30 Teams, 30,000 Thoughts: San Jose Sharks (1/2)

In this series of articles, I will take a look at all 30 NHL teams and offer thoughts on what I’m seeing from each. I will start with two dedicated posts on the San Jose Sharks, and then go by division, starting with the rest of the Pacific Division teams. Check back tomorrow for more thoughts on the Sharks.

San Jose Sharks:

The Sharks perfect power-play play. Todd Mclellan deserves credit for devising the perfect set power-play entry, and the 29 other NHL coaches deserve great shame for being beat on the exact same play over and over again. The Sharks enter the offensive zone on the power-play by creating a 2-on-1 at the wing of the opponent’s blue-line every time. They’ve been doing this for probably two seasons now, the same way every time, and it still works like clockwork.

Other teams, when they have only 20 seconds left on their power-play and the puck behind their own net, their power-play is usually over. They’ll try one more time to get into the offensive zone, rushing it, and it will usually fail and go back down the ice. And even when entering the zone doesn’t fail it still takes them those 20 seconds just to set it up cleanly and get it to their quarterback.

But the Sharks, they not only get it into the offensive zone with ease, but they get it to their point man, facing the net, with space, and they do it all with just a couple passes in one seamless play. It’s amazingly brilliant for Mclellan, and amazingly idiotic by the other coaches. It’s like they’ve never heard of videotape. (I may write a dedicated blog on this entry with photographs so I can illustrate what’s happening on this play better for everyone).

• Another elite area of the Sharks game, and a big reason for their success, is their forecheck, board work, and offensive zone pinches by the defenders. Especially when the Sharks are trailing, they pinch their defense every time, and it’s almost impossible for the opposing team to clear the puck from the zone using the boards. This has been a huge key to the recent Sharks comebacks.

And what’s amazing is that they manage to pinch their D so hard, which is genuinely considered a risk/reward play, without any of the risk! They almost never get bitten because their third forward high always rotates up and covers for the defenseman pinching. This serves a dual purpose: If the puck does get passed the defenseman pinching, not only is the third man high there to prevent a 2-on-1, but many times he can actually keep the puck in the zone too! This is a fantastic tactic, and while most every team employs it as well when trailing, no team does it as well as the Sharks.

Joe Pavelski looks to be turning into an elite sniper for the current NHL. Some might say it’s a fluke, the “Cheechoo effect” playing with Thornton, but I actually haven’t seen Pavelski’s success as a result of leeching off Thornton. In fact I believe it’s actually Thornton who has benefitted from Pavelski’s superior play.

Pavelski’s success is also indicative of a change of style we’re seeing in the post-lockout NHL. Prominent NHL minds expected the game to change after the lockout with the rule changes, but what they didn’t bargain for is that it would actually continue to change at a much greater pace than pre-lockout, and perhaps now back in the wrong direction.

The first few seasons after the lockout, our game was about skill, flash, speed. Now defensive schemes have become so advanced as a result of coaches adapting their methods to the new rules, there is little room for much speed or end-to-end flash. The game is slowing down again now rather than speeding up, and the mistake-free, no-high-turnovers, always-get-the-puck-in-deep style of play coaches are implementing all around the league has made it very difficult for anyone to score off the rush. *

That leaves half-court cycling as the main source of offense in today’s NHL, and this is where Pavelski excels. He’s great at protecting the puck along the boards, as are his line-mates, and shift after shift they just cycle the opposition to exhaustion, get lots of shots on net, and eventually Pavelski gets a good opportunity and buries it with his trademark precision.

Pavelski is getting better before our eyes, way better, but make no mistake, the way the game is played now is also shifting perfectly into place to favor Pavelski’s skill set. And you can say the same for the likes of Ryane Clowe.

• One of these days I would like to see Ryane Clowe take a 59 minute shift. And not just a 59 minute shift, but a 59 minute shift all by himself, one against five. Impossible you say? Not when you’re standing still. Next time the Sharks score a goal in the first minute of a game, I want coach Todd Mclellan to put Clowe out on a line change, and once Clowe gets the puck along the boards in the offensive zone, I want everyone else to go off. And then I just want Ryane Clowe to stand there with the puck for the next 59 minutes while the opposition pathetically tries to poke-check the puck away through Clowe’s legs with absolute futility.

And what’s crazy, even when defenders go through his legs, directly at the puck (in other words not having to go around Clowe’s huge frame, but through it), they still can’t dislodge it. That’s how good Clowe is at shielding the puck.

