Surprising Sharks trio continues productive season in win vs Avalanche

Surprising Sharks trio continues productive season in win vs Avalanche

The Sharks owed the end of their four-game losing streak, tied for the longest this season, largely to the offensive contributions of a somewhat unexpected trio. 

Yes, Logan Couture, San Jose’s leading scorer and arguable MVP, gave his team a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. But, Joonas Donskoi, Kevin Labanc, and Justin Braun continued their surprisingly productive seasons with involvement on each of the Sharks’ three goals in Thursday night’s win against the Colorado Avalanche. 

Donskoi, arguably the least-unlikely of the bunch, scored what ended up being the game-winning goal. It was his 14th of the season, extending his in-progress career-high. Rather, we should say his NHL-high, but this year is still just the third time in his professional career he’s found the back of the net 14 (or more) times in a single season, and the first since his last season in Finland’s SM-liiga (19 goals in 2014-15). 

We’ve written at length about Donskoi’s importance this season, so we’ll sum it up with this: Among the forwards that have played 300-plus minutes five-on-five, only Logan Couture has scored primary points (goals and primary assists) at a higher rate per hour (1.65) than Donskoi (1.62), according to Natural Stat Trick, 

Labanc, meanwhile, assisted on Couture’s power-play goal prior to Donskoi’s. The second-year winger’s continued success on the power play shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise, considering he racked up 102 of his 308 regular season and playoff points in junior on the man advantage. 

His continued opportunity, on the other hand, certainly is. Remember, Labanc was in the AHL as recently as November (albeit for a two-game stint) and was sent down to the Barracuda in the middle of the Sharks’ first-round series with the Oilers a year ago. San Jose banked on the 22-year-old taking a step forward in his second season, but surely didn’t expect him to become one of the league’s best setup men on the power play.

Labanc’s primary assiste rate (3.23 per hour) on the man advantage is 11th-best among skaters that have played at least 150 power play minutes this season and ahead of names like Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, John Tavares, and Steven Stamkos, among others. If you expected Labanc to keep that kind of company this season, would you mind pointing us in the direction of some lottery numbers? 

But of all the players who got on the scoresheet Thursday, Justin Braun’s undoubtedly been the biggest surprise this year. He opened the scoring with a deflected shot from the blueline, and set a new career-high with his fifth goal of the season. 

Braun added to his career-high in points, too, as the goal was his 33rd point of the season. That’s 10 points better than his previous best, which he reached twice in his only prior 20-point campaigns.

All of those points have come at even strength, too. While Braun’s undoubtedly benefited from a career-high in five-on-five ice time per game (17:23) as well the best five-on-five shooting percentage (4.63) of his career, he draws the same difficult defensive assignments as partner Marc-Edouard Vlasic and not nearly as much power play time. 

The blueliner’s five-on-five goal, assist, primary assist, and point rates are unsurprisingly all the best of his career, but his underlying numbers are solid, too. He is generating five-on-five shot attempts (10.39 per hour) and shots on goal (4.66 per hour) at a higher rate than all but his first two NHL seasons, while also attempting shots that result in rebounds (0.7 per hour) at a higher rate than all but two Sharks defenseman: Brent Burns and Dylan DeMelo. 

Braun’s been a key component of a surprisingly offensive defense corps. The Sharks are tied for second in the league with three defensemen that have scored 30-plus points. It’s only the second time San Jose’s had that many in franchise history, and the first time in nearly a decade (2008-09; four). 

Braun, as well as Donskoi and Labanc, played key roles offensively in Thursday’s pivotal win. That couldn’t have necessarily been expected at the start of the season, but has simply become the norm by now. 

Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau react to ex-teammates on Sharks' staff


Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau react to ex-teammates on Sharks' staff

SAN JOSE -- No, the days of the player-coach hybrid aren't making a comeback. Although, if you're Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau, it might feel that way.

With the introduction of Bob Boughner as San Jose's interim head coach, the organization brought in staff that includes former Sharks Mike Ricci and Evgeni Nabokov -- two players who were on the roster back when the now 40-year-olds hadn't reached their veteran status yet.

"It will be interesting to see them on the bench," Marleau said. "But they're very professional and they'll do a great job."

Marleau played with both Ricci and Nabokov in the early 2000s, while Thornton only logged time with Nabokov after coming to San Jose from the Boston Bruins in 2005. While it has been some time since either newly-appointed assistant coach has rocked a teal sweater, Ricci and Nabokov have stayed with the organization in different capacities over the last few years. Having that closeness and a high level of familiarity is something that can benefit the team as they go through a midseason coaching change.

