With newly acquired Evander Kane, the San Jose Sharks can ice a formidable power lineup. Is this the right approach, though, for San Jose?
Following the Stanley Cup Final loss to Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson cited the need for the team to improve its speed. For many years, the California teams, good almost every year, relied on heavy games. It was big boy hockey and teams from the East were not thrilled for their annual trip through California gauntlet, sometimes described as Death Valley.
Over the years, the Anaheim Ducks featured Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, big and supremely talented power forwards. But their line-up also included bruisers like Patrick Maroon and Tim Jackman. The Los Angeles Kings were even better, capturing the Stanley Cup twice with their own big, elite, power forwards, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter. They also rolled out bruisers including Matt Greene, Dwight King and Kyle Clifford.
The Sharks weren’t quite as big, though there is a reason they employed John Scott for a season. Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, Douglas Murray and Ryane Clowe brought heavy games.
Changes in the Game
The Penguins defeated the Sharks with a fast and disruptive forecheck, not the heavier forechecking favored in California. The Sharks most effective forechecker was Melker Karlsson. For the Pens, Carl Hagelin’s forechecking proved effective against San Jose. Both players used fast and disruptive forechecking to create turnovers which led to goals.
The Penguins became the model for the evolving NHL game. Heavier teams were unable to wear down opponents sufficiently, while quick forecheckers caused mistakes leading to quick-strike goals. If defenses were able to get set in their zone, 5-on-5 scoring was very difficult. This meant quick strike goals became more critical. Scoring goals moments after a turnover or quickly after entering the offensive zone became the new key to success.
The Sharks Today
The Sharks, with Wilson acknowledging the trend, moved towards a quicker team. They employed smaller players like Kevin Labanc, Dylan DeMelo, Joakim Ryan, Joonas Donskoi and Marcus Sorensen.
Still, they didn’t walk completely away from the power game. They used their top pick in the 2015 draft (and their only top-ten pick since Logan Couture was taken in 2007) on bruising power forward, Timo Meier. In the interim, Tomas Hertl developed into a very good power forward. Yet another power player, Barclay Goodrow, shoved his way onto the roster after solid play in the AHL. This week, power forward Evander Kane joined the team.
With Kane, Hertl, Meier and Goodrow (all left-handers) the Sharks can deploy a power forward on each line.
The Missing Lesson
The missing lesson from the Penguins series had less to do with speed and more to do with agility, especially among defensemen. Among the Sharks better players in the series was Hertl, though he played just two games. The Pens had trouble keeping him from powering to the net. Fortunately for the Pens, Hertl kept hitting the post with his shots (three times in Game 2).
Another Sharks player reinforced this, though he isn’t a forward. Brent Burns was at his most effective when he went below the face-off dots and played as a forward might. As with Hertl, the Pens simply couldn’t match the physicality Burns provided when he went down low in the offensive zone.
The lesson was about quickness and mobility. It is a defenseman issue, not a forward issue. Power forwards can work effectively against fast forechecking teams, provided they are not compromised by a slower and less agile defensive group. For a powerful forward group to succeed, it needs a mobile, puck-moving defensive group.
A Healthy Sharks Team
The Sharks have two forwards, both big bodies, out with injuries. They are Joel Ward and Joe Thornton. While Ward is likely to return sooner than Thornton, it’s Thornton who the Sharks need, especially on the power play.
If the Sharks can play a heavy puck possession game, they’ll be a handful for any team in the Western Conference and can perhaps even bull their way to a Stanley Cup. A playoff lineup featuring a fully healthy Sharks team looks very dangerous.
The Sharks top line features Couture and Hertl, but an effective checker is probably a useful addition. Though he’s had a down season, Karlsson has shown strong chemistry with Couture before. I’d put those three together. They played together earlier in the season and were effective.
A second line of Joe Pavelski, Thornton and Meier proved effective up until the Thornton injury; getting this band back together is a given. Meier has improved greatly over the course of the season. Opponents might consider this the top line.
The Sharks third line will be an unusual grouping but has the potential to light things up, especially if teams feel the need to use their top resources against the top two lines. Chris Tierney and Joonas Donskoi are the Sharks most agile and creative set-up men, and they’ve been terrific together. Neither is a big player, so having the fast and powerful Kane on this line makes a ton of sense. Plus Kane can bury the puck, something every set-up man appreciates. The trio has 46 goals between them, a healthy number for a third line with nearly a quarter of the season still to go.
The fourth line is a combination of the players left and to be blunt, there’s got a lot to choose from. Goodrow has been good when healthy, which he is now. Ward is a veteran with a knack for coming up big in the playoffs. Eric Fehr is another power forward with a ton of playoff experience. Speedy winger Mikkel Boedker seems to have finally found his game, with nine goals in 2018. Kevin Labanc has put together an effective season of his own, now up to 33 points. In recent weeks, Jannik Hansen is playing some of his best hockey for San Jose. The Sharks can play the match-ups with this group. Go big with Ward, Goodrow and Fehr or go fast with Hansen, Boedker and Labanc. The Sharks are 15 deep at forward when everyone is healthy.
The plan for the Sharks going forward seems simple. It’s a bit retro, but it can work. Use the power forwards to control play in the offensive zone, forecheck effectively and draw penalties as they drive to the net. Prior to Thornton’s injury, the Sharks power play was as good as any in the league – if this unit returns to form, opposing teams will have nothing but bad choices.
The two key differences between this team and that of two seasons ago are the improved agility of the defensive group and the addition of more power forwards. The defensemen aren’t as likely to get hemmed in and commit troublesome turnovers as the pairings from two seasons ago. With power forwards on every line, the Sharks can drive hard to the net for the entire game.
The Challenges Ahead
For all the optimism, there is still the pesky problem of making the playoffs. The Sharks have talent, but the team has to play well together over the last 19 games, as there is little room for error. The Sharks have the fifth-highest point total in the Western Conference, but the next five teams are all within three points of San Jose and a sixth team is just four points back with a game in hand.
All in all, the Sharks took a big step. Prior to the Kane acquisition, they’d be an interesting team in the playoff field. Now, they might be among the favorites. Kane has to integrate well, and this is not even close to a given. The team does need to get healthy, especially Thornton, the team’s future Hall of Famer. Players will need to play up to their roles and head coach Peter DeBoer must make sure players don’t burn out while finding the combinations which work.
If it all comes together for San Jose, don’t be surprised if they’re playing in June. Assuming, that is, they make the playoffs.