The San Jose Sharks entered their 10-day break with much to be happy about. For starters, the break comes at an extremely good time for the team. The team’s play had declined in the past four games; they’d allowed six goals in each game, one of the more futile defensive stretches in franchise history.
The four games all occurred on the road. The Sharks lost to both the Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers, not exactly the league’s elite. They also lost to the Tampa Lightning, the league’s top team.
In the final game before the break, the Sharks managed to give up five goals to the Washington Capitals in the first half of the game. Alas, the Caps are struggling too, and the Sharks recovered for a 7-6 overtime win. The game will go down as one of the most entertaining of the season, featuring a game-tying goal with 1.0 seconds on the clock, a hat trick from each team (Alexander Ovechkin and Tomas Hertl) and a ‘three-versus-zero’ odd-man rush. So little defense was played, person after person made the same joke: it was like the All-Star Game started early.
Clearly the Sharks played poorly in this four-game stretch, even with the win in Washington. If nothing else, the break stops the Sharks’ poor play and gives the team a chance to rest and reset. And they really can use the rest. The Sharks are among the teams with the most games played (52), most road games played (27) and most travel miles to this point (more travel miles than some teams will incur all season).
While many teams can use this break, the Sharks need it more than most.
Good Sharks News
The not-so-great four-game road trip came on the heels of a stretch lasting one-quarter of the season, 21 games, where the Sharks posted a 16-3-2 record. This surge has given the Sharks the second-best record in the Pacific Division and third-best in the Western Conference. In the team’s other 31 games, they’ve averaged a point per game, below the league average.
It is a bit unusual to suggest a team has a playoff spot locked down with 30 games left, but the Sharks are surprisingly close. In large part, this has to do with the Western Conference’s middle class, the teams situated sixth and lower in the conference. Even the sixth place team projects for under 90 points for the regular season, meaning the bar for getting into the playoffs out of the Western Conference may be exceptionally low this season.
The Sharks can get to 90 points by averaging just .84 points per game the rest of the way. The league’s worst record so far this season averages .84 points per game. In other words, team teal is almost certainly playoff bound.
More Good Sharks News
The Sharks have been relatively healthy, but injuries piled up prior to the break. When the team returns, one expects Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic back in the lineup. Karlsson has been the team’s most valuable player while Vlasic’s been the most disappointing. If the time away can help Vlasic find his game, the Sharks will be a much better team going forward.
The difficult schedule up to the All-Star break has an upside, the remaining schedule is much more sane. There are no travel sequences resembling consecutive games in Montreal, then San Jose, then Dallas. The Sharks have a Western Canada swing after the break, a three-game homestand and their final East Coast swing. By the time March 1 rolls around, the Sharks’ schedule turns downright favorable. Twelve of the final 18 games are at the Shark Tank and no road games require more than a one hour time change.
Sharks’ February Markers
There are three markers expected in the month of February. The first marker is, not surprisingly, Joe Thornton moving up on all-time lists, something he’s done regularly. He’ll soon reach the 1,000-point mark as a member of the Sharks; he sits at 998 heading into the break. The bigger number is 1,049 assists. Thornton sits at 1,045, good for tenth place all-time. The player immediately in front of him is perhaps the game’s most revered figure, Gordie Howe. Four to tie, five to pass Mr. Hockey. That’s some company.
The second marker is a date set in stone. The trade deadline is Feb. 25. It’ll be interesting to see if the Sharks make any moves. The Sharks are a ‘win now’ team and they’ll be looking for a rental which helps the cause this season.
The Sharks’ best assets are their NHL players, but ‘win now’ means they are more buyers than sellers. The top players aren’t going anywhere. Prior trades, notably for the ones Evander Kane and later on, Karlsson, have drained the team of one class of tradable assets, their high draft picks. And while the San Jose Barracuda have been good this season, there are no AHL assets which are likely to land a game-changing rental. How general manager Doug Wilson maneuvers through this period will matter; the Sharks are a legit Stanley Cup contender and the right move can make a real difference.
The third marker comes immediately after the trade deadline passes. At this point, the Sharks can re-sign Karlsson to an eight-year deal. Before the trade deadline, the longest deal Karlsson is eligible to sign is seven years. Discussions are reported to have begun. If Karlsson’s biggest issues relate to the organization, the Sharks are in good shape to get a deal done.
If the issues for Karlsson and his wife, Melinda, are more personal (do they like the area? fit in with the people? etc.), the outcome is less clear because less is known. I’d be very surprised if this came down to money. If the fit is right, the parties will get a deal done.
The Four San Jose Keys, Plus One
Earlier, I wrote about the four keys to the Sharks’ season. Better goaltending is a must, though they don’t need elite goaltending. The team needs to stop giving up so many transition goals, especially those from odd-man rushes. The improvement in this area played a major part of the Sharks’ 16-3-2 surge.
The power play needs to be elite, both in terms of drawing penalties and efficiency. It’s close, but not good enough, yet. And finally, this team needs its very talented group of power forwards to play behind the net. The Sharks’ power forwards are a matchup nightmare and taking full advantage of the mismatches will win a lot of games.
The fifth key is simple. Vlasic needs to resemble the elite defensive defenseman he’s been throughout his career. For several seasons, he’s been considered the team’s most indispensable player. This season, at a team-worst (by a lot) minus-13, he’s been a liability.
All these keys are very possible. Indeed, we’ve seen good progress on three of the five. Even goalie Martin Jones had a recent stretch of good games. Vlasic is the lone key where we haven’t seen much evidence things can change.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs Come Close
The Sharks are all-in this season. Is a Stanley Cup in their future? This is the best roster in team history, and if things go right, it can happen. Their playoff ticket is not yet punched, but they are surprisingly close. Winning the division sounds nice, but it is hardly necessary. The winner of the Pacific Division has gone home in round one of the playoffs quite often in recent years. Just get into the playoffs with a healthy team and the Sharks will be where they need to be.
For now, the Sharks can rest up. The schedule hasn’t done them many favors to this point, meaning this team can benefit from the break more than most. Sure, there will be a sloppy game or two upon their return, but this team won’t need to worry about getting dialed in right away. They can experiment with combinations and give younger players a chance to play a new or expanded role. The team can roll four lines and three defensive pairs game after game, without burning players out. They can insure Jones is not overworked.
The way it looks now, the Sharks have until April to get it right. For the Sharks, the second season is coming. And it’s worth getting excited about.
• When Patrick Marleau joined the Toronto Maple Leafs for the 2017-18 season, it left San Jose short a speedy left winger. At the trade deadline in Feb. 2018, the Sharks acquired Kane. Kane earns a bit more than Marleau ($7 million vs. $6.25 million AAV) and the two teams sport similar records this season. In terms of value, it’s all Kane. He has 21 goals, 21 assists and is plus-two. Marleau has 11 goals, 11 assists and is minus-seven, third-worst on his team. Sharks fans may have a sentimental spot for Marleau, but the team is far better off with Kane (even if he is penalized too often).
• Former Sharks forward Ryan Clowe needed to step away from his head coaching role with the Newfoundland Growlers, reportedly due to concussions. When Clowe retired as a player due to concussions, we discussed his complex legacy and hoped the best for his future. But we also said there was reason for ‘anxiety.’ He is only 36 years old. Once again, we hope for the best. There is no getting around it, though, this is troubling development.