Sharks Gameday: Analyzing offensive production from the backend



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When Todd McLellan was hired to be the San Jose Sharks Head Coach during the 2008-2009 season, he brought with him a deep knowledge of a system that made (and continues to make) the Detroit Red Wings one of the most successful NHL teams over the last twenty years. Preaching shots from the point as a backbone to his offensive scheme, McLellan's team during his first year in San Jose rifled shots from the blueline with regular consistency. Consequently, San Jose received a vast chunk of their production from the backend.

This season, that production has dropped despite the team's defenseman still managing to get their shots to the net.

Speaking to David Pollak of Working The Corners a month ago, McLellan mentioned the struggles his blueline was having in this regard:

Nearly all the talk about the Sharks' lack of five-on-five scoring early in the season has focused on the forward lines, but Todd McLellan said Tuesday that a large part of the problem originates with his defenseman.

"The forwards need the puck in their hands," the Sharks coach said, adding that if defensemen don't get their shots to the net, forwards don't have the opportunity to convert rebounds or loose pucks.

>> San Jose Mercury News, October 19th

Thirteen games into the season, those struggles still continue. And it was something one could probably see coming.

During the first two days of training camp this season, McLellan answered some of Mr. Pollak's questions as the Sharks prepared for their upcoming trip to Stockholm, Sweden. In that article, McLellan mentioned he would continue to stick with the puck possession mentality, emphasizing to the team's defensive core that getting shots on net from the point was the way to win hockey games, while also acknowledging that tweaks would occur during the year dependent upon the team's performance.

In response, I speculated that Rob Blake's retirement, as well as the assortment of less than dangerous shooters on the backend, could cause those tweaks to occur quicker than one would hope.

I think you're going to see a lot of tweaks throughout the year in respect to this gameplan, unless the Sharks go out and bring in an offensive defenseman via trade. The loss of Rob Blake to retirement means the loss of the team's biggest shot from the point, which is definitely going to hurt the offensive production from the backend-- Blake had seven goals last year, second on the defense behind only Dan Boyle (who had 15).

The purpose of "firing away from the blueline" is threefold-- first, to immediately score goals. That much is obvious. The second is to draw forwards up to cover the point, which opens up some space in front of the net for the forwards to work with. The third is to generate rebounds off low and hard shots which the forwards can subsequently cash in on.

Right now the Sharks have two legitimate offensive defenseman-- Dan Boyle and Jason Demers. Neither have what I would classify as a "bomb" from the backend, but they're definitely well-versed on putting the puck on net. Niclas Wallin, Douglas Murray, Jay Leach, Andreas Lilja (contingent upon him making the team) and Kent Huskins aren't going to scare anybody when they tee one up, and although Marc-Edouard Vlasic has always had the promise of offensive ability running through his veins, it remains to be seen if he will ever truly wrangle that.

Essentially, I think you're going to see the Sharks begin to work the puck down a lot more as the year goes on-- if I'm opposing teams coaching staff, I try to keep the puck off the stick of the likes of Thornton/Pavelski/Marleau for as much possible. Challenging the point less aggressively and focusing on blocking shots (forcing the below average shooters that populate the San Jose blueline to try and jam the puck through traffic) is the route I definitely would take.

>> Fear The Fin, "Odds and ends from the first day of Training Camp"

That analysis seems spot on right now, but a few points need to be addressed here.

All offseason I clamored that the Sharks would be hard pressed to win hockey games due to their lack of defensive acumen in their own zone. I acknowledged the loss of Rob Blake would hurt in the offensive end, but the majority of my analysis focused on what was set to occur in front of San Jose's netminders. The prevailing wisdom here was that high shots against totals during the 2009-2010 campaign (31.4, tied for 23rd in the NHL) coupled with Nabokov's brilliant season (.922 SV%, 6th in the NHL) meant that the Sharks would have a lot of trouble keeping pucks out of their own net.

Which really hasn't been the case thus far. San Jose has done a good job of limiting opportunities against (27.1, 3rd in the NHL), and de facto starting goaltender Antero Niittymaki has played well above his career average-- he currently boasts a .925 SV%. I anxiously loathe the day when Niittymaki may return to the standards he set last season, especially when one takes into consideration he is a notoriously streaky player during his career, but so far so good. Giving up goals hasn't been a real issue for this team-- it's the scoring that has been. And that's something I never really thought could happen here in San Jose with the offensive talent amongst the forward groups.

