What’s wrong with the Sharks?

What’s been Peter DeBoer’s favorite — or least favorite — phrase to start this season?

He said it Friday night, after the San Jose Sharks were suffocated 4-1 by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“We just haven’t found that four-line game yet,” DeBoer acknowledged, after San Jose was held to just 17 shots.

We’re not even a month into the new year, and that’s at least the third time DeBoer has publicly bemoaned his team’s lack of a “four-line game.” In other words, DeBoer isn’t pleased with his collection of forwards at 5-on-5, and who could blame him?

Joe Pavelski, Gustav Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi are gone. Between Jonny Brodzinski and Danil Yurtaykin and Lean Bergmann and Sasha Chmelevski and a bevy of other forwards, nobody has come close to replacing them.

But it’s not just about the guys who left. The players still on the roster — from Logan Couture to Joe Thornton to Kevin Labanc, to name a few — have struggled to start the season.

Couture admitted after last night’s loss in Ottawa, “We’re at 12 games in and I can’t be sitting at one goal.”

Hertl noted his early season struggles on October 19, “I feel a little better every game.”

Of course, Couture torched Labanc and Timo Meier for staying out on the ice for over a minute in overtime on October 22, “Two guys stayed out for long, looking for offense ... It’s a selfish play.”

These are but a few examples of Sharks forwards acknowledging their slow start.

Save for perhaps Evander Kane, Barclay Goodrow and Dylan Gambrell, it’s hard to say any incumbent Sharks forward has been better so far this year than they were last year. Most of them, frankly, have been noticeably worse.

This weak “four-line game” has eroded the franchise’s foundation.

“Traditionally, around here, we’ve been a shot production-type team, put a lot of pressure on the other team,” DeBoer said.

That shot production has vanished. From 2016-19, San Jose was fifth in the NHL in shot attempt rate at 5-on-5. This season, they’ve fallen to 23rd.

It starts on the forecheck.

After beating Carolina on October 16, when asked how the team could get better at 5-on-5, Couture pointed out, “Sustaining offensive zone time. In the second period, we did that. We rolled some lines over, cycled well, tired them out.”

That hasn’t been a regular sight this year, Sharks forwards winning one-on-one battles, coming up with loose pucks on the forecheck.

Not sustaining offensive zone time undermines the blueline. A feeble forecheck means pucks aren’t going back to the point, for Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson to serve at the net. Both Burns and Karlsson are attempting shots at alarmingly-low rates.

For Burns, he hasn’t shot so little in the DeBoer era. For Karlsson, he hasn’t shot so little since his rookie campaign.

San Jose is a point-shot based offense that isn’t generating point shots right now.

“Teams know our defense generates a lot of scoring chances,” Brenden Dillon said. Dillon added, alluding to the forwards, “When they start to take that away, you have to win some one-on-one battles, beat guys to the net, generate those second or third scoring opportunities.”

Even when Burns and Karlsson are firing away, there hasn’t been enough traffic in front. Sharks color commentator Jamie Baker paraphrased Couture on the October 22 broadcast, “Logan talked this morning, we need to be better as a team, getting from the corner to the front of the net.”

It’s, forgive the pun, a vicious cycle. No forecheck, no point shots, no forwards rolling to the net, no goals — the San Jose offensive ecosystem is broken right now.

This leads, of course, to more pressure going the other way, testing a taxed defense and vulnerable goaltenders.

So what will fix the Sharks’ failings up front?

To begin, I believe the problems are mostly with the forwards. In my observation, Burns and Karlsson look like Burns and Karlsson; they’re still making a lot of high-end plays. But they can’t be expected to both win the puck down low and generate offense from up high. They need help.

The squad’s front-line forwards Couture, Kane, Meier and Hertl should be fine. They’re young enough and own solid track records.

The pair of 40-year-olds up front, Thornton and Patrick Marleau, have to be questioned because of their advanced age. When San Jose brought in Marleau, a scout noted, “Back-to-backs will be tough.” Indeed, the back-to-back in Toronto might have been an example of that, as both labored. That said, both Thornton and Marleau have flashed this season, and frankly, when you’re evaluating the organization’s depth, I’m not sure DeBoer has a choice but to count on them to turn it around.

Meanwhile, Gambrell has been a bright spot, making significant strides over the last month, enough to be promoted to third-line center last night in Ottawa. His progress gives hope that Yurtaykin, Bergmann or another Barracuda forward can grow to make an impact at the NHL this year.

Marcus Sorensen and Labanc have another level to go, but their talent is apparent. Goodrow and Melker Karlsson are reliable foot soldiers, but asking them to stretch beyond fourth-line duty isn’t ideal.

In theory, that’s 11 dependable forwards: Couture, Meier, Hertl, Kane, Thornton, Marleau, Gambrell, Labanc, Sorensen, Karlsson and Goodrow. The operative phrase here is “in theory” and doesn’t account for the 12th forward spot or sure-to-come injuries.

It’s also a forward group with maybe six top-nine forwards at the moment: Couture, Meier, Hertl, Kane, Labanc and Thornton. Marleau and Sorensen might belong in this mix too.

Elevated play from these incumbents is expected and an obvious solution. But even with self-improvement, this is a collection of forwards that needs another middle-six winger (or two).

The farm system may provide an answer yet, but based on what we’ve seen from the kids so far at this level, the organization shouldn’t count on the Barracuda right now. That leaves looking to the outside for help.

To Doug Wilson’s credit, he’s aligned enough stars for the Sharks to form a contender. But it’s also on Wilson to support them, and he failed to do that this summer, up against the salary cap as he was.

But there’s hope. There’s still plenty of time left in the regular season, and unearthing quality depth is easier than digging up stars.

DeBoer called the losses to Toronto and Ottawa “rock-bottom.” The good news for this top-heavy San Jose squad — the sky’s still the limit.

(Stats as of 10/27/19, courtesy of Evolving-Hockey, Hockey Reference, HockeyViz, MoneyPuck, Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com.)