It’s August, meaning there’s literally nothing news-worthy going on around the National Hockey League (okay, maybe this counts). However, it also means that we’re only two months away from the puck dropping on the 2015-16 NHL season, and even less than that for training camps to start up. So to pass the time until then, I’ll be taking a look at every team in the league, division by division. To start things off, we have the ever-entertaining San Jose Sharks of the Pacific Division.
A quick glance over of the Sharks top-six forwards begs the question, “How the hell did this team miss the playoffs last year?”. With names like Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski, rational thought would suggest that this team should be a lock to make the playoffs every year (they pretty much have). San Jose broke even in possession in 2014-15, which is usually at least a decent predictor for success. That didn’t seem to matter in light of some other factors.
Andrew Bensch, who does an excellent job covering the Sharks for THW, suggests that, “[The Sharks] were second in the division at the end of January before a win-less home record in February. I’d blame missing the playoffs on Marleau/Hertl’s down years, lack of defense depth and a weak bottom six”. Doug Wilson clearly shared at least some of Bensch’s opinions, as he went out and signed depth players in Paul Martin and Joel Ward. On top of that, he replaced long-time head coach Todd McLellan with Peter DeBoer and acquired goaltender Martin Jones from the Boston Bruins.
Jones was easily San Jose’s best acquisition. He’s been an excellent goaltender at the NHL level, and was outstanding during his tenure in the American Hockey League. At 25, he’s right around the age where goaltenders enter their prime, something that Sharks fans should be excited about (especially after enduring years of Antti Niemi).
In the immediate future though, Martin may turn out to be Wilson’s best pickup. Management and the coaching staff have already hinted at Martin slotting in next to Brent Burns. Burns, though posting some rock-solid possession numbers last year, was too often unable to make easy passes out of his zone. With an excellent, yet more conservative, puck-mover in Martin, the Sharks may have found the perfect insurance policy to pair with the more risk/reward style of Burns.
So What Do We Make Of These Sharks?
So are the Sharks appreciably better today than they were when the 2014-15 campaign ended? It’s hard to say no, at least on paper. After years of playoff failures and captaincy drama under McLellan, a fresh voice in the locker room has to, at the very least, brighten up attitudes around the rink.
Joe Thornton continues to be an ageless wonder, while the Sharks have the puck-moving chops on the blueline to hang with the fast-moving defense corps of Anaheim and Los Angeles. With some internal improvement from youngsters such as Chris Tierney, Melker Karlsson, Tomas Hertl, and Mirco Mueller, it’s tough to imagine a scenario where San Jose misses the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
Can they compete for a Stanley Cup? Getting through the Pacific won’t be an easy task if the Ducks and Kings have anything to say about it, which seems extremely likely. Anaheim possesses a formidable four-line forward unit that is almost unmatched throughout the league, while Los Angeles plays a grinding style that no one seems to be able to stop in the playoffs.
That’s where the worry comes in for San Jose. As solid as their top-six is, their bottom-six remains unproven and has generally been a problem for them in previous playoffs. Of their current bottom-six forwards, only one (Matt Nieto), had positive relative possession numbers last year. Contending teams are able to at least somewhat control the play when their stars aren’t on the ice, something that the Sharks’ current group hasn’t proven the ability to do. Now, the goal-scoring abilities of Ward and Tommy Wingels somewhat mitigate that fear, but it remains an issue nonetheless.
DeBoer has extolled the virtues of his high puck-pressure system at every chance, and he’ll have to impart that wisdom on his depth forwards for the Sharks to have a strong playoff run. With a little help from some potentially above-average goaltending from Jones and some systemic adjustments, San Jose has the horses to, at the very least, make the playoffs, and even win a round or two once they get there. Don’t bet the farm on there being a Stanley Cup parade in San Jose come next summer though.