Gathering a few thoughts, as the Sharks have a break in their schedule before hosting the Red Wings on Thursday…
1) On Saturday morning, I remember thinking that we would learn something about the Sharks as a team later that night against the Jets. They were completely healthy, desperately in need of another home win, and playing against a team that had been struggling mightily on the road. Now was the time to leave it all out on the ice and try to get a streak going ahead of a break in their schedule. If there truly was a different attitude this season after the coaching switch and leadership change, this is the game where that should manifest itself.
Instead, we witnessed their worst performance of the season. I hate to read too much into just one game, but that was a concerning loss on a few different levels. Nearing the halfway point of this season, last season’s planned “step backwards” is looking more and more like a waste of time unless they get this thing going the other way again, and soon. We’re into 2016 here.
2) Obviously this is way too small a sample size, but the Sharks two worst games of the season came on Saturday against Winnipeg and on Dec. 8 in Calgary. Both of those games were with Logan Couture in the lineup, albeit not at 100 percent. Typically, players talk about getting a boost when one of their stars returns to the lineup. Why hasn’t that happened with Couture?
3) Now, on a more positive note. It’s impossible to say too many good things about Joe Pavelski. He’s thrived despite the added pressure of being the new captain, despite the peculiar situation of having two former captains still in the room. He’s still one of the NHL’s best goal scorers, and at 31 years old he seems to be getting better at his craft. That’s rare in a league that has been trending younger for a decade.
So many of his goals seem to be timely, too. Of his 20 scores, 11 have come in the third period, and his seven game-winning goals leads the NHL. When the Sharks need something to happen, it’s almost always Pavelski coming up large.
4) Another note regarding Pavelski: a scout for the USA World Cup team was recently in San Jose, and we struck up a casual conversation about Americans Tommy Wingels and Justin Braun. When I mentioned Pavelski, he replied: “He’s one of those guys no one needs to talk about.” In other words, and this may be stating the obvious, the Wisconsin native is already a lock to make that team for the tournament next fall.
5) I’m starting to get a little concerned about Martin Jones now that the Sharks’ team save percentage has fallen to .899. On too many nights he’s getting outplayed at the other end of the ice, as coach Pete DeBoer has mentioned on several occasions. Yes, he’s still 25 years old. Yes, this is still his first year as an NHL starter. But the Sharks surrendered a first round pick and a prospect for Jones because they tabbed him as a guy that could get them back to the postseason.
I don’t think there’s a single player on the roster that needs this five-day break between games more than Jones, who should get plenty of technical work in with goalie coach Johan Hedberg. Perhaps Evgeni Nabokov can lend some advice, too. Jones has to be better. I think he will be.
6) Talk of Joe Thornton’s decline was premature, wasn’t it? The 36-year-old future Hall of Famer now has points in eight straight games (3g, 8a) after tallying just two assists in his previous 11 games. I can’t help but wonder if Thornton was suffering from hitting his head on the ice a couple times earlier in the year. Remember, he could hardly stand up straight after slamming his head on Oct. 22 versus Los Angeles, and just two weeks later he smacked it again against Anaheim and took several moments to regain his composure, probably recalling what happened the last time he tried getting upright so quickly. Thornton didn’t miss any games or practices, but that doesn’t mean he was feeling 100 percent. Not that he’d ever admit it.
7) Recently Sharks forward Tomas Hertl was skating on the fourth line, and I suggested he might be in line for a healthy scratching in the near future (although that’s now less likely with Chris Tierney reassigned to the Barracuda). Naturally, this set off a whole round of salty responses from Twitter Tough Guys, who disagreed.
No, I’m not suggesting guys like recent healthy scratches Mike Brown or Ben Smith are more skilled than Hertl. But the Sharks need to get him going here. Hertl’s best game of the season came on Nov. 28 after he was scratched in the third period the game prior. Coaches have to send messages every once in awhile, and scratching an underperforming player is one of the best tools they can use. Yes, I realize Hertl has some strong advanced/possession stats. But it was about this time last year when that same argument was being made about Matt Nieto, and he hasn’t exactly been tearing it up since then.
Try to look at the big picture here, people.
8) For comparison’s sake, the New Jersey Devils were 21-15-1 after 37 games in their first year under DeBoer in 2011-12, before advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals. DeBoer said before his first season in San Jose he didn’t expect this Sharks team to take as long to get his system down as it did the Devils. The Sharks are 18-17-2.
9) Two areas that DeBoer keyed in on for the Sharks before the season were five-on-five play and the penalty kill. Neither of those was very good in 2014-15 in Todd McLellan’s last season.
The penalty kill has been better, and sits in 12th in the league at 81.0 percent. That’s an improvement over last season’s 78.5 percent success rate, which was 25th in the NHL.
Five-on-five, though, is still a concern. The Sharks are 23rd in the NHL, scoring just 46.9 percent of goals when both teams are at full strength. Last season that number was…wait for it….46.9 percent, good for 24th in the league.
10) When was the last time there was a bigger risk-reward player in the NHL than Brent Burns? The defenseman is 20th in the NHL with 34 points, but his -15 rating places him in a tie for 768th. To me, he’s still a forward playing out of position, but the Sharks don’t have anyone else on the blue line than can generate the type of offense he can.
Still, perhaps its time for DeBoer to start reducing Burns’ minutes five-on-five. The Sharks – currently in 24th in the NHL with 2.86 goals-against per game – were a better team after McLellan started doing that last year after the trade deadline. Burns actually has fewer even strength points (16) than he does on the power play (17). I just don't see this team winning consistently with Burns playing more than 26 minutes a night, like he is right now.