The San Jose Sharks season is off to a slow start, with a record of 4-7-1. In truth, the record could be worse. Arguably, the Sharks have yet to outskate their opponent in any game this season. Head Coach Peter DeBoer presides over a talented line-up and while a slow start isn’t a reason for panic, there is a real reason for concern.
Peter DeBoer and the Sharks Slow Start
The Sharks season began with a four-game losing streak in largely uncompetitive games. The team followed this with three consecutive wins to bring the record to 3-4-0. Back-to-back close games against the high-flying Buffalo Sabres were encouraging and the Sharks showed progress, though they only captured a single point.
A win over the Montreal Canadiens, which pushed the Sharks record to 4-5-1, made it seem like things might be back on track.
The next night, the Sharks came up against a Toronto Maple Leafs team missing their best player (John Tavares). This was followed by a contest with the league’s bottom-dwelling Ottawa Senators. The Sharks lost both games. More troubling, they were outskated in both games with a lack of general compete. Against the Maple Leafs, the Sharks managed just nine shots on goal in the final two periods. The Senators simply outbattled the Sharks.
How much of this slow start is on head coach Peter DeBoer? A good bit.
A Failed Defensive Strategy Returns
All too often, DeBoer has found a defenceman to put into his doghouse and gone with a five defenceman approach. With this approach, six defencemen start the game, but one disappears in the middle of the game and gets stapled to the bench for as long as the game is in doubt.
DeBoer began his tenure with the Sharks in 2015 and went to the strategy early on. Matt Tennyson was the first player in his doghouse, firmly stapled to the bench for the game’s final period, sometimes earlier. The numbers told the story, the approach was a failure. It failed against last season, with Joakim Ryan in the doghouse and stapled to the bench in the second half of games. In both cases, the Sharks were meaningfully better in the portions of the game when six defenders played.
This Season’s Doghouse
This season’s doghouse occupant is right-shot defenceman Tim Heed. To be clear, Heed is not a great defender but he is at least capable. Last season, Heed’s most common partner was Marc-Edouard Vlasic. In 218 minutes of ice time, the duo was on the ice for 16 goals for the Sharks and only seven against. This is a goals for (GF%) result of 70%, the best on the team (minimum 100 minutes of 5-on-5 play). This season, Vlasic and Heed have been on the ice for a grand total of three minutes. DeBoer has taken a highly successful pairing from last season and decided against using it this season.
Heed is in a troubling place. He has been on the ice for a meagre 71 minutes of 5-on-5 play this season (playing in eight of the team’s 12 games) and is not used on special teams. The good news, he’s been on the ice for just one goal against the Sharks (a meaningless goal at that, with just 30 seconds left in an already decided game). For a team among the league’s worst in allowing goals, Heed’s goals against per 60 minutes of ice time (GA/60) is 0.85. To be sure, he’s been more lucky than good at times. However, the Sharks top defenders are not getting the job done.
The team’s top pairing, Brent Burns and Vlasic, for example, is posting a GA/60 of 2.4. The team’s supposedly elite (and highly paid) defensive trio of Vlasic, Burns and Erik Karlsson are, respectively, minus-10, minus-2 and minus-7 at 5v5. None of their xGF numbers are good either. The lowly paid Heed is even.
Peter DeBoer’s use of Heed impacts the rest of the team. A five defenceman strategy means the partners rotate. Players with limited chemistry wind up playing with each other. This includes left-handed defencemen playing with fellow lefties at times. And right-handers wind up playing with other right-handers. Does this work? The answer is entirely clear and the answer is ‘no’.
Same-handed defenders have combined for 70 minutes of ice time this season during 5-on-5 play. They’ve been on the ice for two goals for the Sharks and a staggering eight against. That is eight goals in a bit over one game’s worth of minutes and a miserable 20% GF% ratio. This approach is an unmitigated disaster. One DeBoer perpetuates. To summarize:
• Heed has a GA/60 of 0.9
• Vlasic and Burns have a GA/60 of 2.4
• Same-handed defenders have GA/60 minutes of 6.9 (!!)
This is not complicated. DeBoer’s five defencemen strategy is, yet again, indefencible.
Sharks Broadcasters Weigh In
Against the Montreal Canadiens, DeBoer had Heed restricted to just three minutes of ice time. This forced large ice time on Burns and Karlsson.
The next night, the Sharks faced the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sharks radio analyst (and former NHL defenceman) Brett Hedican noted fatigue among the Sharks defencemen in their play against Toronto during the game.
