One can look at the San Jose Sharks and say a lot is going well. And it is true, a lot is going well. The Sharks are locking down a playoff spot, with a good chance of earning the top seed in the Western Conference. Further, the team seems to be improving despite the absence of two important players, Evander Kane and Erik Karlsson. Goalie Martin Jones’ game is finally on the upswing while Joe Thornton is showing he’s capable of being a dominating third line center. The team has won six of seven, mostly against playoff teams and contenders.
But not far below the surface are an unusual number of emotional situations which both individuals and the team must handle well.
In a tweet on Thursday, Evander Kane shared devastating news. There’s a ton which can be said, but I’ll limit it two comments. First condolences to Kane, the families and those who love them.
A message from my family and I pic.twitter.com/q8sPXQkWh8
— Evander Kane (@evanderkane_9) March 14, 2019
There’s no easy segue to the second point, which goes back to hockey. This sort of tragedy can make it much harder to do just about anything in life, let alone play hockey at the level required for a Stanley Cup. Every person handles tragedy differently and dealing with this often takes place over periods measured in units of months and years.
The playoffs begin in four weeks.
This season features the best roster in Sharks history with Thornton, a Hall-of-Fame lock, in a third-line center role. After a slow start, he has found his game, or at least most of it (still too many turnovers). Thornton blew out both his left knee (24 months ago) and his right knee in (14 months ago). He’ll be a strong candidate for comeback player of the year (formally known as Masterton Trophy) in the NHL, the first time the durable Thornton has been in this situation. But what he most wants is the Stanley Cup. This is Thornton’s best chance, perhaps his last chance, to hoist hockey’s holy grail. It is an ‘all-in’ season for both the Sharks collectively and Thornton is the emotional heart of the team. The emotions are strong.
Up until an injury in mid-January, Erik Karlsson was the Sharks best defenseman, which is no small statement given the likely Norris Trophy winner is teammate Brent Burns. But the injury Karlsson suffered in mid-January has been problematic – he made a comeback attempt after missing nine games, but it failed and he’s back to being injured. His path back into the lineup carries some major questions. Will he be fully healthy before the playoffs and get a few games to take off the rust? And who will be his partner?
This all plays against the backdrop of a player whose future in San Jose is clear as mud. There’s certainly been plenty of time for Karlsson and his representatives to iron out an eight-year deal with Sharks general manager Doug Wilson. But it hasn’t happened. The Sharks have a long history of trading for big-name players who then re-sign with the team for the long-term. Kane recently joined this list which includes, among others, Burns and Thornton. The uncertainty around Karlsson’s future can become a distraction and impact the dynamics of the Sharks team.
The Sharks’ newcomer in his first NHL season took on a big job and filled it well, right up until an awkward collision in the recent game against the Winnipeg Jets damaged his knee. An upcoming surgery effectively ends Simek’s season. In his stead will go Joakim Ryan, a frequent inhabitant of head coach Peter DeBoer’s doghouse. I like Ryan, he should fill in nicely in the slot opposite Burns. But DeBoer doesn’t seem to like Ryan and this could result in some unforced errors.
The issues with Simek and Karlsson are part of a larger set of defensive issues which carry emotional impact. DeBoer has frequently gone with the pairing of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Karlsson. But this hasn’t been the best pairing for either player. Karlsson’s best partner has been Brenden Dillon (by a lot) and Vlasic’s best partner has been recent line-up addition Tim Heed. Putting the right pairings together for the playoffs has not been a DeBoer specialty. Indeed, errors on this front have proven costly in two of DeBoer’s three playoff runs with San Jose.
The best pairings are simple. Burns-Ryan, Karlsson-Dillon and Vlasic-Heed. This puts each of the Sharks elite defenseman with their best and most complementary partner. It also means benching veteran Justin Braun once Karlsson returns, and that won’t be easy. Another emotional choice to be made.
In the midst of all these emotional issues comes another one, this one a major positive. Former San Jose player and current broadcaster Jamie Baker has and continues to deal with major mental health issues. These were detailed in a recent article by Katie Strang of The Athletic, covering Baker’s very deep and very dark struggles. They were severe and remain challenging. Fortunately, Baker seems to have turned a corner in his battle and his progress continues.
A tearful Baker was interviewed by fellow broadcaster Randy Hahn in between periods of the game against the Jets. In the interview, he noted, “I don’t look strong right now.” Au contraire. It takes tremendous strength to face the issues he faced and make it all public. Baker’s strength was on display, not his weakness. Hopefully, he continues to succeed and his story can act as rays of light for those fighting similar battles.
— San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) March 13, 2019
Long before these emotional stories occurred, this season had emotions and expectations all over it. Fairly or not, this San Jose team carries the weight of the entire franchise’s history; including a generation which has seen about as much on-ice success as possible without a championship to show for it.
Now, with the playoffs approaching, there are several intensely emotional stories in Sharks Territory. Some of the stories far transcend the game. Others are integral to it.
While teams can unite around challenges, it’ll take a lot to handle all these weighty issues. It is tough enough to win a Stanley Cup when everyone is highly focused and distractions are limited. For the Sharks, though, difficult distractions are present. How the Sharks handle these, individually and collectively, will have a major role in whether this team hoists a Stanley Cup.