Yes, I wrote about the Sharks defensive flashbacks just a couple of days back. In case anyone missed it (and you can read it here), the Sharks’ Brent Burns has reverted to the defensive liability he showed last season.
In order to make it clear, I will compare two goals scored by Sharks opponents, one last season by Vancouver and one from Thursday night by the Los Angeles Kings. Last season’s goal is memorable for me because I wrote about it. I called it the signature moment for the Sharks 2014-15 season because it not only highlighted the Sharks’ defensive issues, it also marked a turning point in a key, winnable game against an opponent that the Sharks were close to in the standings. Though it might not make some folks happy, it will surprise few that Brent Burns is the key figure in both of these goals. And how similar the two goals really are.
Thursday night’s first goal surrendered by the Sharks to the LA Kings came on a highlight goal by Tyler Toffoli. Burns had everything to do with taking a harmless situation and turning it into a dangerous one that became a goal for the Kings.
Reviewing the play, the first key moment comes in the neutral zone. The Kings send the puck up ice from within their own end. Burns leaps to swat the puck down and misses. His alternative was to continue skating towards the defensive zone and play defense on the opposing player who is furthest up the ice, which is Toffoli. The player furthest up the ice is Burns’ primary responsibility. By going up in the air, Burns lost all skating momentum. Not only did he lose any chance of skating with Toffoli, but another Kings skater passed him as well.
With the play now well behind him, Burns skates aggressively to try to gain ground on Toffoli, until he gets to the top of the circle, at which point, he glides in. Toffoli was kept at tough angle to the goalie by Burns’ defensive partner, Brendan Dillon. Dillon’s effort kept Toffoli wide, cutting down the potential shooting angles and giving Sharks goalie Martin Jones a better chance to make a save. Once Toffoli commits to approaching the goalie from the wide angle, Dillon moves into a position which would allow him to cover the back side of the net, should Toffoli try for a wraparound. Give Dillon credit on this play, he was looking at being the lone defender on a potential 3-on-1 break and his positioning forced the Kings into perhaps the lowest probability attempt.
Toffoli, however, makes a very slick move, one that no doubt made several highlights. Jones kept the first chance out (in this case by forcing Toffoli a bit too deep and making him take the initial attempt from behind the net. Unfortunately for the Sharks, Toffoli was able to have second chance. He reached back and tapped the puck home. When Dillon moved to cover the opposite post to protect against a wraparound attempt, he was going on an assumption that the goalie could fend off the first attempt and that he could trust his defensive partner to be there to prevent a second attempt.
The key to the Toffoli move working was simple. He had a ton of time, including two whacks at the puck. Looking at the rush, Toffoli has time to slow up near the face-off dot. He re-accelerates, and uses the sort of stick handling moves reserved for shootout attempts when there is no defender around. Once he gets to the goal area, he still has enough time to take two attempts, the second with his body well below the goal line — one of Toffoli’s skates is actually past the backside of the net as he tips the puck in.
How similar was that to the signature goal of last season? Quite a lot, it turns out.
This goal was scored by Vancouver’s Radim Vrbata off a feed from Nick Bonino. In this goal, Burns makes an overly aggressive play. From just inside the blue line, Burns attempts to poke the puck away from Nick Bonino, who is already well covered by Scott Hannan. This frees up Vrbata, the skater who Burns is primarily responsible for, to go to the net. Bonino passes the puck to Vrbata, who goes in 1-on-1 with goalie Antti Niemi. Burns partner, Hannan, sees the problem, comes over to help. He is able to keep Vrbata at a tough angle. Once Vrbata is committed to attacking the goal from a wide angle, Hannan peels off to defend against a wraparound attempt. With limited space for Vrbata to work with, Niemi is able to fend off Vrbata’s first shot attempt. Alas, Vrbata has sufficient time to get a second whack at the puck, as Burns glides in from the top of the face-off circle instead of skating in hard.
How similar are the goals? On both, Burns makes an unwise and overly aggressive play far away from the goal. On both, it allows the opposing forward to gain a lot of space behind him. On both, the attacker is able to go 1-on-1 with the goalie. On both, the attacker is forced to come in from a wide angle by Burns’ partner trying to cover for him. On both, the partner peels off late to protect against the wraparound, trusting that the goalie will handle the initial attempt and trusting that Burns will get back in time to prevent any further attempts. On both, the goalie is able to fend off the first move. On both, the goal scorer gets a second chance because Burns in not there to stop him. On both, Burns can be seen gliding in from the top of the face-off circle. And for what its worth, both goals came from literally the same location. If you could GPS the spot, you’d find the two pucks were tipped from within a few inches of each other, albeit seven-and-a-half months apart.
Every NHL coach preaches about taking away the other team’s time and space. While some may ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ on goals scored by Vrbata and Toffoli, both opportunities came because of a low percentage defensive gamble that allowed the attacker a tremendous amount of time and space. Both goals were scored in the same spot on the ice in very similar ways. As the late Yogi Berra once reportedly said, ‘its déjà vu all over again’.
There are some important differences. The Vancouver goal was critical, both to the game and to the season. The goal by the Kings was not especially critical to either. Against the Kings, Burns was playing with Brenden Dillon, not his new partner, Paul Martin. While it is hard to imagine Dillon playing it better (he made the same moves that savvy veteran Scott Hannan made), perhaps Burns makes a different decision at center ice if he is playing with his new partner. Perhaps. The Sharks have seen Burns play with and without Martin. Two things stand out. First, Burns is not a fundamentally better defender than he was a season ago, the same issues are still there. And second, that Paul Martin appears able to mitigate a lot of the defensive challenges Burns brings to table. Fortunately for the Sharks, Paul Martin’s absence from the line-up is expected to end soon. For the struggling Sharks, it can’t come soon enough.