Sharks struggles continue as The Blame Game begins
To be quite honest, this is a useless endeavor. You cannot get worse than losing to Edmonton following porous after porous performances after the Olympic Break. The Sharks as a whole have hit rock bottom at this point, and anything from here on out is just a situation where you have begun to coast along a plateau of pain.
It has crossed the threshold from concerning to the absurd.
It has leaped off that precipice. And like lemmings to the sea, the city of San Jose has followed suit.
The way this team is constructed puts a heavy emphasis on the system. Cutting backdoor in the offensive zone, far-side wingers generating speed in the neutral zone, making sure the forwards are working hard to open a passing lane between the circles to receive a breakout pass in the defensive zone, winning puck battles along the boards, all of these comprise facets of this system. And the Sharks are going to live and die by that system.
There's a lack of dynamic puck handling in close quarters, a lack of creativity with the puck. The San Jose Sharks are composed primarily of North American players, guys who were raised on the bread and butter of a north-south game. Dump the puck in deep, retrieve, bodies in front of the net, get the puck to the point, shot through traffic. It's not a flaw necessarily-- rather, when things are going as bad as they are right now, it's an indication that there is an execution issue within this framework. They really don't have a guy, besides Marleau and Boyle to some degree, who can go coast to coast and put Patrick Roy's jockstrap in the rafters.
When you don't have traffic in front of the net, those point shots are useless. When your defenseman can't get shots through traffic, there's no need for bodies in front of the net. When you're not generating speed through the neutral zone, you're content with dumping pucks in and consequently getting beat to those loose pucks. When you don't have a defenseman who can make a consistent breakout pass, you're not generating speed in the neutral zone. When your forwards aren't skating in the defensive zone, defenseman are forced to chip the puck out.
It runs the gamut from top to bottom, these issues.
1) The defense. I hate banging the drum on this. It has been a tired act, one rehashed so frequently throughout the course of this year that by now it should come as no surprise that this is what I believe to be the Achilles' heel of the San Jose Sharks. An inability to complete a breakout pass. Ehrhoffian shots blowing wide. Dumping the puck around the boards to re-start the cycle instead of opening up a passing lane by skating laterally. Failure to clear the crease. Failure to watch the backdoor play. A failure to stand up opposing forwards at the blueline and force them to make a decision with the puck when entering the zone. When one guy has a good game, five others regress. Flip the names, rinse and repeat next game. Blake's play has been well chronicled throughout the year. Murray has been atrocious since coming back from the Olympics. Boyle looks like he's running on empty and only has a buck fifty left for gas. Huskins has been, well, Huskins has been decent for a six man. Wallin is a six guy asked to play above what should be expected of him. The only one who gets a pass is Vlasic, and as I've stated before, he's absolutely instrumental to this unit. Hopefully he can bring some semblance of order to the backend before all is said and done.
It's open season out there right now.
2) Joe Thornton. Calls this early to trade him are ludicrous. Calls for decreased playing time have value. Thornton has struggled mightily since the Olympic Break, and although you can't put the blame square on his shoulders for the Sharks current slide, he is arguably the best player on this roster. Although I believe Ryan Getzlaf to be the better player, I have defended Joe Thornton a vast amount of the time here on Fear The Fin. I still think he is unfairly maligned for the Sharks postseason troubles, but this current run has done nothing to help me back up that assertion. The kicker yesterday wasn't his egregious turnover in the neutral zone that led to the first goal, as frustrating as that may have been (and it was mind-numbingly frustrating). Nor is it the fact that he will pull up before the neutral zone on the rush, or force a pass through traffic from the sideboards when he's running out of space to work with. The kicker was the third goal, where he was outworked down low by Shawn Horcoff in the defensive zone, floats to the front of the net, and gets layed out by some AHL-level talent playing for the Edmonton Oilers as a rebound gets banged home in front of Nabokov. Brutal. If we want Angry Joe, maybe McLellan sits him for a game, breaks his "Iron Man" streak, and really lights that fire. I don't know anymore, and I hate holding Jumbo solely accountable-- it takes a village. I'm a big believer in that. But the fact of the matter is, Thornton has not come out and taken over a game as we know he can. Not even after getting a stick to the face in the first period against Calgary. There was some chirping for ten minutes, and then a calm settling back into the normal routine.
