2011-12 San Jose Sharks: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
In the movie The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Clint Eastwood was nicknamed (and officially named on credits) Blondie. He was the protagonist, "the good" from the title.
Lee Van Cleef was really a secondary antagonist nicknamed "Angel Eyes" that, in an irony to his name represented "the bad." Eli Wallach was the primary antagonist with the unfortunate distinction of representing "the ugly" in a role he played to an award-worthy level.
That is why in the past 45 years, its title has been reused as a favourite pop culture phrase, and many people see it as a pattern or theme to things they examine.
I see it as a perfect theme for the San Jose Sharks. They win a lot of the time, but have had streaks where they do not play well. They do most things well but are glaringly lacking in other things.
In a weekend that follows that pattern, all of these traits became apparent. Let's start with the good stuff from this season so far...
The blue line is not playing up to the level it is expected to be, but those struggles have nothing to do with Marc-Edouard Vlasic. He is among 14 players finishing each game with a average of a half a point and a plus-one half rating.
But there are some other very good performances going on for this team. Antti Niemi had a slow start upon returning from surgery a few games into the season, but has come on strong. His 11-6-1 record, with a .921 save percentage and 2.27 goals against average make him arguably the team's best player.
Thomas Greiss has done well backing him up, going 4-4 with a .918 save pct. and 2.37 GAA. The not-so-average Joes (Thornton and Pavelski) lead the team in assists and goals, respectively, and are pivotal on defence.
As a team, the Sharks are among the elite teams in five-on-five scoring, faceoffs, defence and shot differential. And begging to differ with Ray Ratto on Thursday's postgame broadcast on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, the Sharks are an excellent shot-blocking team.
One can only assume Mr. Ratto made his determination on the actual quantity of blocked shots. This is as inaccurate a measure for how a team is doing as looking at standings points instead of percentage of possible points.
When a team holds and shoots the puck much more than its opponent, it has far fewer opportunities to block shots than its opponent does. Thus, the ratio of blocked shots to shots on goal or percentage of attempts blocked is much more relevant. The Sharks have bested their foes at least twice as often as not this season.
When you trade for an All-Star defenceman and sign two others, you are making a statement that you want improved play out of your blue line. The Sharks are not getting that.
Brent Burns has been a huge disappointment. His stats are not too bad (plus-10 and nine points in 26 games), but that is not enough points from someone you are resting your future on. He also has been victimized in his own end more than the plus/minus rating would indicate.
But he is not alone on the blue line in disappointing play. In fact, Dan Boyle has just two more points and a minus-one rating. Colin White has barely been able to get on the ice, and Jason Demers was sent down to the minors for his inconsistent play.
In addition, only about a third of the team's forwards are playing consistently well. Perhaps this explains why they are just 8-6-1 at home, with two slumps defined as streaks in which the team went at least six points below .500 (the NHL average is three points above).
The Sharks are in a funk right now, with just four points in seven games. They have scored more goals in their two wins (nine) than their five losses (six), and have just 16 goals in their last eight games.
Unfortunately, that is not the worst of it...
All of the previous problems do not add up to the great things this team can do. They are things that the players or coaches can fix, and if they can't, personnel moves can.
But there are more disturbing issues that may be harbingers of flaws that could be fatal in late May.
For one, the Sharks are historically bad on the penalty kill, ranking third to last in the league at 74.4 percent. They have among the worst save percentages on the penalty kill because of how poorly they clear pucks, allowing the opposing power play to spread out the attack and get second chances.
While the PK might be fixable, that normally requires some major personnel changes when it is a third of the way into the season. Doug Wilson may be able to make one trade and even use some of the team's considerable cap money, or James Sheppard could make a difference once he is healthy.
But by and large, this is the roster the team has to work with, so it is unlikely the PK will change much. Even this problem can be minimized, however, by staying out of the penalty box.
The worst problem the Sharks have is their repeated failure to play consistently throughout the game.
For one thing, the Sharks start slow. They have given up the first goal in 16 of their 26 games.
Yet at one time, it was not the first period but the last that was their undoing. In the first month-plus, the Sharks were among the worst third-period teams in the league.
The Sharks have blown leads in all four games in which they have had a lead over the last eight games. This means they have struggled in the early, middle and late points of games at times. As a measure of their inconsistency, their once-potent power play has abandoned them, plummeting from the top three to the middle of the league.
Teams that struggle with their identity do not play 60 full minutes and have long scoring slumps, which manes they do not win late in the playoffs. The Sharks have spent too many Memorial Days having been eliminated not to do something about this...stay tuned for suggestions later this month.