Thearon W. Henderson
As the league and union inch towards a new CBA, we ask ten questions that we would probably know the answers to by now if this lockout hadn't prevented the Sharks from taking the ice.
We should be preparing for the Sharks to take on the Flyers in Philadelphia right now but instead we've been reduced to twiddling our thumbs while the league and players' association play a seemingly interminable game of tug-of-war with the new collective bargaining agreement. Over thirty percent of what would have been a pivotal season for the Sharks has been cancelled, leaving plenty of questions about the team as of yet unanswered. Here are ten of them.
When the man touted as your biggest offseason acquisition isn't even a player, it's probably a safe bet that the problem he's being brought in to fix is a substantial one. San Jose's penalty kill has ranked in the bottom third of the league in efficiency for two seasons running, bottoming out at 29th last season. While he wasn't the chief architect of New Jersey's consistently stellar PK unit, Hall of Famer Larry Robinson reportedly had a great deal of input and would likely have been handed the keys to the Sharks' penalty kill at the start of the season. Summer additions Adam Burish and Brad Stuart were also brought in with the team's shorthanded woes in mind.
2. Was Martin Havlat able to string together four consecutive games without an improbable injury?
Seriously though, despite the fact that The Great Bench Incident Of 2011 claimed over half of Havlat's debut season in teal, he was coming off three consecutive years of appearing in over 70 games with Minnesota and Chicago. While the team's unbelievably good record with Havlat in the lineup was a bit of a mirage, he was certainly a difference-maker for the Sharks and is someone they absolutely need to tie together that second line especially considering the club's scant forward depth. If there's a season, hopefully Havlat can stay healthy for closer to ninety percent of it than fifty percent.
3. Has a presumably healthy Michal Handzus been any less of a disaster?
San Jose was flat-out dominated with Michal Handzus on the ice at even-strength last season. It wasn't entirely his fault; Jamie McGinn and Torrey Mitchell aren't exactly the Sedin twins as far as linemates go. But for a forward with a reputation for competent defensive play, it was alarming how routinely 'Zus was outplayed by opposing third- and fourth-liners. Reports of Handzus' hip injury surfaced after the end of the season so it's possible that played a role in the Slovak center's lackluster campaign. Doug Wilson and the Sharks brass would appear to think so seeing as they didn't acquire a replacement third-line center in the offseason.
4. Was last season an off-year for Ryane Clowe or the start of a decline?
After a career year in 2010-11, a lot was expected of Ryane Clowe going into last season. And...he didn't exactly deliver. Getting his face bashed in certainly didn't help and neither did the revolving door of linemates on Logan Couture's right side. But, again, a lack of other viable options means every member of San Jose's top six needs to be at the height of their respective games. For Clowe, that means consistently winning board battles and wreaking havoc down low, two things we didn't see enough of last season. Hopefully Clowe's physical style hasn't worn him out after all these years and he's still able to contribute at a high level.
5. Was Jamie McGinn really hockey Jesus just underneath our collective nose the entire time?
The most controversial Sharks trade of last season came when Doug Wilson shipped Jamie McGinn, in the midst of his best season in San Jose, and prospects Michael Sgarbossa and Mike Connolly to Colorado for T.J. Galiardi and Daniel Winnik. I was a fan of the deal at the time and still don't think it was a fiasco (although I'd have liked to see them retain Winnik) but droves of Sharks fans were furious after McGinn enjoyed success with the Avs. Not all of McGinn's scoring pace on the Avalanche was the result of an inflated shooting percentage as he was able to substantially improve his shot rate (no doubt thanks to playing with a competent center in Paul Stastny) but a 14.5% shooting percentage just doesn't seem sustainable for a player with a career 10.8% rate in the NHL (and an 11.3% shooting percentage in 116 AHL games). McGinn would have likely still proven himself useful in his first full season with Colorado, just probably not twenty goals useful.
6. Who did Brent Burns settle into a pairing with?
Brent Burns had a pretty successful first season in San Jose, even despite a bit of an adjustment period as far as his defensive assignments were concerned. The impressive thing is that he managed that even while being handcuffed to Douglas Murray for much of the year. Murray suffered through the worst campaign of his NHL career and dragged down nearly everyone he played with in 2011-12. With the addition of Brad Stuart, it's unlikely Murray still has a place in the team's top four. So who would Burns have manned the point alongside this season? Stuart, who has experience playing with a similarly high-risk, offensively skilled blueliner in Niklas Kronwall? Vlasic, with whom Burns enjoyed his best games last year? We don't know, but we probably would have by now.
7. Did a disappointing 2011-12 season and the addition of Jim Johnson translate into more of a transition offense?
Even more than their woeful penalty kill, a 7% 5v5 shooting percentage is what really prevented the Sharks from finishing higher than 7th in the conference last season. Much of that was likely due to the bounces not going their way but it remains to be seen whether that's how the Sharks' revamped coaching staff interprets it or if they believe they need to adapt to a less conservative style of play and attempt to create more offensive chances off the rush. In an interview with the Washington Times after being hired as an assistant for the Capitals last year, new Sharks assistant Jim Johnson said of his coaching philosophy, "...I’m a guy that really believes you’ve got to play a 200-foot game and it’s a speed game today. And it’s not only your forecheck speed, it’s your backcheck speed, it’s your skating speed, it’s your transition speed and it’s your intellectual speed. I think if you can play a speed game, you can have success." We would have known by now how much of that philosophy he was able to apply to his new gig.
8. Who secured the last two forward spots out of training camp?
This might not be the most exciting question on the list but it's perhaps the only one that we definitely would have known the answer to by now. With five players in Michal Handzus, T.J. Galiardi, Adam Burish, Tommy Wingels and Andrew Desjardins presumably locked into the bottom six, that would leave the 12th and 13th forward spots up for grabs. Based on comments made by the organization, James Sheppard, John McCarthy and Frazer McLaren (ugh) would appear to have had the inside track to those although there's always the potential for a player like undrafted signing Travis Oleksuk to surprise.
9. Has Todd McLellan changed his line matching strategy?
Since arriving in San Jose in 2008, Todd McLellan has always adopted the Red Wings' line-matching philosophy of mirrored deployment; the Sharks' best players take the ice against the opposition's best players and the Sharks' depth personnel do battle with their opposing counterparts. There isn't a particularly compelling reason for him to change this seeing as Joes Thornton and Pavelski are coming off a season in which they beat the crap out of some of the toughest competition in the league. But with the bottom six still devoid of offensive talent and Adam Burish added in the offseason, it might be a smart move for McLellan to use a line with Burish and Handzus against second-tier competition and in the process open up easier minutes for the Logan Couture unit.
10. Is the bottom six somehow even worse than last year?
Going into the 2010-11 season, it seemed like the Sharks were making a concerted effort to ice the worst bottom-six forward corps in the NHL. Their fourth line ended up performing better than expected but their third line was about as bad at driving play forward as any trio in the league. Luckily, Doug Wilson was able to revamp the group by adding Galiardi, Winnik and Dominic Moore before the trade deadline whose collective impact was largely positive. Unfortunately, two of those three players (along with Torrey Mitchell and Jamie McGinn) are now gone and the Sharks are pretty much back where they started in terms of forward depth. It's possible the team would have taken a chance on a veteran third-line center like Jason Arnott or Daymond Langkow during training camp. As it stands, they could easily run into some of the same depth issues that they did last season.