Schlemko, fourth line may make Sharks deeper than ever

Schlemko, fourth line may make Sharks deeper than ever

SAN JOSE – The Sharks’ signing of free agent defenseman David Schlemko was a move that’s been widely described as under the radar. Schlemko wasn’t a very well known guy in Arizona in his six seasons there, and spent one season in New Jersey last year for a club that didn’t make the playoffs before joining the Sharks on a four-year deal.

If Wednesday is any indication, he’s going to play an important role on a Sharks team that expects to compete for a Stanley Cup. The 29-year-old had one shot, three attempts, a pair of hits and a blocked shot while playing quiet, mistake-free hockey in San Jose’s 2-1 win.

Perhaps most eye-catching, though, was that Schlemko and partner Brenden Dillon actually led all of the defense pairs in even strength minutes through two periods of what was a tie game. They may be considered the third pair, but Pete DeBoer was fine playing Schlemko and Dillon against any of Los Angeles' lines.

[KURZ: Three takeaways from Sharks' opening night win over Kings]

Each of the team's six defensemen played at least 18 minutes at 18 seconds by the end of the night.

“I thought it went well. Felt pretty good,” Schlemko said. “I thought me and Dilly used each other pretty well, and for the most part didn’t really have any lengthy shifts in our end.”

DeBoer said: “He was impressive. He gives us a nice element back there. He moves pucks, he’s got a good stick, he’s competitive, he finds a way to get pucks to the net. He’s come as advertised.”

Every NHL team will talk about its depth being important, but few are actually able to use all four lines and three defense pairs on a nightly basis. Even the Sharks last season were forced to limit their depth players somewhat frequently, particularly in the first half.

Against the Kings, San Jose got contributions from up and down the lineup maybe as much as in any game in 2015-16 when they advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. That includes fourth liners Tommy Wingels, Matt Nieto and Melker Karlsson, who were more effective as a group against the Kings than the Joe Thornton line, at least through two periods.

To be sure, the Kings were shorthanded up front, with Marian Gaborik injured and Tanner Pearson suspended. And, frankly, they may not be a playoff team this season. But the Sharks, who beat the Kings primarily with their depth in the first round of the playoffs last year, showed that they could be even better this year in that regard.

Nieto said: “We have a really good team and we’re a really deep team. Being [on the] fourth line on this team is a privilege, and I thought we did a good job last night getting a good start to the season. … For us, it’s just rolling those four lines and playing six D, and saving the big guys for later in the season.”

Employing his best coach-speak, Wingels didn't subscribe to the whole labeling of lines one through four. And, he correctly pointed out that his line saw plenty of time against the Kings’ top line with defending Selke Trophy winner Anze Kopitar.

“Pete made it clear that he’s comfortable with that matchup, allowing us to work out there,” Wingels said. “Do the minutes dictate first through fourth lines? Absolutely, but I don’t think it’s a traditional ‘this is the fourth line’ kind of team.”

DeBoer said: “As a staff we came in and we want to start that way and give everyone an opportunity [to play]. I think we all realize that we play our best when we’re not chasing matchups or trying to hide guys.”

How Sharks' defense is making progress, helping produce string of wins


How Sharks' defense is making progress, helping produce string of wins

SAN JOSE -- Remember way back in September, when the Sharks’ defense was the talk of the town?

It wasn’t that long ago they had a whole season ahead of them, and talking heads were calling them Cup contenders before a single puck had dropped -- and a lot of that hype was geared toward the Sharks' blue line. The trade for Erik Karlsson sent expectations into the stratosphere, as if it guaranteed San Jose’s blue line wouldn’t ever lose a puck battle.

With 33 games in the bag, it’s pretty safe to say that bar was set unrealistically high. But after a much-needed win over the Dallas Stars on Thursday night, it became clear: As the Sharks' collective game moves in the right direction, their D-corps is following suit and trending in a positive way. Now, it’s just a matter of building on that.

When the Sharks had trouble getting in the win column earlier this season, they struggled to defend chances in five-on-five situations and committed defensive turnovers, losing battles and having trouble helping their out goaltender. The result? Three or more goals finding the back of San Jose’s net on a regular basis. After a particularly difficult 4-1 loss to Ottawa Senators, defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic stated: “If you’re letting in six goals, we better score seven.”

To a degree, the Sharks' defense has done that, whether it’s by tightening up in their own zone or capitalizing on more offensive chances. As San Jose tries to string more wins together before the Christmas break, it has cut back on the number of goals that get by, minimizing turnovers and odd-man rushes. The Sharks now are ranked 11th in the NHL in goals against with 98 allowed, an average 2.97 goals per game -- which is an improvement over their previous 3.0-plus mark.

