Ever since their acquisition of Joe Thornton in late November of 2005, the San Jose Sharks have always been a popular choice to go deep into the postseason, if not to win the Stanley Cup. Whether it be commentators on the Versus channel, NHL Network, ESPN, TSN, etc., the Sharks have always been highly thought of and talked about as the playoffs arrive.
During the 2006 and 2007 playoff runs, (the first two with Thornton on the roster) the Sharks entered the post-season as a fifth seed and received major clout in the media as the “sexy” non-top seeded team with the best chance to win the whole thing.
And over the most recent three seasons, the Sharks finished each regular season at a level where they were no longer the “under the radar, sexy” pick to win but instead were the obvious and expected team to win. In the 2008 playoffs San Jose finished as a second seed, in 2009 they won the President’s Trophy, and last season they were the top seed in the West.
Regardless of previous playoff failures, each season saw some major players in the media continue to tout the team by the bay as the postseason arrived. Even though the notorious “regular season darlings” surrogate name for the Sharks had gained traction amongst many hockey fans as early as spring 0f ’08, there were still plenty of people out there picking the Sharks to win the Cup year after year.
That is until this season and this playoff run.
Nobody, well, essentially nobody is picking the Sharks to be the 2011 Cup winners as the 2010-11 season draws to a close these next couple of weeks. Aside from the obvious fact there are still a handful of reporters picking the Sharks this time around, the amount of clout “Team Teal” is receiving this season by the media—as compared to any of the previous five seasons—is quite minimal.
In fact, it isn’t far fetched to say that this year’s Sharks (despite currently leading their division with six games remaining) are as quiet on the Stanley Cup talk as Major League Baseball’s San Francisco Giants were on the World Series talk prior to the start of last year’s playoff run in baseball.
Now understandably, most hockey analysts and fans outside of the Bay Area don’t have the privilege of watching the Sharks live each and every game they play. And for fans who don’t follow the Sharks closely, it is only too easy for them to shrug their shoulders and say something to the effect of “Eh, they always choke in the playoffs”.
However, when you look closely at this year’s San Jose squad, there is one crystal clear secret that the rest of the NHL fans and experts have either failed to notice or shrugged off as not a big deal. And that is simply that on paper, the Sharks have their deepest squad in their history.
Case in point…even though many people are, you shouldn’t overlook the Sharks as a Cup contender.
While Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley will all fall significantly short of their point totals of a year ago, each of them remains a dangerous threat on the ice and unlike previous years, San Jose’s big guns have much more talent supporting them.
The Sharks are different this season, they are deeper and have a better chance of winning the Stanley Cup this season because they don’t just have two offensively potent forward lines, they have three.
And that third line is headlined by one of the NHL’s most underrated two-way forwards in center Joe Pavelski. A seventh round draft choice by the Sharks in 2003, Pavelski is in his fifth NHL season and has already set a new career high in points with 61 so far through 68 games. Given that pace over a full 82 game season and “The Big Pavelski” would finish with 74 points.
Now tell me, is there another team in the NHL who boasts a third line center with over 60 points? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any team with a third line center playing anywhere close to the level Pavelski is at right now.
For more than the past dozen games, Pavelski and his linemates Torrey Mitchell and Kyle Wellwood—both of whom are centers playing wing—have been just as dominate if not more-so than San Jose’s top two lines of Marleau-Thornton-Setoguchi and Heatley-Couture-Clowe. And it’s not as if those “top” two lines have been slouching.
The Thornton line has combined for 14 goals over the last twelve and the Couture line has combined for 15 goals over that same time frame in which Heatley missed two games via a suspension.
But the Pavelski line has popped in another 11 of their own over the past dozen games. Despite not lighting the lamp as often compared to the other two lines, the trio features the hottest player on the team in Pavelski who has ripped off an astonishing 15 points in his last seven games. Game in and game out this trio of “smaller sized” centers have been consistently sharp in their own zone while playing the vast majority of their shifts in the offensive zone.
In years past the Sharks’ third line has seen the likes of an aging Jeremy Roenick, an under-performing Marcel Goc, a defensive whiz in Manny Malhotra, and many others who collectively didn’t bring enough offensive “umph” to the table. It is no wonder why the Sharks in recent season’s didn’t have adequate secondary scoring. They just didn’t have enough off scoring depth at the forward position.
This season, however, they have three lines which can score, something they have never had before.
Furthermore, the offensive depth they now have is aided by a defensive corps much stronger than that of a year ago. The main difference is that the retired Rob Blake has been replaced by mid-season acquisition Ian White from the Carolina Hurricanes.
While White will never be what Blake was in his prime, the 26-year-old defenseman brings about the same offensive jump as the then 40-year-old Blake brought last season but with much better defensive zone coverage. Last season Blake was caught playing too many big minutes and had difficulty keeping up with the likes of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in the Western Conference final.
With White in the fold, the Sharks’ defense is much more athletic than a year ago and can better keep pace with the quick-footed Western Conference forwards. That said, White’s addition isn’t the only reason this year’s defense will fare much better come the postseason.
Second year defenseman Jason Demers labored much of his rookie year making costly mistakes in his own zone during 51 games last season. Yet this season he has increased his plus/minus rating from plus-5 to plus-14 and his ice time has increased from an average of 15:25 to an average of 19:29. He may have just two more points this season than during his rookie campaign but any lack of offensive production has more than been made up in increased performance in the defensive zone.
Add in a healthier Niclas Wallin, and the Sharks have three of their top six defenders who are clearly better capable of contributing at both ends than they were last season (in White’s case, better capable than last year’s version of Blake).
Then there is the consistent trio of Dan Boyle, Douglass Murray and Marc-Edouard Vlasic who all essentially bring the same attributes to this year’s squad which they brought last season.
Now it is much more difficult to gauge defensive play by statistics but compared to years past, this year’s defensive squad is arguably as good as any the Sharks have ever had in previous seasons. Perhaps a couple of past Sharks squads held a more dynamic defensive unit but if they did, it certainly isn’t by much.
With by far the deepest forward group in their history and one of their top defensive units being back-boned by the current defending Stanley Cup champion goaltender Antti Niemi, there is no question this Sharks team has the best chance of any in their history to get over the hump and become the first in San Jose history to raise the Stanley Cup.
So while the experts will continue to clamor about the Vancouver Canucks, Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers, don’t overlook the Sharks because of their past playoff failures, because they haven’t quite had the team they have this year during those recent playoff disappointments.
Who knows, perhaps the lack of attention is just what the doctor ordered for the Sharks, I mean after all doesn’t the scariest Shark attack come in the midst of silent waters?