Solutions to San Jose Sharks' Biggest Problems Early in 2013-14
The Sharks currently sit atop the Pacific Division with a 10-1-1 record, their only regulation blemish courtesy of a Boston Bruins goal scored with less than a second remaining.
But you literally could not have written this article a week ago. Everything was clicking for San Jose, who led the league in virtually every offensive statistic—individual and team.
The Sharks’ early success didn’t come without its challenges, however. Except instead of wavering or making excuses, the adversity actually seemed to make the Sharks stronger. Every setback created an opportunity, and the Sharks seized each one with unflinching authority.
But the NHL season is a marathon, and the Sharks have a long road ahead, filled with challenges. Given the team’s hot start, they may not be as glaring, but there are definitely a few concerns that have begun to rear their ugly heads in San Jose.
Problem: Heavy Traffic in the Training Room
You wouldn’t know it based on their record, but the San Jose Sharks are hurting.
Assistant captain and defensive leader Dan Boyle has missed seven games and counting after being knocked out of the Sharks’ game against the St. Louis Blues.
Team yeti, Brent Burns, followed suit, taking a stick and puck to the mouth over the course of a week. Initially only expected to miss a game with “sore gums,” Burns has missed four games so far, and according to CSN Bay Area’s Kevin Kurz, there’s still some “uncertainty” surrounding his return.
Tommy Wingels, San Jose’s hits leader and third line work horse, received a concussion from a hit to the head by Boston’s Zdeno Chara, forcing Wingels to miss the final two periods in Boston, as well as the following game in Montreal.
Rookie Tomas Hertl has left games twice for extended periods of time as a result of awkward collisions.
And if that wasn't enough, the Sharks haven’t even seen the likes of Marty Havlat (groin), Raffi Torres (knee surgery) or Adam Burish (back surgery).
Solution: Unfortunately, there’s not too much the Sharks can do to avoid the natural hazards of the game.
The team traded for a surprisingly swift enforcer in Mike Brown to make sure opponents knew that there would be consequences to ill-conceived actions. But no enforcer can prevent injury in the first place, and for the time being, the Sharks are stuck waiting.
On a related note, basic math suggests an entirely different problem looming should the Sharks ever get fully healthy.
Problem: The Inevitable Offensive Struggles
It felt all too familiar to San Jose Sharks fans.
After a 7-0-0 start to 2012-13, the Sharks’ offense went stone cold. Sixteen goals over the course of the next 12 games left everyone scrambling for answers.
After a scorching 7-0-1 start to 2013-14, the Sharks abruptly rejoined reality with a hard-earned, 1-0 shootout victory over the Detroit Red Wings. The high-flying Sharks had been averaging nearly five goals per game leading up to the game in Detroit.
But it didn’t stop there.
Despite outshooting the Bruins 39-17, the Sharks only managed to find the back of the net once. And to make matters worse, the Sharks failed to weather a late offensive surge by Boston, surrendering the game-winning goal with just 0.8 seconds remaining and handing the Sharks their first regulation loss of the season.
Two days later in Montreal offered a similar storyline. A nice tic-tac-toe power-play goal put the Sharks on the board, but if not for a fluky ricochet off the end boards to make it 2-0, it could have come down to the wire yet again.
The Sharks seem to have righted their three-game skid Sunday evening in Ottawa with a 5-2 victory, but this won’t be the last time the Sharks experience a lack of offense this season.
Solution: Don’t panic just yet—stay the course and believe in what got you to this point.
Even in their brief skid, the Sharks came away with four points out of a possible six, thanks in large part to goaltender Antti Niemi.
Niemi’s recent performances should give the Sharks confidence about their ability to compete in tight games when the offense isn’t clicking.
Despite facing just 17 shots, Niemi made an inordinate amount of phenomenal saves in Boston, keeping the Sharks in the game while the offense struggled to score.
Two days prior, he made an unbelievable pad save to preserve the shootout victory that left the Red Wings’ Todd Bertuzzi in utter disbelief.
That said, the Sharks are too potent offensively and will always be surrounded by questions when the offense isn’t producing “like it should.” Head coach Todd McLellan does a good job maintaining perspective for his group, never getting too high or too low.
Ultimately, the balanced offensive contributions the Sharks have received early will go a long way to relieve some of the pressure on players like Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture.
Problem: The Demanding Goaltending Workload
San Jose never seems to be particularly trusting of their backup goaltenders, and this season is no exception. Even as the score against the New York Rangers crept closer to double digits, backup Alex Stalock remained firmly planted on the end of the bench.
The Sharks were finally forced to tap Stalock for the second half of a back-to-back in Ottawa, after Niemi made 11 straight starts to open the season.
