While this question may offend the average Sharks fan, it’s a fair question to be brutally honest about it. After all, we are talking about a team that has dominated the regular season for a few years now, with nothing to show for it.
A team that struggled out of the gate this year and needed a 14-2-1 surge to climb to first in the Pacific Division.
Despite being one of the hotter teams in the season's second half, they are still not considered a serious contender by many experts.
The trade deadline would come and go, and despite many lingering questions, the Sharks would stay their hand.
In an interview with TSN’s Darren Dreger on deadline day, Doug Wilson would hint at staying pat with the current roster. The biggest reason for this reason according to the Sharks GM?
The improved performance of the players who have been in San Jose all season long.
Even with the Sharks marching towards the playoffs behind an epic run, many fans still wonder about the championship chances of this roster.
We breakdown many key points to the Sharks season, provided for you to make your own judgments.
“Are the Sharks a Legit Threat in the West?”
I love statistics as much as the next guy but they bear very little evidence to the commonly believed theory that the Sharks are a bunch of chokers. Why? Because the dreaded word “chokers” is a fallacy that many fans lump teams or players into with very little regard for factual basis.
The Sharks as a team have played in 10 playoff series post-lockout and have won five and lost five. In doing so, the Sharks statistically rank among the league’s elite in appearances and performances.
The problem is, stats don’t measure the “choke-factor” in a team’s failure, common perception does. When team’s expectations are not lived up to, the stars are obviously “chokers” or not able to perform when it counts.
The NHL playoffs is a fickle dancing partner, and luck can go a long way in determining your team’s success.
The very luck and randomness to it all often results in fans establishing concepts such as ‘clutch” or “choker” for players.
Anyone that has been a true hockey fan long enough can remember the very same labels applied to such players as Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky.
Dispelling the label and putting the team’s struggles in the postseason to rest is a huge task for the Sharks, but not an insurmountable one.
Well, it truly is the age old adage isn’t it? It’s about as cliché as sports debates get when it comes to postseason fortunes.
Hockey fans need not look far for examples of teams who failed because they just coasted into the postseason. And how many times do you see teams in playoff mode carry the wave of momentum deep into playoffs?
And then there are some people who say the complete opposite, that having to push for so long will result in “burnout.” The team will be too tired to muster what strength remains for the price of championship caliber play.
How will you get to where you need to be if you have been pushing as hard for as long as you have?
For Sharks fans, seeing a team in playoff mode and playing with conviction and momentum this late, you can’t help but be excited. This core has never had to do that and it bodes well for the Sharks chances coming into the playoffs.
Call me optimistic, but the entire team playing determined hockey from their own zone outwards and committed to the system is a great sign.
For a team that has a horrible home record in the opening round and has traditionally struggled early in the playoffs, this is a refreshing change.
Still not convinced? I invite you to take a look at the trends in the Western Conference standings this year, with the logjam of teams vying for just six positions. Every team right now other than the Canucks and maybe the Red Wings have been playing playoff hockey since January.
If “burnout” is an excuse some fans want to use, it can apply to any number of Western Conference foes the Sharks will encounter in the playoffs.
That simple fact lends no credibility whatsoever to the “burnout” theory with no less than six other teams in same position as the Sharks.
The Sharks are hot and if they can continue this momentum will hit the ground running come the playoffs.
While GM Doug Wilson has an exceptional track record of success, his patience or unwillingness to overpay for assets may have cost the Sharks this year. Missing on several key free agents has in turn, forced many key Sharks to overplay minutes and might not be as fresh come playoff time.
Wilson passed on players who could have made an impact like Volchenkov, Hamhuis, Gonchar, Willie Mitchell, or James Wisniewski. Twice.
The 26-year-old was traded to the New York Islanders for a conditional third-round pick and was playing very well on an otherwise struggling team. Traded to the Montreal Canadiens for two draft picks, a compensatory 2011 second rounder and a conditional 2012 fifth rounder.
Wisnewski has 6 goals, 33 assists and averages 22.58 minutes of ice time a game this season. Think he couldn’t have helped the Sharks this season?
Craig Rivet was picked off waivers recently and costs just $395,161 in cap dollars, that is the kind of miss could come back to haunt the Sharks. He’s not the player we all remember anymore, but for that low of a cap hit and how much it costs, why not?
If there’s any reason to believe the “burnout” theory, it’s directly because of the failure to acquire a suitable replacement for Rob Blake.
