Everyone who has followed the NHL closely this season knows that the San Jose Sharks have been an up and down team all season.
Inconsistency has been the word used by everyone on and around the club thus far. However, up until recently, you wouldn’t say that the Sharks have been “streaky”.
Prior to a six-game losing streak (all in regulation) spanning from Jan. 3 through Jan 13, the Sharks had just a single four game win streak, one other three game win streak and just one three game losing streak. Outside of that, no such streaks of three or more. But right now, the Sharks are clearly streaking, and in the right direction.
After posting a pair of 2-0 shutouts against the Bruins on Saturday and against the Capitals last night, the Sharks are now on an 8-0-1 run since their six game skid. Seventeen out of a possible eighteen points earned over their last nine games has catapulted them from outside the top eight in the Western Conference to the fourth spot, just one point behind the Pacific Division leading Dallas Stars.
While the one shootout loss to the LA Kings breaks the Sharks’ win streaks up into a pair of four game streaks, it is apparent that the Sharks are now finally playing at the top of their game for a consistent stretch. Four or five games of strong play is one thing, but now having played at an elite level for twice that many games shows a renewed sense of attention to detail by the Sharks.
Over the stretch they have proven their ability to score quickly and often (coming back from down 3-0 against Phoenix to win 5-3 on Feb. 1) but have also played defensively sound road games in Vancouver where they won 2-1 in a shootout and in these most recent shutout victories.
Against Boston, the sharks tied a franchise high with 25 blocked shots, and defenseman Douglas Murray set an individual franchise record of seven blocked shots of his own. The 25 shots blocked was just one fewer than Niemi turned aside as the Bruins were denied on 26 attempts by the Sharks netminder.
For most of the season, the Sharks have been under major scrutiny in regards to their defensive zone coverage. In particular, defensemen Niclas Wallin, Kent Huskins and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have taken the bulk of that criticism. But in the past nine games these three have been playing their best defensive hockey of the season. Combine their improved defensive play with San Jose’s new found forward depth–which now features three quality scoring lines–and it is no wonder why the team has finally found a consistency in the win column.
Of course the play between the pipes has also been phenomenal during the stretch, but Niemi has quietly been at the top of his game for longer than most tend to realize.
As was pointed out on San Jose’s pre-game show on CSN California, Niemi has been on a roll since late November. Dating back to his first encounter against the Chicago Blackhawks (with whom Niemi won the Stanley Cup with last season) on Nov. 24th, the Sharks netminder has been playing at quite an elite level. In that game he turned away 30 of 32 shots in the Sharks’ 5-2 win.
Including that game in Chicago and all the way up through Tuesday’s win over Washington, Niemi has started 26 games while posting a 2.23 GAA and a .924 save percentage. While Niemi’s current season save percentage of .915 rates him 19th overall, if his 26 game stretch was for the full season, the .924 mark would put him at seventh in the league. Many were skeptical of a sophomore slump for Niemi, but it just hasn’t happened as the Stanley Cup champion has been proving his doubters dead wrong this season.
While it is true that Niemi has been ridiculously hot since the beginning of January–14 games, 1.85 GAA and a .937 save percentage–his numbers from late November through December are still more than respectable–12 games, 2.66 GAA, and a .911 save percentage. Plus, if it wasn’t for an absolute stinker of a defensive game from the group in front of him against Vancouver (who beat Niemi six times) his numbers during this previous stretch would have been even better.
Ergo, those out there who wondered about the goaltending for the Sharks (before or at some point during the season) being good enough to win and win in the playoffs, well, wonder no more.
Headlined by Niemi, the Sharks clearly have solid netminding. And between the pair of Niemi and Antero Niittymaki, the Sharks have just as strong, if not stronger goaltending then they have had in recent years with Evgeni Nabokov as the starter.
But are things all fine and dandy for the Sharks?
Elite goaltending? Check. (including a solid second option)
Sound defensive play? Check.
Elite level forwards? Check.
Scoring depth? Check.
Physical play? Check. (see Ben Eager’s acquisition)
It may appear that the Sharks don’t need anything more added to their roster with the way they have been playing lately.
Earlier in the year the Sharks as a group were playing like a team bound to finish somewhere between eighth and tenth in the West, but right now the team is firing on all cylinders and are playing like a team that looks bound to finish either second or third in the conference.
But if Sharks GM Doug Wilson does not add a top-four caliber defenseman by the trade deadline, he will have severely handicapped what could be his squad’s best shot to win the Stanley Cup.
Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley aren’t getting any younger, all three are in their early 30’s and the NHL is getting younger and younger as the years go on.
Teams like the Penguins, Capitals, Kings, and others are only going to get better as the years go on as their top stars are still in their 20’s. Breaking through and winning a cup for the Sharks is only going to get harder as each year passes and San Jose’s big three put on more miles.
Last season, the Sharks had problems scoring in the Conference finals against Chicago but the real problem was defending the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
Defensively the Sharks were not up to the task and with Rob Blake lost to retirement, the defense has (if anything) gotten worse from last season. Second year defenseman Jason Demers has improved his play and Wallin is healthier this season, so one could argue that minus an aging Blake, the defense hasn’t been much worse, just a tad less effective.
But in order for the Sharks to win the Stanley Cup this season, a better defensive core than last season is imperative. Without an improved defense, this team will fall at some point in the post-season.
Now the best way to add to this defense without giving up too much in return is to trade for Ottawa defenseman Chris Phillips. Phillips, a No. 1 overall selection by the Senators back in 1996 is a consistent top-4 defenseman who plays an sound defensive game, and can chip in 20-30 points per season. Last year he blocked 142 shots which bested all of the Sharks’ players from last season.
Ottawa is looking to deal a defenseman or two for forwards, prospects and or draft selections, and it is hard to believe that a package of the caliber of say Torrey Mitchell, Benn Ferriero and some middle tier draft choice wouldn’t be enough. Perhaps a more high level prospect or draft choice would be required but the return for Phillips won’t nearly be anything close to what it would take to acquire a defenseman of the Shea Weber caliber. If the Sharks can make the deal for Phillips a reality, they will indeed have a better defensive unit than they had a year go.
Only time will tell what Wilson will do as the deadline approaches, but I wouldn’t put too much faith into what Wilson told Mercury News beat writer David Pollack in one of his more recent columns. After all, denying publicly that he is seeking trade possibilities while his team is on a roll is the only way to keep any leverage in trade talks.