San Jose Sharks: Defense in Need of an Upgrade

Andy Bensch@@AndyBenschSenior Writer INovember 29, 2009

Despite squeaking out a 5-4 shootout victory over the Edmonton Oilers on Friday, the San Jose Sharks experienced many of the same problems that enabled the Chicago Blackhawks to embarrass them on their home ice just two days prior.

Poor defensive coverage and lack of hustle allowed the injury-plagued and bottom-feeding Oilers to take two different leads in the contest.

After the Sharks opened the scoring in the first period on Patrick Marleau's goal, San Jose once again got complacent.

While seemingly running through the motions, the Sharks saw their 1-0 lead evaporate in the middle of the second period when Dan Boyle's dump in attempt was blocked at the blue line.

Oilers center Ryan Potulny was then off to the races but it seemed as if Sharks center Joe Thornton could have caught up on the back check. However, Thornton stabbed at the puck and missed, then simply seemed to give up on the play. Potulny then beat Nabokov through five hole on a nice deke to the backhand.

Although there would be no more scoring for the rest of the period, the lack of hustle from San Jose on Edmonton's tying goal set the tone for a poor start to the third period.

Just over two minutes into the final period, Sharks rookie defenseman Jason Demers turned the puck over as his errant pass from his own zone was intercepted in the neutral zone.

Instead of playing the oncoming rush properly, Demers stabbed at the puck, lost an edge and went skidding into the boards. Meanwhile, the puck carrier Gilbert Brule got into the high slot and ripped a wrist shot that Nabokov was able to kick out.

Unfortunately Demers' defense partner Kent Huskins was watching the puck instead of picking up Dustin Penner who chipped the rebound into the open net for a 2-1 Oiler lead.

Another two minutes later and the Oilers would score again. This time Marc-Edouard Vlasic was in front of the net attempting to defend Brule who was positioned in front of Nabokov but Vlasic was mesmerized watching Penner's centering pass. By failing to tie up Brule's stick, Vlasic allowed an easy tap-in goal that should never of happened.

Fortunately for San Jose, their top guns would get them back in the game by scoring two quick goals of their own, one by Patrick Marleau and the other by Ryane Clowe.

But once again, the Sharks got complacent and allowed the Oilers to gain some momentum and Edmonton retook the lead 4-3 with just more than five minutes left. Both Joe Pavelski and Dan Boyle attacked the puck carrier down low, allowing Potulny to be open in the slot and able to fire a loose puck past Nabokov for his second of the game.

To San Jose's credit, they were able to bounce back once again tying up the score at four a piece. Marleau's third goal of the game with under two minutes remaining put the Sharks back in the game.

However, the goal came as San Jose was short-handed thanks to a holding the stick penalty at the 18:20 mark.

When the call occurred, the Sharks were down a goal and were now down a skater for the remainder of regulation.

Simply said, the Sharks had no business winning this game.

A lucky bounce allowed Marleau an open net from in close and the all-star forward slammed it home for a short-handed goal and his third career regular season hat trick.

But we all know the Sharks can score. With guys like Thornton, Dany Heatley, Ryane Clowe, Devin Setoguchi to go along with Marleau, San Jose has plenty of offensive weapons.

The problem is that team teal has allowed 11 goals in the past two games while allowing an unusually high 74 shots on goal.

In particular, the play of the third-defense pairing has been quite poor. Both Demers and Huskins have been turning the puck over and not picking up the open man in their own zone.

Although not everything can be blamed on those two as Vlasic has seemed to become allergic to defensive zone coverage, being caught watching the puck in back-to-back games leading to goals by the opposition.

Granted, team captain Rob Blake should be back in the lineup soon but the Sharks defense seems to be really thin. Despite the impressive play of Derek Joslin in Blake's absence, the rest of the defense corps seems to be struggling.

Even though the Sharks are 10th in the league allowing just 2.56 goals per game, they have allowed an average of 29.45 shots per game through Nabokov's first 24 games compared to an average of just 26.9 shots per game through Nabokov's first 24 starts last season.

Nabokov's .921 save percentage so far this season is 11 points higher than his final season percentage from the last two years.

Clearly the goal-tending has been played at a much higher clip to start this season. Last year Nabokov allowed 60 goals in his first 24 games while facing 646 shots, good for a .907 save percentage.

So far this season, fewer goals have been allowed in his first 24 shots (54) but the team in front of him gives up an average of three more shots per game.

Thinking Nabokov can keep up his impressive performance the whole season is asking a lot of the 34-year-old goal-tender.

If the Sharks want to make this the year where they finally get over that second round hump and preferably all the way to the Stanley Cup, their defense in front of Nabokov is going to have to get much better.

Blake returning to the lineup is not going to be enough as the 20-year vet can no longer hold up on the injury front and has difficulty keeping up with the younger forwards in today's NHL.

Vlasic should break out of this mini slump and his talents combined with Boyle and Douglas Murray make for a solid top-three defenseman core. However the next four defenseman on the roster are Blake, Huskins, Demers and Joslin. A future hall of famer, a mediocre three-year veteran and two rookies.

These four provide very little comfort for Sharks fans and unless the play from that group improves vastly before the trade deadline, expect Sharks GM Doug Wilson to make a move to bring in a veteran blue-liner like a Keith Ballard of Florida or an Aaron Ward from Carolina.