2011-12 San Jose Sharks: 5 Steps to Success
No true contender accounts for 30 percent of a team's win total over 40 percent of the way into a season. The Sharks may have won four in a row going into Monday's game and registered points in six straight, but have one win over a team projected to make the playoffs since Thanksgiving.
This team is expected to contend for a Stanley Cup, but looks like one simply trying to contend for a division title. The Sharks underachieve because they do not play fundamental hockey.
Sometimes they fail to do the things that make it harder on their opponents, like crowding the net and getting pucks deep. This was the case against Anaheim, when Joe Thornton got fancy with the puck high in the offensive zone. His giveaway led to a Bobby Ryan breakaway.
Statistically, the Sharks out-played the Ducks in almost every category: San Jose blocked two more shots despite the Ducks attempting 18 fewer and getting 15 fewer on net.
They are a team that reminds you for most of a game and the season of why they are projected to contend. But it is more about the timing of the Sharks mistakes and letdowns that lead to their failure.
Having five extra giveaways Monday nullified their slight advantage in the faceoff circle (25-24) and in takeaways (9-6). The hole they dug for themselves last season left them weary in the playoffs. Coupled with the letdown in the third period of Game 5 against Detroit forcing them to play two extra playoff games, they were left with too little in the tank against a faster Vancouver team.
Teams that do not play 60 minutes and commit mental errors at this time of the year do not win the Stanley Cup in the spring. It is time to accept that the shakeup that has been long called for must happen now—the first step to overcoming your bad habits is accepting you have a problem.
Here is the Sharks' 12-step program to overcoming their addiction to bad habits...
1. Demand More of Leadership
Joe Thornton knows the turnover he committed high in the offensive zone was costly. He also knows it is a mistake he should not have made.
So why does Todd McLellan cover for him in the post-game interview?
I can understand a coach not wanting the entire blame for a game going to a guy who made one of 14 giveaways that resulted in one of three goals. You want to make it known that there were too many giveaways and that one did not cost the team the game.
But that was not only the worst of the game, but only one of Joe's five. Do not make excuses for the captain of the team and its best puck-handler.
Sure, with how often he handles the puck, he will turn it over. But 5-of-14 is 35.7 percent of the team's giveaways coming from its best puck-handler.
Did he handle the puck over 35 percent of the time for the Sharks? Because that would be odd given he was not even on the ice a third of the game and other players handle the puck at least half the time he is on the attack.
It is time to expect the team's best puck-handler not to have a disproportionate number of giveaways. The reason they happen is not because of the physical error, it is his proclivity to pull up high and look for the aesthetic pass on the rush rather than play sound hockey and make sure the puck gets deep.
A good captain leads by example, and the one Joe sets is not good. If he wants to keep the "C" on his sweater, it is time to demand more out of him. The Sharks have had far too much lackluster play from their captains since the lockout.
2. Coaching Changes
As outlined in the article linked on the intro page, changing coaches during the season rarely results in post-season success. It is the move of a desperate team.
A team that is coming off two consecutive conference finals appearances and in line to win its division should not be that desperate. But the Sharks will be desperate soon if they continue to have the look of a team that cannot get over the hump.
The first step needs to be changing the direction of the current coaching staff. No more allowances for the mental mistakes of players. No more tolerance of letdowns in a player's focus.
And for pity's sake, recognize that the current penalty kill strategy is not working. How long before there is acceptance that the struggles are not an anomaly?
If a coach who is put in charge of the penalty kill cannot correct the problems, he would make a perfect scapegoat to shake up the rest of the team.
3. Personnel Changes
Of course, the coaches can only use the talent they have. And while the Sharks do appear to have more talent than production right now, perhaps that is not always true.
If the penalty kill is this bad, at least some of the blame lies in the players, even with changes to penalty kill personnel. The Sharks did better last season (with a different PK coach) before Scott Nichol went down, so one player might make a difference.
It looks as though the Sharks are hoping that is James Sheppard. But who knows how long it will take for him to hit the ice, how quickly he will assimilate into the system or how effective he will play?
Even if he does play the role as well as Nichol, having the success of a unit so fragile that one lost player can make it horrible is not wise. The Sharks need a penalty-killing forward like Sammy Pahlsson—what desire would Columbus have for an aging checking line forward in the last year of his contract?
San Jose would also benefit from a top-six forward to fill in while Martin Havlat is out and make the third line dynamic when he returns. Here making specific suggestions is worthless, and I will not bother.
Fans have suggestions all the time, and often they are simply not viable. There are limitations ranging from the other team's willingness to make the trade and salary cap details to changes in the standings and injury report in the coming days.
Only Doug Wilson knows what options are available to him. Depending on the cost, he could aim for superstars of fading teams being traded off late in their careers for a chance at a title, such as Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan, Daniel Alfredsson...exactly who is available is not important, because there will be multiple options.
4. Identify Assets
You cannot bring in either role players or stars without paying a price. It is incumbent upon any team to evaluate where it has expendable assets.
The Sharks do not have draft picks to offer. Too many good picks have already been traded away, so the best the Sharks could do here is sweeten the trades with a mid- to late-round pick.
The same can be said of prospects. Few players in the minors look even like impact NHL players, much less highly-prized ones.
Obviously, since San Jose needs another top-six forward, they are not going to trade one. The idea of trading one great player for two good ones does not make sense when the Sharks need more production out of their top lines. Besides, major trades rarely bring playoff success for the team that season.
Finally, if the Sharks made big trades and changes to the blue line, it is unlikely they would consider a trade of a major player on that unit. It is safe to say that top-four players are safe as they all have unique roles: Douglas Murray brings his physicality, Dan Boyle his skating, Brent Burns his booming shot and Marc-Edouard Vlasic his shutdown defence.
But the Sharks could form an entire fifth line of NHL-worthy players with their depth at forward. They have shooters and grinders, skaters and hitters—whatever a team may want.
Unfortunately, such players have little value. The young ones may be useful for acquiring a penalty killer, but otherwise would have to be made part of a package.
San Jose also has two physical veteran defencemen and two young puck-movers for the third pair. Any could be of value and the Sharks can afford to lose.
Finally, San Jose has an extra backup goalie. No team is really in the market for a veteran at this point, but the Sharks do not want to give up on the younger Greiss, especially given he comes cheap through next season.
However, they even have the cap room to take on a little extra salary of need be to make the deal.
5. Establish Your Identity
Right now, the Sharks are a combination of contradictions:
1. They are a puck-possession team that struggles with giveaways.
2. They are a big team that is not physical.
3. They are a team predicated on speed that pulls up along the halfboards.
4. They are a team with offensive-minded defencemen that gets too little scoring from the blueline.
It is time to make up your mind about what kind of team you want to be and play to your strengths. And do not be so enamoured with your passing skills as to take unnecessary chances that open the door for your opponent to get in the game.
A team this physically gifted with this kind of face-off skill just needs to be smart with the puck to control play. Dump the puck low and use your size to wear out your opponent and control the area in front of the net.