- 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.
"I don't know."
That's what Brent Burns offered when I asked him how the Sharks could score more goals without compromising their defensive structure.
The Sharks are averaging 2.6 goals per game, 27th in the NHL -- that's bad. They're giving up 2.8 goals per game, tied for 12th in the league -- that's good.
They're five points out of the final wild-card spot.
Recently, I pointed out the tactical change this season that's helped the Sharks make a significant defensive improvement -- last year, they surrendered 3.5 goals per game, second-worst in the NHL -- but this change hasn't helped the offense.
Last year, the Sharks averaged 2.6 goals per game.
"That's the basis of our systems right now is try to be tough defensively, think that part of the game first," Burns explained. "I think if your mindset is there, it's tougher to score because the [opposing] players are so good, makes it difficult because you're always being a little bit safer."
Any way you cut it, this Sharks group doesn't seem destined to be a high-flying, high-scoring squad -- but they have to eke out a few more goals here and there.
Where will they find these goals?
Get on the Forecheck
SPORTLOGiQ, a third-party micro-stats tracking company that the Sharks themselves use, offer four stats, all situations, for how teams generally create offense: Rush chances, cycle chances, forecheck chances, and rebound chances.
The Sharks aren't a rush team: They're 30th in the NHL with 4.6 rush chances per game. They also tried being more of a rush team last season, with disastrous results -- same anemic offense, far worse defense.
They probably aren't a cycle team: They're 18th in the league with 9.0 cycle chances per game. But they're also dead-last in the NHL in offensive zone possession time, averaging 5:01 per game.
To be a strong cycle team, you've got to have forwards who can hold and hold the puck down low, and for the Sharks, perhaps only Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl fit that bill.
They should be a better forecheck team: They're 18th in the NHL with 2.6 forecheck chances per game. At their best this season though, they've been a top-10 forechecking side.
Meier defined a strong forecheck as part of the team's identity in November: "It’s simple hockey, go on the forecheck, put pucks in a good place, go get it back."
Sharks head coach Bob Boughner echoed that: "You don't want to take the creativity away, you want them to be able to create off the rush. But if there's nothing there, that thing's got to go in deep."
He added more nuance: "Where we've struggled at times is, it's not just throwing it in, it's where you're throwing it in and putting your dumps in a spot where you run your routes."
Basically, it's not just about getting pucks in deep and going on the forecheck -- it matters where you put the puck. Putting it in the right place increases your chances of getting the puck back on the forecheck.
Finally, the Sharks have been a solid team on rebounds: They're 12th in the league with 1.9 rebound chances per game.
"We need to score grittier goals, shooting the puck, and crashing the net for rebounds, I think we got away from that a little bit," Logan Couture said. "We were getting a little too cute."
A better forecheck should create more rebound chances: The Sharks were top-10 in both categories earlier this season, and they need to get back there to score a few more goals.
Improving in these departments also doesn't hurt San Jose's defensive structure: Get the puck in deep, you're making your opponent go the full length of the ice to beat you.
This contrasts with trying to be a rush team, which is great if you have the personnel, but kills you if you don't, because your neutral zone turnovers in transition lead to shorter ice counterattacks.
"We're a team that's struggling a little bit on scoring goals, sometimes you got to keep it a little more simple," Boughner suggested.
"We've got to bear down on our chances" is hockey cliche 101. But of course, you're not trying to score on an empty net -- there's a world-class goalie doing his best to stop you.
So for sure, every Shark needs to finish the chances that they get. But the better question is, who might be due to start scoring? Who is underperforming right now and perhaps due to be rewarded in the future?
Three Sharks stand out in this department.
Brent Burns has two goals and a 2.6 shooting percentage right now. From 2017-21, he had a 4.7. That doesn't sound like a big difference, but for a shooter as prolific as Burns, that could almost double-digit goals in the second half of the season.
Nick Bonino has four goals and an 8.3 shooting percentage right now. From 2016-21, he had a 14.6. If the veteran center can inch closer to his recent average, that could also mean double-digit goals in the second half for Bonino.
Matt Nieto has one goal and a 4.2 shooting percentage right now. Before this season though, he had a 9.1. Nieto obviously isn't a big-time scorer, but every little bit counts.
For what it's worth though, look for these Sharks to encounter a mini-slump in the coming months: Erik Karlsson sports a 13.8 shooting percentage but a career 6.6 and Andrew Cogliano is rocking a 12.0 but a 6.4 from 2015-21.
Keep Shooting on the Power Play
The Sharks are actually right about where you'd expect them on the power play: They're 16th in the NHL with a 18.9.
For what it's worth, per Evolving Hockey, their 12 goals at 5-on-4 are a little short of their 13.55 expected goals. So maybe a little positive regression is headed their way too.
The power play edict to begin the season was to keep it simple and shoot away. The Sharks have done just that -- they're eighth in the league with 104.01 shot attempts per 60 at 5-on-4.
What they need to do is to earn more power plays: The Sharks have earned the fourth-fewest power plays in the NHL.
That's easier said than done: Maybe if the Sharks had more offensive zone possession time and they were a more reliable cycle team, they'd draw more penalties?
But in terms of burying their actual power play chances, the Sharks have been just average at it.
For what it's worth, an average offense coupled with San Jose's above-average team defense should punch their playoff ticket.
"We have good structure,” Boughner said. “But we need to find ways to score."