WINNIPEG — When the Sedins retired, they wondered in Vancouver how it would affect the Canucks culture. In Boston there is no wondering: Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara pass it down to players like David Krejci and David Pastrnak, who in turn indoctrinate young guys like Jake DeBrusk and Charlie MacAvoy on how things are supposed to work inside a perennially competitive NHL franchise.
To hockey analytics it is a unicorn. The thing you never see that can not be quantified. But all the best teams have it, and the worst ones are actively in search.
Well, meet the San Jose Sharks: A.K.A. “Boston West.”
They may not have the best team every year, but do the Sharks ever have to rebuild? Do they miss the playoffs? (Hint: just once in the last 15 seasons, including this one.)
On Tuesday night in Winnipeg, just 24 hours after San Jose had rolled through Minnesota in a 3-0 road win, the Sharks outlasted a rested Jets club in a battle of Western titans.
Joe Pavelski, who epitomizes everything a leader should be, buried a two-on-one pass from Timo Meier with less than five seconds left in regulation to complete the 5-4 victory. It was two points earned on the second of a back-to-back, on the road against an excellent Jets club, and with five defencemen — Radim Simek having left with a leg injury early in the game.
There were a bunch of reasons to lose, none of which the Sharks accepted.
“We’re just deep. We’re very, very deep,” said Joe Thornton, who had two silky primary assists Wednesday. “We’ve got eight good D, 14 good forwards, and we’ve got goalies who win us games. We’re a vey, very deep group.”
Give the management credit. The Sharks draft and develop with the best of them, and aren’t afraid to dip into the trade waters for an Erik Karlsson, a Brent Burns, or an Evander Kane along the way.
Some teams were shy of Kane, with a history of immature actions and off-ice distractions. Not the Sharks, who have in their dressing room a culture that has extracted the positives from Kane’s game — he’ll score 30 this year — while quietly culling the negatives.
“It makes my job easy,” said head coach Peter DeBoer. “They established the culture there… It’s been over a decade, with Jumbo and Pavelski, and Vlasic, and Burnsie, and on and on. That culture was there when I got there. They hold each other accountable, so you’re not having to do that like you would with a young team on a daily basis.”
In a place like Edmonton, where the culture has been lost, they’ve tried to import it from outside, tapping Boston for players like Andrew Ference and Milan Lucic. It doesn’t work, they’ve learned, and even though it takes time they’ve figured out that it is better to allow Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Darnell Nurse and the rest of the young core to build their own culture, the way they did in San Jose so long ago.
“It’s a great culture,” Burns said, “All the way from the top, from Hasso (owner Plattner), to Doug (GM Wilson), to the coaching staff…. And then the guys. We work, but we have fun. It comes from the top down.”
For years in San Jose, they’ve had something called Shooting Club, where players would go out 30-45 minutes before practice and hone their skills.
It started with assistant coach Jay Woodcroft in the Todd McLellan years, and Pavelski took ownership of it.
Then Patrick Marleau joined in. Then Logan Couture. Then Thornton…
To this day, while Burns is working on his point shots, Pavelski is practising tipping pucks. Thornton is elsewhere, getting in some extra stick-handling drills.
When hockey people speak of culture, this is a big part of it: The best players on the team are working daily to improve, outside of team practice. So Tomas Hertl arrives as a young player, and what does he do? He joins the Shooting Club. Then Kevin Labanc. Then Meier and Marcus Sorensen.
Look at how good Marleau has been for the Maple Leafs dressing room? Well, where did that all come from?
In Boston West, Joe Pavelski is Patrice Bergeron, Joe Thornton is Zdeno Chara, and underneath is a collection of (mostly) homegrown talent that has produced a franchise that competes every single season for a Pacific Division title, showing no signs of being in need of a rebuild any time soon.
Pavelski is at the heart of it, one of the great leaders in today’s game who’s on pace for a 40-goal season at age 34.
“Everybody is different, their approach to the game, how they go about things,” Burns said of the Sharks captain. “He’s just a guy who always does things right. He’s that perfect kind of guy. He just works.”
I know what you’re thinking: How great can the Sharks be when they’ve never won a Cup. OK, but the sign of a great franchise is one that competes at that championship level year after year. One that never runs out of gas and has to start over, like pretty much every franchise in Canada today.
The Sharks are a point out of the Pacific lead this morning. If they edge out Calgary, it will be San Jose’s seventh divisional crown in 17 seasons.
One of these days it has to pan out in June.
“I don’t know. We haven’t won it yet,” shrugged Pavelski. “You know we just have fun. We like the game, and you hope that at the end of the year that you’ve got the right team.
“Each season is unique, and you never know which one is going to go. That one run we went on (to the Final three years ago) was a team that, maybe we didn’t expect it. But we had gotten better and better all year, similar to this year.
“We’ve got good depth, and it’s just on us to compete every night.”
That’s a promise that gets kept around here.