SAN JOSE – Flashback to 12 months ago.
The Sharks had just wrapped up January with three impressive and convincing wins over the powerful Ducks, Kings and Blackhawks. At 27-17-6 and 60 points they sat in second place in the division, well behind first place Anaheim by a 10-point margin, but three points up on of the rest of Pacific in second.
Then came February, bringing with it eight straight home losses and a free-fall out of playoff position. Later, a public spat between former captain Joe Thornton and general manager Doug Wilson revealed an underlying dysfunction, and it became more and more evident that Wilson and Todd McLellan had had enough of one another, too. Despite where they were at the end of January, the 2014-15 Sharks never had a chance.
Back to the present. The Sharks just completed an impressive 8-0-2 run in their last 10 with a spanking of the Avalanche on Tuesday, and although they are still well out of first place, they again have a three-point cushion for second in the division with a 26-18-4 record.
The season resumes after the All-Star break on Feb. 2 in Anaheim. The Sharks are confident they can avoid another month-long Groundhog Day when it does.
“I’m not concerned about that at all,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “I like our game too much right now. I don’t foresee that happening.”
Joe Pavelski said: “No one is cutting any corners. That being said, it has to continue. I think that’s what we lean on, and that’s our foundation. We don’t want to cut corners; we want to be a hard-working team, responsible. We’ve got some players in here that can make some plays and [there is] a high compete-level with a lot of guys.”
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When DeBoer took over, he compared his new situation with the Sharks to that with his first season in New Jersey in 2011-12. Although that club eventually advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, it took the Devils until Christmas-time to play his system without thinking it, according to the coach.
The Sharks took some weeks to adjust, as evidenced by their 18-18-2 record on Jan. 8. Still, DeBoer has clearly indicated on several occasions that losing Logan Couture for 30 of the first 35 games was a major factor in their uneven play, and the team's 12-3-3 record with Couture playing supports that claim.
“I think the personnel setbacks played a role in that,” he said. “I don’t think it was the guys [not] getting the hang of the system. That came pretty quickly. Not having a full roster, but also how key the pieces were that were missing played a role in that.”
Tommy Wingels is one of several players that has plainly benefited from having Couture back in the lineup, but he didn’t want to use Couture’s injuries as a reason for the team’s early struggles.
“I don’t know why it took us a bit. Whether it’s the law of averages over the season, I don’t know,” he said. “For whatever reason, it kind of got off to a slow start. Our home record wasn’t where it needed to be, our special teams wasn’t where it needed to be.
“But, we’re confident in this group, we’re confident in this coaching staff, and we’re confident in the two of them combined as a whole. We like where we’re at right now.”
[RELATED: Healthy Couture keys Sharks recent success]
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DeBoer didn’t walk into an easy situation. He took over a team that finished in 12th out of 14th in the Western Conference and showed signs of coming apart at the seams after Wilson and the Sharks’ front office completely bungled the 2014-15 campaign with strange public comments and a poorly constructed roster.
His biggest challenge, though, has been getting the numerous young players that didn’t have good years last season to become regular contributors. When Couture went down, that became all the more complicated. Now, it’s coming around.
“Creating a four-line identity with our depth players, there’s an expectation for them to contribute every night for us to have success,” DeBoer said. “That has been something that we’ve been trying to talk about since day one, and I’m pushing them into.
“Those have probably been the majority of the unpleasant conversations I’ve had, is pushing guys for more in those areas, because I think our top guys have been exceptional.”
Moving Tomas Hertl to the top line, putting skilled rookie Joonas Donskoi alongside Couture, and reassigning Chris Tierney to the AHL for a brief stint have all paid dividends during the Sharks’ 10-game point streak.
Does DeBoer – who had some decidedly mixed results with young players in New Jersey, partially leading to his firing there – feel he’s pushing all the right buttons with the guys in San Jose?
“I do. I think they understand the importance of it. They’re rising to the occasion. We need more of it.”
[RELATED: Ward's impact goes beyong the statsheet]
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It’s still probably too early to consider the Sharks legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, even if they are trending the right direction.
Martin Jones has been an upgrade over Antti Niemi, but he still has to show he can play at a high level on a consistent basis in his first year as a No. 1. He also lacks a capable backup, as Alex Stalock may not be an NHL-level goalie anymore. This team’s playoff hopes ride more on Jones’ shoulders than anyone else.
Although Dylan DeMelo has seemingly locked down the sixth position on the blue line, the defense remains thin, and any sort of long-term injury to one of the key blue line parts could have a disastrous effect. Brent Burns, the Sharks’ leader in ice-time, has been dynamic on offense but still has a tendency to make some head-shaking mental mistakes.
The young players, as good as they have been lately, are still just that – young. Can they keep producing at the level they’ve been producing when the second half begins?
As good as the power play has been, sitting third in the league at 22.5 percent, the penalty kill is just 23rd (79.3 percent).
These are all aspects of the Sharks' game worth monitoring over the next two-and-a-half months.
For Pavelski, the team is still building.
“I think we’ve progressed well. We’ve definitely had good stretches, and ups-and-downs. I think we’ve always kept in mind it’s just learning our game, and everybody becoming more and more comfortable in the system and understanding what they need to do.
“You’ve seen it up and down the lineup, guys really starting to play the system well. The details have allowed us to put together some good runs that are greater than they were earlier.”