Tonight, the San Jose Sharks (16-17-2, 6th in Pacific) welcome the talk of the NHL, the Arizona Coyotes (19-12-1, 1st in Pacific) and the star of yesterday’s blockbuster trade, 2018 Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall, to SAP Center. Though the Sharks and Coyotes have been on decidedly different trajectories of late, San Jose won their last meeting 4-2 in Glendale, taking an early 1-0 lead in the four-game season series. Although that was only 17 days ago, a lot has changed since then.
For starters, the Sharks have a different coach at the helm, having recently relieved bench boss Peter DeBoer of his duties, while promoting assistant coach Bob Boughner to the role of interim head coach. Coming into their first game with the Coyotes, San Jose’s situation was shockingly different, as they had won 10 of their last 12 games and were skyrocketing up the Pacific Division standings. Now? They’ve lost six of their last seven and look like an entirely different club — one that can’t get out of its own way.
The Coyotes, on the other hand, have managed to dethrone Connor McDavid and the almighty Edmonton Oilers for first place in the division, while adding a player less than two years removed from winning the Hart Trophy. The way things are going, the Sharks should hope they can split the season series, as they did last season.
With a 1-1 record as head coach of the San Jose Sharks, we don’t exactly have a lot on Bob Boughner. Sure, we can look at his prior head coaching experience, and the 80-62-22 record he posted with the Florida Panthers over his two seasons leading the club, or the impact he had as an assistant coach on the Sharks, with his defensive coaching helping guide Brent Burns to a Norris Trophy win en route to a Stanley Cup Final berth, but neither really tell us what Boughner can do with this roster. What we do know is that he won’t struggle with buy-in from his players, evidenced by captain Logan Couture’s public campaigning for a reunion following Boughner’s dismissal in Florida.
That’s reason for excitement, considering the sort of spark a mid-season coaching shakeup has the potential to produce; just ask Mike Sullivan and the 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins, or Darryl Sutter and the 2012 Los Angeles Kings. To win tonight, a game in which the Sharks find themselves a pretty serious underdog, Bob Boughner will need to make his mark from behind the bench. A great place to start? Shutting down Taylor Hall in his Coyotes debut.
Not at Hall
Tonight, all eyes will be on Taylor Hall, and for good reason. While the 2018 Hart Trophy recipient has been battling the injury bug recently, playing in only 33 games last season, he’s the sort of player that can simply wreck a game when he’s 100 percent, evidenced by his stellar 93 point 2017-18 campaign. That ability will only be amplified sharing the ice with fellow sniper Phil Kessel, as the respect commanded by the abilities of the two would naturally create space, and by extension, scoring opportunities for one another.
If, for the sake of depth, the Coyotes roll him out on the second line? Good luck dealing with an almost-sure talent mismatch. The Sharks will need to limit Hall’s chances to bring home a victory tonight, and they’ll need to do so smartly — if they’re caught over-committing to Hall on defense, they’ll leave things wide-open for his line-mates. They’ll have to be careful to remain disciplined as well, as despite possessing the league’s best penalty kill, they won’t want to see Hall, whose skillset translates excellently to playing with a man-advantage, take the ice with a group already ranking in the top ten on the power play.
The Sharks need to figure things out in net, and fast. Aaron Dell’s recent 33-save, two-goals against performance, complete with multiple highlight-reel worthy saves, is a step in the right direction, but can he be trusted to lead the Sharks to victory in consecutive games, something he hasn’t done all season? Bob Boughner seems to think so, granting Dell back to back starts in light of his excellent play in the Sharks’ recent slump-busting win.
Boughner on Dell: "He was our best player. He made some key saves at key times and kept us in it when we were starting to take on water." Staying w/him?: "Absolutely. This is a competition. Both guys are good goalies. Jonesy's going to get a chance to work w/Nabby for a few days"— Curtis Pashelka (@CurtisPashelka) December 15, 2019
While the Coyotes haven’t been an offensive powerhouse this year, they’re staunch defensively, allowing the third fewest goals in the league, largely in part due to stellar play in net from a tandem comprised of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta. While the Sharks should be able to limit Arizona’s chances offensively, goals won’t come easy for San Jose. It’ll be critical that mediocre goaltending doesn’t force them to play from behind early. Hopefully Dell, who appears to have a chance to seize the starting job in net (considering Boughner’s recent comments), rises to the occasion, and has another performance in the vein of his previous outing.
Bold Prediction: The Sharks squeak out a 2-1 win, despite an impressive debut from Taylor Hall.