This puts Niemi on pace to start 75 of the Sharks' 82 games, a mark no starting goaltender has touched in four seasons. In fact, only one goaltender over the last 10 seasons has led their team to the Cup after starting more than 70 regular season games (Brodeur—73).
When Niemi won the Cup with Chicago in 2010, he started 39 games before the playoff run. Since then, he’s started 60 and 68 games in his two full seasons in San Jose.
Niemi’s numbers have him at the center of Vezina Trophy talks early as the league’s best goaltender, but without help, the Sharks face the real potential of an exhausted goaltender when the games matter most.
Furthermore, Niemi’s impressive play early has only increased the likelihood that he will be selected for Team Finland at the 2014 Olympics, further adding to his workload.
Solution: The Sharks simply have to find games for Stalock if they have any hopes of keeping Niemi even remotely fresh for a long playoff run.
Stalock was impressive in his first NHL start, making 38 saves en route to a 5-2 victory Sunday in Ottawa. But the small sample size will be unlikely to alter the hesitancy the Sharks have maintained when dealing with back up goaltenders.
Finland is loaded with goaltenders, so there’s still a tiny chance Niemi could get passed over. Should that happen, the three-week Olympic break could allow Niemi to come back refreshed, making 75 games slightly more viable.
But the Sharks can't rely on this scenario and could very well find themselves in trouble come playoff time if they don't find a way to ease Niemi's heavy workload.
Problem: Hertl Exhausted Already?
After exploding onto the scene with seven goals in his first five games, Sharks rookie Tomas Hertl seems to have stalled a bit.
Since notching his seventh goal two weeks ago against Ottawa, Hertl has looked decidedly less “mutant ninja,” logging just two assists in six games. He did manage to break through Sunday night, much to the chagrin of the Senators, the victims on each end of Hertl’s drought.
But even more concerning to the Sharks than Hertl’s lack of scoring are the concerns surrounding his durability and conditioning. Hertl has looked sluggish at times, prompting head coach Todd McLellan to swap him for fourth-liner John McCarthy against the speedy Canadiens early on.
Solution: Take a deep breath; it was bound to happen.
No player, let alone a 19-year-old rookie, has ever scored goals at that rate. Yet the Sharks had to be happy to catch a glimpse of that infectious smile Sunday in Ottawa, marking Hertl’s first goal away from the SAP Center.
The concerns about his durability are, however, legitimate. Hertl has played a 50-game season only once in his young career, and even that took place in a league that spans an area smaller than the state of Maine.
The Sharks are less than a quarter of the way through their grueling schedule and still have a lot of miles ahead of them. Even if it’s not in the box score, Hertl will need to find ways to contribute in order to maintain his coveted spot in the lineup.
For the time being, his upside is too significant to limit his opportunities to the fourth line, particularly when the alternative is playing along side one of the league’s best passers in Thornton.
But when game situations are less conducive to Hertl’s strengths (like the one in Montreal), McLellan may opt to rest the youngster as much as possible knowing the Sharks are planning for the long haul.
Problem: Lack of Offensive Contributions from the Bottom Six
It would be easy to combine the lack of production from the third and fourth lines into the lack of team offense discussed earlier. But supplemental scoring from non-key players is a separate problem.
The Sharks witnessed it first-hand last season when they didn’t receive a goal from a bottom-six forward until their 10th game.
The 2013-14 season has been a different story, offering a balanced scoring attack with 12 Sharks forwards lighting the lamp, leading many to believe that this is the best Sharks team ever.
But amidst San Jose’s three-game sputter, the Sharks received a mere 4 goals, including the lone shootout tally in Detroit. And to make matters worse, Logan Couture netted three of the four goals and assisted on the only one he didn’t score himself.
Solution: Keep working hard, keep putting the puck on net, good things will happen.
Virtually every line except the Couture-Marleau-Kennedy line has been in disarray over the course of this early season road trip. So it’s not entirely coincidental that the Sharks have been low on production, as bodies have moved around to fill holes left by injured players.
McLellan and his staff have done well plugging holes in the top three lines without unnecessarily disrupting the other lines in the process.
It would have been so easy for McLellan to move third line center Joe Pavelski to the top line in Brent Burns' absence. But with Tommy Wingels missing, moving Pavelski would have decimated an already weakened line.
Instead, McLellan has smartly elected to leave his primary pieces in their normal spots to provide a degree of consistency and used Worcester call-ups like Freddie Hamilton and fourth-liners John McCarthy and James Sheppard to fill the holes left by Burns and Wingels.
Not detoured by the lack of offense, McLellan's heady decisions not to front-load his offense paid off in Ottawa. Eleven Sharks made it onto the scoresheet, including goals from Sheppard and Andrew Desjardins—the first for both players.
With production like this, there is good reason to believe the hype about San Jose.