The San Jose Sharks missed the playoffs for the first time in a dozen years this season. Through January the Sharks were in a playoff position but the truth is they had problems across the board all season long. In order to get back to the top team they were, offense, defense, and goaltending must all improve next season. That said, one of the three areas is significantly more problematic than the others. You could probably already guess where I’m going with this, the Sharks need to make a whole lot of internal improvements on their blue-line.
Forwards + Goaltending Will be OK
While goaltending needs to be better if the Sharks are to have realistic Stanley Cup aspirations, the fact is Antti Niemi was average last year. He has always been at least average in the regular season. The Sharks could easily get back to the playoffs and win a round, or two with similar caliber goaltending to what Niemi has given them the past few years. At the other end of the ice, natural variance suggests that Patrick Marleau and Tomas Hertl are bound to score significantly more than they did this past season. It is a safe bet to rely on at least a dozen more goals between these two talented scorers. Furthermore, with the emergence of third line center Chris Tierney this past season and 2014 first round pick Nikolay Goldobin likely reaching the NHL level next season, the offense is bound to improve in 2015-16. The Sharks were 24th in the league in five on five differential but with a tremendous power-play were actually 15th overall in goals per game. With the young offensive weapons and bounce back years from Marleau and Hertl, I fully expect the Sharks to be a top-10 scoring team next season.
Defense, Defense, Defense
Herein lies the biggest question for the Sharks, can they get better all around play from their blue-liners? Can Brent Burns return to being the 54% goals for defenseman that he was in 2011-12 instead of the 47% defender he was last year? Assuming he re-signs as an restricted free agent, can Brenden Dillon return to the solid top-4 defender he was in Dallas now that he will be in his second season with the club? What about last year’s rookie defenseman Mirco Mueller? He showed a lot of promise as a rookie but way too many mistakes, particularly with the puck on his stick. Can he make big strides in year two? These three making big improvements are the three biggest keys to the Sharks bouncing back next season. After all the Sharks were 24th in the league in goals against. They need a lot more from their defense, and these three have the most room to grow. Unfortunately for the Sharks, unlike Marleau, Hertl, and Justin Braun, who are all very likely to bounce back, Burns, Dillon, and Mueller could very easily go either way.
Most NHL followers who paid even casual attention to the Sharks this year are aware of the lightning rod issue that is Brent Burns. In a year and a half at forward from 2013 through 2013-14, Burns absolutely crushed his competition at five on five alongside Joe Thornton. Burns was one of the top even strength scorers in the league and he finished 2013-14 with a 64% goals for percentage. Now for most of his career before 2013 Burns was a proven solid top-4 puck mover. In his first year as a Shark he carried lower tier partners like Douglas Murray and Colin White. Burns posted a 54.8% goals for percentage as a defenseman in 2011-12, that is a terrific season. It was a much better season at evens than he had this past year at 47%. Burns’ offensive stats sound amazing this past season, 36 points at five aside versus only 21 in 11-12, but that simply goes to show how horrendous he was defensively. To score that much more but to flip around the percentages in such a negative fashion? Ouch. Too many times did we see Burns with brutal mistakes in coverage like this one below.
No matter how much Burns improves as a defenseman, he will never be an elite two-way blue-liner. He doesn’t have the natural instincts to defend like a Vlasic, Braun, or even the recently departed puck moving veteran Dan Boyle. However, he can be much, much better defensively and he needs to be next season. If he has a bounce back year, it doesn’t mean Doug Wilson was right to move him back to defense last year, it just means Burns has improved the weak areas of his game. If the Sharks are to have a successful season in anybody’s eyes next year, Burns will have to be a heck of a lot better at even strength.
Dillon’s first year in teal was a bit of a mystery to say the least. Coming over from Dallas in a defense for defense swap for Jason Demers, Dillon got off to a slow start. While that is to be expected, his hot streak didn’t last long enough. It appeared like both he and Burns were starting to gel as a second pair but then they started to struggle again. Dillon never seemed to find chemistry with the other top right-handed defenseman on the roster either in Justin Braun. Although Braun had a down year so that didn’t help either. Overall Dillon demonstrated solid skating ability and at times used his body well. At other times though he allowed smaller forwards to push him off the puck like Scott Gomez did on this goal below.
Offensively Dillon was miserable at getting his point shots through to the net. He rarely even got his shots past the first shot blocker. Far too many times did Dillon release his shot right into the opposing player standing merely a few feet in front of him. Dillon isn’t relied upon for much offense but every forward plays defense and every defenseman plays offense. And from his position as a blue-liner, Dillon needs to be better offensively. He won’t be judged on goal scoring or points but making things happen, keeping plays alive, jumping up into gaps like he has shown he can, better breakout passes and getting pucks through the traffic are all things he can do better moving forward. Not to mention sharpening up his defensive zone play. Going from plus-nine in 2013-14 with Dallas to a minus-13 this past season between the two teams is a steep drop. Whether with each other or split apart, Burns and Dillon are going to be two of the top 4 defense. They both need to significantly raise their games next season for the Sharks to get back into the playoffs and be competitive in the postseason.
It is incredibly rare for 19-year-old defensemen to play in the NHL at all, much less flourish right away like Marc-Edouard Vlasic did in 2006-07. This time around, the 19-year-old Mueller struggled as a rookie, but arguably wasn’t put in the best situations to begin with. He was often scratched out of the lineup and when he was in the lineup early he was playing alongside Burns who was at his worst early in the season. While Mueller showed flashes of being a terrific skating defenseman who can defend the rush with the best of the best, he looked as if he couldn’t handle the NHL level speed when it came to making breakout passes. Positioning and skating away from the puck were solid but he struggled making the right reads with the puck. The potential is there, the problems are very much what one would expect from a teenage defenseman. With time Mueller should develop into a top tier shut down defenseman. But can he make significant improvements in just one year? The Sharks have limited depth on the blue-line and Mueller proving himself to be a top notch bottom pair defenseman will go a long way to helping this team bounce back.
The Three Keys to Success
The Sharks need Burns and at least one of either Dillon or Mueller to make major improvements next season. If that happens then expect the Sharks to make the playoffs comfortably. That’s right, make the playoffs comfortably. However, if they each turn in similar uneven performances to this past season, then the Sharks will struggle again in an attempt to make the playoffs.