Joe isn't the sole reason for the slide, far from it. But he needs to be about fifteen times better than he is right now, because he is the de facto best player on this team when he's on.
3) The forwards. Clowe, Couture. These guys get a pass. I love Pavelski, but things just aren't working for him right now. Setoguchi, same situation. I've been one of the biggest supporters of Marleau but he has been silent. Heatley has fanned on some opportunities, is looking to create on his own, but needs to generate results.
Staubitz is infuriating, shouldn't be playing. McGinn has fallen out of playing time for whatever reason. Ortmeyer is injured and is a bit piece. Nichol is a fourth liner. Malhotra hasn't been horrible, but has not looked himself. No one has. Mitchell has improved since the trade deadline, but again, is a bit piece. These guys are only as good as the top lines allow them to be.
At this point, when the losses are mounting, I'm losing my mind trying to effectively analyze who's been looking good, who's been dealing with a bad case of bounces. To me, that is for when the team is running effectively well and there are minor tweaks to be made. Right now? Overhaul. Complete overhaul. Someone needs to step up and just put one in the back of the net here. Black and white. Score a big goal, put your team in position to win the game.
They need a win, not silver linings. There were enough of those against Nashville two weeks ago.
4) Todd McLellan. Constant line shufflings, questionable use of personnel. The fact that the Sharks have given up the first goal in fourteen of the last fifteen or whatever does not reflect well on him. Overplaying Blake, overplaying Nabokov. A failure to hold his big guns accountable. There are a fair share of issues here.
That being said, I put McLellan just about dead last on the totem pole of reasons as to why the Sharks have collectively stunk up the joint. If you make the case that McLellan's issue is not holding his star players accountable, you are essentially criticizing yourself and doing the exact same thing. The coach gets too much praise with wins, too much criticism with losses. I'm not absolving him from all blame (blame? really? get off your high horse), because I think he definitely should share some of it, but if this team needs a “ra-ra” guy to start chucking shit around the locker room to elicit some passion out there, that’s an issue. An issue that is found within the personnel as a whole, not the coach tasked with leading said personnel.
Again, McLellan holds some of this in the palm of his hand, specifically ice time decisions with Nabokov-- they have been atrocious. But the players come first in all of this with me.
5) Evgeni Nabokov. The defense has not helped Nabby. I've stated this all along. But there is no way, in my mind, you can honestly look at his play after the break and state that he has been good enough to win a playoff series. He just hasn't been. Does it have to do with overwork on some level? I think it does. But Nabby sets his own schedule. So, then, does it have to do with a coaching staff giving him that blessing even though it would be in the team's best interest to make those decisions themselves? Yes, I think so. And that is the area where McLellan has dropped the biggest ball in my opinion.
However, it's ultimately up to the player to perform. And Nabokov has not done so. No goaltender is perfect, but an .874 SV% after the Olympics is beyond suitable. There have been big saves to keep the team in games, but there have been soft goals that have necessitated those saves being made. There have been rebounds kicked out to the low slot with increasing frequency. The defense needs to clear the crease, by jove they need to clear the goddamn crease, but there also is something to be said for rebound placement.
This whole team is just terrible right now. There is a poison coursing through the collective bloodstream. No one has the ability to change it around themselves, but if someone would possibly step up and lay it out on the ice, I would be happy. Could care less what Player X says to the media. Talk is cheap.
I hate waking up in the morning running off four hours of sleep and getting mad. And to be honest, I don't even know if I'm mad anymore. This has taken it's toll. I've become numb. You look in the mirror and realize you're running a blog dedicated to the performance of middle-aged men who get paid millions of dollars to play a game, and it kind of paints this all as a prelude to a trip to the insane asylum with Syd Barret. You make a note of it to yourself, think about it for a bit, make a pledge to interact with some real human beings for a change.
Then you see the boxscore scroll across the NHL.com ticker on your desktop and hammer out some blog post that just rehashes what everyone with two sets of eyes is thinking.