As the NHL hits the All-Star break of it’s 2010-11 schedule, the San Jose Sharks find themselves back in the top eight of the Western Conference standings after being completely out of a playoff position for a significant portion of the season. The once dominant regular season squad over the past few seasons has stumbled up and down this season with their level of execution and effort.
Consequently, it is no surprise why the word “inconsistent” has been the most frequently used word by players, coaches and media alike to describe the team’s disappointing play thus far.
In regards to effort, both alternate captains –Dan Boyle and Ryane Clowe– have had their say about teammates not putting in satisfactory work ethic. Boyle chimed “a lot of us took the night off tonight” after being shutout at home by the LA Kings on Dec. 27 and Clowe guaranteed the media that “some guys in the room were not that tired” after a loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 3.
Furthermore, fans, media and broadcasters alike have seen fit to specifically question the compete level of San Jose’s top players. Whether it is the Sharks’ television analyst Drew Remenda, San Jose Mercury News columnist Mark Purdy, or even the casual fan, numerous sources out there have posed the idea that San Jose’s top players don’t show the same drive to win as other team’s top players.
Now the idea that Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and or Dany Heatley don’t exude maximum effort as often as other team’s top players is a concept that can not ever be fully proven. No player will ever admit to choosing to play at a low effort level. However, the circumstantial evidence of game play this season shows an attention to detail and a commitment to doing the little things (finishing checks, back-checking, blocking shots, getting traffic to the net) that has been evident in some games but just as lacking in others.
Clearly it would be naive to believe that every NHL player puts maximum effort into every shift of an 82 game season, and perhaps every Stanley Cup winning team has players that pick and choose their moments of taking it easy on the ice. But whatever the case may be, whether it is inner motivation, teammate motivation or threats to job security, the Sharks have to find a way as a group to get the necessary work ethic out of each player that allows them to play at a championship level.
Through the All-Star break, San Jose has done a poor job in this matter. Their head coach Todd McLellan has constantly had to harp on his players for not being properly prepared to play on a given night.
Fortunately, with the new forward additions of ex-Thrashers forward Ben Eager and former Canuck center Kyle Wellwood off the waiver wire, the Sharks have a deeper set of forward lines which builds a stronger platform in terms of competition for jobs and ice time. These pickups give the Sharks an enormous amount of flexibility as the season progresses and the trade deadline nears.
But as the Sharks move forward, it is important to first look back at the span of streaks that led up to the All-Star break. From Dec. 16 through Dec. 23, the Sharks won four games in a row, the first time they had reached that mark all season. Yet four games later they went on a six game losing streak (all in regulation) from Jan. 3 through Jan.13. And despite dropping their last game before the break (a 3-2 shootout loss to the Kings) the Sharks had won another four straight from Jan. 15 through Jan. 22.
Shortly after that sixth straight loss, McLellan mentioned that maybe some of his players needed to watch a few games (from the press box), hinting that perhaps a regular or two could become a healthy scratch. At the time however, the Sharks had no Eager, no Wellwood, and some regulars weren’t fully healthy. Logan Couture missed the sixth straight loss with a lower body injury, and Clowe suffered the same fate during the sixth straight loss. Not to mention center Torrey Mitchell was out of the lineup at the time.
Because of the injuries, it would have been difficult to break out of the losing streak by benching a regular contributor, especially a top caliber player. As it turns out, the players got the message and immediately went on a four game winning streak with a distinctly different attention to detail from the entire roster.
Backchecking, forechecking, finishing hits, winning 50-50 battles, creating positive turnovers and limiting negative turnovers were all games within the game to which the Sharks demonstrated dramatic improvement. Even in the prior four-game win streak, the Sharks weren’t nearly as focused in these areas as they showed these past few games. If the rest of the season can continue to be more of the same, San Jose can return to being one of those top echelon, legitimate Cup contending teams.
And with the additions of Eager and Wellwood, as well as younger forwards like Benn Ferriero and Jamie McGinn playing quality minutes, there is now added motivation for the individual to be on top of his game with the new found depth of the roster. If for instance the team falls into another funk and a particular player isn’t playing up to his capabilities, McLellan will have an easier time allocating ice time elsewhere.
But extra depth doesn’t just enhance the internal competition, it also allows GM Doug Wilson more options in the trade market. Almost everybody and their mothers have been suggesting the Sharks bolster their blue-line since the offseason. Now regardless of who the Sharks receive in a potential trade, they now have more to offer. They could add a big star like Shea Weber (which would presumably cost more in exchange) or a less sexy name like Chris Phillips, but either way the Sharks can now better afford to send a proven forward or two the other way.
Partying ways with the likes of Mitchell, Devin Setoguchi or Joe Pavelski is much easier offset with Wellwood’s ability to center a third line and also jump up to a scoring line if necessary. And in terms of losing McGinn or Jamal Mayers, Eager’s addition helps offset in that area.
Wilson is no stranger to making splashes via trade and he has plenty of options to send the other way in return for a defenseman. Only time will tell, but bet on the Sharks trading for a top-four defenseman by the deadline.