They’re Back, But Are They Better Than Ever?
It’s so hard to come up with something new to say about the San Jose Sharks as they prepare to embark on a lockout shortened 48 game season because so little has changed. When we last saw the Sharks they came within a game of being swept in the 1st round of the playoffs by the St. Louis Blues in a performance that could charitably be described as “lackluster,” “depressing,” and “awful.” They were pretty well dominated in all phases of the series and it’s hard to single out anyone from the Sharks who really looked good, and that’s scary for Sharks fans because while the core players on the team aren’t in the danger zone quite yet they aren’t getting any younger either.
The reality is that there wasn’t much Doug Wilson could do last summer to reshape the team. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have no-trade clauses so they couldn’t be traded unless they wanted to be and Doug Wilson has been adamant in the past that the Sharks don’t rebuild, they reload. Wilson has never been shy about making a big trade but the options were rather limited because the prospect cupboard is so bare, meaning any trade for a player like Rick Nash would have necessarily included current roster players like Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Justin Braun, or Jason Demers. If 2 or 3 of those players were heading out in a deal for Nash it’s hard to make a convincing case that the trade would have made the team stronger given the aforementioned dearth of NHL ready prospects, and that’s before factoring in the cap problems.
Then there is the labor situation, which is the whole reason this preview post is going up in January rather than late September or early October and we’re talking about 48 games rather than 82. With uncertainty about what the salary cap would look like going forward, what restrictions might be in place on contract lengths and values, and what players may end up being available at a discount because of buyouts, caution was the right approach to take for the long-term. It’s just not what fans who have grown accustomed to legitimate Stanley Cup hopes want to see for the short-term.
Because the 2012-2013 (or is it just 2013?) Sharks so closely resemble the 2011-2012 team means that a lot of the same problems still exist, problems that were covered at the trade deadline in February. The biggest problem for the Sharks continues to be a lack of balance at the forward position, where the top 6 remains solid and the bottom 6 continues to be equal parts unreliable and unproductive.
Next on the list of problems is the penalty kill. In 2009-2010 the Sharks boasted the league’s 4th best PK unit. The following season it dropped to 24th before cratering at 29th out of 30 last season. If the Sharks can’t find a way to get more production out of the bottom 6 and find a way to at least get the PK back to the middle of the pack it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Sharks improve on their 7th place finish in the Western Conference and early exit from the playoffs.
Free agent signing Adam Burish will add some much needed grit and energy to the 4th line. Sheppard, the 9th overall pick in the 2006 NHL draft, hasn’t played an NHL game since 2009-2010 due to knee injuries and was only able to get into 4 games in the AHL for Worcester last season. Sheppard has talent and got off to a nice start in Worcester this season (8-16-24, 34 GP) but there’s no way to know what, if anything, the Sharks will get out of him at the NHL level this year. Although he will probably start off with limied minutes on the 4th line, if all goes according to plan expect to see Sheppard challenging TJ Galiardi and second year player Tommy Wingels. Michael Handzus, a healthy scratch for most of the stretch run, will once again be counted on as the 3rd line center. It really didn’t work last year and there’s not a lot of reason to expect things to be better the second time around.
The top 6 will look the same as it did in 2011-2012 when those players accounted for the overwhelming majority of the 219 goals scored by the Sharks, which was good for 13th in the NHL despite an down year from Ryane Clowe and injuries which slowed Logan Couture down in the 2nd half of the season and cost Martin Havlat 43 games. The Sharks were a much better team with Havlat on the ice because his speed and skill provided a presence the team sorely missed in his absence. Couture is a young player who has never experienced any serious injuries, and he was able to continue playing through his shoulder injury even if his impact was significantly reduced, so there’s good reason to expect him to bounce back. It’s a different story with Havlat, who has been saddled with injuries throughout his career. The Sharks can hope Havlat stays healthy, and the injury that cost him the most time last year was a complete fluke, but there’s no way the team can realistically expect Havlat to play in all 48 regular season games. The top line saw Patrick Marleau struggle in the 2nd half of the season en route to scoring “just” 30 goals, his lowest total since 2007-2008. Marleau’s struggles were at least somewhat offset by Joe Pavelski’s career high 30 goal campaign, but there’s little doubt the Sharks need Marleau to be a more consistent threat.
