By adding a bottom-pairing defenseman, the San Jose Sharks defense as a whole looks improved from last season and seems to fit much better with the coach’s philosophy.
San Jose Sharks Defense Mostly The Same – But Improved
The San Jose Sharks entered the 2016-17 season with a defense almost identical to the one they iced last season. The top four, headlined by Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns, is identical to last year and will be expected to replicate their accomplishments. Vlasic and Justin Braun will be counted on to shut down the oppositions stars, leaving Burns and Paul Martin to wreak havoc on second-and-third-line players. On the third pairing Brenden Dillon is back for his third season in San Jose, but his partner has changed.
Last year Dillon spent most of his time with rotating partners, having the most success alongside Dylan DeMelo, before Doug Wilson traded a pair of second-round picks in exchange for Nick Spaling and Roman Polak. The success of Polak-Dillon, however, was hard to see. Polak, from the start, seemed a strange partner for Dillon. The two, in large part, had the same strengths and weaknesses. Dillon, an average, physical skater lacking offensive ability was matched with Polak, who possesses essentially the same skill set. The result was a defensive pairing spending much of the playoffs struggling with breakouts. This was particularly on display against the Pittsburgh Penguins, whose speedy forecheck often hemmed the pair in their own zone.
It seems Wilson and head coach Peter DeBoer realized their mistake as they went out looking for a new partner. They signed David Schlemko, a player with underrated offensive and skating ability; essentially Polak’s polar opposite. So far Schlemko has proven to compliment Dillon quite well.
Even time on ice time
So far the Dillon-Schlemko pairing leads the league in Fenwick-for percentage of 57.73. It’s also worth noting that all San Jose Sharks defense pairings rank in the top 16 league-wide. This is a far cry from last year’s playoffs where the Dillon-Polak pairing finished the postseason with a 45.58 FF%.
Of course the Sharks as a whole and especially their fourth line has improved which helps. One can question whether a FF% of 57 is sustainable in the long run, but 12 games in advanced stats as well as the eye test agree that the Sharks bottom pairing has improved greatly, an improvement that helps all across the Sharks lineup.
DeBoer showed last season that he doesn’t put much emphasis on matchups with other teams and likes to run four lines and three defensive pairings as much as possible. This was seen in last year’s playoffs where Dillon and Polak averaged 15:09 and 15:45 minutes per game respectively. The Sharks defensive workhorse was Burns with a relatively low 25:07.
Coaches around the league have been to put heavy workloads on their top defensemen. Joel Quenneville, in 2015, had Duncan Keith skate more than 31 minutes a night, while his sixth defenseman saw less than 10. Darryl Sutter played Drew Doughty 30:49 per game in 2016. The Nashville Predators, known for their defensive depth, gave Roman Josi 27:57 minutes, while their capable fifth and sixth defensemen were relegated to 12:45 and 11:29.
If DeBoer sticks his philosophy it will pay dividends for the San Jose Sharks defense, and for the team as a whole, to have a solid bottom pairing that can control most of the play in 15 minutes of ice time.