I honestly I can’t remember seeing anyone who could protect the puck along the boards as well as he can. Joe Thornton, but I think Clowe might even have Joe Thornton beat at this point. All I know for sure is the San Jose Sharks now have the two best puck-protectors along the boards in the entire world, and It’s absolutely, unequivocally unfair to everyone else. And awesome for Sharks fans.

• Is Brent Burns the next Mike Green? I am a huge Mike Green fan, but at the beginning of his career he was mostly a rover. An absolutely amazing and dominant rover, I should mention, but a rover still. He scored 30 goals in a season for the first time by a defenseman in a long time, but still did not win the Norris because there were perceived shortcomings in his defensive game. That doesn’t mean Green was poor defensively, but suffice to say his defensive contributions did not quite match his offensive ones. Zdeno Chara’s defensive contributions probably couldn’t have matched his offensive contributions that season, so great was his offense.

Brent Burns strikes me as similar. He is an amazing offensive defenseman, and while his defensive play may actually be above average for NHL defenseman, top-pairing defenseman must be held to a higher standard simply because they must face a higher standard of opposition night in and night out. The good news is that Mike Green is no longer just a rover, he has grown into an elite #1 two-way defenseman, and Brent Burns has many of the same tools Green does, which means he may be able to accomplish that same feat.

* If you’re interested in why scoring off the rush has become so difficult in today’s NHL, or you question that premise altogether, here is one example that I find is good for explaining.

Ask yourself, who was the premier rush scorer in the NHL the first couple seasons after the lockout? Hint: he seemed to score a highlight reel goal barreling down the left-wing every game.

I am of course talking about Alex Ovechkin. At just 26 years of age, he should be producing more each season, not less. But since his 65 goal season in 2007-2008, his production has gone steadily down, with last year’s 32 goal season by far a career low. Pundits thought maybe he just wasn’t in shape, but a renewed commitment to fitness this year has done little to bring his game back to its lofty heights of the past.

This is because Ovechkin’s whole modus operandi for scoring goals is being phased out of the NHL game. Ovechkin used to get the puck at his blue-line often after a high turnover by the other team, rush it up the left-wing 1-on-1 against a defender who usually employed bad gap control, and then either shoot it through his legs because he didn’t get his stick in the lane, or deke around him towards the goal because he played too aggressive.

But now, all of these opposition deficiencies Ovechkin use to pray on are much more scarce. High turnovers are a rarity now. Skilled players used to try to deke at the blue-line and make fancy plays, but no more. Players have learned. Additionally, wingers rarely get 1-on-1 opportunities to rush the puck up the ice now. Coaches are always looking for methods to slow their opposition down, and one method we’ve seen employed league-wide the last couple seasons is to have a back-checker always run directly at puck-carriers on the wing.

If you watch tape of Ovechkin in 2008, he would get those 1-on-1 opportunities against defensemen. And without any help, the defenseman would have to play back, give him more room to be creative, and we all know what Ovechkin can do with space. But if you watch Ovechkin now, or any other winger for that matter when he has the puck, there will usually be a back-checker right behind or beside him pushing him towards the boards. This not only increases the pressure on the puck-carrier, but it traps him along the boards, and it also allows the defender to be much more aggressive in his gap control because he knows the puck-carrier is much less likely to try to deke or cut to the middle with a back-checker right next to him.

Even something as simple as blocking a shooter’s release point on the ice with their sticks defenders have improved upon. What used to be a signature play of Ovechkin’s, coming down the left-wing and shooting the puck through the defenders legs, we barely see anymore. That’s because defenders have adapted to it. And even more scarce than those great shots are the dekes, the out-of-your-seat highlights. When was Ovechkin’s last “youtube” goal? I can’t remember one in ages. In fact you’re seeing less and less of those types of goals in the NHL, period, because of how tight-checking the game has become.

Perhaps the best example of how the game has gone from allowing for speed and off-the-rush scoring to favoring half-court cycling and details is to look at Sidney Crosby’s production in contrast to Ovechkin’s. Where Ovechkin’s goals scoring has plummeted, Crosby’s has rocketed up. This is because Ovechkin wasn’t just a rush scorer, he was almost exclusively a rush scorer. He seemed to score 80% or more of his goals one of the two ways I’ve already described, coming down the left-wing off the rush and shooting in stride, or coming down the left-wing off the rush and stickhandling to the goal and scoring. You rarely see Ovechkin cycle the way Joe Thornton does, or tip pucks in, or score any of the ways grinders typically do. It was all flash with Ovechkin.

