San Jose Sharks: Positives and Negatives to Take from Season So Far
The San Jose Sharks have only just played their 12th game of the 2013 season. Putting too much weight behind any positives or negatives to the season so far would be premature.
On the other hand, they have reached the quarter pole. There are only eight weeks and 23 games left until the trade deadline.
Thus, general managers and coaches like San Jose's Doug Wilson and Todd McLellan will have to make evaluations more quickly. The team that adapts fastest is in the best position to win the 2013 Stanley Cup.
The Sharks are examining their pros and cons for the purpose of correcting it through practice, scheme or personnel changes. Here is a look at the top four items on each side of the ledger in the order of least to most significant in preventing or acquiring a title; note all stats and rankings used are through Sunday night.
MJ Kasprzak is the original Bleacher Report community leader for the San Jose Sharks and Green Bay Packers, and is now a shareholder for the latter. That beginning led to MJ being hired by Examiner.com to cover the Sharks and Bay Area Christian issues.
The San Jose Sharks have been streaky offensively, leading to both a seven-game winning streak to start the season and a four-game losing streak to follow. The face of the franchise has driven that engine.
Patrick Marleau scored in each of the first five victories for San Jose, with nine total goals. He had none until Monday, and was the only scoring line forward with multiple scoreless streaks going beyond four games last season.
In that time, the team has two shootout wins and five losses. That kind of inconsistency in the playoffs gets you eliminated.
Strictly speaking, if this season were a playoff, the Sharks would have swept their opening round and won the first three of the second round, only to become the fourth team in NHL history to blow a three-game lead.
With two wins and two losses this season via the shootout that thankfully does not exist in the playoffs, things may have shaken out differently. But the comparison illustrates how quickly success can turn into the end of the season, especially against the more consistent strong competition of the playoffs.
This is not new for the team, either. In 2011-12, they had three 15-game hot streaks in which they compiled almost three-fourths of their point total. They had 11 wins in the other 37 games.
The damage of slumps will be greater than the benefit of streaks come May. Trades and waiver pick-ups have failed in the past, so the only way of addressing it in-season is to ensure everyone is mentally and physically ready to play.
Some of the players have legacies on the line, and coaches could lose their jobs. At this point, the organization has hitched its wagon to this nucleus, and a change is more of a guess in a shortened season.
Power Play Slump
The power play of the San Jose Sharks had just one goal in its last 25 chances going into Monday's game at Columbus. That has directly coincided with their inability to get a non-shootout win in their last five games.
Teams that cannot make their opponents pay with the man-advantage are usually subject to more liberties. The Sharks have plenty of potential physically and even protective players, but teams would put them at risk far less if they knew they were going to pay for it on the scoreboard.
Not only does it make teams more tentative and thus easier to beat, but it protects San Jose from injury. They become a much less deadly team if one of the top four forwards goes down.
Slumps do not last forever, any more than San Jose's four goals on their first nine power play chances. They know some of what they must do to correct their power play woes.
They try too many low-percentage, skilled plays. They must modify their approach by continuing to move their feet, getting pucks deep and putting them on net.
Penalty Kill Success
As much as a power play slump is a negative, a penalty kill streak is a slightly bigger positive.
If the San Jose Sharks cannot score on a power play to make opponents pay for pushing the envelope, at least they can retaliate if the penalty kill is strong enough. It also allows them to play aggressively and take penalties to stop scoring chances.
At one point Monday, the Sharks PK had stopped 36 consecutive chances spanning over eight-plus games. This is at least in part thanks to Larry Robinson, who came over from the New Jersey Devils historic penalty kill that allowed only 12 more goals than it scored in all of 2011-12.
This is not an asset the Sharks can trade from, though there certainly is no shortage of good skating, defensive forwards they could assign if they decide to trade a penalty killer.
Lack of Secondary Scoring
In 11 of the 12 games the San Jose Sharks have played, every goal by a forward came from one of the two scoring lines. Only one other goal took place with more than one checking line forward on the ice.
