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Go-go San Jose Sharks proving speed kills the NHL competition

San Jose Sharks (Getty Images)

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San Jose Sharks (Getty Images)

The first San Jose shot whizzes by Jimmy Howard’s head eight seconds into the game. Five minutes later, the hometown Red Wings finally put an attempt on the board. In the second period, the Sharks put the puck on net 18 seconds in and would have done so sooner had Joe Thornton not inadvertently tipped the biscuit up and over Howard’s cage. With 12 minutes remaining in the middle frame, Detroit stands at five shots on net.

This is puck possession hockey, but at the same time it isn’t. The San Jose Sharks have found a new calling and it involves top speed, all four lines and a whole lotta shots on net. While this night in Detroit turns out to be atypical – the Sharks win 1-0 in a shootout, in what coach Todd McLellan calls a playoff hockey atmosphere with tight-checking efficiency – the hallmarks of this new philosophy are obvious. The Sharks actually live up to their name in the offensive zone, setting off frenzies and treating any opportunity as a last-minute scramble for that crucial goal. “You can’t go out looking for the perfect play every time,” says center Logan Couture. “You’ve got to shoot the puck. You watch highlights around the league and a lot of goals are scored on second or third chances and that’s how we’ve been getting them, too.”

In their first 19 games of the season, 12 of which were victories, the Sharks averaged 36.7 shots a game, scoring 3.53 goals and surrendering just 2.10 goals against. They dominated 5-on-5 and were one of the best teams in the faceoff circle.

Of course, last season the Sharks also got off to a great start, winning all seven games in January before coming back to earth and finishing sixth in the West, losing a hard-fought series to Los Angeles in the second round. But advanced stats weren’t on the Sharks’ side. The team was just 12th in NHL team Corsi last season, a measure of how many shots directed at the net, including blocked or off-the-mark attempts, a team has versus how many it gives up. This season San Jose is second, while the machine gun-clip offense is putting teams on their heels early and often.

No longer are the Sharks a classic possession team, where a player such as Thornton could hold onto the puck and slow the game down. Now it’s go, go, go. “We’re not talking about giving up the puck all the time,” McLellan says. “We’re talking about putting it in areas where we can go get it. We’re talking about playing more of a north-south game, not slowing it down as much, trying to stay ahead of the curve. That’s where the game is going. Coming out of the last lockout you could delay, look for people and hold on to the puck a little longer. Teams have figured out how to defend that now. You have to advance.”

The lockout put a crimp in starting the revolution. Minimum training camp, no pre-season games and an uneven level of conditioning among players were mitigating factors. But this season, McLellan has the horses he needs and the results speak for themselves. “It shows up more in the third- and fourth-line situations, the ability to roll four lines and maintain the pace,” he says. “If we were going quick in the past, it kind of fell off as we went down a line or two, so there were hills and valleys. In the game right now, all the lines play a quick game.”

A combination of maturing prospects and key personnel maneuvers predicated this. Matt Nieto left Boston University after his junior campaign and hasn’t played a game in the minors since the end of 2012, when he started his pro career in Worcester. Tyler Kennedy was acquired from Pittsburgh in a draft day trade for a second-rounder, while rookie Tomas Hertl came over from the Czech Republic after two seasons playing against men.

Ah yes, Hertl. The boy wonder whose four-goal performance against the Rangers will be nearly impossible to top, particularly since every warmup and morning skate around the league now has players re-creating his Marek Malik-style, behind-the-back-leg move that may or may not have sent Marty Biron into retirement. Playing on the top line with Thornton and Brent Burns, Hertl has won over the hearts of the hockey world (with the exception of Washington coach Adam Oates and the odd irrelevant hockey writer). “He’s a big guy, but you see what he can do on breakaways,” says center Joe Pavelski. “He’s got sneaky speed.”

When asked about his new liney’s defensive capabilities, Thornton is wry in his reply: “We’ve only been playing in the offensive zone, so I don’t know how his defense is,” he says. “With him and ‘Burnzie,’ they just forecheck so hard, I don’t see them playing a lot of defense.”

For the kid himself, who speaks little English and may end up living with an American billet family this year to ease the transition (much like Valeri Nichushkin in Dallas), the chance to play next to Thornton has been a dream come true. “Oh, I’m very happy,” Hertl says. “He’s the best player in the NHL at passing. Unbelievable.”

Burns is another victory for the Sharks. When San Jose was struggling to be more than just a one-line team last season, the bearded wildman was moved up to the wing from his post on the blueline and found immediate success causing havoc in front of the net. “I thought he was going to be great,” Thornton says. “He’s such a big, strong guy, he skates well, he shoots the puck well, so I thought it was a no-brainer to get our offense going again. He’s always had bags and bags of skill. You recognize that he loves to have the puck.”

