The marathon of the regular season has officially reached the halfway mark. As I write this, San Jose is throwing down against Calgary in game 42 of this 100th year of the National Hockey League.
Now, the halfway piece is a classic writers column. Everyone does one, they are all vaguely similar to each other. MVP, biggest surprise, biggest slump, so on and so forth. San Jose is fairly predictable, Burns is a real life superhero, the kids are alright, and so on and so forth. But what happens if we take a step back from the individual minutia and look at the bigger picture?
The biggest of pictures is the NHL at large. San Jose sits in a comfortable eighth spot, wedged between Minnesota and an NHL club from Southern California. This is an improvement from last year by seven points, which means they are safely in the playoffs. This is the point in the season where things even out and teams at the top stay there, and the bottom teams stay there. The early season standings roller coaster is largely over. We can glean little information from this other than San Jose will most likely finish in the top couple spots of the division and stay out of the wild card muck.
Drilling down to the west and, more specifically the Pacific, we see the Sharks sitting in first place. You can’t ask for much more than that in terms of banked points and wins.
The big concern going forward is the division and how it impacts San Jose. Let’s all take a trip down memory lane, when everyone, including myself, laughed at the Pacific. This was a once great division in shambles, the California three-way death tango fading into myth, and the bottom feeders continuing to feed well, at the bottom.
This was wrong. The Pacific division may no longer be mighty, but it is still highly competitive. Currently the Pacific is sending the maximum allowed playoff teams with five. Five! Suck on that Central Division.
San Jose and Anaheim Ducks are battling for the division lead, with San Jose holding a few games in hand. Edmonton of all teams is lingering and looks to be a good bet to make the dance. I for one, did not think Edmonton would be anywhere near the playoffs, but hey, Connor McJesus is that transcendent. A different SoCal team and Calgary are on the business end of the wild card slots with Nashville and, of all teams, Vancouver, in hot pursuit. The division isn’t scary on its face, but the Sharks need to keep the hammer down and sew up home ice. Coming into the back half of the season is not the time to start to coast and finish third or battle for a wild card spot.
Looking into San Jose, there is little reason to be mad at what has transpired. There have been moments that seem to logically be frustrating, for instance Nieto being waived. However, he wasn’t being played anyway and it is not like he was going to be useful or play in a playoff run.
It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day cycle of the Sharks, especially when you follow as closely as I do. It is a good habit to periodically step back and not get too worked up about a line combination or a bad performance by Jones. The larger trends have been positive when you remember the Sharks have done this all without Tomas Hertl.
That brings us to the forwards. San Jose is not scoring as much as they did last year. That’s alarming but not anything to panic about with Hertl out of the lineup. San Jose shoots but doesn’t score which will change, and the power play has been extremely middling.
Hertl’s return will improve San Jose’s shooting percentage and dramatically drag up the Sharks’ depth. And that’s discounting the possibility the Sharks see some of their percentages round out before the Czech player’s return. Boedker caught fire against Edmonton and Ward has bagged a pair of multi point games.
The talented Sharks forwards cannot be held down for long and the ship will right itself. Timo Meier has played 12ish games and has one goal. No one thinks that will stay the same. Heck even Auston Matthews went 18 games without a goal and he seems to be fine.
It is troubling that DeBoer talks of rolling four lines but literally doesn’t do it. The fourth line or whatever facsimile of three players are deemed struggling the most, are benched in the third. San Jose is a dangerous team when four lines are firing and rolling.
Hertl will, obviously, allow PDB to spread more talent out with Tierney shifting to fourth line centre duty. Tierney as a fourth line centre is immediately creating havoc for opposing teams. Let’s hope PDB practices what he preaches in the second half and gets those four lines firing. It is hard to win the Cup with three guys stapled to the bench every third period.
Speaking of stapled to the bench, good thing DeMelo was kept around. The deep and devastating Sharks D has been ravaged by injuries. Vlasic, Schlemko, Martin, DeMelo, Ragnarsson, Hannan, Stuart, Marchment, McLaren, and Boyle have all spent games in the infirmary.
Every team sees injuries and let’s hope the Sharks are going through their stretch now. The top six for San Jose is going to be needed and relied on to provide steady, punishing defense in the playoffs. The defense is a very obvious strength of the Sharks and when they are tough it is hard to score on them. So long as Schlemko isn’t mystery scratched when he returns from injury, there is not much to complain about on the back end.
The ultimate last line of defense is Martin Jones, and what a last line he is! Jones is a top flight goalie in the NHL. There are not many of them, but the Sharks are lucky (thanks Boston!) to have such a game changer. No one should be worried about Jones or the goaltending, he is fine and will continue to be the rock in net a Cup contending team needs.
The 2016-17 Sharks added a new goalie wrinkle however with a competent backup. Gone are the days of Stalock, Greiss, and Niittymaki. Aaron Dell will be able to give San Jose the ability to rest Jones down the stretch. No need for emergency backup trades like last year; the crease is well guarded.
If you have made it this far, the overriding theme I hope to have portrayed is a sense of calm. No need to panic or get lost in a one game narrative. The Sharks are atop the Pacific and playing similar to last year.
They’ve introduced two dynamite kids in Meier and Labanc and shored up a massive hole from last years team with the Schlemko signing. Yes they will lose a couple games in a row, but they will also win a few games in a row. They will win more than they lose and come March it will be all eyes on the playoffs. San Jose is a good team, a Cup worthy team, and stepping back to look at the big picture should remind you that this team is on a collision course with June hockey once again.