Programming note: Lightning-Sharks coverage begins Thursday at 7 p.m. with Sharks Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet California
SAN JOSE – Reaching the quarter-pole of the NHL regular season, with a five-game homestand on the horizon, provided a good opportunity to check in with the general manager for a brief state-of-the-team of the San Jose Sharks.
Not surprisingly, Doug Wilson seems content. Headed into Wednesday night’s games, the Sharks sit in second place in the best division in hockey and fourth in the Western Conference. The team has integrated a pair of promising young rookies into its lineup in Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto. Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski, who signed matching five-year, $30 million contract extensions over the summer, are as productive as they’ve ever been in their solid careers.
Veteran pending unrestricted free agents Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle all remain vital cogs in the machine, and don’t seem at all affected by their expiring contacts. A defense anchored by Marc-Edouard Vlasic, although it has had a few issues lately, is still allowing the sixth-fewest goals per game (2.19).
“If you look at the quarter-point right now, I think there’s a lot of things to be pleased with,” Wilson said.
“If you look at what we’re trying to accomplish, to set the identity of fast, hard and supportive, but also integrate some younger players into that reset/refresh – that happened even more with some of the injuries we’ve had.”
And, the injuries are significant. The Sharks are simply a different team with Brent Burns skating as a power forward, going 23-9-2 with him up front since his move from the blue line last March. Raffi Torres, acquired just prior to last season's trade deadline, injected a speed and grit element that also helped transform the team from a playoff-bubble type club to a legitimate contender.
With those two in the lineup, that’s probably what the Sharks are. Without them, they’re still very good, but Sunday’s 5-1 loss in Chicago was a good reminder that there are certain players on the injured list that are dearly missed and will have to return and be effective if the Sharks are to be considered an elite club.
“Burnzie just has an impact. How we want to play, make them defend, he’s six-foot-five, 230 [pounds], compliments [Thornton]. He’s just a high-end difference maker,” Wilson said. “Raffi has a big impact on our team, too. Taking two guys like that out of the lineup, the reality is it changes the makeup of our lineup a little bit.”
“We look at it as we’ve come through it in a good place, and we look forward to when everybody is back healthy. In the meantime, other guys have got some really good looks, and shown what they can do.”
One of those, of course, is rookie Tomas Hertl. Although it was no surprise that the team’s 2012 first round pick made the team out of training camp, Hertl’s early success has surprised even Wilson. The 20-year-old leads the Sharks with 12 goals, and his 18 points overall is most among NHL rookies.
“I’d be lying, sitting here with the numbers that he’s got, that we would have projected that,” Wilson said. “Did we know that he was a really good player, and that having played with men (in the Czech League) he had the ability to play with top players? That we did believe.”
Still, it’s been the “big four” of Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski and Couture that have led the way. Pavelski and Thornton are tied for the team lead with 22 points, while Couture and Marleau have 20 apiece.
The Sharks are the only team in the NHL with four players with at least 20 points. In fact, only one other team has three players with at least 20 (New York Islanders).
Wilson was asked specifically about Couture and Pavelski, who will be the core of the team for at least the next half-decade after their off-season extensions.
“Those guys, even if they weren’t statistically where they are, they help you win games,” Wilson said. “Those contracts haven’t even kicked in yet. … They are not the type of guys that the contracts make any impact on. They are just going to play. That’s the beauty of them, is they have such great respect for Jumbo and Patty, and Jumbo and Patty understand that these guys make them better, too. They just play.”
Considering the injuries, and the nature of their recent, nonsensical five-game road trip that saw them change time zones before each game, Wilson also was quick to credit Todd McLellan and staff for keeping the team competitive in the loaded Pacific Division.
“Not having much in the way in practice time, I think that tells you how good a job the coaches did, and the players in training camp to establish how we wanted to play,” Wilson said.
“You ask me how I feel right now, I feel pretty good.”