The Golden Knights used the same strategy against Drew Doughty and the Kings. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
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.
Brent Burns is an elite offensive defenseman, arguably one of the best in the entire NHL. He’s the 2016-17 Norris Trophy winner, he’s a six-time All Star, and he’s tallied at least 60 points five different seasons in the NHL. He’s also the point leader for the Sharks heading into the playoffs, the only defenseman with such distinction. All of these accolades (and the beard) tend to leave the hockey world enamored with the 6’5″ 230-pound goliath of a defenseman.
However, when you actually watch Brent Burns play, it’s not all rosy, and when you watch him play against the Golden Knights, it’s nothing short of dreadful.
There’s only one way to illustrate what I’m talking about because most of the issues come when Burns is away from the puck and that’s through video. When he has the puck, in any of the three zones, he’s usually good with it. He has a strong stick, he normally makes good decisions with the puck, and he’s an elite skater for his size when he’s skating forward.
But, when you watch what he does away from the puck, or what happens when he has to retreat into his own zone, or his positioning when the puck is turned over, you’ll start to see why he’s a liability against a team like Vegas.
Let’s start with a few videos, the tamer ones first.
In all three cases, the Golden Knights fired stretch passes directly aimed at Burns. Each time the Golden Knights ended up on the puck and they created a chance out of each of them. None of these resulted in goals, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t affect the game.
Because Burns is so offensively focused, he’s often caught too far up in the neutral zone and Vegas seems to seek it out. This is a key to how the Golden Knights like to play, and Burns plays right into it. Vegas is at its best when they are playing quickly and when they transition through the neutral zone with one pass. In all three plays shown, Burns aids that process.
Now let’s move on to another major issue Burns has when he plays against Vegas, getting caught on the wrong side of the puck. As a defenseman, it’s crucial that when a puck is turned over that you are closer to your goal than the puck is. Otherwise, it leads to odd-man rushes and/or forwards getting caught playing as defensemen. Here are two such instances, both from the same game, both that lead to Golden Knights goals.
“If you’re not willing to pay the price then you have no reason being here.” (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
It’s no secret the Golden Knights will get a heavy dose of Brent Burns’ dangerous shot from the point this series.
He’s probably one of the best, or the best, in the league at finding a way to get the puck to the net. He’s got a long reach and he can shoot from far away. You can’t go down that easily but you can’t give him too much time. He can make you look like a fool. -Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
An average slap shot from the Sharks defenseman can register up to 90 MPH. At points throughout the series, Jack Adams Finalist Gerard Gallant will have to deploy his unit of shot blocking warriors. Led by the fearless Bellemare.
I make sure what I’m covering is the entire net. So, whatever shot that goes beside me will miss the net. That’s all I’m thinking. -Bellemare
Bellmare takes the simple approach to blocking attempts from bombers like Burns. His main objective is to cut off angles and net views which forces shooters to pass the puck or skate around searching for open shooting lanes. Also, mix in a touch of Bellemare grit and devotion.
He’s a tough guy to block a shot but it’s really all about dedication. How much you want to block that puck? If you can’t block it you got to find a way to get something in the way. That’s all you need just a little piece of the body, stick or the blade. -Bellemare
Let’s go with something vague so Burns gets mad. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
It was clear Sharks defenseman Brent Burns wasn’t in the mood to speak with the media after Friday’s overtime loss. In San Jose’s locker room, Logan Couture spoke first while he ate a slice of pizza. Sans pizza, Tomas Hertl and Joonas Donskoi held quick media scrums of their own after Couture finished. Heck, even Joe Thornton poked his head in after finding his teeth.
I just overheard an equipment manager in the SJS locker room say “Hang on, I got Jumbo’s teeth.”
The three San Jose players that spoke after the game were still wearing Sharks t-shirts and shorts. Burns came out showered, dressed and ready to hit the bus. It was clear by his demeanor the defenseman was upset. What might’ve set off Chewbacca was a 3rd period overturned goal that would’ve put the Sharks up 5-4. I asked Burns if he would talk about the overturned goal, and immediately you could feel his beard burning up.
No, not really. It is what it is. -Brent Burns, Sharks defenseman
Burns was upset with the overturned goal in Vegas, but it seemed like built up frustration from previous games.