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Labanc, Sharks confident in new-look power play after changes

/ by Marcus White
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Sharks' Tomas Hertl, Kevin Labanc, Erik Karlsson and Evander Kane
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The Sharks struggled in many areas in 2019-20 in which they thrived during the previous season, but one of the biggest areas of decline was on the power play.

San Jose converted on 17.5 percent of its power-play opportunities in 2019-20, which was 23rd in the NHL. A year before, the Sharks were sixth (23.7 percent).

In an effort to ensure last season's absence from the Stanley Cup Playoffs was a one-year hiatus, the Sharks are installing new power-play systems under now-permanent head coach Bob Boughner and associate coach Rocky Thompson, who's responsible for the man advantage. The early returns are promising, according to winger Kevin Labanc.

"We're looking good," Labanc told reporters Saturday in a video conference call. "We're moving the puck well. [Erik Karlsson's] breaking us in well, and we're all kind of on the same page, so that's the main thing."

After losing Joe Pavelski and an exodus of forwards in 2019 free agency, the Sharks struggled to finish on the power play last season. San Jose's 5-on-4 shooting percentage, at just under 10 percent, was second-to-last in the NHL in 2019-20, according to Natural Stat Trick. That wasn't for a lack of trying, as the Sharks remained one of the league's best teams at creating power-play offense.

The Sharks finished the regular season no worse than eighth in the rate at which they generated shot attempts (third), unblocked shot attempts (seventh), shots on goal (sixth), expected goals (fifth) and high-danger chances (eighth) in 5-on-4 situations. San Jose was no worse than fourth in any of those metrics in 2018-19, but the drop-off in finishing was a far bigger detriment to the Sharks' power play

 

The significant systemic tweaks the Sharks are introducing on the man advantage ahead of this season are fairly significant. Boughner and Thompson, for instance, want the power play to attack with speed off zone entries rather than waiting to get settled in the offensive zone.

"A lot of teams do it," Labanc said. "[The Boston Bruins are] one of the best scoring off the rush on the power play, so we kind of want to implement their game to ours and get that speed coming into the zone. It's hard for the [penalty-kill] unit to set up if we're coming in with speed. If you can score off the rush, why not instead of stopping, setting up, then the PK sets up?"

The Bruins were either just behind or just ahead of the Sharks in most of the previously mentioned 5-on-4 offensive categories, so they're not a bad model to follow at all. San Jose, however, will try to replicate Boston's lead with different personnel.

With most of the league, including the Bruins, primarily running four forwards and one defenseman on their power-play units, Boughner said earlier in camp that the Sharks' plan is to use both Karlsson and Brent Burns on their top unit. Most teams don't have the luxury of having two Norris Trophy winners, after all.

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The Sharks are going to need better results from the pair when they're together on the man advantage, however. Over the last two seasons, San Jose's power play has created a higher rate of attempts, shots and chances with one of Karlsson and Burns on the ice than when they played together. 

General manager Doug Wilson emphasized this offseason that he believed the make-up of the Sharks' new coaching staff will allow them to maximize the talent on the roster. In Thompson's power-play system, Boughner said that means playing Burns and Karlsson together.

"To me, I think you need both those weapons on your first unit," Boughner told reporters in a video conference Jan. 2. "They're gonna take a good chunk of time if they're both fresh in being out there. I think one could be at the top, and one could be on the flank and then you could flip-flop them. It's just as strong. It all depends on the pre-scout and what you're facing that night, what kind of penalty kill you're facing that night."

The Sharks open the regular season Jan. 14 against the Arizona Coyotes, the first of (at least) an eight-game road trip. Labanc said it's important for the power play to start clicking right away, as San Jose has lofty goals on the man advantage.

"We can easily be a top-five power play in the NHL, and we know that," Labanc said Saturday.