One of the most dangerous aspects of the San Jose Sharks is their depth of defensemen with offensive abilities. Whether it’s the team leader in points in Brent Burns, or one of the league’s best puck movers in Erik Karlsson, or even the less known players like Brendan Dillon or Justin Braun, the Sharks aren’t lacking offensive production from their defensemen.
This was a major point of emphasis for the Golden Knights against the Sharks a year ago when the two met in the playoffs and will be once again this year. Vegas deploys a somewhat risky strategy in defending the Sharks glut of firepower from their defensemen, something that has not gone unnoticed by the San Jose bench boss.
If they are going to go stand up beside our defensemen up high then the forwards down low are going to have to take advantage of that space. They’ve been consistent with that against us whenever we’ve played them, last year and this year. So we know that’s probably what we are going to get. -Pete DeBoer, Sharks Head Coach
What he’s talking about is how the Golden Knights forwards defend against the Sharks when San Jose has the puck in the Vegas zone. Gallant has instructed his forwards to play as close to the defenseman standing near the blue line as possible to take away time and space and also eliminate shooting lanes.
They play our defensemen high and it ends up with a lot of low play there where you have to take the puck to the net. That’s part of the game when you play them. DeBoer on 3/30 following OT win over VGK
Last year in the playoffs, the Sharks defensemen did not score a single goal at even strength and they managed only a total of 35 shots on goal. The Golden Knights blocked 58 shots from Sharks defensemen in the series.
Over the course of the six playoff games, and even more so in the four games this regular season, the Golden Knights have put an emphasis on not allowing shots from the point. That means taking away Brent Burns’ massive shot, eliminating Erik Karlsson’s shot and passing ability, and limiting every other defenseman’s shot lanes.
You have to get on them quickly. If you give them too much time, they’ll make plays and they’ll create more open ice from that. You have to limit the time and space. That’s pretty much the best answer I can give you. They’re talented players and they’re very creative with the puck. The more opportunities you give them, they’ll make you pay. -Reilly Smith
The other benefit of playing defenseman high at the blue line is in creating turnovers. Any slight bobble of a pass at the Sharks offensive blue line could mean a Golden Knight taking the puck and starting a break the other way. Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Alex Tuch, Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, and others will be primary pieces in taking away shots from the point.
It’s all about timing. Good guys kind of find a way to create themselves some room and some time. You gotta stay close to them and not giving them any time to shoot the puck. I mean, every time Burns shoots, he’s got a chance to score. So as a forward, we gotta stay tight to him and then we’ll be alright. -William Carrier
Sheng Peng wrote an article on this same subject following the March 30th game against the Sharks and came up with an intriguing stat.
With Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson leading the way, no other squad, save the New York Islanders, features defensemen taking a higher percentage of the team’s overall shot attempts at 5-on-5. -Sheng Peng, FearTheFin.com
Nearly 40% of the Sharks shot attempts come from defensemen, yet against the Golden Knights that number shrinks massively to under 30%.
There is one drawback to this defensive style for the Golden Knights though, and that is that it gives more space to San Jose’s forwards. This leads to extended zone time and often times high-danger chances. In turn, that leads to the ice appearing to be tilted in the Sharks favor. But, if the Golden Knights keep the puck to the outside, and take away shooting lanes, the zone time will be just that, zone time.
It’s certainly something to keep an eye on as the series gets underway. Do the Golden Knights continue using this strategy? Do the Sharks have the answer? And most importantly, can San Jose succeed if they aren’t getting major offensive contributions from their defensemen?