It’s difficult to characterize the first half of the Sharks’ uneven season. But, we’ll let head coach Todd McLellan take a stab at it anyway.
“It’s been fast and furious,” McLellan said just before the game in Colorado on Sunday. “It’s been a roller coaster ride for all of us, some highs and some lows. It’s been more of a fantasy-reality sort of thing, scoring so much early and getting the goals. They were just coming in bunches. I don’t know if this part is reality, but it’s dried up a little bit, so that’s been the yo-yo part of it. It’s been a work in progress, and there is still a lot to finish.”
The Sharks reached the midway point with an 11-7-6 record, suggesting that they are neither a very bad team, nor a very good one with 24 games to go in the regular season. Here are five things that have gone right – and five that have gone wrong – in this shortened season’s first half.
RIGHT – Penalty kill
It’s almost hard to believe after their struggles in this department in recent years, but the Sharks’ penalty kill is now one of the strongest parts of their game, improving from 29th in the league last season to currently third. They are aggressive when they need to be, have been good at clogging up passing lanes, and have cleared pucks from the front of the net after the initial save. The addition of Brad Stuart in the offseason has helped, as he leads the Sharks in shorthanded ice time, and assistant coaches Larry Robinson and Jim Johnson have also played important roles.
WRONG – Power play
It’s hard to believe that a team that features so much skill on its roster, or at least on the top unit, has struggled so much to put the puck in the net on the power play. The Sharks’ have long been one of the best tea The power playms with a man advantage, including finishing second in the NHL last season, but on many nights have struggled to get the puck to the net and then aren’t hungry or aggressive enough if it gets there. The second power play unit exposes just how poor this team’s scoring depth really is, as it has just two goals – two! – in 24 games from that constantly rotating five-some. More on that later.
RIGHT – Antti Niemi
The Sharks’ goaltender is putting up Vezina-type numbers, and if the season ended today, he’d have to be one of the three candidates for the award. Niemi is in better physical shape than last season, taking advantage of the lockout to work with an old coach from his teenage years in Finland. He recently said his legs feel stronger, and it’s shown, as Niemi is visibly more mobile in the net than he was last season. There’s no question that the Sharks’ midseason MVP is their starting goaltender.
WRONG – Trades and free agents haven’t paid off
Whether or not McLellan is on the proverbial hot seat is debatable. What isn’t is that Sharks management hasn't done its coaching staff any favors in the last two years, as a series of poor trades and free agent signings has yielded very little and arguably made the team worse year-over-year. Marty Havlat has just 10 goals since he arrived in the summer of 2011, and is once again out of the lineup, frustrating the coaching staff. With just six points this season and a tendency to float through long stretches of games, a case can be made that the Sharks don’t miss him. Brent Burns had a nice second half last season, but an offseason injury forced him to miss the first 10 games, and he struggled when in the lineup, anyway. Fans are rightfully still upset about the Jamie McGinn trade, especially since TJ Galiardi has had no discernable impact on the team and has frequently been a healthy scratch. Finally, Michal Handzus’ two years here have not been productive, and Adam Burish hasn’t had nearly enough of an impact for a player who signed a four-year, $7.2 million deal over the summer.
RIGHT – Top four scorers
Joe Thornton (24 points), Patrick Marleau (19 points), Logan Couture (18 points) and Joe Pavelski (17 points) continue to show that the Sharks still have some top end talent on their roster, particularly up front. Thornton and Marleau got off to scorching starts, and although their production dwindled after that, they have started to pick it up once again as Thornton has points in eight of his last nine games and Marleau has three goals in the last eight. Pavelski is often one of the Sharks’ hardest working forwards on a nightly basis and hasn’t gone more than three straight games without getting on the scoresheet, while Couture has reached double figures in goals and continues to emerge as one of the league’s more talented young players.
WRONG – No depth scoring
Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski and Couture have combined for 35 goals through the first 24 games – a very respectable total for a NHL team’s top four scorers. The problem is, that’s a whopping 67.3 percent of the Sharks’ total goals, and they are tied with Nashville for the fewest in the league (52). They aren’t getting nearly enough production from the rest of the team, and Ryane Clowe’s zero-goal output is the most noticeable number in that regard. It’s more than Clowe, of course, as Handzus, Galiardi, Tommy Wingels, Scott Gomez, Andrew Desjardins, Adam Burish, Tim Kennedy and James Sheppard – all of whom have played regularly on the second, third and fourth lines – have combined for eight total goals. On a related note...
WRONG – No organizational depth
Matt Irwin is having a fine season, and looks like he’ll be around for a while. Unfortunately, the Sharks’ lack of depth on their AHL team after Irwin has been exposed. The team has been forced to bring up 31-year-old forward Bracken Kearns and Matt Pelech, but neither has done enough to stick around. Kennedy has shown flashes of being an effective forward, but whether or not he can maintain a roster spot on an NHL team is still debatable. An NHL source recently told me the Sharks’ Worcester team has “no impact players” that could contribute at the NHL level, and it’s easy to see why. The Sharks have failed to find any everyday players in the draft in recent years, too, and it was recently pointed out that the Sharks are the only team in the NHL with no player on their roster from the 2009 through 2012 drafts. That’s due in large part to the trading away of some prospects and some high picks, but the scouting staff’s track record is suddenly under scrutiny.
RIGHT – Historic start
It sure was fun to watch while it lasted, wasn’t it? The Sharks were dominant in nearly every facet of the game in winning their first five in regulation, and it seemed like every time the top line, or the top power play unit was on the ice, they were going to score. The Sharks’ 7-0-0 start, which included a pair of shootout wins, was the best start in franchise history, and Marleau led the way with an astounding four straight multi-goal games to start the season, and nine goals total through the first five.
WRONG – Defense not helping to create offense
Burns’ absence hasn’t helped here, but the Sharks have struggled quickly getting the puck up the ice when transitioning from defense to offense, and it’s a big reason they’ve the scoring has gone dry. That’s primarily on the defensemen, and while the team has some solid guys in its own end like Stuart and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, they don’t have anyone other than Dan Boyle on the blue line that can regularly contribute in the offensive end. At age 36, Boyle won’t be getting any faster, either. Perhaps Irwin can help here, as he has shown a knack for getting pucks to the net and is a strong skater, but the Sharks need help. A healthy and effective Burns would be the best remedy for this problem.
RIGHT – They’re still in it
As miserable as things have been lately – and make no mistake, just two regulation wins in 19 games is miserable – the Sharks are still in the race. They find themselves with 28 points and in a playoff position, in seventh place. Perhaps they can look at last year’s Los Angeles Kings, who struggled to score for much of the season until coming on late and and barely making the playoffs, as a reason to believe that they can still content for a Stanley Cup. At the same time, the team should be concerned that of their 11 wins, only seven have come in regulation or overtime. That’s still the first tiebreaker when it comes to playoff seeding.