The San Jose Sharks (15-16-2) are in dire straits once again, heading into a seven-game home stand starting with tonight’s house guest, the New York Rangers (15-12-3, 6th Metropolitan). While the Sharks have been below the real .500 mark since their obliteration at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, Tuesday’s loss to the Nashville Predators got them below the softer NHL .500 for the first time since bobbing up above it with a win over the Edmonton Oilers on November 19.
It’s a rude awakening for those fans who thought the season’s trials and tribulations would be limited to October, and those of us who read here regularly likely are not counted among that group. Losers of five in a row, the Sharks are coming home with their back fin tucked beneath their front fins, looking at a home stand with some serious heavyweights on it carrying them through Christmas.
As a wise boy once said, “Things change. And friends leave. Time doesn’t stop for anybody.” Well, the Sharks said goodbye to four of those friends for whom time would not stop yesterday, as the news broke that head coach Peter DeBoer, as well as assistants Steve Spott, Dave Barr and Johan Hedberg would all be given their proverbial walking papers, leaving new/old assistant coach Bob Boughner holding the proverbial bag. There were so many things at which we could point as the problem with the Sharks this year, but all of them were synergistic with coaching, and general manager Doug Wilson, powerful though he may be, can’t fire the goaltenders. Joining Boughner to fill the void behind the bench will be Roy Sommer on defense, Evgeni Nabokov on goaltending and Mike Ricci ... behind the bench somewhere.
It’s not as if the Sharks are devoid of leadership in the room. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, among others, are all veteran players who have been leaders on teams in the past, and any one of them is probably capable of calling out lines and managing changes. This could allow Boughner to focus on X and O strategies, video review and yelling obscenities at officials, the really important stuff.
Either way, tonight may be a chance to bank a few points before teams like the Arizona Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, and Vegas Golden Knights come calling to San Jose, as the New York Rangers have largely struggled to gain ground in the competitive Metropolitan division, despite having one more point than the Sharks in three fewer games played. The Blueshirts have lost two of their last three in regulation, including the most recent stop on this road trip to the eternally impotent Los Angeles Kings, so at least one of these streaks is bound to end tonight.
Rated by many as the team with the most exciting off-season additions, the Rangers have still come out of the gate flat this year, which is probably less concerning than other contenders for that Summertime title (looking askance at the New Jersey Devils). After picking Finnish stud Kaapo Kakko second overall at the NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver, the Rangers won one of the many Columbus Blue Jackets expiring free agents sweepstakes, inking Artemi Panarin to a seven-year, $81.5 million deal. Add to that a June trade with the Winnipeg Jets for 25-year-old Jacob Trouba and the emergences of Alexandar Georgiev and Adam Fox, and the Rangers have a young core around which to build a contender in the years to come.
This year, though, they’re pretty unlikely to make any postseason noise sharing a division with the best-in-the-NHL Washington Capitals, the Actually Good this year New York Islanders, and the superstar-laden, can’t keep a good club down Pittsburgh Penguins. That doesn’t mean they don’t pose a threat to the Sharks tonight. Panarin has been every ounce the game-breaker Jeff Gorton paid for, tallying 37 points in 30 games so far this season, and regularly carrying the load for a truly competitive top line with Kakko and Mika Zibanejad. The trio carries a shot attempt share of 64.10 percent into tonight, but remove Panarin and that number drops precipitously to 33.82.
If the Sharks can keep Panarin to the outside, and limit his creativity in the offensive zone, they may be able to keep the Rangers’ scoring to a dull roar. After that, all they have to do it get pucks into the other net. Yeah, about that ...
Where did the Sharks’ offense go?
In the Sharks’ current losing streak, they’ve scored seven goals in five games. Without doing too much advanced maths, we can estimate that their goals scored per game is firmly in the “not enough” category. Against New York, the aren’t likely to get a ton of help in that regard, as the Rags have held opponents to just eight goals in their last four games. Much of that credit is due to the team’s strong defensive corps of Trouba and NCAA stand out Fox, but some is due to the strong play of back-up goalie Alexandar Georgiev.
Over his last four appearances, Georgiev has posted a save percentage under 0.957 just once, has recorded two shut outs, and faced 194 shots. The Sharks’ strategy of point shots and flurries may not get past the Bulgarian bulwark, so they’ll need to be a little more creative.
Can the Sharks’ defense handle the absence of Radim Simek? Again?
Considering the team’s not-so-sterling 4-10-1 record this season before Simek’s arrival, the answer to this question is almost definitely no. The (former) coaching staff has struggled to create consistency in pairings both before and since Simek’s recovery/regression, respectively, and players like Brent Burns and Brenden Dillon have seen their numbers slip. Then again, on this road trip, who hasn’t seen their numbers slip? It’s possible that Simek’s injury woes are just correlated to the Sharks’ on-ice struggles, and there’s no causation there, but it’s worth considering, especially if you’re looking for more things to worry about (waves emphatically).
Now that the Sharks have finally pulled the trigger on DeBoer, what changes should we expect? Will Marleau be benched the rest of the season and all of his minutes be given to Antti Suomela? Will Martin Jones post a 0.980 through 49 games? Will someone actually answer reporters’ questions? Probably not, to all of those, but it will be interesting to see how the team reacts in the immediate future. Many teams that fire coaches mid-season get a bit of a “dead cat bounce,” where they win a few games right off the bat before returning to their losing ways (sometimes that bounce lasts right up through the Stanley Cup Final), and some teams see a real turnaround and beat the Sharks for the Stanley Cup in six games. Boughner’s head coaching experience with the Florida Panthers may give us some pause on the latter category, but there were a lot of problems with the Sharks that were at least tangential to coaching.
The sad truth of it is that we may not know until the end of next season exactly which problems can be accurately laid at DeBoer’s feet. Mid-season coaching changes generally don’t get to implement their systems and change the way a team plays. Jared Bednar’s first season as Colorado Avalanche head coach saw him come in in August after Patrick Roy suddenly quit and that wasn’t enough time to implement a system: that team posted 48 points in the worst season in the salary cap era. Boughner is in a tough spot, and how long he stays in that spot is a total mystery. The only thing we know for sure is that the Sharks are anything but boring.
Bold prediction: The dead cat bounces. Burns gets off the schneid with two goals, Timo Meier pots two and Jones posts a 0.950, just to be a dick about the whole thing.