Sharks Gameday: The Road Trip



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11-8-4, 26 points 11-13-1, 23 points
12th in Western Conference
10th in Eastern Conference
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The Ottawa Sun

You're going to hear plenty about Dany Heatley today. It's going to be front and center in Ottawa, the Mercury News is going to cover it, and national sources will all chime in with their opinion. It's a big story for the Senators community, comparable to if Joe Thornton requested a trade out of San Jose, and that's something that deserves to be acknowledged. But with the Sharks 2-3-2 in their last seven games we've got some more pressing in-house issues to address this morning.

So yeah. Heatley's back in Ottawa. Moving on.

Coming from a man who has kept a pretty even keel over the first twenty-something games of this season, San Jose's upcoming road trip is the first time where the Sharks inconsistency has really hit home with me. I feel like I just got sucker punched by Mike Tyson in the midst of a Phil Collins drum solo. I'm having trouble producing solid stools, my leisure money has spent an inordinate amount of time finding its way into the comfort food section at the local supermarket, and Augustus Griggs isn't returning my phone calls. I'm lost out here in the great yonder, floating about like a ghost without a name.

I'm delicate like Damien Rice. I'm dazed and confused like Robert Plant. I'm highly suspicious like Jim James.

And I'm experiencing the end of the innocence like Don Henley did back in 1989.

For starters, the Sharks have played pretty poorly on the road lately. Games against Colorado and Dallas were icing on the cake, but before that, the shutouts have been as plentiful as the salmon of Capistrano and losses have been as common as the pop culture references in this article:

2010-2011 San Jose Sharks Road Woes

SO Against
.896 20% (8/40) 84.8% (39/46)

The thing is, those totals don't necessarily reflect the current play of the Sharks away from the cozy confines of HP Pavilion. Beginning with their loss at the hands of Calgary back on October 24th, San Jose was shutout three straight times (CGY, MIN, STL), blew a pair of two-goal third period leads that they took into the final ten minutes of play (COL, DAL), got shredded by the Vancouver Canucks to the tune of 6-1, and eeked out a gutty win with four healthy defenseman against the Oilers-- it's hard to complain about that lone victory considering the health of the blueline, but it should be noted that a late game comeback was averted in the dying seconds after Edmonton scored two quick markers to put the game in jeopardy.

It hasn't been pretty lately for the Sharks on the road, and that's a big concern going forward as they play five games in eight nights. They've struggled with staying out of the box, the power play has been mercurial, and their goaltending has been hung out to dry. It's a perfect storm.

The second reason this road trip concerns me is that the blueline is currently populated by three defenseman who didn't begin the year in the Sharks starting lineup. We've covered Justin Braun fairly extensively over the past three games, and are big believers in his ability to blossom into a full-time NHL player, but his mistakes last night against Detroit were glaring. As with every young player you're going to get shifts that run the gamut from making an excellent breakout pass to spring Dany Heatley on a two on one (with Braun coming back moments later to make a heady play that broke up a Red Wings scoring chance), getting spun around by Pavel Datsyuk, a blistering point shot that generates a juicy rebound, a rookie error of breaking out of the zone too early, and just about everything in between.

Derek Joslin has also impressed, with a knack for some heavy stick checks and some nimble lateral movement in the offensive zone. Mike Moore looks out of place right now, but he's earned good reviews in Worcester and will probably adjust to the professional game as we move along.

But the fact of the matter is these guys are being forced into roles they're not built for right now-- Braun is seeing top four minutes when he would be much better suited for the bottom pairing, and Joslin and Moore are getting paired together instead of with a veteran defenseman like Niclas Wallin or Kent Huskins who can pick up their reads and offer a conservative approach to their young and brash portfolio.

Again, this isn't condemning them to a life riding the pine in the European leagues-- all these guys have some upside that will surface as playing time increases (with Braun and Joslin that upside is already apparent). There's no giving up on them right now, and it's a good learning tool for them professionally.

But what this does is stretch an already suspect Sharks defensive core to its absolute limit. We've questioned Boyle's ice time, cited Douglas Murray's propensity for being off and on, and have frankly been a little stunned at Vlasic's poor season to date. With three Worcester players thrown into the mix its a fleeting hope that this team can legitimately come out of this road trip with significant momentum.

