The hilariously inimitable long-time ex-New York Yankee player/manager may have unintentionally described the San Jose Sharks over the past decade or so with one of his characteristically bizarre quotes. Despite winning four Pacific division titles in a row and six out of nine, San Jose lost in the first or second rounds five times between 2001-02 and 2008-09, typically as the higher seed. The last two campaigns saw the Sharks take the next step by ascending to the conference finals, but each time were outclassed, having been swept by the eventual-champion Chicago Blackhawks in 2009-10, and losing in decisive fashion to the Vancouver Canucks 4-1 last season. With the exception of game two (a 7-3 drubbing by the Canucks) the series against Vancouver was closer than the game tally would suggest, but in the end, the results were the same: San Jose watched the Stanley Cup Finals while eating Doritos and drinking beer from their easy chairs.
With the oft-discussed moves General Manager Doug Wilson made last summer to bolster the defense and provide more speed and balance in the forward ranks, the $64,000 question remains the same: can the Sharks exorcise the demons of postseasons past and win the Stanley Cup championship this season?
Perennially the strength of the franchise, the trades of Dany Heatley and Devon Setoguchi, along with substandard seasons by some key long-time forwards, seems to have impacted the team’s firepower to this point of the season. Two years ago, San Jose averaged 3.13 goals per game, finishing third in the NHL in that statistic, on the way to 51 wins and 113 points. In 2010-11, the offense slipped a bit, dropping to 2.96 goals per game, but nevertheless still ranked fourth overall in the league. The Sharks ended the regular season with 48 wins and 105 points, capturing the division title once again. This year, the offense has fallen off even moresignificantly, down to 2.73 goals per game, ranking twelfth in the league as of this writing. After 45 games, San Jose is on a pace for 104 points.
Amongst the top-sixers, 2011-12 All Star Logan Couture is in the process of following up his breakout 2010-11 campaign with an even better one, amassing 20 goals and 34 points in 45 games. Joe Pavelski has likewise seen his numbers improve, registering 17 goals and 34 points, a 30/30 pace. Patrick Marleau has tallied 17 goals and 36 points, somewhat pedestrian numbers for a player who put up 70+ points in five of the past six seasons. Jumbo Joe Thornton is similarly posting marginal numbers, on pace for 66 points after generating 80+ seven times in his stellar career. The injured Ryan Clowe and Martin Havlat have had particularly disappointing campaigns; after 22 goals and 60 points skating for Minnesota last year, Havlat is on pace for just four goals and 35 points for the Sharks this year.
The third and fourth lines have been reasonably consistent and for the most part have performed at or above expectations.
It’s clear the diminished numbers by Marleau, Thornton, Clowe and Havlat are the primary reason for the Sharks’ movement toward the middle of the offensive pack. The good news is that it’s more likely players with their respective pedigrees will finish closer to their statistical means, as opposed to continuing to regress. All in all, while San Jose may no longer possess a top-tier offense, a probable final spot within the NHL’s top ten would suggest the Sharks do have an offense that can carry them through a strong playoff run.
As measured by goals allowed, defense has arguably become the strength of the team, a bizarre truism considering the caliber of the players in the forward ranks. Two seasons ago, the defense was eighth in the NHL at 2.55 goals per game. Last year, it ranked fourth at 2.54, and this season has further improved statistically, falling to 2.36 goals per game, slotting at 6th best in the league. San Jose is also fifth best in shots allowed (28.6) and fourth best in 5-5 goals for/against.
Individual performances amongst the defensive corps, as to be expected, have been solid. Dan Boyle has four goals and 23 assists, on pace for very similar numbers to last year, with a greatly improved +/-. Marc-Edouard Vlasic leads the team in +/- at +16 and has chipped in three goals and 14 assists. Centerpiece acquisition Brent Burns isn’t likely to repeat his 46 point campaign from last year, but is still on a pace to tally 12 goals and is a minutes-eater, averaging 22:31 per game. Jason Demers, Justin Braun and Douglas Murray round out the top six.
There is little doubt the defense is in hand to win the close, tightly-checked games typically seen in the playoffs. There is a good balance between offensive blueliners (Boyle, Burns), puck movers (Demers, Vlasic, Braun) and stay-at-home types (Murray, Jim Vandermeer, Colin White). Furthermore, there is the requisite lunch pail mentality necessary for success: Vlasic, Murray and Boil are amongst the top 36 in blocked shots so far this year. All in all, the blue line likely is somewhere close to the upper echelon of the NHL.
Starter Antti Niemi is having another excellent season, with a 2.37 G.A.A. and .916 save percentage. At 20-10-5, he’s ninth in the NHL in wins. Backup netminder Thomas Greiss has posted a 6-4-0 record with a 2.09 G.A.A. and .926 save percentage.
For the umpteenth year in a row, goaltending remains a major strength of the Sharks
Three words: crap sandwich and craptastic. Ordinarily a strength of the club, the power play started out well but subsequently became as arid as the Sonora desert, sinking to 19th in the league at 17.4%. The penalty kill, on the other hand, should be on Death Row: it ranks 28th amongst the 30 NHL teams at 78%.
As with last year, the penalty kill represents perhaps the single major Achilles’ Heel of the Sharks this season, and if not corrected, could be costly toward a deep playoff run. The power play is likely to improve.
Todd McLellan has acquitted himself well as San Jose’s head coach, having won three division titles, along with two trips to the conference finals. He’s been inventive as needed (Torrey Mitchell’s stint on the top line), and despite not making it to the finals, has been a bridesmaid twice. General Manager Doug Wilson isn’t known for blockbuster deadline deals, but it seems clear he’ll be in the market to improve the club this time around. With McLellan’s resume and Wilson’s summer escapades, the leadership group seems to be well in hand.
In previous years, the hope was that San Jose could overwhelm the opposition with wave after wave of marquee forwards besieging goaltenders with offensive attacks, not to mention the goaltenders flashing the leather and steering aside shots. Obviously, that did not pan out exactly as hoped, necessitating the moves Wilson made last off-season. With the strength of the team shifting slowly to the defensive side of the ice, along with the battle-hardened experience of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle, Antti Niemi and company, it seems that even with the offense regressing and some uneven play this season, the Sharks have to be considered one of the favorites to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup this year. Perhaps not the favorite, but any conversation about the subject should include overcrowded freeways, smog-filled skies and computer geeks with broken glasses within its parameters.