Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
A hot start masked a lot of problems stemming from injuries, illness, and conditioning. But is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
During the first five games of the season, the San Jose Sharks operated like a Death Star on steroid, with all parts scoring goals and destroying planets with Sith-like precision. The last bunch? Not so much; rather than a fully armed and operational Death Star, the Sharks played like Voltron after all the Lion pilots went out drinking with Lone Star and Barf. Missed passes, bad turnovers, and general just-a-bit-off-ness gets masked a lot easier when you're pulling points in the standings. But when you're not, well, fingers start getting pointed.
Thing is, it's hard to say that the steamrolling version that we saw earlier was the Sharks at maximum potential. Instead, it seemed more likely that the lucky combination of continuity among the lines (Todd McLellan's favorite phrase during the first week or so of the season) and discontinuity among opponent lineups meant that adrenaline and experience could lead to easy victories.
With about a quarter of the abbreviated season gone, though, the exact opposite has happened. Adrenaline has worn off, not just for the Sharks but across the league as a whole. At the same time, the lack of a true training camp and a preseason means that players are at various levels of physical and mental fatigue. Add in injuries and comings-and-goings, and the Sharks are lucky that they stormed out of the gate. Without that, mistakes certainly wouldn't be quite as forgiving -- but now that the losses are starting to pile up, that little bit of "uh oh" is creeping in.
Taking all that into consideration, it's hard to get a handle on the true identity of this team. You've basically got a Gantt chart of all these different variables -- initial adrenaline, new coaching stuff, out-of-the-gate fatigue, Brent Burns' health (and beard), team chemistry, etc. -- and the clock is ticking as to when it will all sync up. Keep in mind that players with long-term injuries tend to often be great for about two weeks (adrenaline), then taper off into a funk for about two weeks as they get their legs. Much of the league has seen this, and the problem the Sharks have faced stems from the additional shuffling on the blueline.
Brent Burns' path may be a little different, as he'll have to deal with this while learning how to work under Larry Robinson, all while playing with a new defensive partner. Add in Dan Boyle's flu bug, which did a hell of a lot to derail the Sharks' mojo while exposing some serious depth and deployment issues on the blueline, and you've got a bunch of other issues at play here. Scott Gomez has turned out to be a non-factor, but perhaps that's a greater indication of mis-management rather than any real problem; he's spent way more time with grinders than wingers who can actually score, and that will sink any playmaker. Of course, perhaps fatigue's an issue with Gomez too, who arrived late without any training camp and was more or less thrown into the fire. The flu bug that Dan Boyle spawned could also be giving the ol' hidden assassin blade to the Sharks roster.
It's been around three weeks since the NHL returned. Had we seen a normal start to the season, three weeks is around when we'd be gearing up for opening night after training camp and the pre-season. For the players that have been on the ice since January 20th's first game, the hope is that their conditioning and timing are rounding into regular season form. With Burns' injury, he probably won't be himself for another two or three weeks, and if Gomez's limited ice time was a factor of fatigue and conditioning, another week would put him more in line with a normal start. Flus can take a week or so to cycle out, and Douglas Murray is, well, slow and not good anymore.
This road trip has the potential to be the catalyst that brings everything together or a disaster that wipes out all the good that came from the team's fast start. The optimistic view is that it forces the team to look at when they've overachieved and underachieved over the past few weeks, then decide just how they're going to knuckle down and claw out of it. Unfortunately, the Sharks historically have either thrived or gone completely off the rails when comes down to the whole "clawing out of crap" part.
I try to look on the bright side, though. Whenever I need to get out the door and everything goes wrong -- toast is burned, dog just peed on the carpet, drug-dealing neighbors are being drug-dealing neighbors -- I tell myself that I'm exorcising all the bad karma for the day. With the road trip's start in Columbus -- the hockey equivalent of all of the above -- let's hope that the Sharks have gotten all the bad karma (and stupidity) out of their system. The Sharks do have a tendency to play up or down to their competition, and maybe a few days rest coupled with some positives from the Nashville snoozer is a sign of things to come. But looking at the calendar, if everything goes right, I don't expect the Sharks to truly click until after they come home. Let's just hope that the time leading up to that is spent successfully working out kinks rather than stubbing toes.
Now to work a little voodoo to get the team healthy. Say it with me folks: shoo shoo retarded flu.