In the poker game that is the 2010-2011 NHL season, the San Jose Sharks find themselves as the short stack at the Pacific Division table.
The Sharks took a gamble in the off-season that has yet to pay off—going with home-grown youth on defense and a pair of largely unproven veterans in net. While it helped Team Teal maintain their entire offensive core, the strategy has yielded just seven points in as many games so far this season.
This means the Sharks are on pace for just 82 points this season, far below the likely cutoff for making the playoffs in the Western Conference.
It has only been seven games, and may well be too early to make any reasonable numeric extrapolation of how many points the Sharks can expect to earn this year, but it is never too early to notice trends in the way the team is playing.
These trends suggest just how disastrous the combination of defensive liability and suspect goaltending could be, if the Sharks continue along their current path much longer. The defense has done Antero Niittymaki and Antti Niemi no huge favors with their play, allowing poor turnovers to feed the transition game of opponents resulting in dangerous opportunities on net. However, the goaltenders—in particular Antti Niemi—have been far from up to the task.
The Sharks defense has not played well, but they still have allowed fewer than 30 shots per game so far this season. Nonetheless, the Sharks have surrendered three goals per game. Niemi has been a major liability in net.
In his first three starts, he managed just a .879 save percentage and 3.71 goals against average. Then he lasted fewer than nine minutes against the Calgary Flames, surrendering three goals on the first five shots he saw.
Niittymaki has played markedly better, with a .932 SV% and 1.80 GAA in 233 minutes of ice time, but even if he does emerge as the clear starter, the Sharks still need a backup capable of spelling him for roughly 30 starts while still helping the team compete for points.
That puts the Sharks in a difficult predicament.
Going into the season, many felt the Sharks could manage to stay in the hunt until the trade deadline with their current roster, then swing a deal or two to put them over the top. However, early returns could spoil such a plan, as following that path could well see the Sharks become sellers for the first time in recent memory by the time the trade deadline arrives.
The Sharks must decide how to handle the debacle they currently face on defense and in net. Niemi played very little through the first two-thirds of the season in his rookie year leading up to strong play in the post-season helping the Chicago Blackhawks clinch a Stanley Cup. There is a chance he could see a mid-season renaissance and become an asset for the Sharks in the playoffs.
But can they afford to take that risk? Furthermore, if they do, will they even make the playoffs to see if it pays off? The answer is far from certain.
The Sharks could reach back to Thomas Greiss and pull him up from Sweden to backup Niittymaki. With the way Niemi has played, he stands a fair chance of clearing waivers. It could be the best option for the Sharks.
Regardless of what path they choose in net, they likely need to find a way to bolster the veteran presence on defense and help eliminate critical mistakes that have plagued Team Teal so far this year.
The time frame for both moves needs to be sooner rather than later.
The Sharks' defensive/goaltending gamble has not paid off, and does not look poised to anytime soon. It is time to strike and win some hands before the table leaders have a chance to truly pull away.
Time to Antti up!
Keep the Faith!