By Sheng Peng
The San Jose Sharks have found pieces of their game in November — but they’re not quite whole yet.
This 11-4 November, however, is a welcome contrast to their 4-8-1 October. Aided by a generous schedule — 11 of San Jose’s 15 games this month were at home, and the furthest east they traveled was Arizona — the Sharks have moved from seventh in the Pacific to third.
Perhaps San Jose’s most significant improvement has been their play at 5-on-5, chiefly their ability to sustain time in the offensive zone. Looking more closely, two key areas stand out.
When you think of Sharks hockey, you think of big forwards down low, like Joe Thornton and Tomas Hertl, cycling the puck and eventually getting it back to the point to Brent Burns or Erik Karlsson.
“It’s a big part of our game since I’ve been here,” Peter DeBoer, who’s coached San Jose since 2015, said. “We’re built that way. We got some big power forwards, some big, heavy guys. We want to play in the offensive zone. We’ve got defensemen on the blueline who can excel back there if we can play in the offensive zone and get them the puck.”
Last season, the Sharks were third in the NHL with 7.5 Cycle Scoring Chances Per Game at 5-on-5. San Jose, however, stumbled this October, with 5.2 Cycle Scoring Chances Per Game, good for just 23rd in the league.
The Sharks have returned to form in this category. This was from November 12th against the Edmonton Oilers:
From Thornton (19) to Patrick Marleau (12) to Marcus Sorensen (20), the San Jose forwards earned nine consecutive touches here, pulling the Oilers all over the ice, before finding Burns (88) alone above the left circle.
In November, the Sharks topped the NHL with 8.1 Cycle Scoring Chances Per Game.
“That’s how we want to play,” noted DeBoer.
Another sign that San Jose has found their game is its renewed forecheck.
Last season, the Sharks were 16th in the league with 2.8 Forecheck Scoring Chances Per Game at 5-on-5. This October, however, San Jose, mustered just 1.6 Forecheck Scoring Chances Per Game, an abysmal 29th in the NHL.
But they’ve re-discovered their legs in November. This is from November 25th against the Los Angeles Kings:
The 40-year-old Thornton crowds no less than Drew Doughty (8) on the forecheck, forcing Doughty into a hurried pass to 40-year-old Marleau. So much in San Jose depends on old wheels, perhaps too much. But for one month at least, they’ve staved off Father Time.
The Sharks are climbing back up the ranks, finishing fourteenth in the league in November with 2.5 Forecheck Scoring Chances Per Game.
Offensive Zone Puck Possession
These two key improvements in San Jose’s game are part of their once-again robust ability to sustain time in the offensive zone.
Last season, they averaged 4:56 Offensive Zone Puck Possession Per Game at 5-on-5, fifth in the NHL. They slumped this October, dropping to 4:06, 18th in the league. But November brought many happy returns, as the Sharks’ 4:42 Offensive Zone Puck Possession Per Game ranked eigth in the NHL.
“It’s gotten better,” DeBoer acknowledged. “It’s not where I think it has been the last three or four years yet.”
So where can San Jose be better?
Getting scoring chances off either the forecheck or cycle can be facilitated by recovering dump-ins.
Traditionally, this is a Sharks strength. Last season, they were fifth in the league with a 38.8 percent Dump-in Recovery Rate at 5-on-5.
It’s been an entirely different story this year.
In October, San Jose was 28th in the NHL with a 33.0 percent Dump-in Recovery Rate. November wasn’t much better. The Sharks were 24th in the league with a 34.3 percent Dump-in Recovery Rate.
There’s no doubt that San Jose has at least some of the personnel to turn it around in this department. This is from November 29th against the Kings:
Defenseman Matt Roy (3) has no chance against Hertl (48). The question for the Sharks is, do they have four lines who can win the dump-in race for the puck?
In the wake of losing three forwards over the summer — Joe Pavelski, Gustav Nyquist, and Joonas Donskoi — San Jose has auditioned, among others, four rookie forwards for these jobs. Right now, that’s tied with the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars for most rookies forwards used in the Western Conference.
However, while Dylan Gambrell, Noah Gregor, Lean Bergmann, and Danil Yurtaykin have shown flashes, they haven’t cemented roles on the Sharks in any capacity, from first line to fourth.
This isn’t to blame the rookies entirely for the team’s slow start — it’s an illustration of a San Jose squad in transition.
“We’ll look at anything,” said DeBoer of staffing his lines, after an exasperating 5-2 loss to the Oilers on November 19th.
DeBoer seemed exasperated by his forward depth & goaltending tonight, and who could blame him? It's understandable to point at Burns & Karlsson (and they deserve their share), but these are the things that will sink #SJSharks this year more than anything https://t.co/3f6wcaEP2k
— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) November 20, 2019
This doesn’t sound like a coach who’s content with his depth up front.
So while the Sharks, powered in part by their re-discovered ability to sustain offensive zone time, have turned its season around, it’s still a team riddled with questions.
Will a young, unproven forward step up? How much do Thornton and Marleau left in the tank? Will Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc keep evolving? Can the team acquire another middle-six winger?
The answers to these questions will determine if San Jose are serious Stanley Cup contenders or not.
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)