SAN JOSE- It’s been a disappointing season thus far for the San Jose Sharks. Check marks in the ‘W’ column have been few and far between leaving San Jose at the bottom of the playoff picture. But for as much as yours truly has criticized the Sharks management this season, the move to trade Douglas Murray and subsequent “injury” to Michal Handzus has increased overall team speed. Not to mention the change of moving Brent Burns to forward has been a genius move by head coach Todd McLellan.
Now sure, call it what you want, just one game since the Douglas Murray trade. But the Sharks have now out-shot their opponents 71-48 in two games this season without Murray in the lineup. Back in February the Sharks out-shot Phoenix 33-21 despite losing in 1-0 in a shoot-out. And in the first game after the Murray trade, San Jose pummeled the current second seed Anaheim Ducks out-shooting them 38-27, winning 5-3.
With Ryane Clowe still injured, the Sharks went with the following line combinations and defense pairs in the victory over Anaheim.
Martin Havlat-Joe Thornton-Brent Burns
Patrick Marleau-Logan Couture-Tommy Wingels
James Sheppard-Joe Pavelski-T.J. Galiardi
Andrew Desjardins-Scott Gomez-Adam Burish
Matt Irwin-Dan Boyle
Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Jason Demers
Brad Stuart-Justin Braun
Now throughout the season, talk has been that San Jose doesn’t have the offensive weapons anymore with Havlat and Clowe struggling. Fans and media alike reduced San Jose’s forward fire power from a top-six to a “top-four.”
But for as bad as San Jose has been this season (near bottom of league in goals for) let’s look at how Havlat’s return to form (four points in four games since coming back from injury), Burns’ huge (both literally and on the score-sheet with eight points in seven games up front) presence at forward, and the trade of Murray has changed the Sharks.
Havlat and Burns playing well together up front now makes that top-four a true top-six again, when you add in Thornton, Couture, Marleau and Pavelski. And while they aren’t what they used to be, you still then have Clowe and Gomez playing essentially bottom six roles even though both have been top-six performers in the recent past.
Gomez has been playing well for San Jose as of late (eight points in last 12 games), and if the Sharks can get Clowe going, this team all of a sudden looks pretty darn good up front. It’s conceivable the Sharks could roll out Clowe and Gomez on a “fourth” line. That’s pretty deep if you ask me.
Now let’s take a look at the Sharks blue-line. And let’s be brutally honest here, as many of us have noted, including stat guru “The Neutral” of Fear The Fin, trading Douglas Murray is addition by subtraction.
Demers and Braun have been rotating in and out of the lineup but now together they can help boost San Jose’s transition game and overall team speed.
“Me and Justin have kind of been in a merry-go-round with the both of us.” chimed Demers at Wednesday’s morning skate” [We're] kind of the same type of defenseman in our own respects. But obviously it’s great to have him back in. He’s a great defenseman, he moves the puck great, he skates well, so it adds another element to our game. It’s fun when we’re breaking out of our zone quick and we don’t have to play a lot of d-zone that’s been good. And obviously last game I think all three pairings did a great job.”
“They make our team faster” commented head coach Todd McLellan on Demers and Braun. “I really believe that, they get the pucks up, they both have a shooting mentality which helps, and for the second time this year we’ve had this type of blue-line engaged altogether at once. We liked what we saw offensively from them, defensively there’s some areas to clean up but those two are a big part of our team moving forward, not just today and tomorrow but in the future.”
Instead of having four defensive defensemen in the lineup and four left handed shots versus two right-handed shots, the Sharks now have the ideal compliment of three stay at home defenseman each paired with three offensively gifted defenseman. Not to mention, each of those pairs now has one left handed shot and one right handed shot. It is as perfect harmony of defense pairs as you can possibly have. And how many teams can say they have three pairs that fit together as perfectly? Right handed shooting defenseman don’t grow on trees. Yet San Jose’s scouting staff found both Demers and Braun with seventh round selections.
And even though Demers and Braun had been platooning (while Murray stayed in lineup) each have shown flashes in the past of top-four potential.
“It’s tough, you know last year wasn’t an ideal year and this year hasn’t been the best” commented Demers. “But it’s kind of day by day and obviously I know what I can do and I know that it’s just a process. Breaking through is the key and once that kind of clicks in, things will be rolling good.”
Back in San Jose’s most recent WCF run in 2010-11, Demers was the playing the best hockey of his life and was arguably the Sharks best defensemen during the first two rounds. Unfortunately a high-ankle injury forced him to miss the entirety of the Vancouver series. And let’s not forget this is a guy who San Jose gave No. 1 power play time to as a rookie, relegating future hall of famer Rob Blake to the second unit. Demers can skate, dangle and shoot the puck. Playing him with a defensive stalwart in Vlasic, a player who has one of the best defensive sticks in all of hockey, is a great fit. Only one game in, but the defense looked strong against Anaheim.
“We did pretty well as a unit [against the Ducks]” added Braun about the new look defense pairings.
The 26-year-old Braun also talked about the confidence boost knowing he’s going to be in the lineup:
“It’s always a performance based job, you don’t want to just take [playing every night] for granted. Obviously I want to get back to where I was and it’s a confidence boost to know your getting called on right now to do your job.”
Despite being in and out of the lineup this season, Braun has one of the strongest work ethics on the team, his compete level or “battle-ability” as I like to call it, is top notch. Last season he flourished when Demers had a sophomore slump. He didn’t score a whole lot, just 11 points in 66 games, but Braun showed great wheels and has a knack for getting his puck through traffic. Still a young player, Braun has a lot to learn in his own end but it is going to help him tremendously playing alongside a shut down physical defenseman who can skate like Brad Stuart.
Not to mention the other defense pair not yet mentioned, the “top pair” (in this case San Jose really has three good pairs, not ranked in any order), featuring Dan Boyle and rookie Matt Irwin, is incredibly deft at moving the puck as both players can dangle and shoot the puck while each are above average in their own end.
With the pairs formulated in such fashion, the Sharks now can breakout of their zone much easier no matter who is on the ice. Which anyone would tell you has been their biggest problem all year, that is transitioning from defense to offense.
And is it even necessary to mention the goaltending? I may not be the biggest fan of Antti Niemi but that’s merely because I’m not a fan of goaltenders in particular. That said, Niemi has been rock solid in two of three regular seasons for San Jose while being merely solid in the other one. Combine that with his Stanley Cup ring, and you can’t argue the Sharks need anything better between the pipes.
The positive results haven’t been there for San Jose but there is a lot to like about the make-up of their roster and lineup. The defense pairs now actually make sense, the forward group all of a sudden has what feels like two new top-six players in Havlat and Burns, and their goaltending is championship caliber.
Great skill on the top two lines, three solid puck moving defense pairs, a cup-winning neminder, Pavelski centering third line and Gomez centering the fourth line? Can’t ask for much more on paper if you ask me.
I certainly wouldn’t overlook this team as is and yet they might even add more talent before the trade deadline.
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