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Jack Han on How Keeping Karlsson Can Actually Accelerate Sharks’ Rebuild



Credit: Hockey Shots/Dean Tait

Jack Han calls the San Jose Sharks “the most interesting team you’re not watching.”

Han is perhaps best known for his work in analytics, player development, scouting, and coaching in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization. Currently, he’s a coaching consultant for ZSC Lions, Connecticut Whale, and high-level players across the world.

“They are the team to study for coaches looking to implement a modern skinny OZ forecheck, with Ds pinching and Fs tracking early,” Han said of the Sharks in early April.

With that in mind, I spoke with Han recently about that post, his new Hockey Tactics 2023 book, and he shared great insights about how Erik Karlsson creates organizational value, why he thinks the Sharks made the right move in re-signing Tomas Hertl and letting Timo Meier go, and how Jacob Peterson has caught his eye.

It was such a fascinating 35-minute conversation, I’m going to release it in three parts over the next week.

Let’s talk Karlsson today.

Before you start, I urge you to check out Han’s video on how the Sharks are helping Karlsson to be his best self.

Make sure to also purchase Han’s Hockey Tactics 2023, which details the systems of all 32 NHL teams, including the San Jose Sharks. In honor of William Han-Grenier, born just last week — congrats Jack and Steph! — use code “willy” at checkout to get $8 off any of Jack’s ebooks.

And subscribe to Han’s The Hockey Tactics Newsletter, there are both free and paid subscriptions, to get exclusive articles about the Sharks and their rush defense, and more.

Jack Han, on what he’s seen from the San Jose Sharks this year:

Based on the way they’re playing, there’s a way to do this. I would say that San Jose, the way that they play, they’re pretty well suited to trading chances. Because if you look at their recent goals, a lot of them are off the rush. And the way that they defend, they’re trying to survive that initial rush and turn it into a half ice or three-quarter ice counterattack.

It’s obviously done a lot for Karlsson’s production, which has made him into a trade target at the Deadline. Nothing happened obviously, but teams are way more interested in him now than 12 months ago.

I think the way for San Jose to shorten the rebuild is to try to manufacture some more players who can put up points and score off these rush plays, these counterattack plays, and play a high-tempo style. Like the same player, if he’s got 40 points versus 20, the guy with 40 points is going to fetch a higher return.

A lot of teams still value points and they still value offensive production, especially players from non-playoff teams. Meier is a prime example of that.

The thing that makes a lot of sense for me is San Jose is going to look to trade chances. They’re not going to win or outscore a whole lot because they don’t have the personnel to do that right now. But at least they’re able to pick up players like Daniel Sprong or Eeli Tolvanen. They’re thriving in bigger roles after being acquired on waivers or for very low cost.

San Jose, I think, next year is going to be a very attractive destination for players looking to get some more minutes. Not necessarily to make the playoffs, but at least pad their personal resume so that they not only end up on a contender second half the year, but also the team would benefit, because they would be able to flip assets and generate value based on having icetime to give out and an up-tempo style of play.

To use an NBA example, look at what the Philadelphia 76ers did under Sam Hinkie. Generally, when you have a bad team, the coaches will tend to play a low-tempo, defensive-minded style so you wouldn’t lose by as much. But what we see, the teams able to turn it over quickly, actually go the opposite [way]. By playing a high-tempo style, initially you’re going to lose by a lot more. But then the entire team gets better.

[So you] create value based on players that you’re going to trade. But also develop the players you’re going to keep.

If you look at Montreal, for instance, they’re trying to do that, [but] obviously still not having a ton of success. Buffalo now is seeing some returns on investing in playing a more up-tempo style. I think for the Sharks right now, it’s a personnel issue.

They just need to get more players and younger players in. But if they’re able to sustain this way of playing, eventually you’re gonna see this team have a metamorphosis into a team that’s going to be a consistent playoff contender.

Han, on if San Jose Sharks can play the same up-tempo style without Karlsson:

There are players out there who are available, right? Look at Erik Gustafsson, who hops around and never gets traded for very much at all. Tyson Barrie. Or Vince Dunn, who got picked up by Seattle in the Expansion Draft, now the leading [defenseman] scorer over there. Those players exist.

The nice thing about the way that San Jose defends is if you’re a defenseman, you don’t have to skate backwards as much. For a player like Karlsson, you’re less exposed because your forwards are helping you more. Maybe we’ll see a player like Jacob MacDonald scoring a few shots, because he’s got a really good shot. He’s more of an offensive-minded D. Obviously he’s older, don’t think the upside is quite there anymore.

The Rasmus Sandin trade from Toronto to Washington, now he’s putting up more points. Those players are out there, and I think it’s a good way to accelerate the rebuild. Either by getting those players and keeping them or getting those players, having them produce, and then flipping them for things you can use.

Han, on what else fueled Karlsson’s success besides how much the San Jose Sharks forwards covered for him:

The thing with Karlsson is, he’s a player who’s really good in unstructured situations. If we’re talking about a turnover in the middle of the ice, loose puck, or a situation where the other team is a little bit disorganized on a line change, Karlsson is one of the best. Because he has the vision, the hand skills, and especially, the offensive optimism to really take chances.

Whereas last year with [Bob] Boughner, for as long as I’ve known Boughner as a coach, he prefers a team that’s pretty structured, that plays pretty tightly, every shift kind of looks pretty similar. You go break out, forecheck, and then maybe neutral zone forecheck, D-zone coverage. It’s very structured.

Whereas the way that San Jose plays now with three players back, they can improvise and take some chances. So now Karlsson’s getting a lot of these offensive zone or neutral zone turnovers that he can counterattack right away off of. It’s one thing to try to hit a stretch pass through five opposing players who are set up, versus hitting a stretch pass because the other team’s on a line change, and then you’re turning it quickly up ice, create a 2-on-1. The way that San Jose plays now more, high tempo, there’s more trading chances.

Karlsson tends to thrive when his team is not afraid to trade chances with the other team. That’s why the point production this year is elite. If you look at the on-ice goals, like he’s basically breaking even. The reference point for me was the Meier, Hertl, and Karlsson minutes at 5-on-5 earlier this year. In those minutes, I think they had about a 60 percent shot share, but they broke even at goals 24-24. Whereas when they were off, the rest of the team was clearly below water.

The way that Karlsson plays, you’re outshooting, but you’re still more or less breaking even because you are giving up more defensively. But certainly, the way that his game is set up, you want to maximize his points, you want to maximize his puck touches. That’s the way to do it.

Jack Han Doesn’t Think Karlsson Is Still a Top-Pairing D-Man

Han, on what changed his mind about Karlsson, who we both thought was done as a top-pairing defenseman:

What this year has changed my mind about is at least he can be a net positive, in terms of either eventually [being] a trade chip, or by creating these offensive plays, he’s helping the players around him put up more counting stats and that makes them more attractive as trade targets. As long as the Sharks play this uptempo, back-and-forth style where Karlsson gets a lot of permission to do stuff and has his forwards covering for him, he can create value organizationally.

It doesn’t mean that the Sharks are going to get back to being a playoff team or contender with Karlsson on the roster. But, I think he can be part of helping the team trend in that direction.

Special thanks to Josh Frojelin for his help transcribing.

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