt, Nick Merkley), and seven who are 5-foot-11 (Balcers, Dahlen, Kellman, Labanc, Leonard, Nieto, Robins). Overall, the Sharks’ forwards trend smaller. The Sharks’ defense is predominantly within the six-foot range, although they have their own crew of smaller players, the shortest group being 5-foot-11 (Ferraro, Kniazev, Pasichnuk, Ryan Merkley).

For reference, as of 2018, the average size of an NHL player is 6-foot-1 and approximately 200 pounds. Since they have so many smaller forwards, the Sharks have to prioritize playing a more physical game.

The most obvious benefit of this increased physicality is that the Sharks are better positioned to exhaust their opponents both mentally and physically on both their defensive and offensive fronts. For the forwards especially, playing more physically allows them to maintain puck possession and control for longer periods of time, an essential skill when it comes to a quality zone entry and opening shooting lanes. It’s difficult to body a defenseman off the puck, but if the forwards can stay with it, and prevent high-danger chances when in their own zone, then the Sharks are already in a better place than last season.

Plus, the Sharks have struggled with having low-energy second periods. Nothing gets a team or arena going like a big, open ice hit.

Physicality is a bell curve, however, and at a certain point, teams or players will reach a point of diminished returns. How physical is too physical? This can look like out of control fights, players throwing themselves out of position, too many giveaways and/or opening slots for zone penetration for the opponent, and increased penalties.

In the Sept. 28 preseason game against the Kings, there were 14 individual penalties split between the two teams, with San Jose racking up 25 PIMs, Los Angeles pulling 27 PIMs and a game total of 52 PIMs. Increased penalties can be a huge liability for teams, especially the ones with middling special teams and inconsistent goaltending. After all, the Sharks haven’t necessarily been known to out-score every penalty they take.

The bottom line is that Sharks coaching, Sharks management and the players themselves want the team to trend towards the physical side of the game. With preseason being the time to try out different line combinations and on-ice narratives, the Sharks playing more physically this early is a good sign for what’s to come.

The next Sharks preseason game is tonight against the Ducks at Honda Center in Anaheim, with puck drop at 7 p.m. PT/10 p.m. ET.