Last season, the Sharks beat arguably the best team in hockey over the last 15 years in a five game playoff series. They beat the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Semi-finals and went on to just their second ever conference finals appearance.
But during the offseason, the Sharks lost some “big name “players but in reality, they returned what should still be an elite squad.
Future Hall of Fame defenseman Rob Blake was lost to retirement and his leadership is missed but fans and hockey experts alike are kidding themselves if they think Blake returning for one last season would be have significantly altered the way this year’s Sharks have played. After all, it was Blake who clearly had vast troubles keeping up with the likes of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in the conference finals.
Furthermore, losing Evgeni Nabokov between the pipes is not a huge loss. Nabokov’s playoff performances throughout his career were extremely inconsistent compared to his regular season play and almost everyone around the league agreed he wasn’t worth his egregious contract demands. Teams are winning Stanley Cups without a “big name” goaltender. Last year’s cup winning goalie, Antti Niemi, and fellow Fin, Antero Niittymaki, bring plenty of netminding skills neccessary to lead a Stanley Cup contending team.
And finally there is the issue of losing third line center Manny Malhotra to free agency but the Sharks are overloaded with centers and rookie Logan Couture has 19 goals on the season and has essentially taken Malhotra’s minutes. Therefore, nobody on the team, nor supporting the team or covering the team should be pointing out the players lost from last year’s team causing this year’s squad to suffer.
With Tuesday night’s 4-2 loss against the hot, but bottom feeding Toronto Maple Leafs, the Sharks are in the position of possibly making a significant change within the week, especially if they drop a sixth game in a row against the last place Edmonton Oilers on Thursday. There is no question, that the San Jose Sharks have a roster that is still capable of winning their division and a top-three seed in the playoffs. But five losses in a row have them sitting 12th in the conference and questions of effort, not just poor execution run rampant through the locker room.
There are players on this team who are simply fed up with other players not putting in the same effort. Those players aren’t throwing their teammates under the bus, but facts are facts.
Here is what Dan Boyle had to say to San Jose Mercury News beat writer Dave Pollack about the Sharks at the halfway point.
“There’s a handful of guys – for example, Scott Nichol, you know you’re going to get everything out of him. Doug Murray, I know he’s going to work hard – you know what you’re going to get every night. For some other guys, that’s where it needs to get better. The work needs to be put in every night and every shift. That’s why we’re where we’re at and not where we want to be.”
In regards to chemistry, this team clearly isn’t showing it on and off the ice. They do not show a willingness to win the 50-50 battles, and to do the dirty work that wins games. And as of Tuesday night, they added more fuel to the outside fire that they are a “soft team”.
When Couture, San Jose’s star rookie was injured in the second period on a knee on knee collision with Toronto’s notorious tough-guy Colton Orr, nobody on the Sharks responded. Not only was Orr left off the hook, as no Shark stepped into fight the more willing combatant (although Clowe was held back by the linesmen immediately after the hit), but none of the other Maple Leafs’ willing fighters were engaged as the game progressed and no increase in physical punishment on any of Toronto’s top stars.
Zero response, nada, cero.
What the Sharks did instead, was respond with yet again another awful third period, being outscored 4-1 in the frame (one was an empty netter) and losing their fifth straight after leading the majority of the game, 1-0. Patrick Marleau got off a scoring slump, scoring San Jose’s two goals, but along with fellow “star” Dany Heatley, neither one played with consistent fervor or tenaciousness on the puck one would expect from “star” players.
Those little things, those 50-50 battles are where neither Malreau or Heatley have shined this season. Each of them consistently get knocked off the puck and often times (in Heatley’s case) knocked completely down to the ice when battling for space along the boards. Both players find themselves on the Sharks penalty kill at times, however neither is thought of around the league to be above average or better defensively.
Nothing else needs to be said about this year’s Sharks team, than what is thought of them by their fans. Or more specifically, what the fans feel about the top three, in Marleau, Heatley and, Joe Thornton. If you were to ask Sharks fans who they would rather see on the ice, Heatley, Marleau, and Thornton or Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski, the overwhelming majority would choose the latter trio to be on the ice.
Now what other fan base would nearly unanimously prefer their second line players on the ice over their top stars? Thornton, Marleau and Heatley are all on pace for their worst point totals in years.
Thornton is on pace for just 72 points (if he could play a full 82 game schedule), which would be his lowest total since the 2001-02 season when he finished with 68.
In the seven seasons in between, he has averaged 97 points. Marleau is on pace for 60 points, which would be his second lowest total over the last six seasons. And outside of an abysmal 2007-08 campaign where he finished with 48 points, Marleau has averaged 80 points over the four other seasons in his last six.
Finally, Heatley is on pace for 69 points, and just 28 goals, his lowest totals in a full season since his rookie year in the league. Heatley’s average numbers for a full season are 41 goals and 86 points.
Meanwhile, all three players have no movement clauses in their contracts, so neither one can be traded away without approving the deal, which leaves Sharks GM Doug Wilson in a nearly impossible situation. An underachieving team, with three underperforming top players taking up a third of the team’s cap space means no real tangible changes are available to be made in the trade market.
Each of the big three are not only getting paid as elite players but are also under contract for the multiple seasons. Unless the Sharks can acquire an enormous amount of defensive help without giving up a Clowe, Couture or Pavelski, a significant roster shakeup won’t be able snap this team back into a top contender. Only possible move available to them that would be to fire their head coach Todd McLellan in an attempt to light a fire under the players.
It worked in Pittsburgh when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup with a mid-season coaching change two years ago, but by no means has a coach whose led his squad to two straight first place finishes deserve to lose his job.