SAN JOSE – When a team is struggling to score, much like the San Jose Sharks are now, the immediate focus is on the forwards.
Marty Havlat in scoreless in the last 10 games. Joe Pavelski has just two points in the last eight games. Logan Couture snapped an eight-game goal-scoring drought with one on Tuesday against Colorado. Ryane Clowe hasn’t scored at all in 16 games, and the Sharks’ pains to create offense among their bottom two lines has been well documented.
In a stat that’s (admittedly) overused lately, the Sharks have scored three goals in regulation just once in the last 13 games – a 5-3 loss to Chicago on Feb 5.
But the blame isn’t solely on the men up front. The Sharks have struggled in their transition game, and that often starts with the defense. Getting shots through to the net has also been a weakness. Against Colorado on Tuesday, the Sharks had 22 shot attempts blocked (nine from the defense). It's the fourth time this season that number has eclipsed 20.
“Our back end hasn’t produced the way we expected it to. It’s as simple as that,” Todd McLellan said. “It’s one of the lowest scoring groups of d-men in the league, for whatever reason. Our shot total that we take, that gets through to the net, is lower than the league average, so we’ve got some work to do there.”
McLellan is right. The Sharks have just 20 points from defensemen this season, 29th in the league. Only Edmonton (19) has fewer. To put that in perspective, the Pittsburgh Penguins lead the league with 48 combined points by defenseman, nearly two-and-a-half times San Jose’s total.
Part of that is due to the absence of a healthy Brent Burns, who missed all of training camp, the first 10 games, and is now out again with a left leg injury. Although, Burns is scoreless in the six games he’s played this season.
That leaves Dan Boyle, Brad Stuart, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Jason Demers, Justin Braun and now Matt Irwin. Stuart doesn’t deny that the group can be much more effective.
“We can get more shots through," he said. "We can do a better job in transition, getting the forwards going, and at the same time if we’re doing a better job of getting the pucks through and getting the forwards to the front of the net, that will create chances. It’s those two things that need to be better, and we’re certainly a part of that.”
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That teams are making shot-blocking a priority is evident in the league statistics from the past few years. In 2011-12, 11 teams recorded more than 600 blocked shots. The year before, a dozen teams reached the mark.
In 2008-09 and 2009-10, only eight teams collectively reached 600 blocked shots.
The year before, 2007-08, just one team had more than 600 blocked shots – the Montreal Canadiens, who finished first overall in the Eastern Conference with 104 points. In fact, Montreal recorded more than 100 more blocked shots (703) than the team with the second most in Edmonton (592).
“Getting our shots through is becoming harder and harder in this league with the way teams are playing,” Boyle said. “We find ourselves talking about it more and more, guys just block shots and put their bodies in front of it.”
McLellan doesn’t see that changing any time soon, and it will likely only get harder to get pucks through to the net. He believes it so much that it’s altered his way of thinking on the subject.
“I believe that league-wide, the theory has been get your head up, let traffic get to the net, and then take that shot so there’s a screen or somebody net-front. I think we’re beyond that now.
“I think we’ve got to get the puck to the net and just worry about people getting there, eventually. If you wait too long, the shooting lanes close up top, they close at the midway point and they close at the net.”
In other words – if you can see a daylight between yourself and the goalie, take the darn shot, regardless of if there is someone in front for a potential screen or rebound.
That’s still easier said than done, according to Boyle.
“It’s hard, man. I’ve been trying to figure out for a couple years now,” he said. “Usually it’s just a quick move, but it’s not just the guy in front of you. There are two or three layers.”
Vlasic said: “D-men just have to get it through. It doesn’t have to be a hard shot, as long as it gets to our player, or the net.”