Blackhawks at Sharks Preview: The Toews of our lives

The Sharks’ season is like sand through the hourglass, or something.

Most of the attention on poorly chosen North American sports team names is on that horrid franchise in Washington. I must say that it’s also appalling that teams like the NHL team in Chicago and the Major League Baseball teams in Atlanta and Cleveland, are allowed to go out there year after year with their logos and mascots. As such, in this space we’ll just be referring to the Chicago NHL team by its city.

Tonight, Chicago (4-6-3, 6th Central) come to town to face the beloved and beleaguered San Jose Sharks (4-10-1, 8th Pacific). Yes, you read that correctly. The San Jose Sharks are in dead last in their division. They would be last place or tied for it in all but one division, and they have they second-worst goal differential in the entire league. Like the Sharks, this evening’s visitors sport a negative goal differential and have on aggregate been out-shot and out chanced by their opponents at 5-on-5.

The similarities don’t stop there. Both teams are built around an aging core that is experiencing just what happens when years without early draft picks and a few too many big loyalty contracts force their coaches to rely on guys like Lean Bergmann and Dominik Kubalik to fill the void left by departed talent. Each squad is short on defense and longs for offense.

There are differences, too. Chicago has two talented goaltenders who might mask at least some of their team’s problems while the Sharks, uh, do not. Chicago’s special teams are poor; in San Jose the units they ice during that 20 percent of each game (give or take) are the team’s greatest strength right now. The Sharks’ logo is good. Chicago’s is bad.

The first time these two teams met in October in Chicago, we were entertained by a 5-4 barnburner of a game that provided tonight’s hosts with one of their very few wins this season. It may have felt like a turning point at the time, but hindsight allows us to understand that the final score and whatever went on to deliver it were less a result of the Sharks playing well and more a case of simply playing another bad team.

Tonight’s visitors are led offensively by Brandon Saad and the duo of David Kampf and the aforementioned Kubalik. Defensively, Duncan Keith still appears to be the best at preventing opponent shots. New partner, rookie Adam Boqvist, appears to be helping the senior NHL citizen ease into the final chapters of his career. It’s early in their partnership, but the results so far are encouraging.

The hosts will greet fellow cellar dwellers with a refreshed lineup. Radim Simek appears likely to draw back into the lineup, his first NHL game since he tore his ACL in March. The defense pairs seem up in the air at the moment, but the forward lines have some structure. At practice yesterday, the staff experimented with a rare Melker Karlsson-less lineup:

In giving Logan Couture more support, moving an over-the-hill Patrick Marleau down the lineup, and finally (maybe?) healthy scratching the team’s clear worst non-Micheal Haley forward over the past few seasons, the coaching staff is finally showing signs of intelligent life. After this game, there should be a reckoning one way or another. Either things go poorly again and the front office puts emergency plans in motion or the team finally performs and the coaches start to understand certain players can’t handle the roles they were previously given. At least the powers that be have decided to make substantial changes ahead of these pivotal 60 minutes.

How much of last year’s Radim Simek will we see this tonight (and this season)?

Torn knee ligaments are difficult injuries from which to recover. The mantra goes that athletes tend to perform better the further removed they are from surgery. November 5 is about nine months post-injury. No doubt the team and Simek took his recovery as cautiously and carefully as possible. Even then, and even with the miracles of modern medicine, it’s difficult to imagine the 27-year-old defender will be able to play at 100 percent of his previous peak performance levels. As the team’s best defensive defensemen, even 70 percent might be good enough to make an impact on the backend for a team that seems to enjoy the spectacle of its goalies indulging in acrobatics around the goal mouth.

Will the forward-line shuffling provide the desired impact?

Logan Couture can shoot until the cows come home. He’s a good passer and tends to live up to his “playmaker” billing. The Sharks captain’s ability to help his team control play is also waning. At this stage in the 30-year-old’s career, the center’s impact is closer that of a middle-six forward than the star first-liner fans have been used to. He struggled with linemate Timo Meier, he struggled with Patrick Marleau, and the three of them struggled together. Separating Couture from those linemates and giving him two of the team’s best play drivers so far this season is an astute move.

Pairing the excellent play-driving Tomas Hertl with a badly-needs-to-get-going Meier should, in theory, produce fireworks, whether it’s Barclay Goodrow or the fan who tried to climb over the glass in section 114 on their other wing.

Maybe most importantly, moving Marleau down to the third line plays him in a role much better suited to his current abilities. Experience with Head Coach Pete DeBoer tells us that players will receive the same playing time regardless of official lineup position, so this move only represents progress insofar as it brings about reduced minutes for the winger.

At the moment, it appears Melker Karlsson is headed for his first healthy scratch in who knows how long. His replacement Bergmann has performed just as poorly if not worse this season, at least statistically. Stylistically, Bergmann seems to at least bring some creativity, some willingness to make a better pass rather than dump the puck into the corner yet again. There’s reason to believe this shakeup up front can spur some changes.

If Jones is Jones, just eat Arby’s

Because nothing will matter. Martin Jones was arguably the league’s worst starting goaltender last season. This year, he’s allowed four goals above expected per 100 unblocked shots he’s faced. Sure, he’s seen a more difficult shot load than most of the league’s goalies. But he’s not doing his part, either. Even if Simek comes in hot and heavy, and even if the blended forward lines rejuvenate some of the team’s goal scorers, it is likely to be for naught so long as Jones continues to show utter disregard for his job description.

Bold prediction: Timo Meier hasn’t been his usual self this year, but he hasn’t been bad, either. While his rate of individual expected goals per 60 minutes isn’t near his lofty career standards, it’s still a first-line figure. Of the team’s regular forwards, new center and linemate Hertl has been on the ice for the team’s second-highest rate of 5-on-5 expected goals offensively. Neither Chicago goalie, despite their priors, has been anything more than average this season. Against the likes of Calvin de Haan and Brent Seabrook, Hertl will find Meier for a couple of tallies as the Sharks beat another bad team and look OK doing it.