False Narratives: Sharks Lack a Killer Instinct

Stupid Narratives

Boyle was carted off on a stretcher in Tuesday's win (Photo by Vu Ching).
Boyle was carted off on a stretcher in Tuesday’s win (Photo by Vu Ching).

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)

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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.

Photo By: JEFF BLAY
Photo By: JEFF BLAY

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.

5 thoughts on “False Narratives: Sharks Lack a Killer Instinct”

  1. Andrew Bensch, the Atheist Hockey Writer. I think I’ll stick with the players and believe. Belief in itself, is a powerful thing. Seriously Andrew, I like your writing, totally agree on Burns and many things, but on this one I’m not of the polar opposite view, just a different view.

  2. OK Andrew, since you called it a “stupid narrative,” I’ll represent all the stupids out there and offer up a rebuttal:

    While your point may be technically correct, I think it’s a oversimplification. I’m not arguing the close-out-the-game kind of killer instinct for one game, but rather the general dynamic that you reference throughout your article. Whether you coin it as a killer instinct, driven passion, will, common heartbeat, chemistry, mental make up, “it factor,” fortitude, or as Hunter Pence put it, “we didn’t need to win, we WANTED to win,” they’re all intangibles that are impossible to measure – that’s why they’re called intangibles.

    You’re also right, every player at this level wants to play great on every shift and during every AB, or they wouldn’t be playing at this level. But let me pose a question to you: is it exactly the same for every player? In other words, does HOW MUCH they want to play great on every shift vary from player to player, and can it become infectious? I believe there are subtle differences in how much fortitude they have, in their mental make-ups, in their killer instincts, and that these subtle differences, playing at the highest level, especially when it infects the locker room, does make a difference, specifically in a playoff run where emotions are elevated to their peak. And my proof to counter your claim that there isn’t any proof, is to go back and listen to the interviews of any championship team after they win that championship. Time and time again, the players themselves and their coaches, cite these very sorts of intangibles as the key factor that enabled them to achieve their goal. I bet you’d even here a “killer instinct” or two in those interviews.

    Sure, luck, bad bounces, poor goaltending, inadequate 4th lines, injuries, etc. have probably all been a factor in why some of these Sharks teams over the last 10 years did not rise to even get a chance at one Stanley Cup. And yes, sometimes talent will still prevail, as it might have for the Sharks if a few pucks had bounced their way. But when I watch hour upon hour of World Series interviews coming from players on a team that clearly was not the most talented MLB team, and they go on, and on, and on about the intangibles (and yes, some well-deserved praise for Madison Bumgarner too), that’s all the proof I need to conclude that whatever killer instinct (or pick your word for it) the Giants possessed this year (and in 2010 and 2012), the Sharks have not demonstrated they posses, at least not collectively or in a way that it infects the locker room enough to lead them to even one championship series. And yes, I do think if they finally pull one out, a big reason they do so, will be because they came together in a way they never have before. And I believe this will be a more important factor than because they finally put together a more talented 4th line.

    One final point, yes I believe Dan Boyle has “it,”, whatever “it” is. We could have used 5 more Dan Boyles. But Dan Boyle isn’t Jeremy Roenick, and he’s not going to throw his teammates (or ex-teammates) under the bus, especially while he’s still playing. I’m not trashing the team, and in fact maybe this is the year it all comes together, but I don’t think there is enough talent this year to do it on talent alone. Come playoff time, they’re gonna need a killer instinct, even if I don’t know what a killer instinct is.

    • All those championship interviews are so cliche and boring, players don’t know what they are saying, they just won the championship, obviously they are going to praise everything about their team. The Giants win primarily on pitching and tremendous luck, (brooks conrad, scott rolen, and i forget who, but some opponent made a really bad error this year too), the Sharks have not had the luck the Giants have had. Plain and simple. Like you even admit, you don’t know what a killer instinct is, then what is the point of talking about something that we can’t prove makes any sort of difference? It’s like arguing about God, can’t prove God does or does not exist.

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