And so February is gone, and so, it seems increasingly clear, are the San Jose Sharks. At this point, there is no readily available evidence that even Monday’s trade deadline can save them.
Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Ottawa closed out a winless home schedule for the month, and dropped them from an uncomfortable but undeniably solid fifth place to a disgusted 10th, but worse, they look for the first time in more than a decade like a team that knows it is going to lose.
Yes, knows. Not “wants to lose,” or “goes out trying to lose” or “trying not to lose.” That speaks to intent, and that isn’t the case here. This isn’t tanking, or dishonor for Connor (McDavid). In a tactical way, this is almost worse.
They feel in their innards that when bad luck, adversity or a mistake happens, that they will be punished for it, they will not overcome it, and they will lose. Not Cat Zingano style, in a New York hurry with a cab outside with the meter running, but just as surely.
This is a problem that has been growing since right before Christmas, when their streak of winning nine of 10 peaked with an overtime win over St. Louis. That run alone should have been sufficient to give them the sense that they were just as important to the Western Conference as they have ever been.
Since that day, December 20, these are your Western Conference standings:
TEAM W-L-OTL PTS GF GA
Nashville 20- 7-5 45 104 87
Minnesota 17-10-4 38 85 77
St. Louis 18- 9-1 37 92 72
Anaheim 17- 8-2 36 85 80
Colorado 16-12-3 35 84 82
Winnipeg 14-10-6 34 96 96
Calgary 16-10-1 33 75 65
Vancouver 16-12-1 33 82 72
Dallas 14-12-5 33 106 103
Chicago 15-12-3 33 81 83
Los Angeles 12- 9-6 30 70 73
San Jose 11-14-4 26 78 94
Edmonton 11-15-4 26 74 98
Arizona 9-19-4 22 66 110
First, you notice they haven’t scored in this stretch – 2.69 goals per game against a league average of 2.85. Then you notice they haven’t defended – 3.24 goals allowed. What you haven’t noticed is that the record is not only 13th in the West, but 25th overall, and the other three teams that have it worse are Buffalo (6-21-3, 60-107), Toronto (6-21-2, 56-91) and Columbus (12-16-1, 78-89).
But it is the dispirited way they confront difficulty that is most notable. For a team that has been as strong in the last decade of regular seasons as they have, their belief system has collapsed. They didn’t forget how to fight through challenges. They just don’t seem to think they can do it any more.
And this isn’t “Todd McLellan isn’t motivating them” nonsense. Even the spectacular executive miscalculations of the summer don’t fully explain the way this happened. This is now the players’ purview, and theirs to repair because nobody can do it for them.
It doesn’t do much good to point out this or that individual player who, if they were suddenly dealt away, would repair the damage. There is no magical “trade Brent Burns” or “move Logan Couture” or “Get a new goalie” quick-fix to be had here.
Even the metrics indicate that. They are poorer in the faceoff circle, and in Corsi and Fenwick measurements than they have been, showing how they have become an average to sub-average puck control team after being one of the league’s defining sides in that area.
This runs deeper, and speaks to one central team-wide truth. They don’t believe in who they once were any longer. Body language stinks as an indicator in and of itself, but as an underlying cause for what they do during games, it has its uses.
This is no longer a Cup contender, not by virtue of speed, skill, depth or mood. There are no dominant on-ice performers, no game-changers, no point-stealing goaltender, no pace-altering No. 1 defenseman. That worked when the players believed they were better in concert than as individuals, but rampant self-doubt and no game-saving players in difficult times (say, Carey Price in Montreal).
Frankly, there would be no hope for this team at all if not for the fact that the Pacific Division is awful this year, and that Minnesota cannot continue to play at its current 1.69 points per game rate. They could, despite what they look and feel like, back into a playoff spot. Hilariously enough, they are two points out of sixth while being five points out of eighth in the current bastardized playoff format.
But as of today they look undeniably awful, as though they no more want to make the playoffs and extend this season than they want to feed bears by holding raw meat between their teeth. If they’re waiting for a trade to save them, forget it. They have little enough to deal, and the market offers little in return. Chicago dealt for Antoine Vermette to replace the injured Patrick Kane, if that gives you some idea.
No, if, against the run of play, they intend to save themselves, they will have to do it themselves, by the skin of their teeth, on the last weekend of the year, and this is not a team that has historically done that very often. When they have missed the playoffs, they have missed by a mile, and when they have made it, they have usually done so the same way. Even in 2013, as a six-seed, they essentially had a playoff spot guaranteed two weeks before the season ended. The last time they had to fight for their place was 2000, when Patrick Marleau was 20, Darryl Sutter was the coach and Dean Lombardi was the general manager.
So this Sharks team will either learn a new skill by fighting through the minefield they have set for themselves, or they will be an abject lesson in what happens when good turns bad and nobody is strong enough to turn it back.