This problem has only been magnified as the top line cooled off. A few more goals from the checking lines results in a couple more points and a virtual tie for first place in the Pacific Division.
Teams need secondary scoring to win Stanley Cups. But sometimes it comes from checking lines not known for it in April. This would be a larger concern if the Sharks did not have several players capable of stepping up.
Scott Gomez, James Sheppard and Michal Handzus have all shown the ability to create chances on the ice. Those chances are simply too seldom being cashed in, but there is talent here to believe in and give time to. The Sharks are assuredly looking past the score sheet and seeing potential on the ice.
Blue Line Play
The San Jose Sharks faced a lot of injuries to start the 2013 NHL season.
Brent Burns took longer than expected to recover from sports hernia surgery and was eventually placed on injured reserve to free up a roster spot. Jason Demers missed about two weeks of the season and Dan Boyle missed two games with an illness.
Yet they had players step up: Matt Irwin filled a depth role nicely, Brad Stuart anchored the back end of the top pair and Marc-Edouard Vlasic found his scoring game.
Despite relying on players unaccustomed to elevated roles, the back end has played well for the Sharks in all but three games. They hold shots down and clean up rebounds well.
Having this kind of depth is important because of potential injuries. But knowing the eighth man can step up on the blue line does mean having enough talent to make a deadline deal for secondary scoring ability if the unit is healthy.
Could that mean the end of Douglas Murray, already once a scratch and facing free agency this summer? Could it mean trading away a young talent like Justin Braun or Jason Demers?
While the blue line support has been important, the real reason the San Jose Sharks gave up just eight goals in six games (excluding the shootouts) is their goalie play.
Antti Niemi and Thomas Greiss both have shutouts and came into Monday's game tied for the best goals against average in the NHL (1.82). The net minders face more shots than eight teams they rank ahead of defensively, telling you that they carry more than their share of the burden.
Before a tough night Monday, Greiss had only given up one goal in the net. His other goal allowed was on a strange bounce—he was turned from the shot in the wide open cage he left behind.
Antti Niemi struggled against the Phoenix Coyotes in the home opener for the Sharks. Other than that game, he has been solid to stellar.
Goaltending is not going to be an asset you trade even though a second goalie often has no playoff impact. But it is important to get a team through the regular season to be in a good position come the playoffs. Despite last season's Stanley Cup Finals, most teams getting that far won their division.
As mentioned previously, the San Jose Sharks had to fight through some injuries on the blue line.
This enabled them to discover a young player ready to contribute at the NHL level. Now that that unit is healthy, there is no room for Matt Irwin, who has gone back to the minors.
They also added to their forwards. Scott Gomez has been active on both ends of the ice, and is arguably the most promising option for secondary scoring on the current roster. His addition helps minimize the lack of depth forwards in San Jose.
On paper, the Sharks have enough to win it all with their full roster. They have a solid goalie tandem, a deep and skilled blue line and scoring forwards potent enough to cover for substandard secondary scoring.
No one could give up possessions like Brett Favre. His 336 career interceptions is a 21.3 percent increase over the next-most prolific purveyor of picks in pigskin's past, George Blanda.
I could get no confirmation that Favre called Ryane Clowe to tell him that even he thinks 14 giveaways to just five assists and four takeaways represent unacceptable ratios. But the problem can hardly be pinned on one guy.
The San Jose Sharks actually turn the puck over 23.4 percent more often than the next worst team—a higher jump than Favre over Blanda. Turnovers are the most important indicator of success in any sport that has them because good teams take advantage of such mistakes.
If this is not cleared up, the Sharks will not win Lord Stanley's Cup. They are not about to do more than tweaks to their system mid-season, and no sensible roster moves will alleviate the problem. They have to be willing to make the simple play and have giveaways be their chief focus or this season will end in disappointment.