Head Coach Todd McLellan has traditionally gone strength vs strength with his matchups rather than relying on a 3rd line to take on the opposition’s best. As Marleau and Thornton see age 30 fade further into the rearview mirror McLellan has to find ways to reduce their total minutes, and perhaps even more importantly their toughest minutes (including on the PK). It’s possible some of the goal scoring problems the team experienced down the stretch last season were a direct result of riding Marleau, Thornton, Pavelski, and Couture too hard, relying on them to take on the other team’s best players at even strength and kill penalties. If the Sharks are going to improve in 2013 the bottom 6 is going to have to pick up some of the slack.
Scott Gomez, the former New Jersey Devil and New York Ranger who was recently bought out by the Montreal Canadiens has been in talks with the Sharks and could provide some inexpensive depth in the bottom 6. Gomez was a very productive top 6 forward through his 20′s, only twice scoring less than 60 pts in a season from age 20 though 28. During that stretch he scored 70 pts or more 4 times during that stretch, peaking with a 33-51-84, +24 season for the Devils at age 26. His production has declined the last 2 years and at 33 he’s no longer a reliable front line forward but he could provide some offensive spark to the 3rd line.
Marleau – Thornton – Pavelski
Clowe – Couture – Havlat
Galiardi – Handzus – Wingels
In: Brad Stuart, Nick Petrecki, Matt Irwin
Stuart’s rights were re-acquired by the Sharks from the Red Wings back in June and he was signed to a contract extension shortly thereafter. The onetime Sharks draft pick probably never quite lived up to his billing as the 3rd overall pick in the 1998 NHL Draft (although in his defense it was not the deepest draft class ever) but has developed into a solid, reliable option on the backend. Colin White was the defensive version of Michal Handzus, a pylon that drove fans crazy because they felt (rightfully so I might add) that there were better options available. One of those options was Jim Vandermeer, who actually ended up playing more minutes as a forward than a defenseman.
Dan Boyle, who runs the point on the Sharks power play which finished 2nd in the league last year, is coming off a second consecutive 9 goal season. Boyle should experience some bounce-back after playing through a broken foot for a month, but as he enters his age 36 season it’s hard to know how much bounce-back he has left. Even with his broken foot Boyle’s 9 goals were enough to finish 2nd among Sharks defensemen behind only Brent Burns’ 11.
There’s no doubt the Sharks would like to find a way to reduce the 25 mins a night Boyle played in 2011-2012 but that’ll be difficult until Brent Burns returns from offseason surgery. Burns has yet to resume skating and there’s no real time table for the big, mobile defenseman to return. After an up and down 1st season in San Jose (Burns was acquired from the Minnesota Wild prior to 2011-2012) the Sharks were certainly hoping Burns would be able to improve upon the 11-26-37, +8 campaign he had last season. Joining Burns in the press box to start the season is Jason Demers, who suffered an injury while playing in the Spengler Cup last month. If Burns was healthy Demers would likely find himself in a battle for the last spot on the blueline with Douglas Murray. With Burns out and not looking like his return is imminent the fact that Demers is out opens up a spot for Sharks prospect Matt Irwin to start the season not just on the Sharks roster but in the lineup.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic, steady Marc-Eddie, is already in his 6th NHL season at the ripe old age of 25. Vlasic signed a contract extension over the summer and all he does is come out ahead despite facing the toughest competition among Sharks defenseman. Although not the biggest points producer in the league Vlasic is as steady and defensively responsible a player as you’ll find in the NHL, and the fact that he doesn’t score a ton of points has a lot to do with the fact that he’s often covering for more offensively aggressive teammates. Justin Braun rounds out the defense corps and was a real pleasant surprise after being called up from Worcester due to injuries last season. Braun took the opportunity and never let go, finishing with 66 games played and earning himself both ice time in the playoffs and a 3 year contract contract.
Vlasic – Stuart
Irwin – Boyle
Murray – Braun
The Sharks return last year’s goaltending duo of starter Antti Niemi and backup Thomas Greiss. Niemi struggled at times last season, and his 2.42 GAA was the lowest of his 3 seasons as a starting NHL goalie. The .915 SV% seems ok by itself but was tied for just 21st in the league among qualified players. There were times when Niemi looked great and there were other times when he looked extremely shaky. The Sharks struggles on the penalty kill certainly contributed to his career worst GAA, although his uneven play was a contributing factor in the penalty killing problems. The Sharks finished tied for 8th in the league in goals against, which is something considering just how bad the PK was. It wasn’t the number of goals that Niemi allowed that was the problem, it was the timing of the goals. It just seemed like Niemi failed to make the big save the team needed at a critical time and Niemi’s seat is probably starting to get a little bit hot despite a contract that runs through 2014-2015.
