San Jose Sharks Unit Grades for First Half of 2013 NHL Season

MJ Kasprzak@BayAreaCheezhedSenior Writer IIMarch 12, 2013

San Jose Sharks Unit Grades for First Half of 2013 NHL Season

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    Half of the condensed 2013 NHL season is over for the San Jose Sharks. It is time for the mid-term grades.

    Obviously the Sharks are not where they would like to be. Whatever is thought about the talent level outside of San Jose, this team was built to win a Stanley Cup and is probably facing their final chance to achieve that goal.

    Officially, they go into Monday, March 11, as the seventh seed in the official NHL Western Conference standings—right where they finished 2011-12. But last season they went into the final 24 hours of the season in the running for the Pacific Division title.

    This season, they are over five games back of the Anaheim Ducks and would not own the tiebreak. Their only chance they have would be to win all three games with at least one in regulation. That would close the gap to a manageable three games over the remaining 21 and give the Sharks the tiebreak.

    Meanwhile, they are only 2.5 games ahead of the last-place Calgary Flames and one game from being on the outside of the playoff picture.

    Then again, they are actually a half-game ahead of the fourth-seeded Detroit Red Wings. This illustrates how much this team is still in contention, how tightly bunched most of the Western Conference is and how ridiculous the system for determining standings is in the NHL.

    This is not on the coaches. The addition of Larry Robinson makes this a really solid staff with a successful history, and they have been focusing their attention in the right places.

    Remember many of the same players failed Ron Wilson. Coaches cannot play the game for the players (with a notable exception in 2013), so it is the players that should be graded.

    As a whole right now the Sharks would be an unlikely contender, but they might be one player away. They certainly are no shakier than the 2012 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings were at this time last season.

    Collectively, they can earn no more than a B- because their record (point percentage being the real measure) is better than just nine teams in the Western Conference and 17 teams in the NHL overall. Here is a look at how each unit contributes, with the individual players highlighted...

    MJ Kasprzak is a featured columnist and the original community leader for the Green Bay Packers (for whom MJ is a shareholder) and San Jose Sharks, and covers them and Bay Area Christian issues professionally for

Goalie: A-

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    Antti Niemi has been a rock for the San Jose Sharks.

    He has had at least an .892 save percentage in all but one game. That egg was laid by the defense that exposed him to the best team in hockey. It was also one of two in which he gave up four goals.

    In eight of his 20 games, he has not allowed more than one goal. His save percentage for the season is .932, and his goals against average is 1.96. Ninety percent of the time when he is in net, he is the team's best player.

    Unfortunately, he does not start every game. Thomas Greiss and the mop-up duty of Alex Stalock are 1-3-1 with a .903 save percentage and 2.85 GAA—not horrible, but all downhill from the first game shutout.

    With the standings so tight, San Jose cannot afford to lose games when Nemo does not play. If they rely too much on him, the condensed schedule could wear him down.

Blue Line: C

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    The San Jose Sharks are not just in the top 10 percent of the NHL in goals against because of their goaltending. Their blue line deserves a lot of credit for blocking shots and getting to loose pucks.

    But they are also one of the lowest-scoring units in the NHL. Dan Boyle is the only defenseman on this team with more than five points, which is why any discussion of trading him is insane unless it involves blowing up the whole team.

    Brad Stuart has five assists, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic has a goal and four assists. Both are playing very well in their own end and eating minutes, so their lack of offense can be absorbed.

    Justin Braun, Jason Demers and Douglas Murray are simply limited players. Murray is the team's best hitter and shot-blocker, but that is about all he does. Demers and Braun are still young and making mistakes but have shown their ability to at least move the puck even though they do not score.

    However, Matt Irwin should not be sent down again. For a team getting too few pucks to the net, his ability to get them through from the point—he had eight shots on 13 attempts Sunday in Colorado—and his decent mobility make him worthy of being in the lineup every day.

    Finally, Brent Burns played poorly when he was in presumably because he should not have been playing. He cannot be judged until he gets healthy, but the Sharks better hope it is before the trade deadline so they can get something for their blue line depth.

Forwards: C

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    The forwards of the San Jose Sharks have been dismal. Well, all but four of them.

    Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau have 35 goals and 78 points, accounting for over 60 percent of the total team goals and assists. The other dozen forwards have just 11 goals and 27 assists.

    Scoring is not everything. Michal Handzus and Adam Burish especially deserve kudos for their penalty killing. Every forward brings something to the table in his own end, and most are in the top quarter of forwards defensively.

    The top four have been getting the job done on both ends—only Thornton has more takeaways than Patrick Marleau, who is easily the weakest of the four defensively—and would all get some kind of A. Almost every other forward would receive a D or F because their contributions are in one end at best.

    Even with the top four rightfully making up over 40 percent of the grade because they collectively make up about 80 of 180 forward minutes in a regulation game, the unit as a whole can get no better than a C.