October has come to its bewitching end, and for the San Jose Sharks, it was a challenging month. With key new players Paul Martin, Joel Ward and Martin Jones plus a new coaching regime led by Peter DeBoer, there was plenty new to consider. Prior to the season, I listed ten items to watch for early on, here and here, expecting we would be able to learn a lot about the team in the first month of the season. We’ll review all ten over the course of two articles. Most of the ten items show a clear direction.
A Tricky Start
The first thing to note is that it has been a tricky first month. Two key injuries had a major influence on the team (Paul Martin and Logan Couture), but several additional injuries to useful role players made it harder team to evaluate parts of this team. In the first eight games, the Sharks used 25 different skaters. Two more skaters who are expected to play useful roles have yet to see the ice (one injured, one suspended).
On top of the injuries, the Sharks seemed to play teams that were either going very well or very poorly. To start the season, when the Sharks were their most healthy, they won over Los Angeles, Anaheim, Washington and New Jersey. Three of those teams got off to very poor starts. The only team that didn’t start poorly from that group, the Capitals, were missing their two best players in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the night the Sharks played in DC. The Sharks two other wins came over Carolina and Colorado, both struggling teams when they played San Jose.
The teams going well, both New York teams and the Kings again (who started the season slowly, then went on a long winning streak) dispatched the Sharks with ease. These games coincided with the Sharks at the peak of their early season injury issues. When healthy against weak teams, the Sharks have been successful. When not healthy against hot teams, the Sharks have struggled.
It was not until the ninth game of the year that a relatively healthy Sharks team faced a quality opponent playing good hockey. The result was a solid game by the Sharks, albeit a 2-1 loss to Nashville. The tenth game versus the Stars provided a similar test. The game was entertaining with the result another close loss. The Sharks, a day into November, sit at 6-5-0, respectable given the injury challenges.
Starting with Depth
An item we expected to get some insight early in the season was how the Sharks might use their AHL team. The AHL team, San Jose Barracuda, has a new-found proximity to the big club following their move from Worcester, Massachusetts. The use has been evident right away. Players like John McCarthy and Brian Lerg managed to play games on back to back nights, one as a Shark, one as a Barracuda. Lerg has already been called up to the Sharks three different times, on October 19th, October 22nd and October 30th. Among others that have been up and down, Nikolay Goldobin, Mirco Mueller, Dylan DeMelo and Michael Haley. Instead of the “Woo shuttle” (the nickname for players taking the cross-country flights back and forth from Worcester), it’s now a walk down the hall. The ‘Cuda carpet? The Shark Stroll? The Wilson Walk? Alas, a better nickname should come soon enough for the players that shuttle (or shuffle) between the two teams without having to leave the building. We learned that the Sharks are going to be aggressive in taking advantage of the Barracuda locating in the same buildings as the Sharks.
We felt that forward depth would be something we would get a feel for early in the season and it has been an issue. Initially, life was pretty good and the Sharks were productive across all four lines. But that was before Logan Couture, Ben Smith and Joonas Donskoi went out with injuries. With Melker Karlsson still on the mend and Raffi Torres suspended for half a season, the forward depth was pushed past the breaking point. We learned that, if healthy, the Sharks can roll a deep forward group.
There were four items covered on the defense. The chemistry between the d-men and goalies, the 3rd pairing and what Paul Martin would mean to Brent Burns and his defensive liabilities were three of the four items. We have two answers for each of these three items; one when Paul Martin is in the line-up and another when he is out. In each case, the answers are a lot better with Martin, who missed three games, in the line-up. The chemistry with the goalie, measured as second chances, has improved with Martin. DeBoer cited this in his press conference after the game against Carolina when he indicated the team did a good job “clearing the front of our net”. Couple that with a goalie who doesn’t give up many second chances in Martin Jones, and that has been a nice step forward. The 3rd defensive pairing, Matt Tennyson and Brenden Dillon, has been pretty good. DeBoer broke up that pairing when Paul Martin went out, and nothing worked nearly as well. Putting Burns and Dillon together was a disaster. One of the things to watch for was if Paul Martin could rescue Brent Burns and give the Sharks a good second defensive pair. It turns out, Martin has partially rescued Burns. In the game against the Stars, Burns managed a minus-3 and was in the penalty box for a fourth goal. One goal came immediately after Burns made an unforced icing, another goal came on a poor pinch by Burns leading to a Stars fast break. Perhaps the most surprisingly result is that Tennyson, at least so far, has rescued Dillon. Dillon is minus-3 in games without Tennyson as his primary partner, plus-2 with him.
The fourth defensive item regards a bounce back for Justin Braun. It is looking good so far. Braun has been steady and effective, playing alongside the Sharks best defenseman in Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The pair sit at a combined plus-11.
What have we learned? That Paul Martin fixes a lot of defensive problems, directly and indirectly. That the Sharks have a 3rd defensive pair which seems capable of holding the fort and Justin Braun appears to have left the prior season struggles behind him.
That is it for the first part of the early season items to keep an eye on, we’ll finish with the second part tomorrow.