Just before the San Jose Sharks broke their season-high losing streak and began a stretch of games that has seen them tie their season-high win streak at four games (the second time this season that has happened), I cautioned them to tread carefully when it came to making changes.
While the results had been less than desirable—losing six in a row, suffering two shutouts and dropping from No. 4 to No. 11 in the Western Conference—the Sharks by and large were doing many of the things they needed to do to win. They were consistently outshooting their opponents, winning the faceoff battle and controlling the time of attack. None of those are statistical edges a team wants to forfeit by meddling with the lineup.
This advice was a bit of obvious hockey knowledge apparently not lost on Todd McLellan and his coaching staff.
They found ways to subtly juggle the lines (partially out of desire, partially out of necessity due to the absence of key players like Ryane Clowe and Scott Nichol) and made a few modest acquisitions (forwards Kyle Wellwood and Ben Eager) that have helped the Sharks turn their luck around while continuing to enjoy significant advantages in key categories.
The Sharks have averaged more than 38 shots and exactly 3.5 goals per game over their winning streak and have beaten key Western Conference opponents like Vancouver and Phoenix.
The streak has helped them climb back into the No. 8 seed at least for the time being—though with just one game remaining before the All-Star break, it is likely they will be surpassed and will find themselves outside the playoff picture once more by the weekend.
If the Sharks can beat the struggling LA Kings on Wednesday and enter the All-Star Break with a season-high five-game win streak, things would seem to be shaping up well for a second-half surge. But the Sharks must proceed with caution.
Only Logan Couture and Dan Boyle are slated to participate in the All-Star activities in North Carolina, leaving the rest of the team with five full days between games. This rest could allow key players like Ryane Clowe and goaltender Antero Niittymaki the time they need to heal and rejoin the team for a second-half push to establish playoff position.
Torrey Mitchell has been on the mend as well and the added time should help him get closer to a return. The Sharks will also get Scott Nichol back from his four-game suspension on February 2 in Anaheim (their second game after the break).
But even with these boosts to the roster, lingering problems still lurk in the depths of the murky shark-infested waters in San Jose.
The Sharks have managed to turn their luck around, and ultimately wins are all that matter, but while they have been managing to find ways to win over the last four games where they were finding ways to lose over the previous six, a few common problems have allowed their opponents to keep games closer than they ought to be.
It is certainly a sign of progress that the Sharks have gone from allowing these gaffes to beat them to surviving these lapses to hang on for wins, but if they hope to succeed in the playoffs (or perhaps even to get there) these need to be corrected.
Defensive lapses continue to plague the Sharks as high turnovers and less-than-disciplined passing continue to yield far too many quality chances for the opposition.
The Sharks have also been guilty of focusing too heavily on the puck carrier in the defensive zone and failing to move without the puck and failing to go to the net in the offensive zone. Too many shot attempts are either going wide or getting blocked, resulting in a lot of offensive effort going largely for naught.
Some of these issues can be solved by discipline and practice, but some might require improvements to a roster that has possessed noted deficiencies throughout the season.
The additions of Eager and Wellwood should help infuse new energy into the Sharks, as will the continuing carousel of AHL players from Worcester. This regular jostling of the third and fourth lines should allow the Sharks to present fresh looks to the opposition and keep their scoring from stagnating as it has at times this season.
Another ploy the team might consider is bringing former Rocket Richard Trophy winner (NHL leading goal scorer) Jonathan Cheechoo back to the NHL for the stretch run and potential playoffs.
Cheechoo’s production waned after his 56-goal performance in 2005-2006, before he was traded to Ottawa as part of the Dany Heatley deal. After flaming out with the Senators, he landed back with the Sharks this year on a professional try-out contract with the Worcester Sharks.
In 42 games this season, he has posted 38 points and 14 goals. He could provide productive competition on the third and fourth lines for players like Mitchell and Devin Setoguchi, whose performance has left much to be desired this season.
Doug Wilson had said he did not want Cheechoo’s potential return to jeopardize opportunities for younger players like Ben Ferriero, John McCarthy, Frazer McLaren and others, but using him to compete with established NHLers like Mitchell and Setoguchi could provide the competition to keep everyone honest as the playoffs approach.
Of course, none of this solves the well-publicized deficiencies the Sharks have possessed on defense all year, as many still suspect a trade for a big-name blue liner will be needed if the Sharks hope to make progress toward reversing their erstwhile playoff fortunes. There have been a variety of rumors linking various defenseman to possible trades, including Shea Weber and Robyn Regehr, but so far nothing concrete has emerged.
With the goaltending situation the Sharks have created this year, they need to improve their defensive play if they hope to have success in the playoffs. Of course, a trade for a goaltender is a possibility, but few if any teams are likely to be interested in assuming the clear overinvestments the Sharks lobbied on Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki. Even if they could land a premier goaltender, revamping the defense is still a better bet.
Keep The Faith!