The San Jose Sharks (29-32-9, seventh Pacific) end their run against Western Canada, an undertaking that has not been kind. They were outdone against Edmonton on the sticks and quick thinking by Oilers’ goaltender Mike Smith and superstar Connor McDavid in overtime. Then, against Calgary, the Flames showed their superiority, peppering the Sharks goaltenders for the longer part of the night and earning the win over the Sharks.
Now, the Sharks face an opponent who has mostly dogged them this season. The Vancouver Canucks (34-28-10, fifth Pacific) are hoping to sweep the series against San Jose after winning the first two contests, 5-4 on Feb. 17 and 5-2 back in December.
Following the game, the Sharks will get two days off before facing off against the Predators in Nashville to start a four-game trip through the Central Division. Home couldn’t feel any further, especially after being on a five-game bender going into this game.
Since playing the Canucks last, the Sharks have been statistically eliminated from the playoffs, so math is out of the equation. Also gone is any clear goal or motivation to win games at this junction in the season.
How do the Sharks respond to the Doug Wilson news?
Perhaps the most arbitrative factor in the Sharks’ future is that longtime general manager of 19 years, Doug Wilson, stepped down from his role in the organization earlier this week. One could say the team right now is like a roving army or band in search of a commander, a search which might not conclude until the start of next season, according to team president Jonathan Becher.
So what’s a hockey team to do? Erik Karlsson spoke to media on Thursday, noting that with the candidacy of a new GM in question, players “should feel a bit uneasy.” That makes sense, since Wilson was the man responsible for signing Karlsson and other current players such as Brent Burns, Nick Bonino, Matt Nieto, Jaycob Megna, James Reimer, Adin Hill and Nicolas Meloche during his tenure.
So do we see those players step up their game in a critical moment in the schedule, perhaps hoping to show how they might fit into the future plans under an unnamed GM? No doubt the Sharks will continue their hard style and ‘play for each other’ attitude on the first stop of a late-season road trip at Rogers Arena. But without the weight of Wilson’s banner to carry, can they elevate their game?
Who’s up next from the youngsters?
One positive trend we’ve seen is a string of young players take advantage on the recent line-up opportunities given to them. The team lost Jacob Middleton, Andrew Cogliano,and depth player Nick Merkley at the trade deadline.
Recent injuries to players like Adin Hill and Jonathan Dahlen have also opened up some space. Meanwhile, guys who started on the big club have since been sent down or scratched, like fourth-liner Jasper Weatherby or veteran defenseman Radim Simek.
Since then, Noah Gregor, Scott Reedy, Ryan Merkley and Sasha Chmelevski have all made their cases to stay in the line-up going into next season. Goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen, too, has had some strong games since coming over from Minnesota at the trade deadline.
But one player who isn’t quite as young as the cadre of young players mentioned and is still looking to make an impact, might be Rudolfs Balcers. Balcers rejoined his original draft team — the Sharks — last season via waivers, where he established himself as a kind of swiss-army knife that could move up and down the line-up, play some defensive minutes, and often score.
He’s suffered some occasional injuries and hasn’t produced as much as the Sharks would have hoped for in his first season of a two-year extension he signed during the 2021 off-season. With just 18 points and less than 10 goals on the season, can the 25-year-old find his game again?
Do the Sharks have the ‘spoiler’ factor?
In three of their next four games, including tonight, the Sharks play teams who are in contention for or currently holding a Wild Card spot. The other teams aside from the Canucks are the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars, who currently sit at number one and two in the Western Conference Wild Card.
The Canucks sit two places and six points below the last spot. The Sharks, unfortunately much further from that mark, have an opportunity not to change their fate, but to help make the playoff race in the West interesting.
The Sharks winning all of those matchups is more of an ideal than a target. But at the very least, they will be getting the best competition against their opponents and seasoning for the youngsters, especially considering all of these games are on the road.
If it becomes apparent that the Sharks can hang with this bunch of playoff contenders, they will be left wondering what could have been of their 2021-22 season. Tonight’s game in Vancouver will set the tone.
Bold prediction: More second power play unit magic. Merkley, Reedy and Barabanov will all get on the board.