SAN JOSE – The Sharks may have picked a good time for a 'one step backwards to take two steps forward' approach, in the words of general manager Doug Wilson last summer.
Although San Jose’s record of 25-17-6 is only 14th in the overall NHL standings, the Sharks find themselves in second place in the Pacific Division as they get set to officially kick off the second half of the season on Thursday. Arguably the best of the four divisions last season, the Pacific may be the weakest this year, with only Anaheim above the 60-point threshold.
After the Ducks, it’s a wide-open race between the Sharks, Canucks, Flames and Kings for either two or three playoff spots. Any of those teams could get hot, or any could drop out, but more than likely they will remain at least fairly close together for the next 10 weeks.
Head coach Todd McLellan has no illusions about that, and what has to happen if his team is to qualify for an 11th straight postseason.
“We’re in a dog fight. That’s the best way of putting it,” McLellan said.
“Consistency is still a word that we use constantly around here, bringing it all the time, and being emotionally attached to the games. That will be a focus moving forward, and our overall game still needs growth.”
[RELATED: Sharks hope to avoid another post-break letdown]
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The Sharks are an average team judging by the vital statistics. They are 18th in the NHL in goals-per game with 2.69, and 17th in goals-against at 2.67. The power play has been a strength at 21.4 percent, seventh in the NHL, but the penalty kill has fallen to 16th at 81.5 percent.
The main points of concern before the season remain halfway through.
Depth scoring is an issue, as the Sharks have gotten hardly any offense from their bottom two lines. On the blue line, every defenseman not named Marc-Edouard Vlasic has had stretches of inconsistency. The goaltending duo of Antti Niemi and Alex Stalock has been a reflection of the team itself – strong at times, questionable at others.
[KURZ: Sharks midseason grades: The Goalies]
“We’re a middle-of-the-pack team right now,” McLellan said. “Until we declare ourselves any different, and that’s through play and wins, that’s what we are. We have to take steps forward to overcome that.”
Offensively, the third line especially could do more. Indications are that the Sharks would like Tomas Hertl to take over the center position on that line. The 21-year-old played two games in Worcester over the All-Star break to get more practice in the middle and taking faceoffs, after playing his first four NHL games there just before the break.
[RELATED: Sharks' Hertl returns after positive experience in AHL]
Tyler Kennedy is a player that could potentially give the depth scoring a boost, although it was revealed on Wednesday that he’s out of the lineup again for an indefinite period of time with a lower body injury. Rookie Barclay Goodrow could get more of a look there, too.
[RELATED: Sharks' Kennedy suffers fourth injury of season]
Hertl, Matt Nieto, and to a lesser extent James Sheppard, Andrew Desjardins and Tye McGinn will simply have to be more productive than they have been so far. As will Patrick Marleau, who is on pace for his lowest goal-output since his rookie year of 1997-98.
The Sharks’ home record is also somewhat troubling. After posting the best home mark in the Western Conference last season, and tied for the best in 2012-13, the Sharks are just 12-8-3 at SAP Center, or 16th in the league.
San Jose has 18 home games left on its schedule, and 16 on the road. The breakdown is unbalanced, though, as 15 of the next 21 are at home while 10 of the final 13 are on the road.
“We we’ve talked about it and put a little emphasis on that. We know about it,” Joe Pavelski said. “But, if we’re looking at the last 10 games of the year or the next 15 as a whole, our minds are in the wrong spot.”
Nieto said: “It feels like we haven’t been on the road for a long time, because we started off the year playing a lot out on the road, but those games are just as important. Every game is important, but we have to be able to pool points at home.”
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The biggest obstacle though is bettering the team defense, especially now that top-four blueliner Justin Braun is out for at least a month with a left hand injury.
“Defending is the thing we need to improve on,” Logan Couture said. “Playing better defense in our D-zone, playing harder, and being tough to play against.”
Typically, that’s been a strong suit of San Jose. Last season, the Sharks were fifth in the NHL with a 2.35 goals-against average. In 2012-13, they were sixth at 2.33. This season, as mentioned earlier, they are 17th in the NHL with a 2.67 GAA.
That’s partly due to the penalty killing’s mild decline, but it’s mostly because of five-on-five play. The Sharks are 24th in the NHL in that category, and in full strength situations, they’ve scored 81 goals while surrendering 91.
“The penalty kill I think will take care of itself, but the even strength ones are of concern,” McLellan said.
The head coach pointed out that the Sharks have a fairly young defense corps, while converted forward Brent Burns is still fine-tuning his game. Only Scott Hannan, 36, is over the age of 30.
“When we look at our group of young defensemen, they are not as experienced as the group that we’ve had in the past,” McLellan said. “We’ve got some young D that are still coming into their own. We’ve got a forward that we put back there, he’s still adjusting and adapting. He’s doing a hell of a job, but he’s adjusting. That affects play a little bit, as well.”
[KURZ: Sharks midseason grades: The Defense]
Still, defense is a full team effort, including the forwards. Improve that, and it should lead to better even-strength results.
“For us to be successful, we have to play five guys all over the ice in all three zones together, and beat teams with numbers,” McLellan said. “If we’re going to do it any other way, it probably won’t work.”
Joe Pavelski said: “Everyone’s got to play, everyone’s got to buy in. It’s got to be an emphasis for us. ... It’s about taking care of our end first, taking care of the puck, and as you do that you get your chances offensively and put pressure on their team.”
[KURZ: Sharks midseason grades: The Forwards]
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The other potential second-half factor, as always, is the trade deadline.
Whether Wilson decides he wants to add to the team or trade some pieces for future assets is unclear, and could depend on how the Sharks perform leading up to March 2. The Sharks have a number of pending unrestricted free agents, like Sheppard, Kennedy, Desjardins and Niemi that could draw some interest on the trade market.
What Wilson has made clear is that he won’t trade a young prospect or high draft pick for a veteran rental. There have been no indications he’ll waver from his plan of transitioning his team away from older veterans such as Joe Thornton – who is still performing at an elite level – and Marleau, who hasn’t been, although neither of those two franchise icons is expected to be dealt at this point.
If the Sharks are going to become a contender, they will likely have to achieve it with the players that are already here.
And those players will have to be better.
“I don't know if we’ve played our best hockey yet,” Couture said. “We're still improving, which is also positive. We realize we have a tough road ahead to get to the playoffs.”