Sharks Gameday: Another Big Game In A Long Line of Big Games



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30-21-6, 66 points 30-19-6, 67 points
7th in Western Conference
6th in Western Conference
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Fresh off a pair of back to back blown third period leads, San Jose ambles into Nashville tonight for yet another important game leading up to the NHL Trade Deadline. With points a precious commodity at this point in the season, and a Western Conference playoff spot hanging in the balance every single night, these next two weeks will tell us a lot about the needs Doug Wilson will attempt to address by February 28th.

For starters you have the even strength scoring issues the Sharks have experienced throughout this season, a perplexing malady for a team that is billed as one of the most talented forward groups in the NHL. The Sharks have scored a mere 95 goals at 5 on 5 this season, good for 25th in the entire league. That's a pretty glaring weakness for a team that needs an upgrade on the blueline. As we talked about on the podcast, it's been a historical weakness for the Sharks as well-- last season they were 6th in the league in this metric, which is an excellent achievement considering the rigors of even strength play, but the years preceding saw San Jose finish 20th and 21st respectively.

To a large degree, special teams play has been the saving grace of the Sharks this year offensively. They're fourth in the NHL with a 22.3 PP%, and no stranger to these types of achievements. Under Todd McLellan San Jose has been lights out with the man advantage, landing in the top five every single year under his watch. The only other team to match San Jose's power play prowess during this time is Anaheim, who has also finished in the top five every single season. It speaks volumes to the talent amongst the forward groups, while at the same time leading to some confusion just as to why the Sharks can't bury their chances at even strength.

"Perhaps it's the lack of a defenseman," we muse-- "after all, with players such as Joe Thornton committed to the defensive side of the game this year, that's a little less gas left in the tank to create plays offensively. Or maybe it's something as simple as team shooting percentage being lower than league average, for no other reason than the breaks of hockey going against them."

The truth of the matter is, both those opinions have some weight. We've extolled the need for a top-three defenseman for the past eighteen months now, and it's clear that this is the area where we feel San Jose is lacking. Getting a solid defensive defenseman, or one who is more committed to the offensive end of the ice, would be a great boon to the roster and allow them to do essentially the same thing in two separate ways.

A rugged shutdown player closes his gaps when the entering team is entering the zone, cutting off options for opposing forwards which forces turnovers and improves Sharks puck possession. He'll win puck battles along the boards and give the forwards much more leeway to exit the zone earlier and begin to move the puck up the ice. It's something that clearly has been lacking this season in San Jose-- the occurrence of odd man breaks going the other way is as rare as a Bigfoot sighting, although slightly less surprising. The Sharks just aren't a good team in transition. They're built on methodical zone entries and play along the boards, a grind em out style that has its benefits when utilized effectively. Unfortunately however, those benefits haven't been truly realized as much as one would like at even strength this year.

On the other side of the coin, an offensive defenseman helps to move the puck up the ice with his skating ability and breakout passes that sing through open ice like a song. With the Sharks blueline a generally plodding group outside of Dan Boyle and Jason Demers, having a player who can take the puck out his own end and cruise through the neutral zone in four strides is intriguing in that it forces opposing teams to play the wingers a little looser on the sideboards. His ability to complete sound passes and move the puck from the point in the offensive zone would obviously open up opportunities for his teammates, directly benefiting the Sharks in an area they've had issues with this season.

However, as we've said all along, extolling the virtues of these players only goes so far-- the amount of decisions that have to be made in order to acquire such a player is a complicated process with salary cap and quid pro quo in effect, not to mention opposing team's desires to trade such a player.

The only real play for the Sharks and their fans during these next two weeks is to assume an acquisition will not be made. Of course it's a possibility-- Doug Wilson has generally been a player during the weeks leading up to the deadline, tweaking his roster in preparation of a playoff run-- but there's nothing here that says San Jose is morally or legally obligated to make said acquisition. As it was in December, the impetus is on the current players on the roster to make the difference. That's the only concrete way to fix the issues on the team, from even strength scoring to blown third period leads.

I'd actually be fairly surprised to see the Sharks stand pat and go into the postseason with this roster, because it's clearly a team that a) falls short of the depth in Vancouver and Detroit b) has had major issues with consistency, and c) hasn't lived up to the promise that rang from the heavens at the beginning of the year. There's some untapped potential lurking somewhere within that locker room, and a move for a defenseman is definitely something that could unleash it. Doug Wilson is taking his phone calls, Doug Wilson is biding his time. He's most definitely not getting bamboozled, because he wants a winner on the ice. And one has to think he realizes the team currently in place isn't one that is going to get him there.

But although some rudimentary logic indicates a deal should be completed in the next two weeks-- after all, the Sharks need this, Wilson realizes they need this, and therefore he will do everything in his power to get this-- a lot can happen in a bidding war, especially when a fair amount of teams still believe they can make the playoffs. That puts a premium on available players, driving up prices and demand. There's no certainty in these matters.

Which makes the performance of every single player on the current roster the most important road to success. That is the path which will pave the way to glory for San Jose.

Because the greatest acquisition the Sharks can make in February wouldn't be Joni Pitkanen, Alex Goligoski, Chris Philips, Tomas Kaberle, or any other name that will pop up with astounding regularity until the month comes to a final and bittersweet end.

The greatest acquisition would be getting this Sharks team to play as well as they look on paper. And while they've obviously made some huge strides in that department during their last twelve games, playing some excellent hockey and smashing their way through the front end of their road trip, the Western Conference standings show you just how important keeping up that pace is going to be. The Sharks have only been truly consistent for two sections of the year-- when they were in the midst of their six game losing streak, and their 9-0-1 run immediately after. Everything else has been a roller coaster all the way through.

These last two losses have shown a hint that some nasty habits may be returning. Tonight is the night when the Sharks have an opportunity to make a statement that they have truly turned the corner, and have learned from the hard lessons suffered many times before.

Prediction: Sharks win 3-2. Goals by McGi...oh yeah. Goals by Clowe, Pavelski, and Eager. My favorite thing about a horse is his love for his neigh-bors-- he never muzzles their freedom, withers or not they show him the same respect.