First-round preview: San Jose Sharks vs. Edmonton Oilers

Change isn’t a boom, but rather a rumble. The Sharks and the Oilers are on two ends of the age timeline. The Oilers’ Connor McDavid, deemed a prodigy since his teenage years, has confirmed that he is a generational player. He will likely win his first Hart Trophy this season. And the playoffs are where heroic affirmation is crystallized. This is only the beginning.

Joe Thornton knows about pressure. Twenty years ago, he was picked first overall in the NHL draft. His failure to win a Cup has haunted him his whole career, and last year the Sharks nearly exploded that narrative. The Sharks are an aging team with a horde of very skilled veteran superstars. But they should identify this playoff field as eminently beatable. A few juggernauts exist, but their second-round opponent may be weaker than their first. Once again, San Jose boasts a roster stocked with talent at forward, defense, and goaltender. With Logan Couture at 28, their four top forwards are theoretically all about to age out of their scoring prime (although Joe Pavelski clearly shreds that notion every season). This could be their final realistic attempt to seize the Cup and hoist it above their heads.

But if the Sharks vault past the Oilers, it won’t be because of the forwards; it will be the yeti playing defense and his gravitational pull. That hirsute mammal, Brent Burns, is the favorite to win the Norris Trophy, and the only way to articulate what he does offensively is to frame it in terms of a forward.

A pedestrian NHL forward can gain the zone, establish territorial advantage, and putz around until the shift is over. More skilled players may get a shot attempt around the home-plate area, or create a rebound chance for a teammate off a long shot. But the best players rip apart the exterior of their opponent’s tight-checking, defensive alignment. They transcend the boundaries of the crowded rink, finding space where others don’t. Burns’ natural gifts and proclivity for improvisation make him impossible to contain. Which is to say: Burns can accelerate or deke past defenders to get to any space he wants. And he smushes time and space because his shot arrives so quickly from even a great distance, diminishing the importance of inching closer toward the net.

It causes a massive headache for the defense when the guy at the point can bomb a shot from 50+ feet and score. How do you defend that? You could try to stick closer to him on the entry or as a winger on the point. But that’s the thing about Burns: his release is ridiculous. He finds power despite shooting from off-balance or while he’s in idle or in stride. Burns can also plunge toward the high-slot, scoop a loose puck up, and toe-drag it and either sling a shot into a corner or shot-pass it into a forward around the crease.

Fear of Burns hammering a shot in stride as he enters the zone causes defensemen to want to jam him at the blue line; wingers want to stay higher for fear of letting the beast loose. Both of these tactics have significant effects on his linemates’ room to maneuver. On the rush and cycle, there is room below the dots and below the goal line. And confronting Burns on an entry is dangerous because he can deke it past even technically sound defensemen. Even when Burns isn’t directly finding a seam for himself, his presence on the ice creates one — usually lower than where he is stationed.

The Sharks are a very good possession team. And the Oilers are going to struggle to contain their forecheck. Oscar Klefbom is by far the Oilers’ best blueliner, but he’s paired with the hapless Adam Larsson. Rounding out the top four is the equally ineffective Kris Russell teamed with the reliable presence of Andrej Sekera. Klefbom’s power on and off the puck gives him an opportunity to win puck battles in the corners and start a quick transition.

But likely, the Oilers’ centers will need to expend a lot of energy battling below the goal line and trying to sink low to give the defenseman retrieving the puck a nearby passing target. The Oilers’ only chance of winning this series is if the Connor McDavid-Leon Draisaitl line has ample opportunity to attack the defense. That’s difficult if McDavid is fighting tooth and nail behind the net.

Therefore, an effective breakout might be trying to shoot the puck into space and create a race for McDavid to get it. Hockey analytics doesn’t embrace area passes, but McDavid has Usain Bolt’s speed on skates, and the threat of McDavid getting behind the defense splinters the forecheck. Suddenly, the defensemen are pushed back and there is more room for the outlet along the half-wall.

The Penguins scorched opponents last year by sticking a man in the neutral zone to stay idle, with the purpose of passing him the puck, and then letting him deflect or catch-and-toss the pass while a skater running a curl pattern soared up the boards to receive the puck at full speed and catch the opposing skaters on their heels. This wouldn’t be a bad tactic for the Oilers against the Sharks, and Draisaitl and McDavid are both capable of being the passer or receiver. They would be wise to try this with the Milan Lucic-Ryan Nugent-Hopkins-Jordan Eberle line too.

Patrick Maroon makes a good third wheel with McDavid and Draisaitl. He can protect the puck, he can be physical, and he’s decent on the forecheck and around the net. With McDavid retrieving the puck and Draisaitl finding room for deflections and explosive one-timers, the Sharks will need to be quick on their breakouts or goaltender Martin Jones will be vulnerable.

Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot had an impressive regular season, although the amount of games he has played is concerning. If Talbot can maintain form, he gives the Oilers an advantage in net.

Still, there is substance to the idea that you need to learn how to win in the playoffs; playoff repetitions are completely different than regular season ones. This is McDavid’s first rodeo, and the Oilers are going against a very determined opponent with a lot of players who understand the beats of a playoff series. Edmonton will battle hard and learn a lot.

Sharks in six

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