The Sharks enjoyed their Christmas break alone in first place in the Pacific Division, with visions of another Western Conference championship dancing in their heads. A quick 10 observations…
1 – One thing I'm looking forward to over the next few months - the Sharks and Oilers meet four more times in the New Year, and indications are this is a rivalry that could become a pretty good one.
It really started last season, when Darnell Nurse jumped Roman Polak and the Sharks recalled Micheal Haley for the sole purpose of fighting Nurse in the next meeting. It continued on Friday in the first head-to-head matchup. Although the much-improved Oilers weren’t very good through the first two periods, there was an undercurrent of animosity from start to finish and a couple of fights, to boot.
It’s great watching these things develop over time, and reminds me a bit of the Flyers-Penguins rivalry I got to see grow first hand after Pittsburgh added Sidney Crosby. True rivalries are built in the playoffs, of course, and there’s a very good chance the Sharks and Oilers are headed for a first round or even a second round clash. Sign me up for that one.
2 – Joe Thornton has been difficult to figure out this season. One game he’s great, like a week and a half ago in Montreal, and the next, he’s terribly off, like on Friday against Edmonton.
I know his production has gone up a bit lately, with 10 assists in 10 December games. But your top line center shouldn’t be without a goal in a manned net 34 games into the season. Thornton is still sitting on just two goals, both of which have come into an empty net. Yes, he’s a passer. But he should have five or six goals by accident.
3 – Somewhat related to Thornton, I wonder if it’s time for Pete DeBoer to make a change to the Sharks’ top power play unit. They just haven’t looked right all season long, but especially on the road, where the team’s 10.7 percent success rate is 28th in the NHL. Far too often, there's not enough motion and no one near the net looking for those dirty goals.
4 – The penalty kill also hasn’t been overly impressive, but perhaps it can build off of Friday’s six-for-six performance against Edmonton’s strong unit. They killed off two Oilers advantages in the third period, allowing Kevin Labanc to win it in overtime.
“It was great all night,” Martin Jones said after the game. “We really didn’t give them much time to get set up or make plays or anything. That’s a pretty good power play. It was a great job.”
Prior to Friday, the Sharks’ penalty kill was 36-for-47 in its last 17 games (76.6 percent).
5 – Regarding Labanc, I have to think he’s now here to stay. In training camp, Barracuda coach Roy Sommer compared him to Joe Pavelski for his “knack for the net,” and with four goals in his last eight games, we’re seeing that. The one he got in overtime was a pure goal-scorer's goal.
That said, based on the way DeBoer handles young players, don’t be surprised if Labanc gets moved down in the lineup or even scratched over the next little while if he’s not producing. DeBoer makes these guys really earn it, and that’s why he wasn’t quite ready after Friday’s game to say that Labanc has, in fact, arrived as an NHL player.
We’re allowed to say it here, though.
6 – Timo Meier has done some good things, and already has 15 shots on goal through his first four NHL games. I still think he ends up on the Thornton line, or maybe the Couture line, before the season is over. He’s a top six forward.
I also believe Meier won’t play another game in the AHL. He’s an NHL player, period.
7 – Tomas Hertl is working out as he rehabs from his latest right knee problem, but the Sharks aren’t saying much about his timeframe to return, and a request to speak to Hertl after practice on Friday was denied. As we reported last week, it’s still uncertain when he’ll get back on the ice, but I expect it will be sometime in January if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly. Even after he starts skating, though, he’ll be weeks away from game action.
I saw Hertl after Friday’s game, and he was still wearing a bulky brace on the knee underneath his suit pants.
8 – When Hertl is ready, the Sharks will have to make a move or two to activate him and his $3 million salary. It’s probably a little too early to worry about who might be gone, since so much can happen over the next few weeks, but if Labanc and Meier aren’t going anywhere, some veterans will be causalities.
9 – DeBoer was asked the other day if he’s comfortable with Jones’ workload this season. The Sharks starter is second in the NHL with 1758 minutes, behind only Edmonton’s Cam Talbot.
“It doesn’t feel overtaxing to me, right now,” DeBoer said. “That’s just a feel that we’ll keep our monitor on.”
If Jones continues his pace, he’ll start 72 games this season.
“I’m not worried about that end number,” DeBoer said. “He’s not the first or the last goalie that could play 70 or 72 games. There’s a long list of those guys that have gone on and had great playoffs and won [Stanley Cups], too. That’s not an issue.”
10 – I do wonder, though, if DeBoer fully trusts Aaron Dell. He really hasn’t given the backup any overly meaningful starts, with two each against Eastern Conference opponents, the Islanders and Hurricanes, and we’re almost halfway through the season here. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Sharks seek out another goalie between now and the trade deadline as insurance for Jones.
As for Dell’s next start, I would guess it comes this Friday against the Flyers. It would make for a nice story, too, as Dell was coached by Dave Hakstol at North Dakota.