Shark-Infested Blogger

April 1, 2010 9:31 PM

Sharks Enter April with more Questions than Answers

The San Jose Sharks have only one game left against the Pacific Division, and that is a good thing.

Last season, they dominated their division, doing no worse than a series split against any of their foes. This year, they have already lost the season series to two teams (albeit by a minus-one goal differential tie-breaker with the Los Angeles Kings, as both teams went 3-2-1) after dropping the last game against the Dallas Stars 5-1.

Dallas will be eliminated from the playoffs before the weekend is out, and that should comfort Sharks fans: The Stars were bad hosts in giving the Sharks two of their worst beatings of the season, and bad guests in taking two shootout victories at HP Pavilion. They managed just 11 other victories in the remaining 36 road games they played outside of San Jose.

So what does this say about the Sharks? It certainly raises questions...

Mental toughness

Only teams that are mentally tough get past the second round of the playoffs. Sometimes superior talent can carry you over a team that struggled to make the playoffs in the first round, but the contenders that make it through are close enough in talent to beat a weak-minded team, and that is what the Sharks have been in the recent past.

Are they again? No one really knows. But this team has struggled all year with consistency and had two losing streaks of five-plus games. They have not matched the intensity of their opponents and make mental mistakes like the ones they made against Dallas.

Many of the coaches and players talked about not being ready to compete at the same level as the Stars, but the reality is the Sharks held the edge in most of the "hustle" statistics, with more shots (30-29), blocks (12-9), and face-off wins (35-26). The Stars led in hits (40-31), but that is because the Sharks spent more time with the puck.

The problem Wednesday was San Jose made sloppy plays all night that Dallas was able to take advantage of. Patrick Marleau had two giveaways on the power play alone that led to a breakaways and another quick goal for the Stars. They also allowed at least one odd-man rush with the man-advantage.

Power play struggles could be partially attributed to Joe Thornton's absence. But if the Sharks are relying on him that much for the power play, that is a problem. And considering Jumbo is known to turn the puck over as much as anyone in the league, his absence should not make that go up.

There were also other costly defensive breakdowns. Nicklas Wallin continued to play poorly in his own end, and should be pulled in favour of Jay Leach. Paired with rookie Jason Demers (who is thus more likely to blame), they both took the same man multiple times.

On one play alone, Wallin turned the puck over, stumbled turning around to get back on defence, went down to the ice prematurely later in the play, and failed to pick up the trailer. Demers also went down prematurely on the play, but he is on the ice for what he can do on the offensive end, whereas Wallin was brought in solely to play defence.

Forwards were also late back-checking and scorers were left open. And the term "scorers" is generous--Brian Sutherby had four goals coming into the game and scored; Steve Ott got his first career hat trick...that's right, Steve Ott scored three times! That only happens if a team is not living up to its responsibilities on the defensive end.

Coach Ron Wilson used to say, "Hard work beats talent when that talent doesn't work hard." Part of working hard is being mentally focused, and the Sharks have lacked that since right before the Olympic break--they are 8-9-1 since barely beating Wilson's Maple Leafs, the second-worst team in the league, February 8.


2940489539_c56ac0ffc5.jpgNo goalie over 31 years old has won a Stanley Cup in the expansion era (1967-68 on)--and perhaps a lot longer--in a season in which he has played 69 games. Evgeni Nabokov, who will turn 35 this off-season, already has played 66 with five games left, plus competed in four preseason and three Olympic contests. He also appears to already be wearing down, having struggled in the Olympics and followed that by giving up four or more goals in six of 13 contests since, even though he was yanked in two games.

The problem here is that the team obviously has little faith in Thomas Greiss, pointing either to a problem in the coaching staff or something not seen in the numbers. When Greiss starts, he is 7-3-1 (a .682 point percentage) with a .926 save percentage and a 2.36 goals against average. Nabokov is 40-16-9 (.685 point percentage) with a .921 save percentage and 2.44 goals against average.

In other words, almost identical.

Does this mean they should split time? No, Nabby plays against the league's best and can handle the pressure of being the go-to goalie, and Greiss has not done well when replacing Nabby (0-1, .809 save percentage, 4.54 GAA for an overall of 7-4-1, .912, 2.69). But Greiss has performed well enough with limited action to play more often.

Instead of resting Nabokov and preparing Greiss, the Sharks enter the playoffs with a fatigued Nabby. Worse, if he goes down they will have to turn to a goalie who currently has 19 career NHL starts.

Over-reliance on a few players

Goaltending is not the only position the Sharks lean too much on a few players. On the blueline, Dan Boyle has over a third of the points scored by the entire unit (not counting Wallin's points with Carolina) despite missing six games. Almost all the unit's hits come from Douglas Murray, and as stated previously, Vlasic's presence is necessary for the team to be successful in part because he can cover for Blake's lack of skating.

That is one star and two other impact defencemen. Every other guy is just a plugger or, in the case of Jason Demers, a liability as well as an asset.

It is virtually the same among forwards. The top three forwards for the Sharks average over a point a game, making them one of the top threesomes in the league. The next three average two points every three games--still above average. But the entire rest of the forwards average less than a point every four games, meaning Jumbo, Marleau, and Dany Heatley account for more points than every other forward combined.

No team has won the Stanley Cup in any year dating back as far as keeps stats (1999-2000) with three forwards accounting for over half of the units' scoring. Ask Heatley, who played Anaheim in 2007, how one great line can get shut down by a great defensive team like the ones the Sharks will face in the Western Conference.

Health concerns

Not only is the team dealing with Jumbo's injury, but those to Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Ryane Clowe (he missed most of this game after taking a puck to the throat in the first period), and Rob Blake of late. (All of them skated in practice Thursday.)

San Jose was 4-1 since Vlasic's return from a knee injury, but he was out for a "maintenance day." This was the same explanation given for Blake's absence Sunday, the day after playing the game following the puck he took the knee Thursday of last week.

One can only assume the absence was related to lingering problems with the injury. If this persists into the playoffs, you can bet he will play. But will he be effective enough to be the Sharks' second best defenceman?

His skating ability is essential to allow Blake to make plays on the offensive end and compensate for his defence-mate's lack of speed in the Sharks end. San Jose is under .500 with him out and over .700 with him playing.

Blake is not as essential to the Sharks, because he can lead from the locker room, his offensive contributions are not as great as his likely replacement, Jason Demers, and while his defence is better, the drop-off is not as severe as it used to be. One would also have to figure that Clowe's injury will not have a long-term affect on the team--if he can skate the next day, that shot to the throat obviously is not impacting his breathing enough to affect him in two weeks when the playoffs get underway.

But Jumbo's injury could be an issue. He has struggled enough in past playoffs when healthy and injured, and if he has any lingering problems preventing him from being 100 percent, you can bet they will continue. The inability of the first line to play well has hurt the Sharks in four straight playoffs, and Jumbo rightly has to shoulder a lot of the blame--he has averaged about 75 percent the scoring in the playoffs that he has in the regular season since coming to San Jose.

This is why he should not return unless he either has completely healed of what is also likely a knee injury, or he has no chance of healing before the playoffs. This year, injured or not, he has to perform.

If not, this team is going to have to keep in touch by cell phone and e-mail, because they will not be playing together next year--12 of the players regularly dressed will be free agents this summer.

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