Might as well play spoiler right up front. Yes, the Sharks are better.
If the question asked was, ‘are they a lot better?’, the answer would be less obvious.
History tells us that this team had a four game win streak to start the year in October and a six game win streak in November. The four game win streak was followed by losses in five of the next six. When the six game November win streak finished, a downturn began that saw San Jose lose seven of eight.
The Sharks have had hot and cold streaks in very close proximity. Win streaks in October and November were not because the team had become good, simply that they had some good fortune prior to bad fortune. Or, as some might see it, it was merely regression to the mean.
Is this ‘hot streak’ fundamentally different? Let us look at what has changed.
The most obvious difference is that the Sharks are the healthiest they have been all season. Logan Couture is back and returning to form. Coach Peter DeBoer has split up Patrick Marleau and Couture. The coupling of Couture and Marleau was a carryover from the Todd McLellan era. It is unclear if DeBoer plans on making this split permanent. Moving them to separate lines may be DeBoer’s way of easing Couture back into the line-up; giving him fewer minutes until he joins his teammates in midseason form and condition.
DeBoer also moved Tomas Hertl to the top line with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski. Moving onto a line with Thornton and Pavelski is pretty much a cure-all for whatever has ailed a player, and so it has been for Hertl.
The improved team health has also led to a more talented fourth line. Chris Tierney seems to thrive on returning from midseason AHL stints and has played well since being recalled after a brief demotion early January. Melker Karlsson is a solid talent for a fourth line. Though DeBoer continues to roll out the very limited talent of Mike Brown for a meager five or so minutes per night, the fourth line is no longer an albatross for the team.
Dylan DeMelo has been solid on the third defensive pair after winning the spot from Matt Tennyson. While the coaches seem to prefer DeMelo, there is not a ton of overall difference between the two players. The other defensive pairs remain unchanged.
Goalies also remain the same, with Martin Jones dominating time in the nets. The Sharks wisely gave Alex Stalock some AHL games to keep him from getting too rusty and Stalock contributed to a win in the current streak.
In short, other than the return of Couture, there are no major personnel changes or surprises to account for this win streak.
Less Than Meets the Eye?
It would seem hard to take issue with a five game win streak where the Sharks have outscored their opponents 22-9. Sounds dominant, right? Alas, there is less here than meets the eye. The first game of the streak was a 7-0 blanking of the Maple Leafs, who were simply awful that game. How awful? The Sharks managed to score a goal on a 2-on-0 fast break, while short-handed! It really was that bad.
Throw out the stat-padding Toronto aberration and you get a better feel for how the Sharks have fared. In these last four wins, in regulation, they’ve outscored opponents 13-9. All four games were either tied or a one goal differential inside of five minutes remaining. The shot differential over those four games narrowly favors the Sharks 121-117. Two wins came after the 60 minute mark, one in overtime, the other in the shootout. In both those games, opponents had odd-man rushes in overtime which could have easily turned the result the other way.
It is not like the Sharks faced a Murderers’ Row of opponents, either. Calgary is sixth in the seven team Pacific Division. They also faced Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto. Last place in the Pacific, Central and Atlantic divisions respectively. Only the Stars, who the Sharks toppled in OT in their most recent win, are a good team. Even in this case, the Sharks managed to catch them in a bit of a slump. The Stars had managed only one January win in six games prior to their match in San Jose, which was the second night of a back-to-back for the Stars.
Ottawa, next up for San Jose, has only managed to win in regulation twice in their past dozen games, going 4-7-1. They have been outscored by 17 goals in regulation in that stretch.
On The One Hand …
Are the new line combinations making a major difference? As always, it’s the top line carrying the water for the team. In the last four wins, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and recent top line returnee Tomas Hertl have combined for three even strength goals and five even strength assists. They are a combined plus-9.
Meanwhile, the Marleau line, now with Joel Ward and Matt Nieto, has deposited two even strength goals in four games, with no even strength assists. One of the goals was an empty net goal. Combined over the four games, they are plus-3.
Over the same four game period, the Couture line, which also includes Tommy Wingels and Joonas Donskoi, has two even strength goals and one even strength assist. Combined, they are minus-4.
As for whether the splitting up of Marleau and Couture is having a major impact, it’s not hard to tell. The productivity is modest and in total, they are almost exactly even.
The new Marleau and Couture lines are not hurting the team. But they certainly aren’t carrying the team, even though they average a cap hit of about $10 million per line. It’s still the top line that carries this team.
On The Other Hand
That the Sharks faced low-end or slumping teams and beat them is a good sign. For most of the season, the Sharks have not done that with consistency.
The Sharks are playing winning hockey. They’ve been a bit lucky to have this win streak, but they have been playing a stronger, more competitive game. They haven’t established themselves as a good team yet. They have made their way into the league’s broad ‘middle of the pack’. 13 of the league’s 30 teams had between 45 and 50 points on Sunday. 20 of 30 had between 45 and 55 points. San Jose had 48.
After Ottawa departs, the schedule toughens up considerably. In the next month, the Sharks have games against division leaders Los Angeles, Chicago, and Florida. They will also face St Louis, Minnesota and Tampa Bay, all teams over 50 points. In addition, the Sharks have two games against Arizona, the team they trail in the standings by a single point. The five game win streak has come at a good time; the next month will provide tougher tests. Three of the five games in the win streak came against cellar dwellers. There won’t be any games against cellar dwellers in the next month.
The Pacific is widely considered the weakest division in hockey this season. Being above average might be enough to get to the playoffs. Indeed, the Sharks sit third in the Pacific and seventh in the Western Conference. The Sharks are in reasonable position. But if they are to be a playoff team, they’ll have to build on what this streak has brought them. Things are looking better for the Sharks. The next month will bring some clarity as to whether this is a decent team on a good and somewhat lucky run, or a team that is in the process of transforming itself into a contender.