Subtle role change allowing Tierney to thrive


Subtle role change allowing Tierney to thrive

Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer is using Chris Tierney in a subtly different role this season, and it’s allowing the fourth-year center to enjoy perhaps the best season of his career.

Over the last two years, Tierney was given difficult assignments. He wasn't mistaken for Patrice Bergeron, as he was still used in a bottom six role just as he is now, but he consistently started the majority of his shifts outside of the neutral zone in the defensive zone.

Often, coaches will start their most trusted defensive players on defensive zone faceoffs, thinking they’ll be able to recover the puck and break out of the zone. Similarly, their most trusted offensive players often start in the offensive zone, in order to establish puck possession.

In DeBoer’s first two seasons behind the San Jose bench, Tierney fell in the former camp. Only three Sharks that played at least 1000 minutes started more non-neutral zone shifts in the defensive zone, and only one was a forward (Long Beach native Matt Nieto, according to Corsica Hockey).

Although Tierney was drafted and developed with his defensive prowess in mind, that didn’t really square with his game. He wasn’t able to turn the tide with those assignments, posting the second-worst five-on-five possession numbers (49.09 corsi-for percentage) among forwards that played 1000 minutes in DeBoer’s first two seasons as head coach.

But he often showed flashes of offensive ability, even as he wasn’t scoring at the half-a-point per game clip that he began his career with in Todd McLellan’s final season as Sharks coach. This season, the Sharks seem to have that in mind.

Through 22 games, Tierney’s started a career-high 59.54 percent of his five-on-five shifts in the offensive zone, per Corsica. He’s never started more than 50 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone in a full season.

Tierney’s gotten a corresponding bump in his possession numbers, and is up to what would be a career-high 51.67 corsi-for percentage. He’s also shooting more and attempting more shots during five-on-five play than he did last season, albeit not as much as he did in his first two seasons.

He’s converting at a high clip, but this teammates aren’t: San Jose’s only scored on a little over three percent of their shots with Tierney on the ice at even strength. He may not convert on 14 percent of his five-on-five shots all season, but his teammates are due for better luck.

A corresponding bump in his teammates’ finishing means Tierney, who’s already on pace for his second-best offensive season in all situation, could far surpass his offensive totals from last season.

If he does, he’ll have DeBoer to thank for putting him in a position to succeed.

How the Sharks can catch the Golden Knights and win the Pacific


How the Sharks can catch the Golden Knights and win the Pacific

About a month ago, the Sharks appeared locked into the Pacific Division's second, third, fourth, or fifth spot. At the end of trade deadline day, they were 12 points back of the division-leading Vegas Golden Knights, and only two points up on the fifth place Calgary Flames.

24 days later, thanks to an 8-2-0 record over the last 10 games (second-best in the NHL), San Jose's still in second place. Now though, those margins are eight points and 11 points, respectively. 

The latter's pretty much locked the Sharks into a playoff spot, while the former's created a path for a late run at the Pacific Division crown. Beginning Thursday night, they will play the Golden Knights twice over both team's final nine games. 

What does the path look like to the Sharks' first division title since 2011? To start, they'll have to beat the Golden Knights twice in regulation to even have a shot. 

That is the foundation of any run at the Pacific's top spot. If the Sharks win both remaining games in regulation, they'll trail the Golden Knights by four points, leaving aside results against other teams for now.

They have to win in regulation, however. A win in overtime or the shootout on Thursday would only cut the gap to seven, and a subsequent win in regulation would leave it at five. Two losses, in any situation, would create a gap of 10-12 points, which would be nearly impossible to overcome this late in the season. 

One point doesn't seem like a lot, but this late in the season, it makes a world of difference. A five-point gap means they'll need to earn six more than the Golden Knights in those other seven games, while a four-point gap means they'll need to earn five in order to pass them. 

The simplest way to five extra points, is for the Sharks to have a record that's two wins and an overtime loss better (2-0-1) than the Golden Knights in the seven games where they don't play each other. That's impossible if Vegas earns at least 10 points in those seven games, so a 5-2-0 or 4-1-2 record would ensure a division banner raising in Sin City.

Taken all together, then, the Golden Knights' 'magic number' is 10 points. Even if the Sharks win on Thursday, their path to a Pacific title remains difficult, if not improbable. 

If a season with an expansion team leading their division has taught us anything, though -- it's that improbable is not impossible.  

The anatomy of Jannik Hansen's recently-broken scoring drought after nearly one year


The anatomy of Jannik Hansen's recently-broken scoring drought after nearly one year

Jannik Hansen's game-winning goal against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday marked the first time he scored in 355 days. 

Hansen last scored on Mar. 30, 2017 against the Edmonton Oilers, his second goal with the Sharks following an in-season trade. His scoring drought, in all, lasted 44 regular season games, 50 if you include the postseason. 

How exactly does a goal-scoring drought last nearly a year? The right (wrong?) circumstances all need to come together, and that was certainly the case for Hansen for much of the last year.

For one, the Danish forward was in and out of the lineup. San Jose played 83 regular season and postseason games between Hansen's second and third goals, and he did not play in 33 of those games. Plenty of players have had rough 50-game stretches, and that's often without not playing for weeks at a time, as Hansen has done a couple of times this season. 

When Hansen did draw into the lineup this year, however, he wasn't generating offense at the same rate he had in the past. This season, Hansen's five-on-five shot rate (6.19 shots per 60 minutes), shot attempt rate (10.53 individual corsi per 60), and unblocked shot attempt rate (8.95 individual fenwick per 60) were all down from his career averages, according to Corsica Hockey. 

That decline is natural, considering Hansen turned 32 just six days ago. Those rates were not down enough, however, to expect him to fail to score in his first 39 appearances this season. Naturally, a long run of bad luck played a big role in Hansen's dry spell.

Hansen went 0-for-66 in shots over the 50 consecutive regular season and playoff games in which he did not score. He's a career 11-percent shooter, and had he shot at his career average, he would have scored seven goals during that time. That feels about right for a bottom-six forward. 

In many ways, all of these factors fed into one another. Hansen wasn't generating shots or scoring, then was scratched, then couldn't find the back of the net when he returned and was scratched again. All the while, fellow fourth-liners Marcus Sorensen (26.7 percent shooting percentage this season), Joel Ward (14.3 percent) and Barclay Goodrow (13.2 percent) were converting on their chances, forcing Peter DeBoer's hand. 

His possession play has been solid all season (50.74 percent corsi-for, per Natural Stat Trick), but the offense hasn't followed. When it does, as was the case Tuesday night, he can be an effective fourth-line forward, and the goal on Tuesday bought him more time to prove it.