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Why Sharks Have Bought into Boughner’s Defense-First Approach



Credit: AP Photo/Jim McIsaac

ELMONT, N.Y. — The San Jose Sharks beat the New York Islanders at their own game on Thursday night.

The back-to-back Eastern Conference finalists, renowned for their tenacious forecheck and no-holds-barred shot-blocking – the Isles, per SPORTLOGiQ, were second in the league in Dump-In Recoveries last year and no team has blocked more shots over the last two seasons – had to think they were looking a little in the mirror in San Jose’s 2-1 OT victory.

The Sharks blocked more shots on Thursday, 18-17 – while San Jose’s most consistent source of even strength offense this season has been off the forecheck. Coming into tonight, they were 13th in the league in Forecheck Chances.

The blocked shots are meaningful, by the way – it’s not just the case of the San Jose Sharks getting swamped by other teams every night. The Sharks actually are sixth-best in the NHL in Quality Chances Against. In short, they’re doing a good job defending.

“I have this talk with our players all the time, our identity, we use the word ‘grind.’ We got to grind teams down and grind wins out,” head coach Bob Boughner said. “We don’t have the McDavids and Draisaitls of the world on this team that can win games single-handedly. We have to do it as a team and we have to do it a certain way. Managing the pocket and managing leads and being in tight games…we’re a lot more comfortable in those games than we have been in the past couple years.”

Erik Karlsson agreed: “We just stuck with it. We weren’t getting frustrated. We just kept putting the puck in and creating and taking what we got. We weren’t concerned how long it was going to take.”

It took a while — until Karlsson’s overtime goal – but San Jose felt like the better team throughout. For example, they finished last night with a 15-5 Slot Shots on Net advantage.

GOTTA SEE IT: How Did Meier Find Karlsson for OT Winner?

Speaking of Slot Shots, that’s another illustration of a more stubborn Sharks defense. Last year, San Jose ranked 26th in the league in Even Strength Slot Shots Against. So far this year? The Sharks entered the contest 11th best in the NHL in this category.

What’s behind this defensive improvement?

“You try to look at your personnel in the off-season, you look at what other teams are having success with, you try and model a system after that, and what matches your personnel. And that’s exactly what we did,” Boughner disclosed. “We did projects all summer as a staff, coaches, we did a lot of Zoom calls, and a lot of watching different hockey, coming up with what we thought would work.”

Somehow, someway, the Sharks have re-fashioned themselves – some would say against all odds, considering the presence of two of this generation’s greatest offensive defensemen in Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns on their blueline – into a genuinely good defensive group.

“The guys who have been through it, stuck around here, you’re sick of losing,” Karlsson acknowledged. “You’re trying to find new ways to evolve and turn into the team you want to be.”

The star defenseman also noted that a more normal training routine this past summer helped put the team in a right frame of mind to start the season.

The San Jose Sharks, rudderless for so strong, finally have an identity: They are a dump-and-chase team that protects the house with a commitment that we haven’t seen since, well, the last time that the Sharks made the playoffs in 2019.

“The players bought in,” Boughner said. “That’s the main thing, everybody’s doing it, everybody’s buying in.”

Karlsson offered: “We got off to a good start, now we just got to keep it up.”

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