In the postgame, Hedican was again blunt, spelling out both cause and effect of the fatigue, “… the price you pay for only playing 5 defensemen last night – Tim Heed with only three minutes – and what you saw tonight was defencemen having a hard time getting to loose pucks …”
The game against the Senators was another bust, with the Sharks losing 5-2. Sharks television play-by-play announcer Randy Hahn usually treads lightly on the rare occasions when he criticizes the Sharks, but he pulled no punches after this loss. Hahn called it “a disturbing outcome for the Sharks … they were outscored, they were outgoaltended, they were outhit and they were flat out outplayed.” It is one thing to get dominated by an elite team, another to get dominated by the team many consider the league’s worst.
Peter DeBoer didn’t help himself in the postgame press conference. When asked about the minus-4 performance of Erik Karlsson and Brenden Dillon, DeBoer tersely responded, “This isn’t the only place they’ve been minus.” Patience is in short supply.
DeBoer’s Off-Target Criticisms
Peter DeBoer has been questioned about his use of Heed and he’s been critical. Sometimes directly, but also indirectly.
DeBoer has spoken about injuries how players, especially more physical defencemen, are missed. This is clearly a shot at Heed. The player who’d replace Heed, Dalton Prout, is a physical player. Is Prout an answer? He’s on his fourth team in four seasons. In his three seasons prior to this, he played in a total of 53 games. Heed is not the problem, nor is Prout the answer. The Sharks are among the league’s healthiest teams, the lone meaningful missing piece is their supposedly fifth-best defenseman, Radim Simek.
A History Of Meltdowns
In two of the Sharks’ last three seasons, the team has melted down in March. Peter DeBoer himself described the team as “running out of gas” in March. If fatigue is going to be an issue, 70 games into the regular season is probably when to expect it. But Hedican is describing fatigue in game 11. This season, Burns leads the NHL in ice time per game, Karlsson is second. Burns is coming off a season where he led all NHL skaters in total ice time (regular season plus playoffs), while Karlsson finished the season injured and in need of surgery. Both had short offseasons, as the Sharks played until late May. Could fatigue bite these players again this season? It is hard to imagine it won’t.
The Sharks have survived meltdowns before, but they can’t afford to have one to start the season and another later on.
Peter DeBoer This Season
Many (myself included) expected the early portion of the season to be uneven. Not because of players like Burns or Heed, but because the Sharks lost of three right-wingers in the offseason, including the team’s top goalscorer. The Sharks put several inexperienced players into the line-up and to no one’s surprise, there wasn’t much chemistry, even if some younger players displayed promising talent.
To make things more challenging, the Sharks have had their share of injuries and a key player suspension. They’ve used 27 skaters this season through 11 games; the team used just 26 all last season.
Still, the surprise is the ineffectiveness of the veteran players. The players who know the Sharks system and what is expected of them. It goes beyond the aforementioned highly paid defencemen. Veteran forwards are part of the problem. Kevin Labanc is minus-6, team captain Logan Couture is just even and Tomas Hertl is minus-7 at 5v5.
The State Of The Sharks
Even before the losses to Toronto and Ottawa, Ryan Lambert of Yahoo! Sports suggested Peter DeBoer was on the hot seat, that his job was in jeopardy.This may not be the case, at least not yet. But a loss to lowly Ottawa will quickly add heat on a seat which had started to warm. Make no mistake, DeBoer’s seat is warming quickly. It has to be. The Sharks don’t own a first-round draft pick this season, so finishing in a lottery spot without a lottery pick is nothing short of a disaster. With a loss to the red-hot Boston Bruins, the team up next for San Jose, the Sharks could fall to 4-8-1.
The last season the Sharks were four games below even (wins minus regulation losses) was in the 2005-06 season. The last season a Sharks team was five games below was in 2002-03. The coach was replaced during the season and the general manager was replaced after it ended.
The Sharks have won games with special teams (the penalty kill has been excellent) and some occasionally good netminding. The team hasn’t had nearly the number of high-quality scoring chances as their opponents, but at times, they have done a good job burying their opportunities. This is has been enough to keep the Sharks from digging a very deep hole a dozen games into the season. But they are in hole and to dig themselves out of it, much needs to improve. And improve quickly if DeBoer is to remain coach.
Several players need to do better. So does the coach.
Those wondering if a mid-season coaching replacement can work need only look at recent Stanley Cup winners. Last season Craig Berube took over the St. Louis Blues (2019) and they won the Cup. Darryl Sutter was a mid-season replacement for the Los Angeles Kings in their first Stanley Cup-winning season (2012) and Mike Sullivan did the same for Pittsburgh Penguins (2016).
One more thing all three have in common, they all defeated a Peter DeBoer coached team on the way to hoisting the Cup. The Kings beat DeBoer’s New Jersey Devils team while the Pens beat DeBoer’s Sharks team. Both of those wins came in a Stanley Cup Final. The Blues topped DeBoer’s Sharks team in the Western Conference Final.