Programming note: Red Wings-Sharks coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Sharks Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet California
The Sharks’ 27-11-6 record through 45 games is proof enough that many of the players on the team are enjoying fine seasons. Despite dealing with an injured list that seems to be growing by the day, San Jose is in prime position to challenge for a top seed in the Western Conference and a Pacific Division title.
It hasn’t all come up roses, of course. Some players on the team are having disappointing seasons, and others are going to have to improve their games if the Sharks are to be considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender when the postseason rolls around in April.
Yes, we’re four games past the midway point of the 82-game season, but here are our midseason grades -- taking into account performance and expectations -- for every defenseman and goalie on the Sharks roster:
[RELATED: Sharks midseason grades: Forwards]
Dan Boyle (B-minus) – Boyle gets a bit of a break in that he suffered what could have been a devastating head injury in late October. It looked like he came back from the injury too soon, too, and there is perhaps no player on the Sharks’ roster that will benefit more from the upcoming Olympic break. The Sharks need Boyle to regain his form at some point, especially on the power play, which has been inconsistent since his injury.
Justin Braun (A) – Easily the most improved player on the Sharks’ roster this season, Braun has formed an impressive top defense unit with Marc-Edouard Vlasic for most of the season. His foot speed has continued to improve, he is rarely beat in one-on-one situations. Of all the Sharks blueliners, Braun has probably benefited the most from having Larry Robinson on the coaching staff.
Jason Demers (B) – Yes, Demers still makes the occasional and blatant defensive miscue that results in a prime scoring chance for the opposition, but it seems like the 25-year-old defenseman knows this is a make-or-break year. He’s even finding his scoring touch lately, with eight points in his last nine games, and his been among the Sharks’ more pleasant surprises.
Scott Hannan (B-minus) – Hannan returned cheap to the Sharks as a good veteran seventh defenseman that played well in the playoffs after he was acquired last season from Nashville. The 34-year-old came to camp in good shape, and is a good depth guy that has played better than expected, even if he is on the downswing of his career.
Matt Irwin (C) – Matt Irwin is still experiencing some growing pains with his decision-making in what is his first full NHL season, especially when his regular partner Dan Boyle got hurt and was slow getting back to speed. That’s reflected in his failing to keep a spot in the lineup on a nightly basis, including one stretch where he was a healthy scratch for 12 of 15 games in November and early December.
Brad Stuart (C-minus) – Stuart hurt himself in the offseason and missed all of training camp, and it’s showed. The 34-year-old has looked slow, and for a guy that is counted on to deliver the occasional game-changing hit, they just haven’t been there. It looks like Stuart will have to fight to keep his place in the lineup with Scott Hannan, who has been better than Stuart has for most of the season.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic (A-plus) – Along with Joe Thornton, Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a good candidate for the Sharks’ most valuable player through the first half. Vlasic continues to get better in his eighth NHL season, and is still just 26 years old. Vlasic might not get the point totals of some of his other peers that are considered the best blueliners on their respective teams, but he’s as good as anyone in the league right now in his own zone.
Antti Niemi (C) – A candidate for biggest disappointment this season, Niemi has been a below average goalie since the end of October. Is he overworked? Has he had the Olympics on his mind? Is he battling through some sort of injury? These are all valid questions, as Niemi does not look anything like the guy who was the Sharks’ MVP last season and a Vezina Trophy finalist. He has to be better, because Alex Stalock has been a more than capable backup.
Alex Stalock (A-minus) – Stalock has won five of his six starts, including an important 3-2 shootout victory in Chicago on Sunday. The Sharks seem to enjoy playing for him, and Stalock could be earning more playing time as Niemi tries to work out the kinks in his game. For a guy whose career nearly ended prematurely due to injury, Stalock is a heck of a story.
In-line image of Antti Niemi courtesy USATSI