The San Jose Sharks have put together a February to remember but even with all the good in the month’s first three weeks, the final week will be the most important week of all.
The Sharks Record
Sometimes life is simple. The Sharks have compiled a 7-1-1 February record heading into the final week of the month. They’ve tallied three or more goals in all but one game and allowed two or fewer goals in seven of the nine.
The team swept a four-game road trip through western Canada, including a pair of wins over two of the top teams in the league, the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames. They’ve won all five road games in the month, including the recent 4-0 shutout of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Sharks have averaged a scorching four goals per contest this month and to make matters even better, the issues with the Western Conference’s middle of the pack teams have allowed the Sharks to essentially lock down a playoff berth.
We can delight in Joe Thornton’s month. He’s been a milestone machine this season, passing one historic marker after another. But February stands above the rest with his most notable career accomplishment: He passed the most revered player in hockey history, Gordie Howe, to move into ninth place on the all-time assist list.
There were other milestones: Passing Teemu Selanne for 15th all-time in points was one, moving up another notch on the all-time games played list is another. For Thornton, the best moment was easy to spot. His hat trick against the Boston Bruins was his first in eight seasons. The hat trick goal was part of a thrilling comeback, putting the Sharks up 5-4 in a game they’d once trailed by three.
It was Thornton’s reaction to the hat trick, a joyous scream which came from somewhere deep inside, that made the moment special. In the two prior seasons, he required major knee surgery. He’s gone through two long rehabilitations and dealt with other injuries as he’s attempted to return to form. Thornton’s wordless, triumphant scream was both public and personal, but his message was clear: “I’m back.”
If Thornton resembles the player he once was or is even somewhere in the vicinity, that’s great news for San Jose and bad news for whoever will play the Sharks in the playoffs. Consistency remains a challenge, but the arrows are all pointing in the right direction. His February includes 10 points, nine at even strength, and a plus-four rating.
Other Notable February Marks
Brent Burns has had a strong month (13 points and plus-seven), he’s looking like the frontrunner for a second Norris Trophy. Erik Karlsson returned from injury, making the Sharks even more formidable. Five Sharks have topped the twenty-goal mark for the season, 10 are in double digits (it could be 11 shortly, as Melker Karlsson is one goal from joining the list). Ten Sharks have also reached the 30-point mark for the season. Kevin Labanc recorded his first career hat trick. Even goalie Martin Jones is having a good month in the midst of a bad season.
Fabulous February, Maybe
Ultimately, February 2019 in Sharks Territory will be remembered for what does or does not happen in the final few days of the month.
The NHL’s trade deadline is on Feb. 25 and the Sharks, all-in this season in their hunt for a Stanley Cup, will want a meaningful roster upgrade. While I like the Philadelphia Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds as a good fit, the more realistic possibility is the Ottawa Senators’ Mark Stone.
The Sharks have a number of conditional draft picks from the Senators as a result of the Erik Karlsson trade. Converting the ‘conditions’ into firm picks might help the Sharks net Stone, a right winger (the Sharks are loaded on the left side) and give the team a major upgrade for the rest of the season.
Of course, the Sharks are not the only team looking for upgrades. Their foes will also be doing the same and there are several high-end talents which may find a new home with a leading competitor.
For the Sharks long term future, February’s final days are as important as any. Retaining Karlsson is critical to the team and we may get an answer. After the trade deadline passes, the Sharks and Karlsson can sign an eight-year deal. Until then, the parties are limited to a maximum seven-year deal. There’s been a reason to delay re-signing Karlsson, but the reason goes away shortly.
The parties have had plenty of time to get a long term deal in place, ready for signing once the calendar says it’s okay to put pen to paper. A quick signing will be a relief for fans (I suspect the management already has their answer) though at least one report suggests Karlsson wants to wait until after the season ends. If he doesn’t sign quickly, speculation will begin on Karlsson’s future in San Jose and it won’t be the good kind.
The first three weeks have been good to the Sharks, but the last week of February might be the most important week of the regular season. How this week goes can have a major impact on this season and the next several years.
There’s been a lot of disappointment in Sharks Territory with the team’s reacquisition of pugilist Micheal Haley (one of the league’s best on this front). To be sure, Haley does not bring on-ice skills which can help the team in the playoffs – I expect him to play in zero playoff games. He was claimed off of waivers, so it cost the Sharks nothing but a roster spot and the remaining money on his very modest contract.
I said earlier that the coach should increase the playing time of the fourth line. This will help preserve the top line players who’ll drive the team in the playoffs. Haley will lower the fourth line’s playing time for two reasons: One, he’ll spend time in the penalty box for fighting, meaning others will add to their ice time; Two, the line won’t be as good with Haley, who isn’t as good as the alternatives. Don’t expect to see the fourth line play much in close games.
Rolling four lines will really help the Sharks, but Haley’s limitations suggest the coaches aren’t as likely to roll four lines all game long. He is the wrong direction on this important front. Even though I’m not crazy about Haley rejoining the team, I get the intent.
He is popular and the players appreciate him, so there’s that. I’ve noticed too many of the team’s better players ready to engage in fights and they don’t want key players like Evander Kane or Brenden Dillon exchanging punches. Not with their big goals for the rest of the season.
The perception is Haley will calm things down leading to fewer confrontations and dirty play. His first game on his return to the Sharks provided no evidence of this. Against the Pens, Phil Kessel’s high stick on Erik Karlsson was intentional. A multi-player scrum broke out as well. The things Haley was meant to prevent weren’t prevented at all.
Still, if there is one piece of footage the Sharks might want the league to see, it comes from the scrum. Sidney Crosby was throwing punches, but somehow he wound up not with his initial target, but with Haley. Haley wrestled Crosby to the ground, something less than a full-on fight.
I can’t imagine anyone in Pittsburgh wanted to see Crosby tussling with Haley and yet it happened. Perhaps other teams will take note, there is more risk to engage with the Sharks than there was before. Because you never know if Haley might wind up throwing punches with a top player on the other side. If other teams get this message (consider me a skeptic), Haley may provide value after all.