After losing at home to the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday by a 5-3 final, the San Jose Sharks find themselves in extremely unfamiliar territory. As the calendar flips over to December, the perennial regular season power house Sharks find themselves in last place in the Pacific division and 11th in the Western Conference.
With a record of 11-8-4, the Sharks have actually come out on the losing end in the majority of games this season. Sure, they are just three points out of first place in the division, but the inconsistencies as of late have no excuses.
We’re twenty-three games into the season and the Sharks still have not reached a point where they have more wins than total losses. While the NHL season is only just past the quarter mark, it is clear that this Shark team isn’t nearly what it was in years past.
Over the last handful of years, the Sharks have finished with 24, 21, 16, and 20 more wins than total losses. Yet, in order for this year’s team to finish with just 16 more wins than total losses, they will have to win 38 games over the final 59.
In other words, their record will have to be something along the lines of 38-11-10 the rest of the way to reach 16 wins over total losses.
Sure, the Sharks have plenty of all star offensive talent including offensive defenseman Dan Boyle. But nothing about their overall play suggests this team can go from a .478 winning percentage through the first quarter of the year to a .644 winning percentage in the final three quarters; a feat they would have to accomplish in order to finish with 16 more wins than combined losses.
This year’s Sharks are simply not structured to be able to dominate the way they have in recent seasons.
And the sole reason for this is their lack of production from the blue-line. At both ends of the ice, the 2010-11 Sharks defense corps has vastly underperformed.
Unfortunately for the Sharks, the most troubling part of their defensive struggles is that their current defensive group doesn’t have much room to improve. Essentially, the Sharks blue-line is not going to significantly improve without a change in personnel.
Outside of Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray, the rest of the Sharks defense doesn’t put any fear into the opponent.
When either Boyle or Murray make a mistake out on the ice, each one has the ability to make up for it with their various abilities. Opponents have to game-plan for Boyle’s ability to take over a game offensively, and Murray’s ability to dominate a game with his physical prowess.
But between veteran defenseman Niclas Wallin, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Kent Huskins, neither one brings a presence that makes opponents have to game-plan for their presence.
Vlasic, the youngest of that trio, has a puck-moving defenseman’s speed but has played with less offensive confidence than the stay-at-home Douglas Murray.
Now just two years ago, Vlasic put up a then career high with 36 points. His offensive performance during that 2008-09 campaign made many believe he could continue increasing his offensive production in the coming seasons. However, last season his point total dropped to 16, and this year the Quebec native is pointless through the quarter mark. With zero points, and minus-9 plus/minus rating, Vlasic has been arguably the least effective of the Sharks defenseman.
No matter how much of Vlasic’s struggles are due to missing his defense partner of the last two seasons in (future hall of famer) Rob Blake, the fact of the matter is that he isn’t playing to the level expected of him.
Of course, it doesn’t help when his new partner, Wallin, doesn’t exceed in any particular area. The same can be said for Huskins, who also isn’t known for any particular strength.
In prior years, the Sharks defense featured a core that other teams had to account for in preparation.
Players like the aforementioned Blake, as well as the likes of Kyle McLaren, Scott Hannan, Christian Ehrhoff and Craig Rivet all brought a presence to the Shark blue-line.
McLaren was known for his patented hip checks, Hannan was a shut-down defenseman, Ehrhoff could skate like the wind and had a bomb of a shot, and Craig Rivet was an inspirational leader who played an intense physical game but could also chip in on the power-play.
In terms of depth, the defense has taken on a large change from just two seasons ago when the Sharks won the President’s Trophy as the team with the best record in the regular season.
Those pairings were as follows:
Nothing more needs to be said about this group of six after you notice that both Ehrhoff and Murray are now considered top caliber NHL defenseman. Just two years ago, the pair filled out San Jose’s third pairing and now they are both top-pair quality defenders.
And if we go back two years prior the Sharks defense looked as follows:
Hannan, Carle and Ehrhoff are all big time contributors for their respective clubs.
While each of them had their critics when they were with the Sharks, the defensive units they were apart of in San Jose were of much higher quality than what the Sharks have put together this season.
In terms of overall production, both the 06-07 and the 08-09 Sharks’ defense corps blow the 2010-11 unit out of the water.
Now the Sharks do still have solid scoring lines and quality netminding between the pipes. These are attributes the Sharks have had every year since acquiring Joe Thornton five years ago.
However, for the first time over that span, the Sharks are lacking a strong defense.