Sharks Team Defense

By Mike Delfino

There’s some good news and some bad news for the Sharks. The good news is that the Sharks have one of the best young defensive corps in the league, a position that will take the Sharks as far as talent on the blue line can take them. The bad news is that the Sharks also have one of the youngest defenses in the league, which not unlike raising children, results in a lot of excitement, and a lot of frustration as well.

With the Sharks’ system of defense first, it is essential that they get defensive production not only from the blue line, but also from the forward positions while on the transition. The Sharks have reason to be happy with the defensive play of Brad Stuart, Scott Hannan and Shawn Heins back on the blue line, however, it has often been from the forwards where the Sharks have lacked defensive production.

As Shawn Heins finishes his unusual road to the NHL, he has found himself in various roles for the Sharks, and has done quite well. Not only has he stepped in on defense as the team’s seventh defenseman, but he has also stepped in nicely as a fourth line wing when necessary.

Heins’ best weapon has always been his shot, which has been clocked as the hardest shot in professional hockey. In the past however, he has always struggled in reading defenses, reacting accordingly, and getting his shot unleashed at the right times.

This year, while his reaction times still leave something to be desired, he is reading plays much better, and thus has learned to use his shot to his advantage better. He has improved his accuracy, and has allowed the shot to be used as a setup role for rebounds more than before. In addition, Heins has done a much better job of committing to plays. In previous years, he often abandoned a play to go after another player or route. This year, he is sticking with his objective longer, enabling him to finish plays more, when last year, he allowed the player to get back into a play, where he could have taken him out by sticking with the play a second longer.

However, for Heins to make a consistent contribution on the blue line, he’ll have to improve two areas of his game, his movement, and his timing. While his skating has improved, his movement from side to side, and his ability to quickly change direction is seriously lacking. In addition, he still must work on the timing of many of his hits, poke checks, and when to make his move for the puck.

For years, I’ve touted Scott Hannan’s consistency, and that’s exactly what will eventually make Hannan a full-time NHL player. However, this year, it is that exact trait of consistency that is holding him back.

By all indications, Hannan is suffering through many of the typical trials of a second year player trying to find his niche in the NHL. He has gone through games where he consistently shuts down his opponents’ top lines. Unfortunately, there are other games where he allows a fourth line player with one goal on the year to fake him out at the blue line, creating an odd-man rush on his goalie.

It would seem that at times, Hannan tries to be too much like his defensive partner. He is most often paired with Bryan Marchment, and while the two play similar styles of defense, if Hannan can learn to simply play his own style more, he should find his adjustments much easier. A recent Darryl Sutter experiment, which well-illustrates Hannan’s abilities, is when paired with Brad Stuart, particularly on the Power Play unit. In this situation, Hannan seems to be able to settle into his position much better.

Where Hannan has not disappointed this year is in that he has made very few mistakes. Through 30 games, Hannan has committed only 11 turnovers, which has resulted in Head Coach, Darryl Sutter, not being afraid to use him in shorthanded situations, which is happening with increasing frequency.

When a rookie is leading your defensive corps in minutes on the ice like Brad Stuart is, that either tells you that the rookie is very, very good, or that the rest of the defense is very, very bad. With names like Gary Suter, Mike Rathje, and Marcus Ragnarsson on the blue line, the Sharks’ defense is not bad at all, which tells you the promise of the young defenseman.

Brad Stuart has impressed in many different aspects of his game this year. Surprisingly, he is third on his team in hits with 46, ahead of such players as Scott Thornton, Gary Suter and Mike Ricci. At a plus-minus of +10, fears of Stuart being a defensive liability have been shown to be erroneous. What more, is that one would be hard pressed to find a 21-year-old defenseman earning almost 23 minutes of ice time, which has often been closer to 25 minutes of late.

However, Stuart has not had the perfect year. Through 37 games, Stuart has only recorded one goal and nine assists, a total well behind his rate of last year. In addition, he leads his team in giveaways with 46. Those two statistics are not completely unrelated, as he has often stayed back a bit more than last year in order to cover for some of his defensive mistakes.

Often the sign of a good player is not how few mistakes he makes, but how he recovers from the ones he does make. What has been very impressive about Stuart’s season thus far is that while he has made his share of mistakes, they have rarely cost his team a goal. Each time, he has managed to work his way back into the defensive zone to negate the error, and at the very least, get a stoppage of play. However, for Stuart to be the great player he is touted to be, he will need to improve his scoring touch and cut down on the turnovers to be consistently effective.

With so much youth on the blue line, the Sharks need defense from more than just the blue line, as the forwards must step up (or back as the case may be) and contribute. This has often been where the Sharks have lacked, which was clearly evident in the Sharks’ 6-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks.

“We lost control of the situation in the second period. It was a key in the second period and the key to the game,” said Nabokov after yielding a career-worst six goals.

Of late, the defensive coverage from the forwards has been lacking at times. Players such as Jeff Friesen and Marco Sturm have been less than spectacular on defense, and even Owen Nolan, who has traditionally been excellent on defense, has been inconsistent at times. Even the two men who are arguably the Sharks’ two best defensive forwards, Todd Harvey and Niklas Sundstrom, have struggled at times.

While the above-named men have not played poorly in recent weeks, they have not stepped up and taken some of the responsibility as is necessary in the Sharks’ defensive system. It is expected that young players such as Hannan, Stuart, Heins, Nabokov, and even Marleau and Sturm who have been in the league for a few years, will suffer through ups and downs. Veteran forwards such as Nolan, Damphousse, Ricci and Thornton will need to occasionally step their respective games up to another level to account for the lapses of some of the other Sharks’ youngsters.

“We didn’t really help him out a lot tonight. (Nabokov) can’t win all of them for us. We have to help him out more,” said Sundstrom after the before mentioned Vancouver game. “We have to play 60 minutes, and we didn’t do that.”

So the Sharks have to figure out exactly how much they’ll be stepping it up. While the youngsters of the Sharks defense have certainly done their part, they can’t do it alone, and they will have a roller coaster ride throughout the year. The Sharks have reason to be happy, but if they are to continue this season’s success and do what many have predicted, which is to go as far as possibly the Western Conference Finals even, they will need to develop some consistent production from veterans, rookies, and everything in between.

So the good news is that the Sharks have one of the best young defenses in the league. It’s defense capable of being one of the best in the league. It’s a defense, that when firing on all cylinders, can compete with the most elite teams in the league.

The bad news is that the Sharks also have one of the youngest defenses in the league, which by its very nature, means that there will be a lot of turmoil in store for the Sharks. If at playoff time, the Sharks defense is on one of their downward trends, they could easily find themselves eliminated in the early part of the first round. However, if the Sharks defense is firing on all cylinders, there’s no telling when or where the Sharks will stop playing. Hockey in San Jose into late May and June is a distinct possibility for the first time in, well, ever…