San Jose Sharks Taking on Look of Last Year's Team

MJ Kasprzak@BayAreaCheezhedSenior Writer IIDecember 14, 2009

SAN JOSE, CA - NOVEMBER 10:  Thomas Greiss #1 of the San Jose Sharks in action against the Nashville Predators during an NHL game at the HP Pavilion on November 10, 2009 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Last week, I trumpeted the Sharks as a team that was dominating on the road and set up to pull away from the pack with a five-game homestand.

They started with a win over former teammates and the Ottawa Senators. Then, they went 0-1-3 on the rest of the homestand and followed it up with a 2-1 regulation loss to the Phoenix Coyotes in the desert.

A five-game losing streak, albeit one in which they have registered three points in the standings, is the worst since Feb. 20, 2008, when they lost their fifth in a row while getting just one point. The last time they lost more than that was November of 2005, when they earned just three points in a 10-game losing streak, prompting them to trade for Joe Thornton.

So what has gone wrong?

For one, the Sharks have fallen back into the same bad habits I have been decrying since the 2008 playoffs: They do not play 60 minutes. Championship-calibre teams do not take shifts off because one or two lax shifts can undo the effort of the rest of the game.

We saw this on more than one occasion in the current losing streak:

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  1. In the first of their five losses, they were one goal up on blue collar St. Louis and on the man-advantage for the final 1:51 of the game. They coasted through the power play and the Blues made them pay, netting the tying score with seven seconds left, and San Jose lost in the shootout. (Can someone please tell Ryane Clowe that everyone knows he's gonna try that backhander?)
  2. In the next game against the Flames, the Sharks played well and just couldn't score. But in the third loss of the streak, the Sharks played poorly the entire second period, giving up three goals on eight shots. Evgeni Nabokov could not beat a backup who came in with a save percentage of .808. Three Kings' players that came into that game having not scored a goal in 14 or more games all found the back of the net.
  3. The Dallas Stars were next in town, and the Sharks did the same thing but through different means. In the second period, they were outshot 16-6, giving Dallas the momentum it needed to tie the game in the third. Again, the Sharks lost in a shootout.
  4. Against the Phoenix Coyotes, the Sharks were outshot in both of the first two periods and entered the final stanza down 2-0, primarily because their lack of skating led to them getting whistled for eight of the first 11 penalties. Finally, they poured it out in the third period, outshooting their foes 18-11, drawing the final two penalties, and netting the only goal.

Despite having played the second-most games and coming off a performance two nights earlier in which his save percentage was just .821 (with two very soft goals), Nabby was back in net for the Dallas game. Thomas Greiss is 3-3 with a .910 save percentage and a 2.79 GAA—it is time for coach Todd McLellan to have the confidence to put Greiss in more often. He let in two goals in 35 shots Saturday, a .943 save percentage.

Not that the Dallas loss was Nabby's fault...or the losses to Calgary or St. Louis. Against Dallas, Nabby turned away 42 of 44 shots through overtime and then denied nine of 11 Stars in the shootout. Overall, Nabby is a very stout 16-5-7 with a .921 save percentage and 2.39 GAA.

But when you are playing in over 85 percent of your team's games, fatigue will lead to more poor games. On three occasions, he has played both games of a back-to-back, and is 1-0-2 in the second of those games; in the first, he is 3-0.

This is not a new problem nor a new pet issue with me. Just under a year ago, I pointed out after a loss in Detroit: "Aside from how much of a drop-off Nabby had in net in April after being overplayed last season, he has not done well in these situations this year: he is 2-1, but with an .815 save percentage and a 3.95 GAA. In the rest of his games, he is 15-2-2 with a .912 save percentage and a 2.34 GAA."

However, I would term this as more of a potential problem than a source of the Sharks current struggles. Clearly, this team was playing well until recently, but after five games, one cannot dismiss the results. Something has to change.

My colleague, Andy Bensch, suggested the Sharks break up their scorers to get more production. (This article was featured on the front page of NHL.com , incidentally.) That is not a bad idea, and you can see my suggestion for line changes in the comments.

However, a narrower focus might be on the power play that has been failing during this losing streak, as well. What was once the best power play unit in the league has fallen to seventh in large part because of the 2-for-21 (9.5 percent) stretch. Factor in the short-handed goal, and in over two periods worth of man advantage, the Sharks have managed just a 2-1 scoring edge.

So here is a suggestion that would be even less of a tweak than changing lines: put a fourth forward out on the man-advantage. The power play goal the Sharks got on Saturday was with three forwards and a defenceman in a 4-on-3, and it confirmed what I had for some time been wanting. I mean, when you are putting Douglas Murray out there in those situations (even though he has looked better in the offensive end), aren't you just wasting a spot?

Other than Dan Boyle (28 points), the Sharks completely lack a viable scoring threat from the blue line. In fact, rookie Jason Demers, who has been down in Worcester working on his defence for the past seven games, is still second on the unit in points with 13.

I do not know why last year's fantastic pair of Rob Blake and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have failed to produce, but they have. Maybe Blake's extra year has made that much of a difference, and it was his presence making Pickles so good last year.

Maybe it is time to break them up. Maybe it is time to shake things up on the power play or even strength.

If something does not change, this team is headed for the kind of precipitous fall that brought about the trade for Jumbo three years ago. If that is the case, I would not mind a couple more losses...