And as long as he shoots it, there’s no issue. Without buy-in from players such as Burns and captain Thornton, the quick-strike Sharks wouldn’t be so quick. “Jumbo’s part of the fast game now and we’re proud of him for doing it,” McLellan says. “That shows his ability to adapt. He still has the green light to find people and to look late. We’re not taking that from him. But often it’s not the puck carrier who slows things down, it’s everybody else. He has the puck a lot, so people have to keep moving.”

The new strategy is simple: when the defensemen have the puck, they get it to the forwards as soon as possible and the forwards take off. When passes are tape-to-tape, it’s hard to forecheck against the Sharks and once they’re in the zone, it’s go time. The opposition gets hemmed in and the guys in teal get sustained attack time. If a shot doesn’t go in, they chase it down. “You use speed to get it back,” Couture says. “When you’re in the ‘D’ zone, you’re watching to see where it’s going, but when you shoot it, you usually know where it’s going to end up, so you have that step to get there quicker.”

The key is having those burners on each line. Hertl’s got hops and Thornton can rumble when he’s got a head of steam. On the second line, Kennedy has been a missile, cancelling out hybrid icings and grabbing pucks for Couture and Patrick Marleau, who get the points and the glory. Nieto skates like the wind on Pavelski’s wing on the third line. And how nice must it be to have a potential American Olympian on your third unit?

Not only do players such as Nieto and Hertl bring speed and skill to the lineup, but also a youthful exuberance. At 24, Couture is no greybeard, but even he appreciates that infusion of positivity and sees the effect on vets such as Thornton and Marleau. Indeed, the Sharks are having fun these days. After the win in Detroit, Thornton was teasing pivot James Sheppard about his eating schedule, while an Antti Niemi media scrum was punctured by a chorus of whoops from the back, where some sort of dressing room record had clearly just been shattered.

Eventually, San Jose will have to get serious. This is a team with 20 years in the NHL and still no appearances in the final. The Sharks have been the poster boys for lacking clutchness in the past. When rival St. Louis rolled over the Sharks in the first round two years ago, it was so easy that the Blues have since theorized it left them unprepared for their next series, which they lost to Los Angeles, the eventual Cup champion. It’s an uncomfortable thought to face, but one the Sharks must contemplate. “They beat us in five, so obviously we didn’t give them much of a test,” Couture says. “But our team has changed a lot since. When I think of our team now, I think of the trade deadline last year. We’ve played a lot better since then.”

Strangely enough, the Sharks were sellers at the time, with GM Doug Wilson jettisoning big center Michal Handzus to Chicago (where he won the Cup), Ryane Clowe to the Rangers and Douglas Murray to Pittsburgh for draft picks. So the team got smaller, but more nimble. Depth players Raffi Torres and Scott Hannan came back in separate deals. Torres notwithstanding, the Sharks aren’t a physical team, so it will be interesting to see how this new edition adapts to playoff hockey, when things slow down and get chippier. And when those tape-to-tape passes go awry, the turnovers are unsettling, though having Niemi in the crease is a good failsafe. Now it’s time to win.

After the morning skate in Detroit, McLellan holds court with reporters in the hallway of Joe Louis Arena. His placement is perfect. Just a little northwest of his head, you see his name painted onto the wall, along with everyone else who won the Stanley Cup with the Red Wings in 2008. He was an associate coach under Mike Babcock and he’s proud of his past. “Once you win, they can never take it away from you,” McLellan says. “No matter how successful you are or how many failures you have, you were a still a winner at one point. That’s the pinnacle of the league.”

Niemi has a ring from his days in Chicago, where he led the Blackhawks to their first title in 49 years. Kennedy has one from Pittsburgh, when the Penguins got revenge and defeated the Wings one year after McLellan won his title in Detroit. “Everyone’s got a chance once you get in the playoffs,” Kennedy says. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve been to the final five times in a row or you’ve never been to the playoffs. You have to push every game like it means something, because it does. You have to be focused and prepared. We hold ourselves accountable. We’re expected to be a great team.”

But the hockey world has expected San Jose to be great for years now. Cup winners have largely come from the puck possession crowd lately, but as McLellan points out, times are changing and teams need to adapt. Have they unlocked the secret in San Jose, where speed kills and you can always beat the other guys to the puck once you’ve put it where you want it? That’s the experiment playing out this season and if it means a parade in the Bay Area, you’ll undoubtedly see followers of the new philosophy in San Jose.

If not, it’s back to the drawing board and another summer of questions for Los Tiburones and their brain trust.

This feature originally appeared in the November 18 edition of The Hockey News magazine (stats in the third paragraph were updated). Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

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