Over the past few seasons the San Jose Sharks have built a reputation on their defensive play. They have been successful by keeping scores low and suppressing shot totals. From an outsiders perspective this style of play seems practical; however if you look closer this formula for success might be more volatile than it appears.
The San Jose Sharks have been a model of defensive consistency since coach Pete DeBoer took over in the 2015 – 2016 season. On the surface the stats exhibit the Sharks ability to keep game scores close and shot totals low. In each of the past 3 seasons the Sharks have placed in the top 12 in total goals allowed and the top 7 in total shots. They were also able put together the 2nd best Penalty Kill in the league last year.
Along with finishing high in statistical categories the Sharks have also made the playoffs 3 straight seasons in a row. A team that has the capacity to put up those numbers consistently must have figured something out, and the Sharks definitely have. The secret to the Sharks success is that Justin Braun and (especially) Marc-Edouard Vlasic are very good in their own zone.
Justin Braun’s shifts started in the offensive zone just 38% of the time, even for a defenseman that’s very low. Meanwhile Vlasic ended the season with 42% of his shifts starting in his own zone, this differed from Braun’s percentage because of his role on the Power Play Second unit. Other than Vlasic’s time on PP, he is rarely separated from Braun when he is on the ice.
Judging by those numbers it appears that Pete DeBoer trusts these two to defend the Sharks zone. They outpace the other Sharks pairings in own zone starts by a stunning margin. Using Micah Blake McCurdy’s (@IneffectiveMath
data and his handy Zone Usage
tool you can see the two are deployed into defensive zone almost at double the rate of Sharks star defensemen
This visual is extremely interesting and exhibits how Pete DeBoer relies heavily on the defensive play of Braun and Vlasic. They started their shifts 14 times out 100 in their own zone; while Burns began his shifts in Sharks end 8 times out of 100. It is stunning how buried they get in their own zone compared to the other defensemen on the roster. Something to also take into consideration is that most of the time the Vlasic/Braun pair is being matched up against the opposing team’s best forward lines.
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The Sharks are very dependent on Vlasic and Braun defensively, which allows them to activate Brent Burns into opposing team’s zones for maximum ice time effectiveness. Whereas Burns is deployed in the offensive zone 16 times out of 100 shift starts.
That’s a lot of starting on your opponents end of the ice and the results of this zone usage manifests on the stat sheet. He led the San Jose Sharks in scoring, and placed 3rd in the NHL in total shots during the 2017 – 2018 season.
Whether it’s using his wrist shot to create deflections into the net or him joining the rush and using his size and hands to shield the puck and score goals. Burns has shown the ability to wreak havoc on opposing team’s defenses.
In fact much of the Sharks offense is funneled through Brent Burns. Many of the shots the Sharks generate as a team happen when Burns is out on the ice. Burns compiled a 57.9% Corsi along with a 57.4 Fenwick, while the Sharks as a team racked up a 50.90% Corsi and 51.69 Fenwick, stats per naturalstattrick. The Corsi/Fenwick stats are often overused but in this case it is a good representation of how the Sharks rely on Burns’ offensive presence to control possession.
The San Jose Sharks use Vlasic and Braun to defend the zone and retrieve the puck, while utilizing Brent Burns’ size, speed, and skill to generate offense. This dynamic seems to be working so far in Pete DeBoers time with San Jose, but it has to be managed carefully. This matchup-centric playing style makes the Sharks vulnerable to lots of high danger scoring opportunities.
According to the naturalstattrick database, the Sharks ranked tied for 9th in scoring chances allowed and a startling 3rd in high danger scoring chances allowed. For reference here’s a rough summary of what Naturalstattrick defines as a scoring chance or high danger scoring chance. It can be categorized as any shot attempt within a certain area in front of the net that comes off rush attempts, goes unblocked, creates a rebound, or any combination of the three. (For more information about scoring chances check out naturalstattrick).
Giving up shots like these can be backbreaking for a team that fails to generate a ton of offense like the Sharks. But it seems as though the Pete DeBoer is content with opponents getting these opportunities in order to get his desired matchups on the ice. It also shows the faith the team has in its goalies abilities to make those high danger saves, whether that be Martin Jones or Aaron Dell.
To make a long story short the San Jose Sharks might suppress a lot of shots in total, but the scoring opportunities that do go through usually make for a tough saves for whoever’s in net.
They rely heavily on the Vlasic/Braun pairing in the defensive zone, while funneling their offense through Brent Burns’ play making ability. It’s an interestingly volatile dynamic that I don’t think many other teams in the NHL could replicate. It has produced results thus far during DeBoer’s term as Head Coach of the San Jose Sharks so it is difficult for anyone to judge his management skills.
DeBoer enters his 4th year with this team and is looking to contend for the Stanley Cup once again coming off another disappointing postseason.