Backing up Niemi is 26 year old German goaltender Thomas Greiss. Greiss played in 19 games for the Sharks last year, which represented a career high. The Sharks appear comfortable with Greiss in a backup role but it doesn’t seem like they view him as a future starter. The next man up for the Sharks, if injuries were to sideline either Niemi or Greiss, would probably be Alex Stalock. Having suffered a potentially career threatening injury when his leg was cut by a skate, Stalock has re-established himself in Worcester this season. It would be interesting to see whether Greiss or Stalock became the starter should Niemi be out for an extended period.
In: Larry Robinson, Jim Johnson
Out: Jay Woodcroft, Matt Shaw
Jay Woodcroft and Matt Shaw took the hit for the Sharks abysmal penalty kill and were replaced by Larry Robinson and Jim Johnson, both of them former NHL defensemen. Larry Robinson is one of the most accomplished players and coaches in NHL history and brings a level of credibility that the Sharks have never really had before. Johnson played 829 games in the NHL before retiring in 1998, and he comes to the Sharks having spent last season as an assistant coach with the Washington Capitals. Both coaches will help implement adjustments to the Sharks philosophy on the penalty kill, which was entirely too passive in 2011-2012. If the Sharks want to re-establish themselves as one of the best teams in the league they’ll have to get back to being more aggressive, challenging the opposition to make quicker decisions or risk turning the puck over. Todd McLellan survived the disappointing 2011-2012 by making significant changes to his coaching staff, and while Doug Wilson has not made any public comments putting McLellan on the hot seat, he may not get another chance in San Jose if the team doesn’t improve this year.
Without a doubt it’s the schedule, which features 48 regular season games in just under 100 days with no exhibition games and almost no training camp. There’s little precedent for this scenario and it’s hard to know who will benefit and who will be hurt. Does the compressed schedule, which will see have teams playing a lot of back-to-backs with almost no multi-day breaks favor a youth? Or does the fact the extended offseason and the fact that it’s a 48 game season rather than an 82 game season favor veterans? Will there be an edge for teams that have had a lot of continuity over the past few years and won’t be trying to integrate a number of new players into the lineup because of the shortened and basically non-existant training camp? The Sharks don’t have a lot of roster turnover heading into this season but they could have really used the time in training camp to implement some of the adjustments to the penalty kill. And while the average age of the Sharks roster is right in line with the league average (28.1 for the Sharks, 28.2 for the league) some of the Sharks most important players are on the wrong side of that average.
Then there’s the issue of health, which hurt the Sharks last season. With every game bring so important injuries are going to be critical and the shortened camp means conditioning may be a problem. The Sharks are already without Burns and Demers and may be tempted to rush them back before they are in game shape. A lot of NHL players have spent time in Europe and are in game shape, but many others have not and we’ll soon find out what they’ve been able to do on their own. Expect to see a few players who did not play in Europe struggle this season and play well below what they’ve done in the past. Also, don’t be surprised if teams are less inclined to let players play through injuries. Because every game point is going to be important there will be times when a healthy body is better than someone that’s banged up even if the healthy guy isn’t as talented or experienced, especially in situations where resting for a short period means the player can come back 100% healthy rather than play at 75%-80% for a couple of weeks.
This season is going to be different from the one that came before it and the one that comes after it, and the team that responds best to the unique set of challenges presented by the schedule could easily end up raising Lord Stanley’s Cup in June even if they aren’t the most talented team in the league.
2. New York Rangers
4. New Jersey Devils
5. Montreal Canadiens
1. Boston Bruins
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
3. Washington Capitals
4. New York Rangers
5. Philadelphia Flyers
6. Florida Panthers
7. Ottawa Senators
8. Carolina Hurricanes
1. St. Louis Blues
4. Minnesota Wild
2. San Jose Sharks
5. Dallas Stars
1. St. Louis Blues
2. Vancouver Canucks
3. Los Angeles Kings
4. Chicago Blackhawks
5. San Jose Sharks
6. Colorado Avalanche
7. Nashville Predators
8. Edmonton Oilers
Stanley Cup Finals
Boston Bruins vs Los Angeles Kings
Stanley Cup Champion
(I just feel dirty picking an LA team to win a championship)
Share This Article
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.