Sharks Evolved Into Defense First Mentality

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SAN JOSE- The date was January 3, 2011. The opponent that night was the Vancouver Canucks. After losing quite an entertaining hockey game by a 4-3 final, then Sharks forward Ryane Clowe went off in the locker room during his post game media scrum.

“They played back-to-back games and had 50 shots, I mean that’s enough said right there. We just, you know, we want to cheat at times. That’s how it is, you know? They’re not afraid to play a sound defensive game, and they’ll stick to it. And we got guys who want to do it occasionally. Not all the time though, because that’s hard work.” commented the hulking winger, who wasn’t nearly finished.

“When you work hard and you win, you feel it after the game and I guarantee you right now there are guys that don’t feel that tired after that game. Do you want to score four goals or do you want to win a game? Are you happy losing with five goals, losing 6-5 maybe? Or would you rather [win] like an LA, 1-0? Are guys happy then? I don’t know, maybe they want to score goals and get points.”

For those who follow the Sharks, those comments have to feel like forever ago, don’t they? The current Sharks have developed into a much more detailed, defensive minded group, that can shut down the best teams in the league and win games 1-0, and 2-1, just as much as they can win 6-5.

While the players and coaches of the current squad won’t admit to having lacked a defensive attitude in past seasons, Clowe’s comments back in January 2011 said it all. Even though San Jose went on all the way to the Western Conference finals that season, (and haven’t been as far since), the roster has since been tweaked for the better.

Perhaps Clowe was including himself amongst those who were cheating offensively and perhaps not. But it is worth noting that Clowe, Dany Heatley, and Devin Setoguchi are now gone from the Sharks.

Arriving in their place either by trade or promotion, have been players like Brent Burns, Marty Havlat, Raffi Torres, Logan Couture, and Tommy Wingels.

Neither Heatley, Clowe, nor Setoguchi have the ability to play center, they are all strictly wingers whom hardly ever see time on the penalty kill and will never be mistaken for elite defensive players.

Is it a coincidence the Sharks are playing better two way hockey without them? Probably not.

Since 2011, Sharks GM Doug Wilson has continued to make moves to address defense.

While San Jose struggled through the 2011-12 season, they started to make some key changes. In the offseason between 2010-11 and 2011-12, they acquired then defenseman Brent Burns in exchange for a package that included Setoguchi. They also shipped out Heatley for Havlat and signed veteran penalty killing center Michal Handzus. At the trade deadline they acquired more penalty killing help in versatile forward Dan Winnik. San Jose would lose in the first round of the playoffs but that didn’t alter the plans to continue focusing on defense first.

Prior to last season’s lockout shortened 2012-13 campaign, Wilson and the Sharks got even more defensive minded. They brought back long time Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart and revamped their coaching staff by bringing in hall of fame defenseman and 9-time Stanley Cup winner Larry Robinson as associate coach and former NHL defenseman Jim Johnson as an assistant coach. The new coaches transformed the San Jose penalty kill from one of the league’s worst to one of the league’s best.

At the 2012-13 trade deadline with the team in a funk and slow skating players like Handzus, Clowe, and Douglas Murray vehemently struggling, Wilson shipped all three of them away for draft choices. He followed that up by acquiring veteran forward Raffi Torres and veteran defenseman Scott Hannan in separate deals.

Those moves, along with McLellan’s decision to shift Burns to forward jump started the Sharks to a hot finish. They were instantly faster, and once again improved defensively.

In the playoffs they earned the franchise’s first ever series sweep over an opponent, dispatching the Canucks in four straight. And even though they lost in round two, it is hard to argue that they weren’t in fact the better team in that seven game tilt with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings.

Now let’s flash forward to this season, where the Sharks have been consistently amongst the league’s five best teams all year long. Even while missing forwards Tomas Hertl, Raffi Torres, Martin Havlat, and Adam Burish, the Sharks beat the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks in Chicago back on Jan. 5.

About 4 weeks later, the Sharks beat the Blackhawks for the second straight time, in San Jose on Feb. 1. While they did have Havlat back, they were now missing big time contributors in Logan Couture (arguably best player on the team) and defenseman Jason Demers (having a great season) to go along with Hertl, Torres, and Burish.

In the two victories, San Jose combined to score a whopping three goals. They beat the high flying, high powered defending Stanley Cup champions (leading the NHL in goals for) twice while scoring just two goals and one goal. Yes, Chicago scored the exact same amount and both Sharks wins came in a shootout. But that’s besides the point.

San Jose found a way to beat the best team in hockey, at more or less full strength, while missing numerous key players, particularly some highly skilled offensive players. San Jose had to play strong defensively and they did, as they clamped down and made smart plays throughout both contests.

“It’s always been our mindset” commented Wingels on the Sharks defensive zone attitude. “When we take care of our defensive game, our offensive game thrives. When you’re not scoring as much, or your power play isn’t scoring as much, you need to focus more on the defensive aspect. You know, making sure you aren’t giving up those extra scoring chances.”

“We’ve always had a lot of pride in our defensive play” responded captain Joe Thornton. “That’s probably why this team is going to be successful, we play good team defense and offense comes second. If we allow teams one goal a night, we will be pretty good I think.”

The Sharks went to the Western Conference final in 2010-11 but were 10th in GAA that season, allowing 2.54 goals per game. This year they are fourth, allowing just 2.30.

If the 2010-11 Sharks were to have played the best team in hockey while missing the caliber of players that the 2014 version is currently missing, they almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to win back-to-back low scoring games.. As the saying goes, defense wins championships and led by their current defensive prowess, the 2013-14 Sharks are the best Sharks team to date.

 

As always for more on the Sharks follow Andrew on twitter: @ViewFromBensch

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