In Mark Twain’s anthology entitled Chapters From My Autobiography (published in 1906, just nine years before M*A*S*H stalwart Harry Morgan was born – unbelievably, he’s still alive), he famously opined: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Well, Samuel Clemens, let’s parse just a tad and examine that statement as it pertains to the recently-clinched Pacific Division champion San Jose Sharks.
To honor Colonel Potter’s fictitious army career, let’s set the table using the military jargon sitrep: San Jose now has 103 points, five ahead of the Los Angeles Kings with just two games left for each team. Although they are in a battle for the second seed with the Detroit Red Wings, they can finish no lower than third in the wild, wild West. This year’s crown represents the team’s fourth consecutive division title and sixth since the franchise was founded in 1991-92. Without question, the Sharks have been one of the most successful NHL franchises over the past ten years.
Having said that, there are myths and misconceptions that San Jose has both proven and disproved, both this year and during the aforementioned ten-year period. For purposes of symmetry, let’s break it down in conjunction with the etymology of Twain’s statement – assuming he were a San Jose Sharks fan.
Lies. Each off-season, NHL General Managers spin the wheel like featured contestants on The Price is Right, pulling out their checkbooks in frenzied efforts to virtually purchase a Stanley Cup championship. Sure, they may parrot comments like “build through the draft”, but all too often, they cannot resist the temptation of a quick fix via throwing money at all-too-eager free agents. Who can forget the seven year, $51.5 million blockbuster deal Scott Gomez signed in 2007 to play for the New York Rangers? Not to pick on the Blueshirts (well, maybe just a little), Chris Drury signed a similarly-absurd five year, $35.25 million contract the same year, and Wade Redden inked a beyond-ridiculous six year, $39 million deal one year later. Kimmo Timonen, Roman Hamrlik, Rick DiPietro, Daniel Briere, Shawn Horcoff, Ryan Smyth … the list goes on and on with respect to high-dollar NHL signings that went fiscally far beyond their commensurate on-ice performances.
Truths. The Sharks drafted and developed the following players who have played on this season’s squad: Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Ryan Clowe, Logan Coture, Devin Setoguchi, Jason Demers, Torrey Mitchell, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Douglas Murray, Justin Braun, Jamie McGinn, Derek Joslin, John McCarthy, Alex Stalock, Tommy Wingels, and Frazer McLaren. If you’re keeping track, that’s five top-six caliber forwards and three top-four defensemen, plus extras. Yes, the Sharks have signed a reasonable number of free agents, but essentially just to supplement a home-grown core. Above all else, holding firm to this approach has kept San Jose in the upper echelon of the NHL for a decade.
Damned Lies. There really is only one, and it’s the one that has haunted the San Jose Sharks for the better part of their existence. To wit, five division championships and thirteen playoff appearances in sixteen seasons, and yet just two trips past the second round. Zero Cups. Therefore, the Sharks are perennial playoff underachievers. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Damned Truths. Correction: the Sharks were perennial playoff underachievers. One of those two trips to the conference finals was just last year. How did they get there? Merely by beating the Colorado Avalanche 4-2 in the quarterfinals (after falling behind 2-1 and losing home ice advantage to boot) and then demolishing the Detroit Red Wings 4-1 in the conference semifinals. Let’s enjoy the Patrick Marleau overtime winner which put San Jose up 3-0 in that series, shall we?
Granted, one run through the Western Conference playoffs doesn’t fully negate a litany of previous whiffs. It’s going to take repeated, deep excursions to do that, if not the Cup itself. That’s the price of being a standard-bearer for regular season success. However, it certainly helps that it happened just last season, not to mention the way it was accomplished: overcoming an early deficit against a solid, 95-point Colorado team, followed by disintegrating one of the most storied franchises in the NHL over the past fifteen years. Wings never tasted so sweet.
Statistics. Here are some key numbers from this season that demonstrate why San Jose is an elite NHL franchise and may well portend good things to come once again during these playoffs:
Offense: 6th (2.96 G/G)
Defense: 10th (2.54 G/G)
Power Play: 2nd (23.3%)
Shots: 1st (34.6)
Shots Allowed: 8th (28.8)
Faceoffs: 2nd (53.9%)
Winning Percentage – Scoring First: 6th (.738)
Number of Top-50 Point Scorers: Five (Marleau, Thornton, Pavelski, Heatley, Clowe)
Starting Goalie G.A.A.: 9th (Niemi, 2.38)
This is a very deep, well-balanced team. The offense and defense each rank within the league’s top ten in most significant categories. The top six is one of the most diverse and dangerous in the NHL. The defense is somewhat less heralded, but comprised of a solid blend of experience (Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray, Ian White, Niclas Wallin) and youth (Jason Demers, Marc-Edouard Vlasic). They also have a Cup-winning goaltender between the pipes in Antti Niemi.
Time will tell whether or not San Jose can live up to their marquee billing and advance to the Stanley Cup finals this year. There’s no doubt they’ve heard their fill of the dire predictions and mischaractization of their leadership and internal fortitude over the years. However, let the league be forewarned: the Sharks are circling the waters, and as Colonel Potter once said, “Never insult seven men when all you have is a six-shooter.”