However, it's entirely possible that the issue lies somewhere between the two.

Perhaps, in the defensive end at least, San Jose has begun to expect much more out of their forwards. Instead of the steady breakout passes, centers and wingers aren't as comfortable with taking off down the ice to stretch the defense like they were in the last two seasons. Misguided clears have been a micro-issue for the team during their first thirteen games, and coupled with the lack of a strong defensive cast who can body opposing players' off the puck and get the breakout humming up the ice with those lovely tape-to-tape passes, the transition game has suffered.

None of the Sharks defenseman are especially brilliant passers outside of Boyle and Demers-- Wallin and Murray enjoy chipping the puck out of the zone because that's just what they do. Huskins can hit that outlet when he's on his game, and the same goes for Vlasic, but with the forwards not really pressing the envelope in this regard due to their focus in their own zone, there aren't as many dangerous rushes that are facilitated from the backend.

Which could account for the fairly disheartening offensive numbers from the Sharks defenseman:

Sharks Offensive Production from Defensemen

GP Shots/GP % Team shots Goals/GP % Team Goals
Points/GP % Team Points
2008-2009 82

For starters, getting shots through from the point hasn't been an issue. The blueline has decreased in their frequency of shots since 2008-2009, but the drop off in percentage from last season isn't an especially worrying trend-- San Jose has still managed to pepper their opponents from the point.

What is worrying is the lack of firepower the blueline currently exhibits, both from a puck moving and shooting standpoint. As mentioned above, the loss of Rob Blake's heavy slapshot from the point was bound to be missed. Teams were always cognisant of when Blake hit the ice-- his strong shot drew defensive coverage up high which opened up space in the lower half of the zone for the forwards to work with, generated rebounds at a healthy clip, and gave his defensive partners (especially with the man advantage) more of an opportunity to find shooting lanes.

None of the current defenseman have what I would classify as a "bomb" from the point, which means you're seeing less scoring opportunities because of it. The rebounds aren't there in abundance, which has hurt them in both the points and goals departments. Soft shots just aren't getting it done unfortunately, especially when the Sharks fail to put some bodies in front of the net.

The team was bit by bad pinches early in the year, and since then has gradually weaned themselves off of getting too aggressive in the offensive zone. With limited skating ability and a focus on being responsible from the neutral zone to the netminder, that isn't necessarily a bad thing-- San Jose's shots against totals are a testament to a more conservative approach from defenseman, something that is a positive. But it's a double-edged sword, and one that appears to be directly related to a lack of offensive numbers.

Coupled with the fact that the breakout isn't being facilitated by strong outlet passes, and I don't think there's much mystery as to why the defense hasn't produced as they have in years past.

Is this something that can be rectified? On some levels, I believe so. Marc-Edouard Vlasic has begun to turn his play around over the last few games, and while defense is his utmost priority, maybe a little of that translates into some increased numbers. Jason Demers has been strong in nearly every aspect of his game, and you'd be hard pressed to find a single person on West Santa Clara Street who feels like we've seen the best out of him offensively this year.

But outside of that, you're probably looking at a situation where what you see is what you get. Dan Boyle's 10 points account for more than half of the defensive numbers here, and while that is entirely unsustainable over 82 games, he's a big reason why things haven't been worse. Derek Joslin is a player with a knack for flair, but seeing as this would be his first full season in the NHL (if he starts in San Jose when returning from injury), my bet is the coaching staff would preach defensive responsibility over taking chances offensively. Which is the right call.

The only real solution, besides Demers continuing to improve and really catch fire, is to acquire a top-three defenseman via trade that gets you both defensive and offensive acumen. Those guys are hard to come by, and would require a notable roster forward being jettisoned for both salary and quid pro quo purposes.

A topic for another day certainly, but something to chew on. Keep that cud in game shape.

Prediction: Sharks win 5-1. Goals by every starting defenseman on the team besides Boyle, who racks up five assists. Also, I hereby submit "The New York Sighlanders" as the official nickname for the Isles this season. That team just can't seem to catch a break.

Go Sharks.