It doesn’t hurt that, in addition to tightening up in their own zone, the Sharks’ defense also is contributing to the offense.

Brent Burns, who's only one off the team lead with 31 points, is leading the charge with 27 assists on the season. While fans might view him as a goal scorer, Burns' abilities as a set-up guy -- especially on a few of Joe Pavelski’s big goals --- have been big for Team Teal. (It probably doesn’t hurt, either, that Pavelski and some of San Jose’s other dynamic forwards have no problem posting up at the doorstep in an attempt to redirect one of Burns’ lethal one-timers into the back of the net.)

No. 88 has helped generate offense on the back end as well, ranking fourth among NHL defensemen with 32 takeaways.

[RELATED: Sharks growing into the team they want to be]

Burns isn’t the only Norris Trophy winner who's contributing. Karlsson’s level of play has been trending upward, particularly in the Sharks' most recent stretch of games. After tallying an assist in the win over the Stars, EK65 has six assists through seven games and a plus-4 rating in the month of December.

In fact, Karlsson and linemate Brenden Dillon have joined forces to set up a couple goals over the last stretch of games. The duo set up Pavelski in back-to-back games, with the opening goal in last Saturday’s 5-3 win over the Arizona Coyotes and the first-period marker in Monday’s 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils. Dillon also led the Sharks’ physical game Monday, leading all skaters that evening with four hits.

San Jose's blue line recently has added a little punch with Radim Simek recalled from the AHL. The Czech product has found almost instant chemistry with Burns and so far has successfully used his heavy game to slow down the opposition. It doesn’t hurt that Simek also has gotten on the scoreboard, tallying three points (one goal, two assists) in six NHL games played.

All in all, it’s forward motion that looks very position for the Sharks’ blue line. While there still are aspects of its game the team no doubt wants to improve on, things are trending in the right direction.

Sharks win third straight, 'starting to grow' into team they want to be

Sharks win third straight, 'starting to grow' into team they want to be

SAN JOSE – The Sharks needed to get two points on Thursday evening in a major way. From how the game against the Stars looked in the first period, those points were looking far out of reach.

“Kind of just a fairly boring game early on,” captain Joe Pavelski admitted after the contest with Dallas, who was playing the second night of a back-to-back. “We probably could’ve had a little more energy early, but they didn’t have that much either.”

But behind a critical second-period goal from Timo Meier, Team Teal was able to rally late and put on a third-period performance that helped them snag those highly-coveted two points. The effort showed that, despite that slow first frame, the Sharks’ overall game is trending in the right direction.

“This was a big win for us tonight,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “Took us a couple periods to create some room for ourselves. We got some good contributions from everyone.”

The victory didn’t just give San Jose some much-needed points in the Pacific Division standings. (Not to mention help them improve to 10-5-1 against Western Conference teams with 21 points earned in 16 games.) It also gave them a third win in a row – a feat they’ve had trouble with so far this season.

The only other time the Sharks tallied more than two wins in a row was back in mid-October when they defeated the Sabres, Islanders, and Predators in succession. Since then they’ve battled with finding consistency all while having a very unforgiving travel schedule. Despite finally having a couple days at home to work on their game, it took a bit on Thursday night for San Jose to find that fire in their game.

When they did find it, however, their battle to take over the game was evident.

“As the season goes on and you travel – some nights you feel better than others, and tonight was a night I thought we were off a little bit,” DeBoer acknowledged. “But we battled and found a way to win and got two critical points.”

Much of that battle came for the Sharks in the latter part of the game. Where San Jose faltered against Dallas in the third frame of their previous meeting, the final stanza was where the Sharks thrived on Thursday evening. Not bad for a team who entered Thursday’s game scoring as many goals in third-period situations as they were giving up.

“We’ve been wanting to play aggressive in the third and I think you saw that,” Joe Thornton said. “We were just more aggressive, staying on pucks and attacking. It was good to see.”

Now with those three wins all lined up in a row, the Sharks need to keep improving. They hit the road yet again for a two-game stint against Chicago and Minnesota, into two buildings that aren’t particularly easy to play in. But while there are still things to work on, San Jose is trending in the right direction.

“As a team, we’re starting to grow into what we need to be, and we still have a long way to go,” Erik Karlsson said. “I think we’re starting to find our groove here a little bit, hopefully. We just need to keep building on that.”