SAN JOSE – Diagnosing what ails the Sharks isn’t too complicated right now. The fans can see it. The coaches are trying to change it. The players know what they haven’t been able to do.
And the general manager, too, can make out that his team simply can’t put the puck in the net as it has lost 10 of the last 12 games.
“I’m pleased with our goals-against. I’m pleased with our goaltending. I’m pleased with our d-zone coverage. PK. But, there is certainly a prevalent thing that’s taking place, with our goal-scoring,” Doug Wilson said on Friday, from his office at Sharks Ice.
In the month of February, the Sharks scored 15 goals in 12 regulation games, for an average of just 1.25 per game. Compare that with the first five games, when San Jose outscored its opposition 23-8 in won all of them in regulation. In the 14 games after that, the Sharks have scored more than two goals in regulation just once – a 5-3 loss to Chicago at home on Feb. 5.
That’s one regulation victory, in St. Louis on Feb. 19, in a period of more than a month in a condensed season.
Much has been made about the Sharks’ sudden decline. At the time of the game with Chicago early in February, it was a battle of the top two teams in the Western Conference. Now, the Sharks sit in ninth place and out of a playoff spot after a 2-1 shootout loss to Detroit on Thursday night.
Wilson seems unsure of what his team really is.
“We’re a Jekyll and Hyde team,” he said. “If we hadn’t shown what we’re capable of, then to me, we’re a Hyde team and it makes it pretty easy.”
Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said recently that the strategy of the game has changed in the past few seasons. Rather than wait for traffic to get in front of the net before taking a shot, McLellan would rather see his team shoot the puck whenever a lane opens up to the goaltender.
Wilson echoed McLellan’s view, saying that “80 to 90” percent of the goals scored in today’s NHL are, “get to the net, in the paint, rebounds, banking off people, wrap plays. We have not, as a group, done the things necessary to score goals. The results are obvious.”
Wilson doesn’t fault the coaching staff, either, saying McLellan and his staff has delivered that message to the roster. In other words, for those who think McLellan is on the so-called hot seat, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Instead, it will be up to the Sharks’ players to change their approach.
“We have to buy into doing the things that teams that are scoring and having success in this league are doing on a nightly basis, and we haven’t,” Wilson said.
“We’ve become a pass-first team in a shoot-first league.”
Wilson used the example of the Los Angeles Kings, who barely made it into the playoffs as the eighth seed before a dominant playoff run resulted in the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, in suggesting that shifting a team’s and individual players’ strategy can take some time.
“What happens is, you get in situations, and players individually will revert back to what has worked for them in the past. That doesn’t mean that’s what’s working in the league today,” he said.
“Do we have guys that are capable of scoring? Damn right we do. But, the approach needs to be adjusted.”
Two things are complicating an honest analysis of his club, Wilson said. Specifically, the health of two players in particular – defenseman Brent Burns, who missed the first 10 games with a lower body injury is on injured reserve with an unrelated left leg issue, and forward Ryane Clowe, who is playing through “a couple injuries,” according to Wilson.
“I do not believe in excuses, and you’re never going to hear any excuses from us. Two important components of our team are not contributing to the level they need to because of injuries,” Wilson said. “One is Brent Burns. There’s a reason we got that horse, the quarterback that generates offense, a big threat on the power play and jumping into the play.
“And Ryane Clowe, who has been dealing with an issue. Ryane is a courageous guy. There’s a fine line playing hurt and playing injured, and his frustration level is, he can’t quite get to places. He’s probably good enough to play, but he’s getting frustrated because he can’t do the things he wants to do.”
Until those players get back to full health and can play at 100 percent effectiveness, which should happen “in the near future,” according to Wilson, it doesn’t seem as if the GM will make any major moves to alter his roster. The NHL trade deadline is more than four weeks away, and the Sharks are still playing a strong defensive game, allowing the fifth-fewest goals-per-game in the league. The penalty-kill, the team’s biggest weakness last season, is also drastically better. So is the goaltending.
But, how much longer can Wilson wait before he has to do something?
“That’s my job, to decide that timeline,” he said. “I’ve got to make the decisions based on reality. We’ve identified what the solution, we feel, is. Just like the other teams that have. Now, it’s application. We need Burns and Clowe back to see, what are we?”
If the Sharks don’t improve even when those two are at full speed, though, Wilson made it clear he’s not afraid to make a minor, or even major transaction or two.
“We’ve never had any issues on making decisions, whether it be big deals, little deals. We’ve done it all. This group, in a compressed time, the timeline is probably shorter. But, the trade deadline isn’t until [April] 3,” he said.
“Is this a team that is in a position to win, and do you mortgage some of your future to get them to that point? Are they a team that needs to play better to let you know that they are that type of team? Are they a team that’s not at that point and should the team be refreshed and reset? Those are all appropriate questions that performance and adjustment will dictate. We’re in a phase of seeing where we are.”