TORONTO – The Sharks have played 28 games – 14 at home, and 14 on the road – as they get set for the final stretch before Christmas break. There is reason to believe the team is again set up well to compete for another Western Conference championship, but there are also a few concerns.
Let’s take a closer look, with one-third of the regular season in the books.
The Sharks sit 11th overall in the NHL in points percentage (.589) primarily due to their defensive play. They are tied for third in the NHL allowing just 2.18 goals per game, and are giving up the second-fewest shots per game (26.3).
For the most part they’ve been able to dress the same six defensemen on a nightly basis, led by Norris Trophy candidate Brent Burns, who leads the team with 12 goals and is tied for the scoring lead with Joe Pavelski with 25 points. Marc-Edouard Vlasic remains one of the better defensive defensemen in the game (although he’s taking more penalties than usual), while replacing Roman Polak with David Schlemko has given San Jose a more mobile blue line that’s proficient at quickly getting the puck out of its own zone.
Any NHL coach will tell you they’d rather have a defensive foundation in place while struggling to score goals, rather than the other way around (we’ll get to that in a bit). The Sharks seem to have that identity in place, and it should bode well for the remaining months.
Martin Jones is proving that last year was no fluke, with a 13-10-1 mark, 2.08 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. The 26-year-old is looking more and more like he’s the next franchise goaltender, and there’s no reason to believe he will suddenly drop off. Aaron Dell hasn’t seen much action, getting just four starts so far, but he’s done a more-than-admirable job as the backup with a 3-1-0 mark, 2.16 GAA and .926 SP.
Whether the Sharks stick with Dell or seek out a more experienced backup remains to be seen, since it’s unlikely they want Jones to keep playing so many games. It’s too early to say that Dell has proven himself as a full time NHL goalie, but he’s at least on the right track.
This is the Sharks’ most perplexing problem, as scoring goals wasn’t supposed to be an issue after they had the NHL’s fourth-best offense last season (2.89 goals-per game), and only got better in the playoffs (3.13 goals-per game). This season's Sharks sit at 20th in the league at 2.43 goals-per game, and are the only NHL team that hasn’t scored more than four in a single game yet.
Nearly all of the forwards are underperforming. Pavelski is on pace for 24 goals, after 38 last season. Joe Thornton is on pace for 53 points, after 82 last season. Logan Couture is on pace for 56 points, after his dominant playoff run of 30 points in 24 games.
And then there are the depth guys. Joel Ward, Joonas Donskoi, Melker Karlsson, Chris Tierney and Mikkel Boedker are all sitting on just two goals. That’s not good enough.
Coach Pete DeBoer has been changing his lines nearly all season to no avail, and at some point it may be time for personnel changes. Kevin Labanc has already taken one roster spot, it would seem, and there could be more replacements on the way if some guys don’t get going offensively.
Fortunately for the Sharks, they may have some options in the system to help with their scoring woes. Timo Meier will undoubtedly play some NHL games shortly, as he continues to score and create offense for the Barracuda. Ryan Carpenter did some good things when he was called up recently to center the fourth line, while Danny O’Regan, the Barracuda’s leading scorer with 21 points in 19 games, could be an option at some point, too.
On the other end of the spectrum is Nikolay Goldobin, who may not be panning out. The 21-year-old former first round pick got off to a hot start with the Barracuda with 10 points in six games, but has just four points in his last 13 since losing Labanc as a linemate. He’s stuck on two goals through 19 AHL games.
Considering the Sharks had a short summer, many of them took part in the World Cup, and that they are one of the NHL’s older teams, sitting at 16-11-1 after 28 games is commendable.
They still have to get going offensively, and the veteran forwards deserve a little more time to work their way out of their season-long slumps. If they don’t, some changes will have to be made between now and the trade deadline on Feb. 28.
But when you look at the way the Sharks have kept opposing offenses at bay and the play of Jones, it’s unlikely that they’ll suffer through any lengthy losing streaks. The division is more competitive, with Edmonton and Calgary in the mix, but the Sharks should be able to finish in the top three again, assuring themselves of a playoff spot. And as Sharks fans have seen over the years, just getting in is all that really matters.