The San Jose Sharks are known throughout the National Hockey League for their skill, but now they’re getting noticed for their grit and toughness. There’s no exact measurement to determine how tough NHL teams are, but there’s no question the Sharks pass the eye test.
“The first thing you have to do is define what toughness is,” Coach Todd McLellan said. “Some say pure fighting is toughness. There are so many other things. Faceoffs, blocked shots. What do you do when you’re on a 55-second shift and can’t get off the ice? Do you suck it up and do it the right way? That’s toughness.”
Another sign of toughness is San Jose’s 17-6-2 road record (amongst the NHL’s top three) that shows they can handle obstacles wherever they appear. Many clubs handle the home games fine, but playing the same on the road is a sign of both physical and mental toughness.
San Jose ranks among the top-10 in fights and hits, leads the NHL in faceoffs and is 11th in blocked shots. In the areas where will can beat skill, they will do whatever it takes. A scary combination considering San Jose’s skill level.
Some will solely grade a team’s toughness factor based upon how often a club will fight. The argument is two-sided though as fighting just for the sake of fighting can be extremely detrimental. San Jose ranks ninth in the NHL with 39 fights on the season, far less than the fight a game number a couple of teams are chasing.
San Jose definitely has a few high-powered weapons available for every game. Jody Shelley rings in as a true heavyweight who can go dole out the punishment with anyone in the NHL. Brad Staubitz, Douglas Murray
and Ryane Clowe
are big men who will drop with anyone whenever necessary. Plus, there are numerous others who will take a stand if the situation calls for it. Even Torrey Mitchell
recently fought to answer a cheap shot to the head.
The bottom line: San Jose plays as a true team – one that will always have each other’s backs.
“We have individual and team toughness and the guys back each other up,” defenseman Dan Boyle
The Sharks have players who can drop the gloves, but can also skate a regular shift. Because today’s NHL is a faster game, teams can’t afford to have one-dimensional players on the roster.
A prime example came last Thursday in San Jose’s home win against Anaheim. Defenseman Rob Blake was hit by Anaheim’s known heavyweight George Parros. Instead of waiting for Shelley to send a message to Parros, Clowe took matters into his own hands.
“Like Clowe against Anaheim with Parros,” said center Scott Nichol about a player stepping up at the right time. “There would have been three or four after him chomping at the bit. You could see their bench go ‘Oh’ and it totally changed the momentum.”
Shelley will always be there for his teammates, but said it’s important to see instances like the aforementioned one with Clowe.
“That’s just how hockey is,” Shelley said. “It’s a sign of a good team. Something on the ice happens and someone steps up to address it.”
Hockey players by their nature will do their jobs even in adverse conditions, but there’s no question that going to the tough spots in the rink is easier when players only have to deal with the legitimate hits and not the cheap shots.
“It helps knowing the guys are behind you,” Boyle said.
“You can’t let that go,” said center Patrick Marleau
of opposing cheap shots. “The guys will stick up for each other on this team and we know that.”
The difficult part is drawing the line between answering the bell for your teammates and not becoming a liability with a poor decision.
“It’s not like curling, your wires are going to get crossed,” said Nichol about the urge to retaliate. “There’s a time and a place, but you don’t want to put yourself ahead of the team.”
“I got sent down after a game from the AHL to the ECHL because I took a couple of extra penalties,” Shelley said. “I learned the hard way there’s no room to be a liability in the penalty box all the time.”
Nichol said the maturity of the Sharks helps as players know when to give someone the business and when to back off.
“We’re an older group,” he said, “and we know when to push it and when not to.”
Maybe the best part about having a team that can handle the fisticuffs is the simple fact that it can prevent a lot of issues in advance. When the Sharks are on the road, other teams will be amped up by their crowd and just the knowledge that San Jose won’t tolerate any cheap action can prevent much of it.
“It keeps the silly stuff out,” Shelley said. “Teams don’t expect a cakewalk and be able to do whatever they want to do.”
From the physical standpoint, San Jose has many players who will hit anything that moves. Hitting is a big part of their game. Murray is a prime example of this. Whether it’s a fourth liner, or a bona fide star like Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, Murray will make his presence felt all night. Murray and Nichol are both among the NHL’s top-10 in hits and their aggressiveness is infectious throughout the lineup.
Blake still throws enough hip checks to keep the opposition honest and players like Devin Setoguchi and will act like a battering ram when necessary.
“It keeps them aware when the forwards have to keep their heads up in the middle,” Nichol said. “We create a lot of hits on this team. We’re right up there (in the NHL).”
No matter how other teams want to play, the Sharks have the balance to handle what comes their way while still being able to play their game.
“We have a good balance of skill and size,” Nichol said.
“We can handle it in a number of ways,” Shelley said.
Whether it’s fighting, hitting, battling for pucks in the corners or in the faceoff circle, or simply outhustling an opponent to a loose puck in the neutral zone, the answer to who is the toughest team in the NHL may very well lie in San Jose.
NEW MASK FOR THE OLYMPICS
Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov wore the mask he plans to wear in the Olympics at practice on Tuesday. The art depicts Russia’s national symbol, the double-headed eagle, spread out over both sides of the mask.
“It’s exactly how I wanted to see it,” said Nabokov of the design. “He did a great job.”
The “he” is Todd Miska who handles the designs for Nabokov.
READING IS COOL
The Sharks Reading is Cool programs brought down selected winners for a private practice experience.
The Sharks will play hosts to Chicago Thursday at 7:30 p.m. and tickets can be found at the HP Pavilion Ticket Office and at www.ticketmaster.com. The contest will be on CSN California, 98.5 KFOX and sjsharks.com.