The Pacific Division has proven once again to be in the elite of NHL's divisions for a second year in a row. "West Coast Hockey" as its been dubbed, has players in every dressing room always insecure about their playoff spots and even their jobs, as the teams are in a nightly battle for seeding supremacy.
It used to be a battle mainly between the superpowers of the Pacific—San Jose and Los Angeles. But as we've seen this year, Dallas has begun to fight back and remind everyone that they are still there. Even Phoenix has started to garner a voice, still looking to win the franchise's first ever playoff series. Today they announced a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets as they acquired talented player Antoine Vermette.
But the boss of the west the last four years has been the Sharks, as they have won the division every year in as many. Right now they once again sit atop the Pacific Division. Their staggering play as of late could find them in a position comparable to Dallas' last year, fighting for a playoff spot until the very last game of the season if their attitude doesn't improve—and fast.
Let's take a look at what the Sharks need to do to continue their reign as Pacific Division champions.
Normally I wouldn't suggest something as juvenile as this, but when your main rival has a roster as packed as yours and their run as your team's essential architect, it's a good idea to block them from being able to make any strong deals.
Whether Sharks general manager Doug Wilson intentionally made an effort to dismantle the Chicago Blackhawks after the Sharks were swept out of the Western Conference Finals two years ago is entirely up to fan speculation. The fact is, something that someone did ripped that team apart. It wasn't all because of cap space as team officials would have you believe.
Right now, the war for Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash is still going strong in the media. And while the Kings may not be atop of contenders as they once were, they are still on the list. Nash becoming a King could be the crushing blow that might stop the Sharks from being able to keep ahead of the Kings during the regular season, and ultimately, defeat them in the postseason.
Right now, aside from whatever changes Wilson wants to make to his own roster, the biggest thing he can do from the rafters of HP Pavilion, is make sure that no one else in the Pacific makes any serious deadline deals without being able to answer with one better of his own.
As the trade deadlines nears, the Pacific Division is the mostly tightly bunched division in the NHL. No two teams sit more than three points apart, and just nine points separate the first-place Sharks and last-place Ducks.
At any rate, the Sharks and Kings had the highest expectations for their records heading into the season. So it's more than surprising that heading into the trade deadline, these two clubs are leading the buyer's market as the postseason stares them down.
A healthy trade at the deadline can sometimes be the difference for a team, as it injects some new culture in the locker room. A great trade for the Sharks could mean more than finishing atop the Pacific Division again—it could mean the clubs first appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Sharks' needs? A strong defensive presence at both defense and forward, and an offensive forward might just help tilt their once-lively goal scoring prowess. On the giving end, all the Sharks can really part with is draft picks, so in reality, there might not be a lot they can get.
I know for a fact that Columbus was interested in working a deal that would send Nash to San Jose for Logan Couture and some other provisionals, but the deal was immediately shot down from the Sharks' camp.
One thing that will prevent you from winning in the regular season, and will impede all postseason success, is ineffective special teams.
And with the 27th-ranked penalty kill in the NHL, it's safe to assume the Sharks special teams need a lot of work if they want to crown their fifth consecutive Pacific Division crown.
Even with the exit of Ian White, the Sharks power play has been their Achilles heel, as they boast the league's third-best power play.
But in the NHL, consistency is key. And in this case it means having a consistent and effective balance between the penalty kill and the power play.
The answer to the Sharks problems could be as simple as that. Perhaps the majority of the reason for their faulty play lately is from all the injuries they've sustained.
It's still no excuse. With 19 top prospects in their developmental system and the players they have that are currently healthy, there's still no explaining a four-game losing streak. Especially when it's been capped off by the team with the worst record in the NHL.
But it could still be a serious contributing factor. I mentioned in a previous article that there have been some alarming changes in goaltender Antti Niemi's style of play that I think might be contributing to him letting so many pucks past. His groin injuries this year have hurt him since the season started. Martin Havlat's freak accident has kept him for out almost three months. And most recently, the loss of defenseman Douglas Murray as a result of a fractured adam's apple of all things.
The powers that be have been working against the Sharks it seems, but that's nothing Sharks fans aren't used to. If everyone can get healthy, it will be a huge contributing factor to the Sharks' success, and ultimately, winning the division.
The last thing the Sharks need to do is the obvious thing—win.
I have written previously that the Sharks' biggest problem right now is they aren't functioning as a unit. They are a team, and they aren't playing like one.
Hockey is a team sport—you don't win and lose games alone. Not anymore. When the offense starts scoring goals, the defense will up the forecheck. When the defense ups the forecheck, Niemi will start standing on his head more.
They have to work as a team. And if they do that, it will be their fifth consecutive Pacific Division championship banner going up in the rafters of HP Pavilion next October.
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