In the hockey world, there are a lot of false narratives that people just assume to be true after hearing it so many times. Earlier this month we debunked one of those narratives when explaining how awesome Patrick Marleau has been in the playoffs. For whatever reason when a few national talking heads are adamant about something, the masses follow and create a narrative without fact checking. One of the worst narratives out there is that employing a goon prevents injuries to star players. That may or may not have been true in the Wayne Gretzky, Marty McSorely era, but as many have pointed out, the correlation doesn’t exist anymore between fights and a decrease in injuries to cheap shots. Today’s focus however will be on the narrative that the Sharks lose in the playoffs every year because they don’t have the “killer instinct” needed to win.
First and foremost, the Sharks in recent years have employed both Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart, two Stanley Cup champions that never had a bad word to say about their Sharks teams. Even today with Boyle in New York and Stuart in Colorado, neither one questions the make-up of the San Jose roster. Unfortunately the Sharks hockey staff including head coach Todd McLellan questioned the team’s mental make-up during the offseason and whether or not there was a rift in the locker room. Again, I’ll point to the veteran Cup winning defensemen who had the stature to speak up and self criticize about locker room and mental dynamic but never did. And as for taking the Kings lightly up 3-0 and not having the “step on their throat” mentality, I suggest you listen to Dan Boyle going off on a reporter who suggested as such. (Warning embedded video below features some vulgar language)
This “killer instinct” narrative is incredibly, astonishingly and ridiculously over used as some sort of verifiable fact. All professional athletes want to play great on every shift, every at-bat, every play they are in the game. What is this “they don’t have a killer instinct” nonsense? It’s just an incredibly stupid cliché that has no verifiable basis in fact or ability to be proven. You might as well say the team didn’t have the Hockey Gods on their side. For crying out loud, this is the narrative that annoys me like no other. Certainly the mental makeup is a big part of playing sports, not getting too high and not getting too low is important. However, fixating on whether or not a team had a “killer instinct” after the fact is just silly. When it comes to the Sharks, they are like the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox, and current Chicago Cubs, if the Cub made the playoffs every year. The Sharks have so much pressure, bad luck, and ghosts of playoff failures past haunting them. When Justin Williams scores a go-ahead goal in Game 6 that should have been disallowed, that is a tough break to come back from when you play for the Sharks. This isn’t to excuse the poor performance after that goal but to just say they don’t have the mental make-up is patently unfair. When/if the Sharks do win the Cup, is it going to be because all of a sudden they improved their mental fortitude and discovered a killer instinct that they simply didn’t have before? Of course not. It will be because they finally put the pieces of the puzzle together to roll four lines, get top notch goaltending, and the necessary luck to win all four rounds of the postseason. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau aren’t going to all of a sudden have a better mental makeup that allows them to win. They will win because they will have gotten a better supporting cast.
If by “killer instinct” people are simply referring to sitting back on the leads and not continuing to force the issue offensively, that was what the Ron Wilson coached Sharks were known for. Those teams had a reputation for sitting back and protecting a lead. However, one could argue those Sharks teams under Wilson were more successful (nine playoff series in four years) versus Todd McLellan’s Sharks (11 playoff series in six years). McLellan’s system is much more of an attacking style but perhaps that contributed to the odd man attacks against that the Kings took advantage of late in last year’s epic comeback/collapse. People want to condemn the Sharks for not having a “killer instinct” as if players skate out there for a shift without any adrenaline and just coast out there thinking the game or series has already been won. It’s a disgrace. Closing out hockey games with a lead requires an ideal combination of sticking with the attacking style but not doing anything stupid like cheating offensively. What many fans don’t realize is that tying goals late in games are easier to score than late insurance markers. Scoring a late insurance marker means you have typically done a fantastic job of executing the breakout and being responsible before making a terrific offensive play. Tying a goal late at the end of a game with the goalie pulled isn’t easy by any means but playing offense in general is much easier when you are taking risks that you otherwise wouldn’t normally take.
The narrative that the Sharks don’t win because they lack a killer instinct needs die. It’s a pointless cliché that cannot be backed up by any sort of real statistical data. Unfortunately, the only way it will die is if the Sharks win the Cup and sadly, even then, the masses will say it’s because they finally found a killer instinct rather than that they finally found a half decent fourth line.