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A Radical Idea for Jumpstarting Sharks Power Play

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Credit: AP Photo/Tony Avelar

How do you score more goals without compromising your defensive structure?

That’s the problem facing the San Jose Sharks, who have shaved almost a half a goal off their Goals Against Average from last season, but are still struggling to put the biscuit in the basket. At the moment, they’re 25th in the NHL at 2.66 Goals Per Game.

The obvious way to score more without adding too much risk to your 5-on-5 defensive game? Put it in on the power play.

Easier said than done, of course: The Sharks, with an 18.2 % success rate, are just 21st in the league on the PP.

Jack Han, author of Hockey Tactics 2022 and former Toronto Marlies assistant coach, recently joined the San Jose Hockey Now Podcast to diagnose San Jose’s power play woes, offering a revolutionary (by Sharks standards) idea to jumpstart the moribund man advantage.

Jack Han on How Sharks Can Win Without Karlsson, Boost Power Play

But first, he set expectations: “For me, the Sharks are an average to below-average team. So if you’re saying that they’re 21st in the league on the power play, I’m sure it can be higher, but it’s not like they’re underachieving like crazy.”

In short, this is not Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Nick Bonino, Erik Karlsson (when healthy) circa 2017 on the Sharks power play. There’s no Joe Pavelski in front of the net or Joe Thornton on the half-wall either. But that said, here’s what Han would suggest to Bob Boughner and company.

“The simplest way to improve your power play, whether it’s shot rate, whether it’s expected goals, is to be more effective by gaining the offensive zone and setting up,” Han pointed out.

“This is one area that I thought the Sharks really struggled in, which is gaining the zone and then setting up on the power play. So regardless of what kind of in-zone schemes or set plays that they want to run, regardless of who’s the shooter and who’s the primary passer or whatever, first, they got to get up ice, get through the blue line, and then set up.”

Han’s observation is backed up by the numbers. Per SPORTLOGiQ, the Sharks are dead-last in the NHL with a 56.8 PP Controlled Entry Success %. Basically, the Sharks have trouble entering the zone with possession of the puck — even with the extra man, they’re forced to dump the puck in — that’s a loss of possession, and they’re not always able to get the puck back on the forecheck.

For what it’s worth, better entries don’t guarantee power play success. On Jan. 30, the Arizona Coyotes led the league with a 72.7 PP Controlled Entry Success %. The Coyotes are also the worst power play in the NHL at 11.9 %.

But there’s no doubt that gaining the zone with control doesn’t hurt you on the man advantage either.

“The Sharks run two different power play breakouts, like many other NHL teams. They have a double-drop, and then they have just kind of like a three high where the defenseman [makes] a stretch pass to the forward, so there’s no drop,” Han noted. “They’re both pretty bad.”

You can see similar examples of both types of entries from Jan. 2020 here:

Karlsson, of course, is out of the San Jose Sharks line-up until at least mid-March. So more of the initial puck-carrying burden on the power play falls, and not fairly so, on the 36-year-old Burns. This would usually be Karlsson’s job.

Here’s a recent example of a failed power play stretch pass:

“Brent Burns, he’s kind of hesitant to carry the puck himself and he wants to make a stretch pass up ice, except inevitably, the pass receiver is very wide,” Han observed. “He’s next to the boards, generally that’s Barabanov. He catches that puck. Maybe it’s on his backhand. He’s next to the boards.

“He’s actually right away into a one-on-two situation against two penalty killers at the line. So very easy for him to get stopped and then he has to dump it in, and then generally speaking, the Sharks have a hard time setting up and recovering that dump-in. You’re trying to force a puck up the boards and whether it’s 5-on-5 or 5-on-4, that’s not going to work.”

Here’s a recent example of a failed double-drop, non-top unit division:

“The issue there is the pace at which they execute is not extraordinarily high. They could probably be going a little bit faster, because the faster you go, it’s almost like you got a butter knife that you’ve warmed up a little bit. If that knife is a little bit warm, it cuts through the butter easier, right?” Han offered. “It’s the same principle, the faster you execute, the better you’re able to knife through the [neutral] zone.

“The second thing is, the reason why you run a double drop is because you have two players who can gain the zone. Whereas when they run the double-drop, I feel like generally it’s Timo Meier that’s going to get the puck. So you have one fewer person at the line, one fewer person that’s going to forecheck, and it just makes it a little bit more predictable.

“You don’t have that kind of dual threat, let’s say Matthews and Marner dropping back.”

That’s the bad news on the Sharks power play. Here’s the good news, according to Han: “Once they’re in the zone, I actually think they’re quite tenacious and they’re able to shoot and retrieve pretty effectively.”

So what’s the solution to breaking into the zone with more ease? As the answer has been so often this season for the San Jose Sharks, give it to Timo Meier.

Han shared: “I would almost try a single drop because if the other team knows that the puck is going to Meier anyway, then just have an extra guy on the line, in case you got to forecheck or keep a penalty killer busy.”

Here’s a look at this kind of power play entry from the 2019 playoffs, starring Nathan MacKinnon.

Notice that it’s just MacKinnon back there, no second Colorado Avalanche forward.

“Potentially, you could have Rantanen or Kadri be on the double drop,” Han pointed out, “but the puck is going to MacKinnon anyway, and he’s way better at it than any of the other guys.”

That’s Hart Trophy candidate Nathan MacKinnon, of course. Is Meier good enough to handle this much responsibility? If Meier loses the puck, that’s a short-handed breakaway going the other way.

“I think so,” Han offered. “He’s most effective when he knows where he’s going and he’s just running through the wall. You’re actually simplifying his life because instead of should I pass this over to [the other forward on the double-drop], now he’s just thinking I got this one and I’m gonna go for it.”

Meier has enjoyed a special season, but that’s not All-Star stuff, that’s superstar stuff.

Also, I’ve never seen the Sharks rely on this type of zone entry, likely because they haven’t had a singular forward of MacKinnon’s caliber since I started covering the team in 2018-19. But for an often dead-in-the-water power play, it’s worth a shot.

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