The San Jose Sharks missed an opportunity against the league’s last place team with a 2-1 loss on Tuesday to the Arizona Coyotes. It was a night where several of the Sharks competitors in the Western Conference playoff race also lost. A chance to put some distance between themselves and their close rivals disappeared in this difficult game.
Among the Sharks frustrations — the officiating was a disaster. Though the players and coach were reluctant to make direct criticisms, Logan Couture made his feelings clear. When asked if the refs were (euphemistically) “letting the players play,” he responded “that’s one way to put it.” Moments later, he was more direct, calling one of the plays against him “garbage.” During what amounted to a single shift, Couture was tripped twice (once into the goal) and smacked in the face by a stick following a face-off. A video review of each showed these were overt, deliberate and even more problematic, things the officials certainly saw.
For the Sharks, there is a disturbing pattern forming. Referees have bad games from time to time, but there is a rash of terrible officiating involving San Jose. Recent poor calls range from a dirty and dangerous tripping play by Columbus Blue Jackets’ Brandon Dubinsky (given a minor for what deserved a call from player safety) to four missed high stick calls in the game against Vegas (the television broadcast actually ran a montage of missed high-sticking calls) to a slew of absurd no-calls against Arizona. The Sharks have to be wondering what exactly is going on.
The officiating in the game against Arizona, though, marks a turning point. It wasn’t merely bad, it was dangerous. The NHL believes it’s important for players to police themselves and the Sharks have no enforcement. It is games like this one where the Sharks miss Micheal Haley, John Scott and for good measure, Ogie Oglethorpe.
Hertl the Bigger Loss
In the bigger picture, it was a different loss which likely matters more. The Sharks excellent young power forward, Tomas Hertl, took a hit from Nick Cousins, went down to the ice and hard into the boards. Hertl got up slowly, skated to the bench and did not return to the game. There will be little information on Hertl’s injury beyond calling it an upper body injury to the right side. Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer has indicated this is not a long-term injury, but a missing or diminished Hertl is a problem for the Sharks.
Hertl has been a critical part of the Sharks success this season, playing tough minutes on the Sharks top line with Logan Couture. He is fifth on the team in points, second in goals and second among Sharks forwards in total ice time. He’s been part of the lethal top power play unit. In Hertl’s absence, the power play struggled against the Coyotes.
Burns the Bigger Surprise
In the absence of Hertl, their biggest and best power forward, the Sharks opted to put an even bigger and more powerful player on the forward line. Yes, they moved defenseman Brent Burns to forward.
While Hertl departed in the first period, Burns took a half-dozen shifts at forward, all coming in the third period. Not surprisingly, he was effective. This included a shot off the cross-bar, a terrific set-up for Timo Meier in the slot and a heavy forecheck which left the Coyotes’ Alex Goligoski gasping for air.
Last season, I suggested DeBoer skate Burns a few games at forward. This wasn’t in the context of a permanent move, but the chance to keep him familiar with the position. This gives the Sharks options if a team manages to stifle Burns’ game as a defenseman or if other factors make it pragmatic.
While a permanent move of Burns to forward is not likely to happen (though some in the fan base want it to happen), the logic remains the same. Burns playing forward might be the most pragmatic move. The Sharks can adapt their lineup around the health issues they face. They have a fully healthy set of blueliners, but are missing several forwards. Joel Ward, Joe Thornton and Hertl are all injured at the moment. Marcus Sorensen is back in the AHL, and he is injured as well. Ryan Carpenter was lost on waivers. The forward depth the Sharks had early in the season is history.
Brent Burns to Forward?
If Burns returns to forward for the Sharks, it is a surprisingly straightforward move. On defense, Tim Heed slides into the spot alongside Joakim Ryan and this is the lone change. Ryan and Heed played together for a full season with the San Jose Barracuda and were brilliant together. While Burns won’t take Hertl’s spot on Couture’s left wing, he’ll take a forward spot on a line with either Pavelski or Couture. A bit of line juggling, but not much.
The Sharks forward lines will not suffer in Hertl’s absence if Burns is moved in. Asked about having Burns on his wing in the postgame media scrum, Sharks captain Joe Pavelski tried giving the pat answer, before breaking into a big smile (his only smile in the interview), said it was “exciting,” then used the word “fun” twice in the next five seconds.
If Burns stays on defense, the Sharks will need to add a forward to the line-up. The healthy scratch against Arizona was puncher Brandon Mashinter. Given the liberties other teams have taken against the Sharks in recent games, perhaps it is time to have the fighter involved.
The non-puncher alternative is probably Rudolfs Balcers, age 20. He is the most promising of the San Jose Barracuda forwards, though he’s never played an NHL game. It depends on what DeBoer sees as the most critical need, but neither Balcers or Mashinter are comfortable choices.
The Coyotes Game
The Sharks played a strong game, outshooting the Coyotes 41-26 and dominating play for long stretches. The Arizona goalies play extremely well. Starter Scott Wedgewood took three different shots to the head before leaving the game early in the third period. Antti Raanta came in and faced a dozen shots, but kept the Sharks off the board.
In the post game press conference, DeBoer was pleased with the effort, if not the result, “We created enough chances to score at least another goal, which would have given us a point. I can’t be too hard on our effort.”
The Sharks Challenges
Over the course of a season, teams lose games where they solidly outskate the other team. This is what happened to the Sharks against the Coyotes. But at evening’s end, what remained was a lost opportunity to gain ground, a key player injured, a line-up in flux and perhaps the need to bring in an enforcer.
It’s become a season of challenges. The Sharks now straddle the line between successfully overcoming adversity and passing the breaking point. I suspect we’ll hear the words like ‘poise’ and ‘composure’ over the next few weeks. If the Sharks can stay poised and gradually get healthy again, it’s still a wide-open Western Conference.
• With Hertl out for most of the game, it put added stress on a Sharks team playing their fourth game in six nights. It’s tough to explain DeBoer’s unwillingness to roll with all the players he had available. Two forwards (not including Hertl) saw under ten minutes of ice time, three others only about 11 minutes. Burns played over 28 minutes and Pavelski played 26, not the sort of thing recommended during a compressed part of the schedule.
• The Sharks killed 20 consecutive penalties with a manned net before allowing a power play goal to Arizona. It proved the game winner.
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.