Two weeks ago, coach Todd McLellan was asked about his club’s propensity to play down to its opponents. At the same time, the Sharks seem to be able to raise their game against some of the better clubs in the NHL.
“We need to figure out where we fit, first. Forget about where the other teams fit. What are we right now? Where do we stand? Are we an upper echelon team? Are we a playoff team? Are we squeaking in? Are we a non…
“We’re got to figure all of that out as a group before we start evaluating what other teams do. I think sometimes we have a little difficulty with that.”
The reply was consistent with general manager Doug Wilson’s early summer statement that the Sharks might have to take one step backward before taking two steps forward. That step backward may be we’re seeing from the Sharks through the first quarter of the regular season.
Put another way, the days of being an elite club that's a lock to make the playoffs may be over.
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Nothing much has changed over the past fortnight since McLellan uttered those words.
Take the last three games – the Sharks gave perhaps their most complete effort of the season last Thursday in a 2-1 win over an impressive Lightning team that is a true contender, but followed it up with a loss in Columbus – their second of the season against the injury-ravaged Metropolitan Division basement dwellers – and then they had to rely on a rookie goalie to bail them out on Sunday against a Carolina team that won’t come anywhere close to a playoff berth.
The performance against the Hurricanes was especially troubling. One would imagine that coming off of a loss and trying to get Troy Grosenick his first NHL win would be motivation enough to perform well from the start.
It didn’t happen, as the Sharks were on their heels for virtually the entire game, getting outshot 45-19 but winning 2-0 thanks to Grosenick's standout performance.
It begs the question, is the new leadership structure of four rotating alternate captains working? Who is supposed to get these guys going in pivotal moments?
Is it Joe Thornton, who’s already been reduced in rank but apparently has the support and backing of his teammates? Is it Joe Pavelski, who seems to have publicly taken the biggest ownership stake in the team? What about Patrick Marleau and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, owners of the other two A’s? Are guys like Tommy Wingels and Logan Couture supposed to lead solely by example, or should they be doing more in the room despite not wearing letters?
Or, is it the coaching staff? McLellan admitted at the end of last season that his message wasn’t getting through to the players late in the first round collapse against Los Angeles. Is that still an issue?
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On the other hand, maybe there is a simpler reason. Maybe they’re just not as talented as in previous years.
A few numbers stand out.
Currently the Sharks are just 18th in the NHL in faceoff percentage at 49.4 percent. They’ve finished in the top two in the league in that category for each of the last six seasons.
The Sharks are allowing 32.5 shots per game. That’s 24th in the NHL. Last season, San Jose was sixth in that category.
San Jose is also right in the middle of the pack in terms of goals-for and goals-against. They’re 13th in the league in both categories at 2.70 for and 2.55 against. Last season, they finished sixth and fifth, respectively.
There are some issues.
The defense corps is at the top of the list. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is having another outstanding season, but he seems to be the only returning blueliner that’s playing as well as he was in 2013-14.
Brent Burns will continue to be a work in progress defensively while his offensive production has slowed; rookie Mirco Mueller is improving after looking lost for a few games early on; and Jason Demers, Matt Irwin and Scott Hannan have combined to form a shaky third pair. Demers’ drop off from last season is particularly concerning after he signed a two-year, $6.8 million contract extension in the offseason.
Up front, some of the young guys they were counting on like Matt Nieto (1 goal) and Tomas Hertl (4 goals) haven’t been able to produce at the same rate as their rookie years. Chris Tierney wasn’t ready to start at the NHL level before he was finally reassigned, Tye McGinn hasn't been able to maintain his place in the lineup, and Barclay Goodrow hasn't played enough yet to warrant a true evaluation.
It's been a struggle to find an effective bottom six. James Sheppard and Tyler Kennedy have shown flashes of being effective players after returning from preseason injuries, but there’s a question whether they can be consistent week-to-week. The fourth line that’s supposed to bring energy, at the very least, hasn’t been able to do even that.
In goal, the performances of Antti Niemi and Alex Stalock have reflected the team – superb at times, shaky in others.
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On an encouraging note, the Sharks may have a very valid reason they’ve been so inconsistent through 20 games. The schedule, simply put, has been brutal.
Playing 16 of the first 21 games on the road – the most road-heavy schedule to start a season in NHL history, according to Elias – hasn’t allowed them the rest and the practice time that is so necessary to finding success through the long slog of an 82-game season. Of the 16 road games, 13 will have been at least two time zones away when they compete in Buffalo on Tuesday.
After that one, though, the Sharks get to return home for 11 of their next 13 games, and 21 of the next 30.
Historically a good team on their own ice, including the second-best home record last season, there is more than enough time to tighten things up and start to climb up the standings.
“It’s been tough on our hockey club. I can tell you that,” McLellan said after the win in Carolina on Sunday. “Our team needs to rest a little bit once we get that opportunity, but we also need practice time. That’s the biggest thing that we’re lacking. We jump from city to city, and we may get on the ice for 15 minutes a day, and really it’s just to keep the engine running. It’s hard to get a competitive, hard practice where we can work on a lot of our game.
“I think it shows right now.”
Can it be corrected?
There’s three-quarters left in the regular season to find out.