Yeah, every team has complaints about the schedule. If your team travels more than any other, you probably deserve that itty bitty violin solo more than most. But in the case of the San Jose Sharks, one really does have to question, “what was the NHL thinking?”
On Saturday night, the Sharks will play the Washington Capitals at the Shark Tank. It will mark just the second time since the start of February, a period of 20 games, that the Sharks will have played consecutive games in the same venue.
The Sharks had a three game homestand between January 23 and January 26. The All-Star break followed. Ever since then, the Sharks have been on the move. Here is the list of major cities the Sharks have played in, in chronological order, since the start of February. The air miles to get to the host city from the prior destination is in brackets. The lone time the Sharks did not have to travel their next game is highlighted in bold italics:
St Louis (1590)
San Jose (1848)
San Jose (0)
Sunrise (Miami 197)
St Louis (674)
San Jose (928)
San Jose (554)
San Jose (554)
San Jose (1177)
If it takes two to tango, it ought to take three to make it a homestand. And while the Sharks have played six homes games in this period, they have yet to play something that looks like a homestand. It is more like they are visitors who happen to be visiting their own building.
The constant travel creates several practical issues. Perhaps the one most challenging to manage is the balance between practice and rest. The Sharks have several older players including Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Coach Peter DeBoer recognizes that limiting their practice time matters (prior coach Sharks Todd McLellan did much the same). Though Brent Burns is still very much in his prime, he is fifth in the league ice time. Rest matters for him as well.
The consequences of all this travel appear to be showing up. In recent back to back games, the Sharks found themselves on the penalty kill seven times in each game. It might be special teams which have suffered the most from the lack of practice. Since the last consecutive home games ended on February 13, the Sharks have been shorthanded 32 times and on the power play 32 times. In this time, the Sharks have scored only five power play goals, but given up eight short-handed, for a three goal deficit. Prior to this, the Sharks had scored 43 power play goals, while allowing just 32 short-handed, an 11 goal advantage.
Fortunately for the Sharks, this has not kept them from succeeding. Their record over these 19 games is 11-6-2. The wear and tear has shown up occasionally in games against teams like Carolina and New Jersey, but it has not been a dominant issue. The Sharks have struggled at home this season, they are still below .500 for the season. In this recent stretch, they are a modest 3-2-1 at the Shark Tank.
A saving grace may have been the run of weaker teams in the latter part of this travel. Six of the first eight games of this stretch were against teams definitely headed to the playoffs. Since then, nine of their eleven games have been against teams that definitely will not make the playoffs. Only one game was against a team clearly headed to the playoffs. If the amount of travel was a bit daunting, the strength of schedule was not.
The truly bizarre portion of the schedule has ended. The Sharks will finish the season playing most of their remaining 15 games at home, balanced evenly between the better teams and the also-rans.
Lastly, for the record, in the only game the Sharks played a second consecutive game in the same venue during this stretch, they won, 4-1, over Arizona.
On the subject of schedules and given the history, it seems a surprise the schedule makers offered only one Sharks game against core rivals after February 2nd. The Sharks don’t play Anaheim in their final 33 games with just one tilt against Los Angeles. That game is coming up on March 28. Not to worry, the rivalry will be back for the playoffs, as intense as ever.
March 12, 2016 is the third anniversary of the move that has become most the discussed and contentious in recent Sharks history. On that day, Brent Burns returned to the Sharks line-up from an injury. Coach Todd McLellan changed his position and debuted him as a forward in even-strength play. Burns would score an even strength goal in a 4-2 loss in St. Louis. The next game, on March 14 against the Kings, Burns had a goal and an assist (both at even strength). He was the game’s first star. So began the great debate about which position Burns should play.