Sharks Defensive Depth Poised to Turn Offensive Numbers Around

When Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan took over the San Jose Sharks head coaching job in the summer of 2008 he brought with him a Red Wings system that promoted puck possession, shots on net, and blueline activation. It was an exciting change of pace from the defensive posture Ron Wilson employed during his tenure behind the bench, allowing the Sharks growing stable of offensive players to branch out and play a much more aggressive style in the offensive zone.

Perhaps the biggest change in philosophy came on the backend. In an interview with Mark Purdy in 2008, McLellan explained what was one of the most important things he would be bringing to the Sharks next season-- an influx of shots from his defenseman:

McLellan has the numbers to prove his point. In studying the statistical charts from 2007-08, one number popped out at him: shots taken by defensemen. Detroit, the best team in the league, had more than 800 shots from the blue line. Sharks defensemen took only 536 shots.

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That production from the backend was one of the most instrumental portions of the Sharks vaunted offensive attack during San Jose's 2009 Presidents' Trophy campaign. The Sharks were at the top of the League in numerous statistical metrics, finishing 7th in goals per game, third on the power play, and third in shots per game.

And while it's hard to imagine the days when San Jose's blueliners were putting up a paltry 536 shots per season, production from the blueline has dipped in every year since McLellan's first campaign:

San Jose Sharks Production From Defenseman

Year GP Goals Assists
2008-2009 501
816 5.0%
501 28

The reasons for this dip in production are numerous of course-- the departure of Christian Ehrhoff in 2009 took away some offensive firepower from the defensive group, a drop in the defensive group's shooting percentage in 2010-2011 cut into their goal production, and less total shots in the last two seasons also played a role. Furthermore, the Sharks forward group also saw a dip in shooting percentages-- San Jose finished 23rd in the League last season in this metric, depressing assist and goal totals despite the fact that they finished first in the League in shots per game.

Although these stats can be slightly concerning for a team whose top offensive stars (Boyle, Marleau, Thornton) are nearing the end of their prime, the Sharks blueline next season is one that boasts a wide array of offensive and defensive talent that should assuage any concerns about this trend continuing next season. The addition of Brent Burns, whose eight power play goals were more than what the entire Sharks blueline accounted for last season (7), gives the Sharks a legitimate offensive powerhouse to complement Dan Boyle. Opposing team's will struggle with containing San Jose's top two defensive pairings because of this, opening up holes in the offensive zone that Burns and Boyle can take advantage of.

But perhaps most importantly is the amount of depth the Sharks now have at the defensive position. With players like Douglas Murray, Jason Demers, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic providing solid minutes at extremely affordable contracts, the Sharks now have five defenseman on the roster who could easily play top four minutes next season. As the Canucks showed last year, a deep blueline filled with three dangerous pairings is one that is essential for a team's success-- provided Burns plays with Vlasic and Murray sticks with Boyle, Demers should have loads of opportunity to pick apart his lower quality of competition next year and produce offensively.

Furthermore, the offensive promise Justin Braun showed last season gives San Jose an ace in the hole if they wish to add even more point production from the backend. He'll battle with Jim Vandermeer during training camp for that final sixth spot, with his growth defensively being the biggest key to crack the opening night lineup.

It reminds me of the "issue" the Sharks had last season where seven top-six forwards bumped Pavelski down onto the third line where he flourished alongside Torrey Mitchell and Kyle Wellwood. That line was instrumental to the Sharks success during the first half of the 2011 postseason, putting opposing team's in a position where they had to pick their poison and hope for the best.

That's a good "issue" for any team to have, as the malleability of the defensive group should allow San Jose to withstand the eventual injuries that will crop up throughout the year.

A former weakness of the organization has now turned into a strength.