Doug Wilson expected others to pick up the slack, but instead Demers and Vlasic have regressed instead of taking the next step. In a recent game versus the Capitals, the Sharks would lose Vlasic early and it crippled the team defensively. Adding Ian White solves some of this issue, but a significant injury would be a major blow.
The story still has to be told, but the team’s chances may have taken a hit from Doug Wilson’s patient approach.
The trade deadline would come and go without another move on behalf of the Sharks. They were rumored to be involved in the Campoli talks, only to have the defenceman go to Chicago.
Despite some salary cap issues regarding the return of backup goaltender Antero Niittymaki, the Sharks chose to sit pat at the deadline.
Some may argue that in the team's 20th anniversary they went the safe route, instead of going for broke and this is what may drive fans crazy. The chance to win a Cup is an increasingly difficult task and with parity in the league, GM’s are going for it all.
The Chicago Blackhawks last year are the very definition of pushing all of the metaphorical chips into the pot, and going for it all.
Dean Lombardi would be one of this year’s examples massively overpaying for the services of Dustin Penner, who he hopes is the missing part of the Kings’ Cup puzzle.
This is something that many fans thought would have happened after Doug Wilson promised “sweeping changes” after the 2009 embarrassment. Or at this year’s deadline with many assets still on the roster and salary to clear, but the deadline came and went with hardly a whimper.
The Sharks have played it safe all season long from a personnel standpoint and it may come back to haunt them in the end.
Many people lump Patrick Marleau into the generic filing of “choker” as well, but in reality he is proven playoff performer.
Despite the poor series against the Ducks in 2009, Marleau is still among league leaders in playoff goals since 2002. He was also tied for the lead in short handed goals, third in even strength goals and third in power play tallies.
He would rediscover his game in last year’s playoffs posting 13 points in 14 playoff games, including two game-winners.
The majority of those 13 points came after Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Detroit Red Wings. After missing Game 1 due to “flu symptoms” Marleau would step up his play in response to the suggestions, spoken or otherwise.
Not only is he the leading playoff goal scorer in the last 7 years, but he also leads in game winning goals. Marleau has 10 game winning goals, one better than Drury and two better than Alfredsson and Johan Franzen.
He has again been a catalyst in this season’s revival with the Sharks surging towards the playoffs. Taking the division lead with a 14-2-1 stretch, this late season surge is something previous versions never had to do.
He’s performing in some clutch situations and shows promise of recapturing his playoff form from earlier in his career.
Playing playoff hockey for two months already, this Sharks club provides a completely different approach to the postseason this year.
Dany Heatley has gone ice cold this season after a promising start to the season, and has just three goals in his last 17 games. Take away the long point shot from Dan Boyle against the Capitals that was awarded to Heatley and that number looks even worse.
While Heatley is clearly still capable of putting up some serious numbers, he is just not feeling it right now. Heatley was at times the best Shark on the ice in the first half of the season, showing an ability to create without Thornton.
That play is all but gone right now, and the only thing he’s shown an ability to do with any kind of regularity is turn the puck over in the attacking zone.
Doug Wilson has to be expecting more from Heatley after bringing him aboard from Ottawa. While Heatley is among team leaders in assists, he’s paid to score and that part of Heatley’s game is not there right now.
Heatley has gotten back to the greasy areas of the ice recently, a trait that was surprising for me to see out of him in his first year as a Shark. The goals have got to start coming soon… right?
Dany Heatley needs to rediscover his game that he flashed with the Stanley Cup finalist Ottawa Senators (22 points in 20 playoff games that year) and he is still above a point a game in his career in the postseason.
Mike Vernon was the first Stanley Cup-winning goaltender for the Sharks and most remembered for his legendary battles against Patrick Roy as a member of the Calgary Flames. The Red Wings traded Steve Chiasson to Calgary for Vernon in 1994 while looking for the netminder that would carry them to the Stanley Cup.
Mike Vernon finally defeated Roy as the Red Wings eliminated the Avalanche in the Western Conference Finals in 1997. After winning the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophy by sweeping the Flyers, the Red Wings went with Chris Osgood and traded Vernon to the Sharks.
While the comparisons are understandably common, Niemi has proven to be a much different goaltender than Vernon was.
To be fair, that Red Wing team was loaded with legendary players all who had a variety of ways to impact any given game. Larry Murphy, Slava Fetisov, Niklas Lidstrom and Mathieu Dandenault made up one hell of a corps that was heads and shoulders over Ragnarsson and Rathje and the like for the Sharks.
