TORONTO, Cananda – It’s unusual to see a playoff contender sell at the trade deadline, yet that’s exactly what the San Jose Sharks did last year.
General manager Doug Wilson sent Ryane Clowe, Michal Handzus and Douglas Murray away with a “reset, refresh” plan on how to proceed.
It worked, and the Sharks found another gear down the stretch and through the first quarter of this season.
This is a much different Sharks team than in the past. San Jose is built for the kind of speed that coach Todd McLellan thinks is necessary in today’s NHL.
“We’re talking about playing a more north-south game, not slowing it down as much, trying to stay ahead of the curve,” McLellan said earlier this season. “I think that’s the way the game is going. Where coming out of the last lockout you could delay and look for people and hold on to it a little bit longer, teams have figured out how to defend that now, and you have to advance and try and stay ahead of the curve.”
The Sharks look about as far ahead of the curve as they can get. Going into Tuesday night’s game at the Toronto Maple Leafs, they’re 18-3-5, lead the league in shots per game and are behind just the defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks in goals a game.
Once led by Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, the Sharks have transformed into a team led by young star Logan Couture. Marleau and Thornton are still around, still scoring and have embraced the new style.
“It’s always up-tempo and you know everybody’s going to be going, so it’s fun to come to the rink,” Marleau said.
Winning is fun, too, and it’s a product of an attacking, north-south style Wilson planned for when he made those trades at the deadline. The vision was there, but it took much more than that to make it work.
“We were able to make that transition because we had younger players underneath that were ready to play,” Wilson said in a phone interview. “It goes back to giving the coaches credit for developing the younger players to be ready when the opportunities came.”
Late last season, Matt Irwin and Scott Hannan helped on the blue-line, while Tommy Wingels and T.J. Galiardi stepped into more prominent roles up front. Wilson acquired Tyler Kennedy at the draft and traded away Galiardi’s free-agent rights.
But the Sharks have also thrived in part because of the emergence of Calder Trophy candidate Tomas Hertl and the continued growth of Couture and potential Canadian Olympic defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
“Talent is the one thing, but they’re mature individuals as far as their demeanour and the way they carry themselves around the rink,” McLellan said of Couture and Vlasic. “A lot of players are probably skill-ready to play or close to playing pro hockey, but their maturity level just isn’t there. They don’t understand the work ethic, the commitment level, the life away from the rink. Those players had that in their game already.”
Perhaps the biggest key to the Sharks changing their game was moving Brent Burns to forward from defence. The six-foot-five, 230-pounder has been a point-a-game player this season and has been dominant since making the switch.
“He fits exactly how we want to play, he’s the right age, and we’ve transitioned with the guys we’ve all added,” Wilson said. “When we go add a player or trade for a player, it’s in the attempt that he fits for both now and the future: a Tyler Kennedy, a Raffi Torres, a Danny Boyle when we acquired him. And Brent Burns certainly fit into finding those ingredients that are few and far between in this league and supply and demand for defencemen and power wingers.”
Burns has been the face of the Sharks’ transformation from a puck-possession team to one that relies on speed, forechecking and a boatload of shots. Couture said the coaching staff still preaches puck possession, but the emphasis has changed to putting it on net and forcing goaltenders to make saves.
“You’re not going to get many grade-A chances in the slot, so you shoot the puck and you know there’s going to be rebounds and usually the offensive team will get the puck back,” Couture said.
The Sharks have averaged almost 36 shots a game in part because they play so fast. It’s hard for opponents to keep up.
“We just execute quick,” Thornton said. “Just from defence to offence we’re just stressing get it up as quick as you can and just go. That’s why we’ve got so many goals is we’re not spending any time fooling around in our end. We’re just getting it out and going.”
But this isn’t end-to-end, break-neck speed hockey. This is about pushing the pace and tiring out opponents over the span of 60 minutes every night.
Because they’re used to playing this way, the Sharks are better suited to manage fatigue and can get stronger as games go on. And that goes for every line.
“If we were going quick in the past, it kind of fell off as we got down a line or two and then it would pick up, so there was a lot of hills and valleys throughout the game,” McLellan said. “Right now we’re fortunate that all the lines are playing a quick game. … They have accepted that identity and played towards it.”
In the past, the Sharks’ identity has been a great regular-season team that can’t get it done in the playoffs. Boyle, another candidate for Team Canada, said he’s tired of addressing that reputation, and his coach knows that’s how this team will be measured.
“We don’t build our team to win in the regular season,” McLellan said. “We want a team to win in the playoffs, and we haven’t fully done that. Until we get to that point as an organization, there’s always going to be that question mark that’s over our heads.”
It’s a question mark that was close to getting erased last season when the Sharks pushed the Los Angeles Kings to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals. A barrage of injuries and the suspension of Torres “limited our ability to play the way we wanted to play,” Wilson said.
But that playoff run showed what the Sharks could do under this “reset, refresh” philosophy, which has also contributed to their stellar start to the season.
San Jose is rolling along and having fun doing it, but that doesn’t mean this style is easy.
“Sometimes it’s hard just to play fast and simple. It really is,” centre Joe Pavelski said. “We can only play that style if we got guys in their spots covering up and doing the things we want to accomplish systematically. You’ve got to have the puck, you’ve got to move it quick and we’ve done that for the most part.”
When the Sharks haven’t done it, McLellan notes, “it’s evident.”
“When we’re playing sloppy and slow, our passing isn’t real crisp and we’re not doing the things we need to do to be successful,” he said. “When we are playing a fast game, we tend to be on top of teams a little bit quicker, we tend to get more sustained attack time and hem teams in, and when we’re not, it’s a pretty even game or we’re scrambling around in our zone.”
The Sharks don’t expect to do a whole lot of scrambling around in their defensive zone. And they’ve been able to put together so much attack time because of talent as much as system.
“We’re just so deep,” Thornton said. “Every line we throw out there can hurt you. That’s the big thing is just we’re really, really where in the past it might’ve not been guys to kind of hurt you on the third and fourth lines. This year guys can really bite you.”
Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.