"I know what they've been through and I know a lot about them, so it's easy to communicate with them," Marleau said.

Thornton agreed with his teammate's assessment.

"They've been here for a long time now," Thornton said. "To have them on the bench now is going to be fun."

Both Ricci and Nabokov have spent the last several seasons working on the development side of the Sharks' organization and have worked closely with players on the AHL Barracuda -- a team that has been coached by Roy Sommer up until he, too, was recently named assistant coach under Boughner. In his introductory press conference on Thursday, Boughner outlined how he believes his new coaching staff might function.

"We met last night as a staff and this morning and we still need to work through some things," Boughner admitted. "But Mike Ricci and Roy are going to be on the bench with me. Roy's going to move to the defensive side and run some power play. Ricci was a great penalty killer his whole career and I think we're going to be able to enjoy some of his expertise. I'll be running the forwards and obviously Nabby will (oversee) the goalies. There are still some job responsibilities we'll have to sort out in the next few days. But for now, I think those guys are excited. It was a big day for them as well."

[RELATED: How DeBoer's firing shocked Sharks players]

As far as reuniting Ricci and Nabokov with their former teammates, Boughner thinks working closely with Thornton and Marleau will benefit the entire roster as the Sharks try to, yet again, turn their season around after a tough stretch of losses.

"I think you can see, even in the morning, there's that report there," Boughner said of watching the reunion during morning skate. "There's deep respect. There's a lot of familiarity with those guys and I think that's going to help. Ricci and Roy have seen these young guys all the way up. I think there's great chemistry that we're going to have there."

Sharks fail to correct bad habits in first game after coaching change


Sharks fail to correct bad habits in first game after coaching change

SAN JOSE -- Thursday could have been a fresh start for the Sharks. As shocking and emotional as it was to go through a midseason coaching change, they were presented with the opportunity to turn things around.

Unfortunately, Thursday's game against the Rangers featured a lot of the same problems. Missed opportunities, loose late-game play and yet another notch in the loss column.

Sure, getting accustomed to a new coach's ways can take some time. But that doesn't give the Sharks a pass when it comes to playing a full 60-minute hockey game.

"It's tough, it's difficult, but there's no excuse," captain Logan Couture said after the 6-3 loss. "Lots of teams have [gone through a coaching change]. A lot of teams in this league have done it and they've gone on winning streaks. The team that did it last year won the Cup. So, we've got to find a way. Tonight wasn't good enough once again."

San Jose did, in fact, have a great chance to get back into the win column in Bob Boughner's first game behind the bench. Even with New York continuing to grind away, the Sharks were able to take a 3-2 lead at the 4:12 mark of the third period thanks to a big goal from Brenden Dillon.

But then the defense took its foot off of the gas and Martin Jones couldn't stop Mike Zibanejad or Artemi Panarin from pushing the Rangers over the hump. In a matter of minutes, the Sharks went from defending a lead to being in a hole they didn't have time to dig out of.

"When you have a lead in the third with 15 minutes left, you have to defend a little bit harder and not turn the puck over like we did," Couture continued. "Play harder in our own end, which we did not. Defend our slot harder tonight, and I don't think we did."

Dillon agreed. "Frustrating when you have a lead like that. Especially at home, we have to be able to close it out. If we give up the tying goal, and then a couple more, it's just frustrating."

Letting up late isn't the only thing that is plaguing the Sharks right now. San Jose has struggled to play a full 60-minute game for the bulk of the season thus far. Thursday's loss showed yet again that San Jose isn't playing full games on a nightly basis -- regardless of who is behind the bench.

"I think we did some good things tonight, but obviously it still wasn't a full 60," interim head coach Bob Boughner observed. "I think in the third period we ran out of gas there a little bit."

[RELATED: Boughner confident in staff, wants Sharks to play inspired]

Martin Jones, who surrendered three goals in the third period, agreed. "Have to play a full 60 minutes, you have to," he said, acknowledging that having an adjustment period with a new coaching staff isn't an excuse. "They had more jump in the third period than us. We've got to find a way in a tied hockey game to come out with a little bit more energy. I don't know how many shots or scoring chances we had in the third, but we need to apply more pressure in a close hockey game like that."

Whether it's applying more pressure or tightening up, the Sharks clearly still have a laundry list of things they need to clean up. Now with the dust settling in regards to the coaching change, San Jose has no other option but to dig deep and keep working.

"There's a lot of work to be done," Boughner reminded everyone. "We'll have a good practice day tomorrow. Sort some things out."