The only game changer on that Shark blueline was Al Iafrate, who had all the talent in the world but one too many knee surgeries.
Vernon would post a 2.46 goals against in his first year as a Shark after being let go by the Red Wings following the 1996-1997 campaign. Going 30-22 with a subpar save percentage of .896 Vernon was a solid goaltender who got the Sharks into the playoffs but never into the second round.
The familiarities between that Red Wing team and last year’s Blackhawks are eerily similar, from top notch defense to fast two-way play from the forwards.
But that's where the similarities end for Vernon and Niemi.
Antti has finally adjusted to the team and is playing out of his mind right now, but still too many games for the Sharks to truly be comfortable. But his play has keyed the team through some tough situations and that just wasn’t something that Mike Vernon with the Sharks did consistently.
Late third period flurries, breakaways, odd man chances, one-timers—you name it, Niemi has stopped it. Looking a lot like the goalie that backstopped the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup a year ago, Nemo is simply magical at times.
Currently 23-15 with a 2.4 goals against, Antti has five shutouts with a respectable .919 save percentage. But like last year’s numbers in the playoffs, that save percentage is just a number that doesn’t tell Niemi’s true impact.
Niemi’s true impact is not that he stops every puck, because he doesn’t. It’s not that he doesn’t make any mistakes, because he does.
Antti’s true impact is that he is the toughest goalie the Sharks have had since Arturs Irbe. Niemi has shown this year that his resilience in the playoffs a year ago was no fluke. No matter what happens, from bad turnover to poor game Niemi has rebounded and shown the mental capacity to overcome.
Including a horrid .859 save percentage the first month of the regular season, Niemi’s will to come back traces back to his championship run.
After two inconsistent showings vs the Nashville Predators last year, Niemi rebounded with shutouts after both games.
Despite getting off to a horrible start against Vancouver, Niemi rose again posting a .923 and .937 the next two games. He would close the door on the Canucks hopes with a .967 and was impenetrable during a long third period flurry.
Niemi has been the linchpin in the Sharks' surge to first place in the Pacific, and has continually saved the Sharks from sloppy turnovers.
The recent road swing has also provided some key insight to his ability, taking wins over some of the league’s best teams.
He was stellar against the Penguins the Sharks’ second game in as many nights after dispatching the Red Wings. He almost singlehandedly held the team in the game as the guys in front of him were clearly gassed.
The puck is looking like a beach ball for Antti Niemi right now, and if he can stay fresh this kind of goaltending is what can propel a team through the playoffs
While many fans will point to the defense and complain, this is still a very competent core that has the Sharks in 10th place defensively. It’s also pretty much the same core that fell just short of the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Sharks were only beat convincingly in one game against the eventual Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks, and played a very close series against the 'Hawks.
The Sharks outshot the Blackhawks in three out of the four contests, but ultimately could not solve Niemi.
A soft goal in Game 2 would spell their doom, as they could not recover from the 0-2 deficit in the Western Conference Finals. The 46 foot wrister from just inside the blueline that flew past Nabokov from Andrew Ladd, spelled the beginning of the end.
My article here in which I openly questioned Nabokov’s performance in Game 2 made its way to the social section of NHL.com, whatever that is worth.
Still though, much of the Sharks postseason failures can be directly attributed to the offense and how it’s failed to score. With double digit percentage decreases in regular season and post season scoring every year, including 2008-2009 the Sharks just couldn’t score when it counted.
The lowpoint to the Sharks problems in 2008-2009 had the Sharks scoring rate plummet to 1.67 goals per game against the Ducks.
Last year provided a reversal in trends as the Sharks put up a very respectable 2.73 goals per game.
The problem was that the Sharks blueliners could not move the puck consistently enough against a fast and relentless Blackhawk forecheck.
This group of defenceman have benefited from the Sharks improved focus in their own zone, which will pay dividends in the playoffs.
Despite being first in the Pacific, you hardly hear mention of the Sharks as anything but an interesting story. While the focus primarily on the Canucks and Red Wings in the West, the Sharks are still under the radar as it were.
Still though, for the Sharks to make any real noise Dan Boyle, Ian White and Marc-Edouard Vlasic will have to elevate their games to the next level. A larger and more unlikely task is Jason Demers and Niclas Wallin playing fast, smart and mistake-free hockey in their own zone.
The jury is still out on this one.
