In our prior roundtable, addressing questions 1-3, we covered Shark subjects ranging from the top management to the backup goalie. Today, we continue our look into the Sharks 2014-2015 season with our second roundtable session featuring THW authors Kenneth Laws, Drew Weber and myself in the host chair for this one. You can read Part 1 of the roundtable, questions 1-3, at this link.
Question 4: The Sharks have been under the microscope all season and to mix a metaphor, sometime you see the trees and miss the forest. Are there issues that have been overlooked this year?
Drew: I think the most overlooked issues this year are the mediocre seasons by Justin Braun and Matt Nieto. While they haven’t been terrible, they were both coming off incredible years last season but have slumped in their departments during this campaign. Despite Nieto being a possession beast, he has been incredibly unlucky and his point total has suffered for it. As for Braun, he hasn’t been as dominant on the defensive side of the puck like he was last season. I feel like most of the media, including myself, focused a lot on Patrick Marleau’s struggles and overlooked the two Americans. In fact, Andrew Bensch is the only person I have seen publish articles about their issues.
Ken: First, I agree that Justin Braun’s season is overlooked. Mainly because he still pulls his weight, but expectations were much higher for him. It wasn’t until about halfway through the season when Todd McLellan put him back with Marc-Edouard Vlasic that he gained his legs. Again, I disagree that luck has anything to do with Nieto. His second year in, he’s not surprising anyone anymore and he has to adjust his game accordingly. But he’s still using his speed to his advantage. As Drew mentioned, his puck control is great, but the kid can’t finish to save his life. Coaches need to take advantage of what he can bring to Logan Couture’s line, his speed and ability to provide for the scorers around him.
Zeke: The medical staff. The usual disclaimer: I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one here. Both Raffi Torres and Tomas Hertl have had recovery cycles that leave room for a whole lot of questions. Hertl had a more modest surgery from all reports (no ACL involvement, which is supposedly the most challenging recovery), but is still not back to form and he has been playing for a full year now. He returned to action less than 4 months after the injury. Torres returned twice and hindsight made it clear that he should not have returned either time. With the ‘redo’ ACL surgery performed recently, Torres will have missed two full seasons and at least a chunk of a 3rd. Mike Brown had a set-back in his recovery this season from a broken bone in his leg. Forecast to be out 2 months, he missed 4. Mind you, the medical handling of Dan Boyle in the prior season was dicey as well. Getting the medical part right is very important to sports teams. I’m not feeling a lot of confidence in the Sharks medical team.
Drew: I don’t want to say it was overlooked, but the struggle between Doug Wilson and McLellan wasn’t very heavily reported; it was mostly implied. There was a lot of focus on the Joe Thornton-Doug Wilson dilemma, but it would have been interesting to get more information out of management about what they feel about each other. However, I understand that such a publicized debate would have only hurt the franchise more.
Zeke: I like Drew’s take. There were obviously times that Wilson and McLellan were not on the same page. If the owner feels a need for a single fall guy for this season, it is likely to be one or the other. Wilson and McLellan are too media savvy to add fuel to the fire. We will learn a lot about that relationship with the early offseason moves.
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Question 5: With all the storm clouds hovering over this year’s team, there have to be some silver linings, right? Let’s have some examples.
Drew: Melker Karlsson and Chris Tierney. While I don’t think Karlsson is a first-line caliber player just yet, there is no doubt he significantly helped San Jose’s depth issue. Perhaps placing him on the second line or even in the bottom six would be a more optimal position for him. Tierney, on the other hand, may have solved the Sharks’ third-line center problem. He is finally showing glimpses of being an incredibly smart and talented skater that can make a difference in tight games. Hopefully both of them will be able to continue their success next year.
Ken: I agree that Tierney and Karlsson are the bright spots. But this was the exact feeling we had last year with Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto. I can’t call them the saviors of the Sharks just yet. Tierney is my pick to really last on this team, but it needs to be a consistent development. Hertl and Nieto were thrown into tough roles right away and their production suffered. They need some sheltered minutes or their confidence could take the hit.
Zeke: I agree with Tierney and Karlsson, they stood out. I’ll say Matt Irwin if anyone is looking for an additional player. Irwin was awful early in the year, but had a nice second half. It is easy to look at the points, and those ramped up a bunch. But his defense was the most improved part of his game. He was -9 in early February, and is now +3. Quite a turnaround. I’m wary of 2 months sample sizes, but this is easily the best he has looked in his career. I also think Scott Hannan quietly had a much better year than most people were anticipating.
Drew: I think we also need to take a look at some of the veterans that had great years. The likes of Couture, Pavelski, and Vlasic were outstanding throughout the entire season and have given this club a lot of promise for the future. Hopefully they can keep up their level of play and become hall-of-fame candidates like the core generation before them (Marleau, Thornton, etc.)
Zeke: Couture may have had his best season. He took a lot of criticism over the year, but he was really doing a lot by himself. Patrick Marleau’s season has been discussed at length, including in our prior roundtable. Marleau was, in essence, a drag on Couture’s line all year. I look forward to seeing Tierney and Couture on the same line. Couture feeds off creativity and his linemates didn’t have that. Tierney does. Karlsson may be a good fit with those two and that would be the sort of line one could pencil in for a very long time. Alas, you have to put them together to see if they have the chemistry needed.
Question 6: The defining period for this Shark team was the collapse in February, the team was 3-8-2 and winless (0-6-2) at the Shark Tank. What should we have learned from that?
Ken: A whole lot of shoulda, coulda, woulda. San Jose this season was an average team disguised as a contender. The players were overlooking teams that were well below them and they got bitten by it. These players were not a complete team. The dysfunction had infected everyone. Forwards weren’t coming back and helping the D, goalies weren’t bailing their guys out, and the special teams was abysmal on both sides. It’s not as if the schedule was a grinder. At the time, only four of the thirteen games were played against playoff positioned teams. The team was listless, without a leader, and just plain bad.
Drew: February told me that the team didn’t have the drive to win. Losses to Edmonton and Carolina on home ice are inexcusable and demonstrate the dysfunction San Jose has had. If the Sharks won those two games, they would have three more points in the standings and likely taken the playoff race down to the wire, instead of being eliminated for the first time since 2003 with 3 games left to play.
Zeke: I think many assumed that this team could overcome all sorts of things because they had in the past. The team was not ready for prime time, it really was a so-so team. February was the proof. Sometimes reality is harsh. When the playoff push began, the Sharks showed how undeserving they were. The Sharks had no room for error and they made plenty of errors. Judging by what happened at the trade deadline, even management gave up on the team. Ken captured it well in the headline for his article: Sharks Trade Tyler Kennedy for a Bucket of Pucks.
Ken: I think the reality check is important. Maybe this team wasn’t really THAT good. Expectations were a little too high. They had underperformances all around the roster. The team was still rattled from that historic collapse, and their vets were just another year older. February might’ve been the REAL Sharks team that we should have expected.
Zeke: We have a consensus on this one: the team was exposed as a pretender. Look at the adjectives used here: dysfunction, underperformance, listless, abysmal. February was all that and less. To go winless in 8 chances at the home arena really is ‘all of the above’.