Sharks at Wild Preview: Can San Jose find their identity again?

For the Sharks, this is a make-or-break game that shows how easily the team can return to their identity and early-season success.

Once known to be a team that was a little boring to watch, the Minnesota Wild are riding the high of the Kirill Kaprizov deal and are rewriting the rules of the Central Division.  They aren’t always pretty wins, but it doesn’t matter; the Wild have been winning so many games that, despite playing in a division with the St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets, they are currently sitting at first overall in the Western Conference.

For the San Jose Sharks, this is a make-or-break game that shows how easily the team will be able to return to their identity and early-season successes.

Minnesota’s goaltending seems to be on par with the Sharks, with relatively average numbers for both, and the Wild’s power play and penalty kill are decidedly average, unlike the Sharks’ penalty kill, which is one of the best in the league with an 89.74 percent success rate.

For all intents and purposes, these are two evenly-matched teams with not a lot of star power, but a lot of hard work. This will be a physically exhausting game for the Sharks and if the last game has shown anything, it’s that they’ll have to give it their all in order to win.

Will the Sharks find their identity again?

One of the key reasons as to why the Sharks were so successful early on in the season is that the team came out of training camp with a solidified on-ice identity and narrative. Last season was somewhat of a disaster, but with a renewed roster and positive locker room environment, the Sharks decided to focus on physicality. They may not be the most skilled team or the team that is the most top-heavy with talent, but they can definitely out-work and out-hit. The Sharks are an emotional team that thrives on camaraderie.

Nothing showcases this identity more than the Sharks’ early-season ability to fight through goal deficits and stand up for each other when someone was smashed into the boards. The Sharks of last year would have given up in the first period if they were already down, and because of the individualistic and disjointed nature of the team and locker room environment, if a player got hit, no one was dropping their gloves to protect them.

Now that the line up is back to full force and head coach Bob Boughner is behind the bench, the Sharks should have had a more successful return than their last game, a 5-2 loss against the Colorado Avalanche. Fans may have had too high of expectations; after all, the players hadn’t played and barely skated in over a week and they definitely hadn’t practiced with the team since they were placed on COVID Protocol in late October. Regardless, constant turnovers, miscommunication, defensive miscues and a lack of energy and unity led to their disappointing loss.

Bob Boughner said it himself: “We have to get back to our identity and it can’t be for 10-15 minutes at a time.” The question is, was a day off, and short practices in Colorado enough to revive the team’s chemistry in time to meet the Wild?

Who will be on the Sharks’ blue line?

If there’s one area where the Sharks have been lacking, it’s in their defense — barring, of course, Brent Burns and Mario Ferraro, who has been performing excellently and single-handedly helped keep the Shark’s defense operating somewhat smoothly during the COVID outbreak. Burns is tied with Logan Couture and Timo Meier for team point-leader, with 12 points in 14 games. The defense looked relatively solid before the outbreak, with Erik Karlsson adding 7 points in eight games.

During the outbreak, it was understandable that the defense was somewhat lacking. Now, however, the veterans have had a chance to settle in the season, as disrupted as it may be. Radim Simek and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have had their fair share of opportunities, but haven’t yet hit their stride. And with a deep pool of prospects to choose from, and upstart Santeri Hatakka waiting in the wings, the pressure is on.

Bob Boughner said Simek and Vlasic had been “average at best” so far, and he’s decided to send a message to the veterans by shaking up the defensive line up against the Wild. Hatakka will slot in for Simek, though when it came to deciding between scratching Simek or Vlasic, Boughner said this morning that the decision could have gone either way.

Will shaking up the roster help get the Sharks a win?

Along with switching up the bottom D-pair,  Bob Boughner has also decided to send a message to the rest of the team by moving the lines around, and it’s clear why. Along with losing their identity slowly, there have been a few Sharks players who have been off to a slow start. By moving around the lines, two things can happen. One, some players may ‘click’ better with some than others, and switching the lines can jump-start their scoring. Alternatively, it can motivate a player to increase their energy and effort.

A few games ago, Nick Bonino was bumped up to the first line, largely due to gaps in the roster, but also because he’s been struggling to score. Bonino was honest about his own lack of production, but reliable veteran players aren’t usually the ones you have to worry about. With Bonino, the points will come; it’s just a matter of time. For some of the younger players like Rudolfs Balcers and Kevin Labanc, their slower starts can pose a problem. The longer younger players go without a point, the easier it is for them to slip back into bad habits and lose their confidence. It’s not for lack of trying with Balcers. While he only has 4 points in 14 games, his shot attempts have been endless. The second line in general has been inconsistent, but the skill is there and so is the effort.

In contrast, with Labanc, he started the season hot with his presence on the power play invaluable. Since then, however, his play has begun to emulate last season, most obviously in his small stick infractions.

Boughner mentioned that he wanted to improve the speed on the third line, and so ahead of the game against the Wild, Andrew Cogliano was moved to the third line and Labanc was dropped down to the fourth line. This move may also serve as a motivating factor for Labanc. Jonah Gadjovich may swap in for Nick Merkley, for a size advantage against the Wild, who are notoriously heavy-hitters.

Bold prediction: The Sharks will lose in overtime, but they’ll have fewer than 6 turnovers in the game and Labanc will score a power play goal powered by pure spite.