Sharks at the Halfway Point

Posted Wednesday, January 12th, 2011 at 01:57 PM

At a little past the halfway point in the season with the Sharks just coming off their 5th straight loss I felt compelled to jot down some thoughts about how the season is going so far. The season isn’t shaping up to be a followup of last year’s regular success, and for the first time in several years the Sharks are finding themselves in an actual fight to get back into a playoff spot.

Sharks in defeat

The D

As I wrote in my pre-season thoughts last fall, we all could see that the Sharks were not going to be as solid on the blueline as they were last year. I mentioned the younger D-men would have to step up and fill Rob Blake’s big shoes, but I didn’t expect our best D-men to have such a bad year. Vlasic, Murray and Boyle have not been solid defensive “stars” — Boyle himself is always the first to tell you when he has a bad night.

The Sharks are still missing that defenseman to replace or at least make up for in part, all that Rob Blake brought to the team. Besides his on-ice contributions — booming shots from the point and solid physical presence in their own zone — it looks like Blake had more of an effect on the Sharks than we thought. Of course he brought veteran leadership, but it’s now obvious that he had good chemistry with his linemate, Vlasic, who has struggled early in the season.

Huskins needs to contribute, especially for the amount he’s being paid. There are defensemen in this league that are paid half as much and contribute more on the stat sheet…which is nothing.

The goaltending was a big question at the beginning of the year, with the departure of longtime anchor Nabakov. I have actually been pleasantly surprised: Nittymaki and Niemi have both played very well – the Sharks have bigger problems than the goaltending…

The O

And as if the defense was enough to worry about, the Sharks forwards are under performing as well this year. What is supposed to be the Sharks’ strength, the best line in the first half of the 2009 NHL season last year is now mediocre — or worse — this year. Even though they technically aren’t a line anymore their individual contributions have been dismal. Jumbo Joe isn’t the offensive threat he was before for whatever reason. Marleau and Heatley disappear entirely for long stretches of games.

What happened to these guys?
What happened to you guys?

While Pavelski and Setogouchi are working hard, they are also having a disappointing season points-wise.

Clowe is having a breakout year, and much of it has to do with his linemate, rookie phenom and Calder contender, Logan Couture. The bad news? Logan left last night’s game with a brace and perceptible limp after being kneed by Colton Orr.

The 3rd Period

When watching the Sharks play, even if they have a big lead going into the 2nd intermission, I can never shake the nagging feeling in the back of my mind that Sharks are going to blow it. And the that feeling isn’t unfounded. The stats backup what we already know: The Sharks are the worst 3rd period team in the NHL. In the 3rd period, the Sharks are 27th (of 30 teams) for goals for, and 3rd in goals against! In an article about blown 3rd period losses, Fear the Fin puts it plainly:

From a winning percentage standpoint, San Jose sits at .762%, 27th in the NHL. St. Louis, Edmonton, and the New York Islanders have worse winning percentages, but have gone into the third period with a lead in far less games than the Sharks. No matter which way you decide to slice up the numbers, the returns are clearly lacking.

The State of the Sharks

The result? After 42 games, the Sharks are the 11th seed in the conference. If the playoffs were today, they Sharks would be out of the post-season for the first time since 2003, and only the second time in 12 years. The bad thing is that it looks as though the Sharks are no longer the elite status team they have been in past years. They’re no longer that feared date on an opposing team’s schedule.

So what should be done? I don’t know if anything can be done. Fans are calling for trading the big three or the firing of Todd McClellan or even Doug Wilson, but I don’t see any of that happening.

The big three are locked up with no-trade and no-movement clauses, and even if they waived it, we wouldn’t like what we got back. Would we really be happy with the reverse of the Joe Thornton or Dany Heatley trade? We have to remember that they, along with the team as a whole, are in a slump. Careers, like a hockey game, are filled with ups and downs and shifts in momentum. The big three are still among the top players in the NHL.

Fire McClellan for what? For the President’s Trophy in 2008 and the Conference Finals last year (losing to the eventual Cup champs)? And Doug Wilson is widely-regarded as one of the elite GM’s in the league. We could do a lot worse.

So the only thing it seems, is to wait, and let the losing streak shake out — at least until the off-season, when big changes are easier.

The trade-deadline is looming, and there might be help coming. I think the Sharks could look to move Setogouchi for a solid defenseman. Seto’s young and still has great trade value despite his off-year this year, and the Sharks need help on the blueline more than on offense.

The Bottom Line

It sounds hopeless, but the good thing is that there’s plenty of time to turn things around. The Western Conference is still so close that Sharks can easily move up with just a handful of wins. Since they moved from 4th to 11th with 5 losses, it looks as though a win or loss is worth 1 place in the standings if the other teams cooperate. They come out of their funk and they’ll end up with a spot in the playoffs. When they start playing to their ability, I still think they are a better team than Minnesota, Phoenix, Anaheim, Colorado – even Chicago, all of whom are currently higher in the standings.

Since I’ve been a Sharks fan they have always been a great regular season team, and are expected to top their division and be in the top 4 of the conference. In past seasons …say 2008, their top spot made them a little too comfortable — and then they get ambushed by the 8th seeded Ducks.

Jamie Baker did say one thing that I thought was somewhat of a silver lining — the way the season is shaping up, this will force the Sharks to play “playoff hockey” in February and March in order to earn their place in the playoffs. That might carry-over into the playoffs and make them a better post-season team. Think Philadelphia last year, who only made the playoffs in their last regular season game. They carried over that play into the playoffs and earned a Stanley Cup Finals appearance.

The second-half of the 2010-2011 season will either be the most disappointing season in several years, or an inspiring rally back to the top. Let’s hope it’s the latter.

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