At first glance, one would be forgiven for thinking that the San Jose Sharks (0-4-0, 8th Pacific) and the Chicago Blackhawks (0-1-0, 6th Central) are in similar predicaments. Both are pointless, tied for last place in the NHL with four other teams, and neither have scored more than five goals through the NHL’s first week. One would be forgiven for thinking that, but one would still be wrong.
Yes, the Sharks and Blackhawks enter tonight’s game with the same amount of points, but, due to the quirks of the NHL’s early schedule and their international outreach program, Chicago is the only team to have played only one game: a brand building tilt hosted (?) by the Philadelphia Flyers in Prague, Czech Republic back on October 4. The similarity in the “goals for” column seems a little more concerning, as while San Jose’s five goals came in four games, Chicago’s three came in a single losing effort.
The Sharks, then, sit alone in the league’s basement, as the only team with four games played and nary a point to show for it. Their latest outing, a 5-2 loss to the Nashville Predators on Tuesday, was probably their best effort of the young season, and the fact that that superlative comes with a three-goal loss is not particularly uplifting. Still, the occasional shot challenged goaltender Pekka Rinne, the occasional pass reached its intended target, the occasional Erik Karlsson broke the occasional Craig Smith’s ankles, and we got glimpses of what this Sharks team could be if they can put it all together before it’s too late.
When, though, is it too late? It’s probably not news to any of our very smart and attentive readers that this is almost the worst start in Sharks history. If they fail to get a point tonight, they will record their very first 0-5-0 record in team history, besting the 0-4-1 start of the 1993-94 season, a stretch of despondency that hit 0-8-1 before a win. Games nine and ten brought four points from the Edmonton Oilers and Gordon Bombay’s fresh and shiny Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. They didn’t turn anything around until after the new year, finishing 1993 with a win over the Vancouver Canucks on New Year’s Eve, which snapped a 0-7-2 streak, and solidified an unimpressive on-the-season record of 12-20-8.
That Sharks team turned things around, though, and finished out the season 21-15-8, their 82 points comfortably grabbing the eighth Western Conference playoff spot over the expansion Mighty Ducks’ 71. If you’re an old-timers like me, you remember what happened next. Their first round match up against Scotty Bowman’s 100-point Detroit Red Wings squad seemed a foregone conclusion, but Jamie Baker’s heroic long-bomb off of a tragic (ha!) Chris Osgood misplay capped off a Game 7 miracle. The Sharks bowed out of round two after another seven-game series against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
See? Hope is not dead! While making up ground in the standings is harder than it was in 1993, thanks to the absence of ties occasional (frequent) three-point game, four losses to start a season is not towel-throwing material.
Eleven losses, though, that’s something different, and after tonight’s very winnable windy city walkabout, the Sharks return home to host the Calgary Flames, middling for now at 1-1-1, but with a strong roster fresh off of last season’s division win, and the Carolina Hurricanes, the best team in the league with a 4-0-0 record including wins over the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning, before a home-and-home against the Buffalo Sabres, a team against which the Sharks have struggled historically (12-21-4-4), and who hold a tidy 3-0-1 record themselves. Then, it’s a back-to-back on the road in Montreal and Toronto, before finally, a trip to Ottawa and it’s moribund Senators offers a chance at respite.
If that first sentence seemed long, it’s because it had eleven commas, proving that eleven is too many of almost anything, let alone regulation losses to start a season. The odds that the Sharks lose all those games are still pretty slim, but tonight’s is almost definitely the easiest opponent the Sharks will face for some time. These are no longer the Chicago Blackhawks who weaponized Antti Niemi and Dustin Byfuglien to sweep the Sharks out of the Western Conference finals in 2010 on their way to three Stanley Cups in six years, and while they still boast three of the top 100 NHL players of all time (that list has aged about as well as we all expected, hey?), they’re a shell of their former dominant selves beyond that.
While the Hawks will still be hamstrung by legacy contracts to their aging stars given out as rewards for their Cup wins for some years to come, they probably aren’t the team who came out of the gate last year with a record of 15-21-6, bringing on the firing of head coach, and world’s angriest mustache model Joel Quenneville. Likely, they’re closer to the team that went 21-13-6 under Jeremy Colliton, a 96-point pace that would have been good enough for a wildcard spot over the course of a full season. The team’s 10.14 shooting percentage during that span probably wasn’t sustainable, but neither was their .900 save percentage.