The good news is that Jason Demers is getting healthy-- I had an opportunity to touch base with him during Tuesday night, and he said that he would be on the flight to Ottawa and hopes to be in the lineup during the tail end of the road trip. Niclas Wallin will also be accompanying the Sharks these next eight days despite what looked like a nasty injury to his left leg, and his return will also be welcome.

But even with those additions, the Sharks blueline needs an upgrade. It was the story of the offseason here at Fear The Fin, and comes as no surprise that we still feel the need is desperately there for the team to turn into a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

I've written a pair of articles during the last week and a half that have stated it is unlikely Doug Wilson would make a move at this juncture in the season, for these reasons specifically:

Management teams across the country have become much more privy to the implications of the salary cap system, and are hoarding effective players because of it. Coupled with the fact that Wilson would not have the upper hand in negotiations right now as teams are fully aware that he is looking for an upgrade (most likely on the backend), as well as the fact that there aren't a whole lot of teams with an eye to the future beyond the 2010-2011 NHL season, and you run up against quite a few roadblocks preventing San Jose from acquiring a top three defenseman at a price that won't significantly hurt their forward group.

The Sharks need a top three defenseman in order to become legitimate Stanley Cup contenders-- we touched upon it all summer, and the idea behind it is as true today as it ever was. There's no question on where I stand on the subject. And one has to think Wilson will eventually get San Jose the upgrade they need, or at the very least, exhaust all possible avenues trying to do so.

But in order for that to happen, he is going to need time. Time for teams to become sellers, time for the Sharks to improve which will increase his bargaining power, and time for players falling short of expectations to bolster their trade value.

The most important thing for the Sharks right now isn't making a blockbuster trade to snap them out of their twenty game funk. The most important thing for the Sharks right now isn't relying on their General Manager to be pushed into making a trade that has all sorts of risks involved. The most important thing for the Sharks right now isn't vainly trying to unload their depreciating assets on to a team that has the top three defenseman required to get them over the hump.

The most important thing is starting to consistently win hockey games with the roster they have in place. And that starts in the locker room and on the ice, not via a long-distance call to the East Coast.

>> "Is a trade on the horizon for the San Jose Sharks?", November 23rd

However, I must say, this road trip could change my opinion on whether or not Doug Wilson would consider pulling the trigger this early. If the Sharks come out and struggle immensely, and the Western Conference playoff picture begins to get a little more spread out than it was last week (and still is today), I wouldn't rule out a big move for a top three defenseman.

The issues with this hypothetical deal are still there of course. Little to no bargaining position, players who are too essential or too under-performing to warrant a sizeable return, cap space, the lack of an inter-Conference trade market, the fact that San Jose is looking for a very specific player (top three defenseman who would be able to contribute both offensively and defensively) that is a precious commodity for teams all around the NHL-- the list goes on and on.

But if the Sharks expand on their five previous road outings, and continue to struggle immensely with consistency, there's a little part of me that has come to terms with the fact that Wilson could make a big play to shake up the roster. The risks would be enormous, possibly even more so than they were a week and a half ago, and the organization would likely give up much more than they would ever want to during this process. Roster players with notable strengths. Talented young individuals with potential to develop into top players. Draft picks and prospects.

That's the price you pay for a top three defenseman. And whether or not the Sharks pay it this early in the season could have a lot to do with how they perform in these next five games.

Ottawa has struggled and are banged up with injuries to some key players, but Heatley's return adds a wrinkle into the festivities that can't be accounted for. Montreal has received phenomenal goaltending from Carey Price this year and stands at the top of the Northeast Division. Detroit is Detroit, the Joe is the Joe. Philadelphia has scoring pop, a brilliant blueline, and a goaltender who is likely playing some of the best hockey in his career right now. Buffalo has struggled, but on a back to back to end a five game road trip, fatigue will definitely come into play for San Jose.

This isn't a line to draw in the sand. It's not an indicator of what we may see the rest of the season. Wins against Los Angeles and Chicago have shown us that consistency isn't something to expect after an excellent performance.

This road trip is a huge question mark that's going to be answered within the next eight days.

And that has my stomach doing backflips out into the sea.

Prediction: Sharks win 3-2. Goals by Heatley (x2) and Braun. Scotiabank Place is holding their annual "Bring Your Cow to Scotiabank Place for a free Ric Flair DVD" promotion tonight, so expect to hear a lot of moos and woos on the television.

Go Sharks.