Though a fairly impressive effort against a struggling St. Louis Blues team got Team Teal back into the win column after six straight defeats, it’s hard not to focus on the string of losses that made up by far the worst stretch of what has been a maddeningly inconsistent season for the San Jose Sharks.
Pundits and fans alike have used the first two weeks of 2011 to hypothesize about what shortcoming has represented the greatest plague against San Jose – and it’s hard to blame any of them for not being able to pinpoint one.
Some nights, it has been the mediocre play of goaltenders Antti Niemi and Antero Nittymaki. Others, it has looked like the fault lays squarely on the shoulders of San Jose’s underperforming superstars – Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau have not come close to matching last season’s output. Most recently, the central issue has appeared to flip-flop between a lack of five-on-five scoring, and numerous mental lapses in the defensive zone. A look at the numbers, however, indicates that each of these issues is linked to one root cause.
San Jose’s lack of five-on-five scoring, its inability to clean things up in the defensive zone, subpar goaltending and the drastic decrease in scoring from its top talent are all issues that stem from the six men responsible for patrolling the team’s backend. Tight, smart defensive play keeps opponents off the board while good decisions and crisp passes feed transition and allow for dominant puck possession. Thus far, the Sharks have fallen short in this respect – though it has less to do with preparation or focus, and more to do with personnel.
Mobility on the blueline is a topic often bantered about among Sharks fans and hockey critics, but the ability of a defensive corps to quickly and effectively move the puck is difficult to quantify. It is measured less by statistics and more by casual observation. That said, the 2008-09 season saw San Jose’s defense at its most dominant, and the result was a President’s Trophy, and the best regular season in franchise history.
In 2008-09, the San Jose defense contributed 203 points to go along with 813 shots on goal. The following year, those numbers dropped to 172 points and less than 700 shots. This year, the Sharks’ defense is on pace for under 150 points, more than a 25-percent point decrease in less than two seasons’ time.
Since 2008-09, the Sharks have lost Christian Ehrhoff and Rob Blake, replaced by a combination of Kent Huskins, Niclas Wallin, and a host of AHL call-ups that have seen spot duty with the big club. Ehrhoff and Blake combined for 18 goals, 87 points and 380 shots in 2008-09 – compare that to the 5 goals, 19 points and 130 shots that Wallin and Huskins are currently on pace for this year. The reality of today’s NHL is that players shift in and out from year to year – but that exchange of players simply isn’t good enough for a team that is looking to build on prior success. Exaserbating the issue is the fact that incumbent defenders have seen their production dip considerably as well – Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s point totals have dwindled to half that of the 36 he put up in 2008-09.
The Sharks brought in Todd McLellan to instill specific methodology and a certain style, one that served him well in Detroit, and one that Doug Wilson hoped his team could replicate. But aside from his first season with the club, McLellan simply hasn’t had the right pieces to work with. Puck possession and an up-tempo style cannot be achieved without the right instincts on the blueline. Losing six games in a row, for a myriad of different reasons, indicates that the problem is a single issue that, like a cancer, affects multiple systems.