Sharks Preseason Notebook: Why chemistry is the deciding factor in preseason games

How will the Sharks rookies perform in the preseason games with the addition of veteran players, and how will it affect their chemistry on the ice?

Sharks fans, hockey is BACK! Well, almost — we’ve got six preseason games to get through until the Sharks take the ice for the official start of the 2021-22 season. The San Jose Sharks will be playing two preseason games tonight with a split-squad lineup, facing off against the Anaheim Ducks at 5 p.m. PT and the Vegas Golden Knights at 7 p.m. PT.

It’ll be interesting to see which of the Sharks rookies will slot into the preseason lineup, and it’ll be especially interesting to see how they fare in their rematches against the teams they played in the Rookie Faceoff Tournament.

The first game against the Anaheim rookies didn’t end well for the Sharks (8-4 loss), and while the Sharks prospects won 5-2 against the Vegas Golden Knights, the tournament revealed some insights into the chemistry within the Sharks’ style of play that could become a concern if what we see with the Sharks rookies is reflective of the regular season lineup.

Now when I say chemistry, I don’t mean whether or not players like each other as people, (you know me; I’m not here for the drama), so when I say that certain players have chemistry or don’t with each other, that doesn’t mean there’s problems between players off the ice. On the flip side, chemistry also doesn’t mean that two close friends will automatically click on the ice, either. The question of team chemistry is just like the science; it’s about balancing on-ice behaviors in such a way that each player is complemented and compensated by the other, and it has to happen organically.

The rookies seemingly struggled with chemistry, which, in all fairness, is totally understandable. Limited time and space to learn how to read your line mate’s tells and quirks combined with the hyper-competitive lens of rookie camp can make it difficult to become comfortable with your teammates on the ice in high-pressure scenarios, especially if you just met some of them two weeks ago.

You could see the lack of chemistry in missed connections and gaps in defensive coverage, and the difficulty in creating space for lateral movement on the ice. It’s easier to generate an offensive push when there’s physical space to get creative with. However, it’s difficult to create space when players are playing individually, and are hesitating on plays because they aren’t sure if their teammate will be in the right spot to receive a pass.  A lack of chemistry then leads to difficulties creating real scoring chances and sustained offensive presence, plus extended time on the backcheck.

This relationship between chemistry and space was partly why the power play was the saving grace of the Faceoff Tournament. The power play A) created confidence in the players because they had a perceivable advantage over the team (i.e., an extra player and an extended offensive zone presence) and B) fabricated physical space for the team to move more comfortably around each other.

At the Sept. 24 practice, it was clear that chemistry was a focal point of the team’s concern, with drills that prioritized quick-thinking, energy and cohesion in in-game scenarios. The groups that incorporated more veterans had faster reaction times with passes and greater physicality — which are signs of a more secure chemistry, and good news for Sharks fans.

So what does all of this mean for the Sharks’ preseason games? Like other teams who’s preseason roster tends towards the younger or PTO (Professional Try-Out) players, offense can be an issue, because of a lack of chemistry leads to an inability to create space to generate quality offensive chances. The Sharks rookies often got stuck on a perpetual backcheck because of their difficulty in breaking in and staying in the offensive zone (Plus, constant backchecking is an especially big problem during preseason when developing goalies are put in the net to gain some experience).

With the addition of veteran players such as Nick Bonino, Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Logan Couture (all players rumored to be in the preseason lineups for tonight), the confidence that comes with a secure roster spot and, for some, years of playing with each other will make on-ice chemistry more natural. The same chemistry problems that faced the rookies won’t necessarily go away with someone like Tomas Hertl on their line, but it shouldn’t lead to another 8-4 loss.

How the team responds to each other in the form of chemistry in the preseason games will be an indicator of how smoothly new players will adjust to the Sharks’ system and style, and what the beginning of their season could look like.