Logan Couture’s emergence as one of the best Sharks two-way skaters this season has fans abuzz about the youngster building on last year’s playoffs. He currently leads the NHL in game-winning-goals and has a tremendous nose for the puck.
Devin Setoguchi is hitting his stride, collecting seven points in his last five games and scoring six goals in that time frame. Setoguchi may be finally living up to the huge hype his breakout campaign produced, and he’s playing all three zones with confidence.
Ryane Clowe continues to be the soul of this team, and his leadership on the ice and off will prove valuable when the going gets tough.
Last year's playoff hero Joe Pavelski is rounding his game into form after his injury, and his return to the point has revived the struggling Sharks power play.
Ian White has rebounded of late after a poor showing in Pittsburgh, but he’s shown the ability to move the puck very effectively and efficiently. It’s clear he is still working out chemistry with Vlasic / Wallin and will continue to put things together moving forward.
Ben Eager never stops skating and plays hard and nasty every shift, and has shown the nasty edge that bothered the Sharks last year.
Kyle Wellwood along with Eager on Couture’s line continues to find chemistry with his teammates, and has drawn several huge penalties during the surge.
Jason Demers has flashed his wonderful ability to move the puck, lead the breakout and move the play up ice with his terrific skating ability. He's also shown a complete lack of respect for the puck and committed several horrible turnovers in his own zone.
His recent reduction in ice time figures to continue with the coaching staff holding him out of crucial situations.
Playoff success is often measured in the contributions from the team’s depth just as much as the top scorers. Who will be the Sharks’ X Factor this year?
At the crux of the question at hand is of course Joe Thornton, who has more than a few critics in many circles for his postseason shortcomings. While many will defend the Sharks' best player, others are not as forgiving for the Sharks captain.
Let’s be brutally honest here, Joe hasn’t exactly been the model leader in a locker room that’s had voids in that role. Rebuffing reporters and showing a lack of urgency after the Sharks went down 2-0 against Anaheim in 2009. Slipping out of the back door and avoiding reporters altogether after going down three games to one in Game 4.
Giving vague answers and dodging harder questions are all very valid points for the anti-Joe Thornton fans.
Despite all those facts, there is still evidence to support that Joe Thornton is ready to finally take the next step.
Many forget he’s tasted postseason success early in his career, nearly managing a point a game until his 2003-2004 disaster.
In the Bruins 1998-1999 series against the Hurricanes, Joe worked a patented give-and-go with Anson Carter for the double-overtime winner. Joe would finish off the Hurricanes in Game 6 scoring the series-clinching goal, and recorded another goal against Hasek before the Bruins were eliminated.
Joe’s performance that postseason, nine points in 11 playoff games catapulted him into his first All-Star Game the next year. Although the Bruins would miss the playoffs for two consecutive years due to a porous defense and organizational instability, Joe continued to make strides in his game.
The Bruins would return to the playoffs in 2001-2002 but the Montreal Canadiens exposed the lackluster defense in the first round. Joe would still go on to record two goals, four assists in six games as the Bruins were ousted.
The Bruins would again return to the playoffs the following year only to be ousted by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils. The big brusing line of Knuble, Murray and Thornton that had terrorized during the regular season was too slow, too bruising to pierce the Devils and their neutral zone trap.
Fans blamed Thornton despite being tied defenseman Dan McGillis for the team lead in points (3) for the series.
A broken rib would render Thornton completely ineffective the following year, as Joe would get skunked in the best-of-seven series against Montreal.
Joe Thornton found his game again last year as the Sharks would rebound from bad breaks, unlucky bounces and with the odds stacked against them. Joe's play would lead the Sharks organization to make Thornton the eighth full-time captain in the franchise's history.
Although he hasn’t had his “moment” yet as the captain of the San Jose Sharks, who knows the inner workings of the locker room?
It wasn’t so long ago that many whispered the same things about another number 19, who was captain of a Red Wings team who kept failing in the playoffs.
Yes I am talking about Stevie Y, who had to endure heartbreak after heartbreak until he finally won the Cup at age 32. Joe Thornton is currently 30, and you can very easily argue that Yzerman at that time was just as much the playoff “choker” that Thornton is today.
Common sense will tell you that the Sharks are of course a legitimate threat to the Western Conference and NHL playoffs. Many people will tell you that the Sharks are nothing more than a paper tiger, and pose no real threat to win the Cup.
I won't make a prediction, but I will just say don't be surprised if the Sharks will carry Lord Stanley's Cup down West Santa Clara in June.
What do you think?