The question posed in the title has a clear answer. The answer is no. There is no reason for San Jose to panic. However, there is plenty of reason to look at the team’s 6-6-0 start and realize it has not met expectations. Not close.
I’ll largely parallel this article with a piece I wrote for opening night, covering the keys for the Sharks early in the season.
The most recent Sharks game came against Pittsburgh and it did not remotely resemble anything the Sharks might have wanted. Pittsburgh won 5-0. Starting goalie Martin Jones was chased in the opening minute of the second period. By game’s end, the crowd was mixed with boos and cheers. Cheers from the Penguins fans who stayed until the end, and boos from the Sharks fans. Not exactly the send-off San Jose wanted heading into a challenging six-game road trip.
Integrating the New
The Sharks have two veteran players to integrate, and they are batting .500 on that front. David Schlemko has fit in quickly on the blue line, primarily opposite Brenden Dillon. Mikkel Boedker, however, has often looked like a shark out of water. Not much seems to be clicking for the speedy Dane. He sits at minus-5 with just two points. He’s been used on each of the top three lines; there has been no shortage of attempts to find him a line which works. Further, he hasn’t made much of a difference on the second power-play unit. It is a far cry from the player who put up a pair of 50-point seasons in the last three years.
A Quick Start
The Sharks entered the season with as much continuity as any team in the league. This continuity should have given the team an advantage over the rest of the league. It was an opportunity to bank a healthy number of points while other teams were trying to come together. With just 12 points in 12 games, it hasn’t played out that way.
Failing a quick start could be forgiven if the team was forgoing some of the continuity benefit to experiment with developing younger players. But this hasn’t happened. None of the promising Sharks prospects have played in a Sharks game yet. Even defenseman Dylan DeMelo, who played half the season for the Sharks last year and is the seventh defenseman on the Sharks roster, has yet to see a game.
The Sharks have several promising forwards on their AHL squad, the San Jose Barracuda. Early in the season is a great time to expose promising AHL players to the NHL. Even if the players struggle in making the initial leap to the NHL, there is a silver lining. The players will learn about the deficiencies in their game, which aids their development process, whether the continuing development happens in the AHL or NHL.
In goal, rookie backup Aaron Dell played only once in the first 11 games, before playing the final two periods of the twelfth game. It is in the Sharks best interest to provide Dell a chance to play often early in the season. If Dell struggles, the Sharks will need to go to the trade market. If he succeeds, though, the Sharks will be able to rotate him into the lineup with confidence. By playing Dell infrequently, it hurts his game and makes it very hard to know if he is cut out for the backup goalie job.
Dividing the Minutes
The questions about playing time now are really about the consequences down the road. Head coach Peter DeBoer recently dismissed questions about overusing his goalie early in the season.
Jones was also used heavily last season (89 regular and post season games, the last goalie to play 90 or more was Martin Brodeur in 2002-03). Thus far, he’s played 11 of 12 games.
As for the Joes, Thornton and Pavelski, I indicated prior to the season it would be tempting to give them big minutes in the early going even if this was not in the team’s longer term interests. Combined, their ‘per game’ minutes are almost identical to last season, with Thornton’s up a bit from last year and Pavelski’s down slightly.
Overuse of key players was something to watch for early on, the Sharks have not done well against this.
The top line, with Thornton, Pavelski and Tomas Hertl, was highly positive last season, a combined plus-66. The remaining Sharks forward lines were highly negative. Despite the top line trio going a combined minus-8 in the recent game against Pittsburgh, they are a combined even for the season. Melker Karlsson is even on the year. The rest of the Sharks forwards are all minus players thus far. The line balance, where effective contributions come from lines other than the top line, is not happening. Joel Ward, Logan Couture and Boedker are all minus-5 or worse.
The power play and penalty kill have been among the better stories for the Sharks. After a rocky start, where the penalty kill allowed four goals in the first five games, it has been perfect, with 18 consecutive kills over the last seven games.
The power play also started rocky, with just three goals in the first six games. One of the three was an empty-net power-play goal, while another came 5-on-3. The standard 5-on-4 man-advantage wasn’t doing much. In the season’s seventh game, results started to show. The Sharks buried four power-play goals in the next three games, winning each game. In the most recent four-game stretch, the power play has looked dangerous at times but has only converted on two of 14 chances. It also gave up a goal to the short-handed Penguins in the process. The second power-play unit has consistently looked out of synch. Seven of the eight power-play goals have been scored by a player on the top unit.
I highlighted Chris Tierney, Hertl and Dell as players who should be watched early on. Tierney attempted to take on the role of centering the third line, but it did not go well. I’m still hopeful, but he looks more at home in a fourth-line role. Tomas Hertl is doing well. He seems close to the player San Jose needs him to be, which was not a given after suffering a knee injury during the Cup Final series.
Dell, as discussed earlier, merits an incomplete; he has lacked opportunity.
An Unexpected Item Emerges
Brent Burns has been a force on offense, but regression in his game defensively is unexpected and disappointing. Given he was able to fix his defensive issues last season, I’m not overly concerned. But until he recovers his defensive game, the Sharks are not likely to be a top team.
The Sharks have underachieved in several respects to start their season. They have not gotten off to a fast start, record-wise, despite having tremendous continuity in their lineup. They have not shaved the minutes of their top players, something both the coach and general manager indicated would be needed. Their success in integrating new players has been mixed. Their involvement of talented younger players has been non-existent.
The Sharks seem to be missing on their early season keys. Fortunately, the Sharks appear to be in the league’s weakest division, which leaves more room for error along the way to the playoffs. Between now and April, a lot can change. For the Sharks, a lot will need to change. There is no need to panic, but the Sharks have not gotten nearly what one might have hoped from their first dozen games.
Yes, the SAP Center listed a full house for the Saturday night game against Pittsburgh. The house was mostly full. Still, there were probably at least a few hundred empty seats, some in blocks. This game fit a ‘best case scenario’ for a packed house. A great opponent with marquee names on a Saturday night with large numbers of fans from the opposing team showing up. And yet, it wasn’t packed. This suggests the Sharks may be challenged to fill the Shark Tank for the less glamorous regular season games. This was a major problem last season. The game against Pittsburgh doesn’t provide a guide to whether things have improved. It does, however, suggest even the run to the Stanley Cup Final last season has not fully fixed the attendance issue.
ZEKE is a native of the DC area where he witnessed the birth of the Capitals franchise. After graduating from Cornell University, which had seen hockey glory before he arrived, he moved west to San Jose. There he witnessed the birth of the Sharks franchise. His wait to witness a Championship from any of these teams finally ended in 2018.