But Crosby, while also a flashy player in his own right at times, scores goals all different ways. He can do it off the rush as well, though not quite as well as Ovechkin could at his peak, but Crosby can also cycle with the best of them, deflect pucks in; he knows where to go to get rebounds. He does a lot more of the little, simple, detail type things better than Ovechkin does, same as Joe Pavelski, that’s why he’s continued to be an elite goal-scorer where Ovechkin has dropped off.

Really, the simplest way to put it is this. When Ovechkin scored 65 goals, he was almost exclusively an off-the-rush scorer, so when defenses across the league figured out how to eliminate speed in the neutral zone and stop rush-scorers, his goal totals plummeted. But Crosby, while good off the rush, was never as good off the rush as Ovechkin, and perhaps as a result never became as reliant on scoring that way. He scores all ways, he plays any game you want, he is much more well-rounded. Ovechkin is the greatest off-the-rush scorer in the NHL, and Crosby is the greatest half-court scorer in the NHL. The NHL game allowed much more for rush-scoring in 2007-2008, so Ovechkin was able to score 65, and Crosby was only on pace for 37. Now the current NHL game favors half-court offense, not rush-offense, so Crosby was on a 64 goal pace last season and Ovechkin only scored 32. It flip-flopped.

That’s how you can know the dynamic of our game has changed. That’s a bit of a simplified explanation as there are always other factors when you’re just talking about two specific players, but it’s the main idea.

If you want further proof, just look at the goal leaders last season.

Corey Perry won the rocket last year! His goal production skyrocketed. No one thought he was a 50-goal-scorer before, they thought he was more of a 35 goal 75 point guy with good grit. But he put up 98 points. And what is he known for? Cycling, grit, half-court offense. Perry isn’t an elite speedster, he’s a cycler.

Number two in goals last year was Stamkos. He’s not a great example because the power-play and his shot are the reasons he’s up there, not anything to do with rush vs. half court one way or another.

But then you have Jarome Iginla, another big, gritty, great cycler. He’s not an elite speeder either, although he’s not the greatest example of either rush or half-court because he has more of an all-around skillset that can adapt to either, and it was really his shot, instincts, and finally having a good set-up man in Alex Tanguay than anything to do with style of play.

Next is Daniel Sedin, a great example. Because again, what are the Sedins known for? Much like the Perry line, it’s cycling.

Then there’s Ryan Kesler, another gritty guy who cycles a lot, who came out nowhere to be top five in goal-scoring in the NHL. This was a primarily defensive forward just a few seasons ago, scoring between 21 and 26 goals from 2008 to 2010, and now he’s top five in goals all of a sudden?

Obviously he’s improved his skillset as a player since then, which is part of it, and the Vancouver power-play was great last season, but those things alone don’t account for the huge jump to fourth best goal-scorer in the league. Just like Joe Pavelski being on pace for 61 goals this season right now, yes he’s playing with Thornton, but a 61 goal pace, almost twice as many as Ovechkin had last year, Thornton doesn’t account for that. Ovechkin is a better player than Joe Pavelski, period, and certainly a better goal-scorer under normal conditions, so why is Joe Pavelski on pace to double his goal total from last season? And as an addendum to the Thornton aspect of it, let’s not forget that Alex Ovechkin also has a pretty good playmaking center with him, Nicklas Backstrom. So there is really zero explanation for why Joe Pavelski is, as of this moment, a better goal-scorer than Alex Ovechkin, other than that the way the game is now played favors Pavelski’s skillset and “disfavors” Ovechkin’s.

Patrick Marleau is next, the first true speedster on this list, except he’s also great on the cycle. He played with Thornton all year long and what is Thornton known for? Cycling. Half court.

Finally down at 34 goals we have the first true rush player, Patrick Sharp. And that’s perfectly in line with what I’ve said. Where the best rush scorers (Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, etc) used to net 45-50 goals the first post-lockout seasons, if not more on rare occasion, now you’re going to see most of them closer to 30-35. And that’s because the game has changed, to where it now favors half-court players. Joe Pavelski is primarily that, which is why it helps him.

It’s fascinating how the game constantly changes and evolves, although I would argue this is negative change. I would rather see more speed, skill, and highlight-reel plays than deflection and rebound goals. It’s been far too long since we’ve seen a true Ovechkin highlight goal.

Regardless, if you’re interested in this as well, and want to put what I’ve written here to test, pay attention to how goals are scored during games. Count how many come off the rush with speed, stick-handling, things like that, and how many come off cycling in the offensive zone. I think you’ll find most goals are now scored in the half court.

Check back tomorrow for more thoughts on the Sharks