Will the Real Sharks Please Stand Up?
In recent weeks yours truly has used the Jekyll and Hyde reference to describe the San Jose Sharks this season. They could also been referred to as a roller coaster, an enigma, Two-Face Harvey Dent, bipolar, any of these descriptions would fit the NHL team by the bay. After finishing with 111 points a year ago, the Sharks stumbled out of the gates to a 10-10-4 record through 24 games. Sure enough they faced an historically brutal road start to the schedule but losing multiple games to inferior opponents throughout the season is not a good sign. Just when you thought maybe the team was perhaps turning the corner with three straight wins over Los Angeles, Anaheim, and Chicago, they go and give up 40 shots to the Edmonton Oilers. Rather fittingly the Sharks lost to Edmonton 5-4 in a shootout on Monday night, the second time they have lost to the Oilers this season. It was just Edmonton’s third win in the Pacific division all season. San Jose has also lost to Buffalo, Florida, and Columbus twice each, and somehow won a game against Carolina in which they were out-shot 45-19. Furthermore, in two of the three games this season against a solid St. Louis Blues team, the Sharks were crushed by identical 7-2 scores. These games were lost within days of each other as part of the four straight games that Joe Thornton missed with injury earlier this year. If you don’t know what to make of the Sharks, you’re not alone.
What a Difference a Year Makes
The big differences from a year ago are that the Sharks don’t have the elite forechecking forward presence of Brent Burns at forward and defensively they are without the terrific play of defensemen Justin Braun and Jason Demers. Braun has struggled this season and is now hurt and Demers got off to a slow start before being traded back in November. The Sharks are weaker at both the forward position and on the blue-line than a year ago. The goaltending is the same old same old with Antti Niemi being average-to above average in the regular season but has only once been good in the playoffs (2013). The Sharks still feature a ton of top tier talent, even more so than the first place Ducks, who even with Ryan Kesler, are more top heavy than the Sharks. With Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the Sharks have a top six skaters as good as any team in hockey. The problem is they have failed to fix their holes or when they do fix a hole like moving Burns to defense, they open another one. Sharks moved Burns back to the blue-line this summer but never replaced him with anything close to an equivalent right wing. Not to mention while acquiring Dillon filled a need on the left side of the defense, giving up Demers was a hefty price. With Dan Boyle and Demers gone, all of a sudden the Sharks need a right-handed puck mover.
Instead of using the cap space they have available to improve defensively or offensively, the biggest names the Sharks signed this offseason were fourth liners Mike Brown and John Scott. That’s right, they re-signed one of the worst forwards in the NHL and signed the worst forward as an unrestricted free agent. Against the Oilers with Scott on the ice the Sharks were pinned in their own zone nearly every single shift. It wasn’t until the third period when head coach Todd McLellan benched the fourth line that the Sharks scored three goals to come back from down 3-1 to take a 4-3 lead. Some will argue the fourth line is negligent to winning games but recent cup winning teams have all had quality players on the fourth line that can play important minutes late in games. Depth wins Stanley Cups, and the Sharks have not had a consistently good fourth line for the entirety of their Joe Thornton era.
Fittingly when it comes to the Sharks, some have described 10 out of 14 points on the home-stand as “pretty darned impressive” but Logan Couture called it “OK, just OK, could have been better, should have been better.” Hard not to agree with Couture. Outside of the big three wins, the Sharks also lost to the Flames, Devils, and as mentioned, the Oilers. The Sharks left four points on the table against three teams behind them in the standings including two bottom feeders. Team Teal will get a chance to make up for the Calgary loss coming up on Wednesday night, the first of a crucial set of back-to-backs. San Jose has not been good against the Flames and Canucks this season, the two teams they face in this set of back-to-backs.
Against Calgary the Sharks are just 1-1-1, dropping two games at home, while they are 0-2 against the Canucks, likewise dropping two games at home. Both these Canadian teams are chomping at the Sharks’ caudal fin as they fail to swim away from the two charging squads. Winning both these games would go a long way for confidence purposes as the Sharks are very likely to face one of these two teams in the first round. Considering Anaheim is pretty much locked into first place and the Kings are scuffing along, it is in fact highly likely the Sharks face one of these two teams in a two meets three first round series. The Sharks did out-play Vancouver in their first matchup but other than that, both the Flames and Canucks have looked good in their games against San Jose. If the Sharks can pull out victories in both games, perhaps it will propel them to a consistent level of play regardless of opponent. I wouldn’t bet on it though.