- Editor's note: Sheng Peng will be a regular contributor to NBC Sports California's Sharks coverage for the 2021-22 season. You can read more of his coverage on San Jose Hockey Now, listen to him on the San Jose Hockey Now Podcast, and follow him on Twitter at Sheng_Peng.
The last time that the Sharks gave up less than three goals a game was in 2017-18.
That season, they were ninth in the NHL at 2.76 goals against per game.
In 2018-19, the Sharks were 21st in the league at 3.15 goals against per game. In 2019-20, they were 27th at 3.21. In 2020-21, they were 30th at 3.50.
You'll notice, of course, the downward trend.
So that's why it's a bit of shock that the Sharks have re-fashioned themselves as a defense-first club this year. Right now, they're 13th in the NHL at 2.80 goals against per game.
It doesn't appear to be just smoke and mirrors either. Per SPORTLOGiQ, entering Thursday's tilt with the Vancouver Canucks, the Sharks had given up the sixth-least rate of quality chances in the NHL.
In short, it's not just better goaltending saving the Sharks -- San Jose also has given its goalies a better chance to succeed.
According to Sharks head coach Bob Boughner, one small change has made a big defensive difference.
"I thought last year we overloaded, we slashed [out] so much," Boughner said. "We had a guy leaving the zone before the puck. It's great if you make the play to the guy, but if you don't, it's a five-on-four situation."
Here's an example from last January against the Minnesota Wild. Keep an eye on Kevin Labanc (62).
Matt Dumba (24) fires the puck from the right point into Logan Couture (39). There's a loose puck and for a split-second it looks like Mario Ferraro (38) will come up with it.
Watch Labanc's body language. In that split-second he's ready to slash out, to receive the stretch-pass and push the offense.
The puck, however, goes the other way. It's not a five-on-four like Boughner said, but essentially, it's a down-low two-on-one with Ryan Hartman (38) and Zach Parise (11) vs. Erik Karlsson (65). Parise racks up a couple scoring chances.
Keep in mind: This isn't Labanc's fault. This is how the Sharks were playing last year, they were told to chase offense. Labanc was simply following orders.
So what's different now?
"We just wanted to make sure that we're a little more tight than that," Boughner said.
"The coaching staff brought it to us in camp, a new system in the defensive zone that we’re going to play. They said you may have to give up some offense at times to play that tight defensively," Logan Couture told reporters in New York. "But it’s going to help us win hockey games."
And it has yielded a few more victories. The Sharks are 15-14-1 at the 30-game mark this season. They were 12-14-4 at the same point last year.
"The biggest thing, if there's a breakdown, we're not flying," Boughner said. "We're not trying to flip pucks behind teams. We want to be a team that comes up with possession, and also be able to protect any breakdowns."
Here's a recent example against the Seattle Kraken.
At the right point, Alex Wennberg (21) pounds a shot off Tomas Hertl (48). It's a race for the loose puck in the corner, and look at Hertl coming back to help, not even thinking about stretching out.
"It partners up with our breakout. When the puck goes in, we want five guys way tighter than they had last year," Boughner offered. "We want to be able to be a better breakout team and share pucks out.
"Sometimes it might not look pretty but it'll end up getting out. Might take two or three shares and going back a couple times."
That's what happens here, as Jake Middleton (21) and Matt Nieto (83) win the puck back to Karlsson, who feeds Hertl.
"Just stay five tight, all of us being connected and nobody blowing the zone or trying to go for the home run play," Mario Ferraro repeated. "Just little plays at a time."
Another reason why Boughner wants five Sharks "connected or in the picture"?
Like he suggested earlier, if there's a breakdown there's five Sharks down low protecting the slot. And per SPORTLOGiQ, the Sharks are ninth in the NHL in slot shots against and 10th in inner slot shots against. They were 26th and 21st in the league in those respective categories last season.
"Last year, at times we got too stretched out," Couture said. "That created space in the slot. It felt like other teams got a lot of chances from our slot area."
“You try to look at your personnel in the offseason, you look at what other teams are having success with, you try and model a system after that, and what matches your personnel,” Boughner said. “We did projects all summer as a staff, coaches, we did a lot of Zoom calls, and a lot of watching different hockey -- coming up with what we thought would work.”
Couture likes what he has seen so far, too.
"Every single guy in that room has bought into that," Couture said. "It shows. We’re five-tight in the D-zone. One guy makes a mistake, guys are there to back it up."