Patrick Kane is still a game breaking talent, Jonathan Toews is still a more-than-capable 200-foot center and Alex DeBrincat is just coming into his own after breaking out to 76 points last year. On the back end, Duncan Keith is aging, but still moderately effective, and Erik Gustafsson is the future after scoring 60 points from the back end in 2018-19. The Sharks will need to take advantage of Chicago’s bottom-six, headlined by the likes of Brent Seabrook, Ryan Carpenter, and current best hockey name title holder Slater Koekkoek (pronounced kū’-kū. Right?) to come out ahead, but without last change, and with depth problems of their own, that may be a hard hill to climb.
What effect will the return of Patrick Marleau have on the Sharks’ offense?
After signing a one-year, $700,000 deal on Tuesday, the man they call Mr. Shark is set to join the team in Chicago and keep his 788-game iron man streak alive, good for second-most among active players (Keith Yandle, 799) and sixth-most all time. While many of us hoped that Marleau’s addition could shore up the team’s depth at wing, affording the 40-year-old softer match ups upon which to feast, the coaching staff may have other plans:
Marleau with Couture and Meier. Hertl with Kane and Goodrow. Thornton between Labanc and Bergmann. Remaining four forwards in fourth line jerseys— Kevin Kurz (@KKurzNHL) October 9, 2019
If the Sharks go with this configuration, Marleau will be expected to draw up against either Toews and Kane, or Dylan Strome and DeBrincat, neither of which promise to go particularly well for the veteran. Still, Patty is a bit of an unknown quantity at the moment, in regards to his readiness to play at the NHL level. Posting 37 points in 82 games with a very talented Toronto squad last year doesn’t inspire much confidence, but maybe a teal jersey and the loving embrace of Joe Thornton can ignite a fire in the old man’s quads again.
Who is Robin Lehner, really?
In one of the more perplexing moves of the off-season, the New York Islanders chose not to re-sign Vezina Trophy finalist and Masterton Trophy winning goaltender Robin Lehner to a new contract, opting instead to give more money to 31-year-old Semyon Varlamov. The Blackhawks signed Lehner to a one-year, $5 million deal, ostensibly to prove to management that his .930 save percentage on the Island was more than just the result of head coach Barry Trotz’ defensive wizardry and goalie coach Mitch Korn’s dark rituals.
He’s yet to start a game this year, largely owing to their international travel plans, which could afford the Sharks the first opportunity to do Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman a huge favor and put some pucks by him. Lehner will be eager to prove to both Bowman and Islanders General Manager Lou Lamoriello that his performance last season was for real, and San Jose will be hard-pressed (again) to prove him wrong tonight.
How long can the Sharks’ big guns stay silent?
Logan Couture, Evander Kane, Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic make up seven of the team’s 48 contracts on file, and just over 64 percent of the team’s salary cap. They’ve combined for two goals and five points in four games. While two goals on 42 shots on goal for that group sounds unsustainably low — and that’s because it is — at a certain point, unsustainable stops working, and somebody just needs to put some points on the board. Just two of those players have a positive on-ice shot attempt share so far (Karlsson and Kane, though the latter played just one game), and when a team with as limited forward depth as the Sharks have has trouble producing at the top of the lineup, four losses in a row seems inevitable.
Is tonight the night the big players earn their money? Looking at the upcoming schedule, it pretty well has to be.
Bold prediction: Aaron Dell pitches a 26-save shutout, Lehner makes 47 saves through regulation before Couture strips the puck from Kane below the Sharks’ net with 22 seconds left in 3-on-3 overtime. He tosses a long breakout pass to Thornton in the neutral zone, it’s a 2-on-1 with Marleau against Keith, just like old times. Thornton passes to Marleau, back to Thornton, back to Marleau with a saucer just a half inch over the outstretched stick of Keith, and Marleau one-times a wrister short side over the shoulder of Lehner, crashing into the boards. The resultant exultation sets San Jose on fire. All of it. PG&E is confused.
Sharks win 1-0.