Stalock, Sheppard are bright spots


Stalock, Sheppard are bright spots

It seems there is little good these days in the realm of news from the hockey world. But venture to the San Jose Sharks' AHL affiliate in Worcester, Massachusetts and you will find two uplifting stories of life and sport.

Goaltender Al Stalock has played one career NHL game. In 30 minutes of backup work on Feb. 1, 2011, he faced nine shots and stopped them all, leading the Sharks to a 5-3 comeback win over Phoenix. Just three days later, on what was supposed to be a temporary minor league assignment, Stalock had a nerve behind his left knee sliced by the skate blade of an opponent while attempting to make a save.

"It was a freak deal," Stalock told me. "But I'm lucky it wasn't worse, to tell you the truth."

The physical recovery wasn't the only one the goaltender had to make, in jumping right back into crowded creases.

"It was just getting over the mental hump of not having that in the back of your head," Stalock said. "That was the part that was the hardest to get over, and now, I don't even really think about it much anymore. I'm beyond that point."

Stalock returned to game action late last season, a little more than a year since that injury, which had the potential to end his career. Now, after a more routine offseason, he's back into full swing, posting a 9-5-1 record with a 2.57 GAA in his first 16 games.

"This year's been huge, being part of the team," said Stalock. "You don't travel much when you're hurt, being in the locker room during the games, you're away from the team. It's nice to be back, and feeling like a regular everyday player."

Stalock says his lone taste of the NHL serves as high motivation to return -- sooner rather than later.

Forward James Sheppard fractured his left knee in an ATV accident on Sept. 7, 2010, and has not played in an NHL game since. The ninth overall draft pick from 2006 was acquired by the Sharks via trade in August of 2011, with the understanding he would still need months of recovery and rehabilitation.

"They traded for me when I wasn't even ready to play hockey," Sheppard told me. "They gave me a chance and opened the door for me to have a new opportunity. I'm really just excited to give something back to them -- starting here in Worcester and then hopefully in San Jose."

Sheppard spent most of his off-ice time in San Jose last season, working with trainers for one common goal: To get back into a competitive game. That mission was accomplished in February, as he played four tilts with the Worcester Sharks. This year, after 26 games played in the AHL, he's got six goals and eight assists.

"It was a long two years being on your own schedule," Sheppard said. "To be here as just another guy going to practice is a great feeling. You feel more at home, you feel part of something bigger."

"Shep," as they call him, is a three-year veteran of the NHL. While most of his colleagues are unlucky to be locked out this season, he's fortunate the situation allows him to continue playing competitively...and building back to a future in the highest league.  

"To be honest, I'm not thinking about it," says Sheppard. "I'm glad we've got people taking care of that business so I can just focus on being here."

The return to normalcy for Stalock and Sheppard are most certainly bright spots in their careers, and bright spots in the Sharks organization during dark times in the NHL.

"It's tough for any young athlete to go through injuries like we have," said Sheppard. "For me and Al, it's something we want to forget about and just be hockey players again. You're going to get better and learn more when you're having fun, and that's what we're doing right now."

Pavelski a shootout hero in midst of a career-worst cold streak


Pavelski a shootout hero in midst of a career-worst cold streak

The shootout has been kind to Joe Pavelski all season.

After scoring the shootout winner in Tuesday night’s win over the Coyotes, Pavelski has now scored the fourth-most shootout goals in a single season of his career, and there’s still 39 games left in the season. Only Artemi Panarin has scored more shootout goals (four) than the Sharks captain (three) on the year.

The Sharks have needed Pavelski more than they have after 65 minutes far more than in recent memory. San Jose’s won three games in the shootout this season, one more than last year and one shy from matching their total from the prior two seasons.

Again, there’s still 39 games to go.

San Jose is on pace to win their most games in the shootout since the Todd McLellan era, when they picked up no fewer than five shootout wins each season. This season, those wins are currently the difference between home ice advantage in the first round, as the Sharks are tied for second in the Pacific with two games in hand, and missing the playoffs.

They’ve needed every one of Pavelski’s shootout goals, too. File this under “statistics that are too good to be true,” but the proven postseason performer has scored each of his three shootout goals in San Jose’s three shootout wins, while failing to score in both of their losses.

Pavelski’s needed to deliver in the shootout at least in part because he often has not delivered when actual hockey’s been played. Injuries, age, and an at-times unfathomable lack of luck have all contributed, but the Wisconsin product is in the midst of one of the longest scoring droughts of his career.

He’s not scored an even strength goal since Dec. 1 against Florida. For those keeping score at home, that’s 19 games, a month, and a calendar change ago.

If Pavelski doesn’t score at even strength on Thursday against Colorado, he’ll have matched the longest even strength goal-scoring drought of his career. In 2010-11 and the lockout-shortened 2013 season, Pavelski went 20 games without an even strength tally.

To further put things into perspective, is tied with Joe Thornton and Melker Karlsson for sixth on the team in even strength goals. Thornton’s enjoyed a nice shooting resurgence, but this is an instance where the setup man scoring as much as the sniper is not a positive development.

You can’t only fault for Pavelski for struggling so much, of course, as his team has scored the second-fewest even strength goals in the league this year. He’s also a victim of his own success, and subject to further outsized expectations because of the letter on his chest.

Tuesday showed Pavelski’s still found ways to contribute, even if he hasn’t found the back of the net at even strength. But if Pavelski’s drought lasts beyond Thursday, he’ll be on an unprecedented schnide as far as his career is concerned.

More performances like the former may ultimately be enough to get the Sharks into the postseason. More like the latter won’t get them much farther than that.


With Martin waived, holes in Burns' game are his to fix alone


With Martin waived, holes in Burns' game are his to fix alone

Defenseman Paul Martin cleared waivers on Tuesday, and will now get a chance to play regularly with the San Jose Barracuda as his agent and Sharks general manager Doug Wilson attempt to find a trade destination. While he’s in the minors, his former partner, Brent Burns, is now playing with the man that essentially took his spot.

Joakim Ryan has been the reigning Norris Trophy winner's most common defensive partner this year, and the rookie moved back to Burns’ side late in San Jose’s win over Arizona on Saturday. He skated alongside him again during Monday’s win in Los Angeles, and is set to do the same Tuesday against the Coyotes.

In just over 28-and-a-half minutes together at five-on-five play over the last two games, the Sharks controlled 57.89 percent of the shot attempts, according to Natural Stat Trick. They got favorable assignments, starting 73.33 percent of their non-neutral zone shifts in the offensive zone.

Despite this, the pair have given up a worrisome amount of scoring chances in their short reunion. 

In parts of two games together, the Sharks have attempted 46.67 percent of the scoring chances, and 38.46 percent of the high-danger scoring chances with the Wookiee and the rookie on the ice. That's eye-popping, for all the wrong reasons, and points to a larger concern. 

No matter who Burns has played with the Sharks have been largely out-chanced. With Burns on the ice this season, the Sharks have controlled 49.94 percent and 44.52 percent of the scoring chances and the high-danger chances, respectively, with a team-high 65.49 percent of his non-neutral zone shifts starting in the offensive zone.

When Burns has played with Ryan all season, the Sharks have controlled 52.05 percent of the scoring chances, but just 47.97 percent of the high-danger chances, despite starting 65.53 percent of their non-neutral zone shifts in the offensive zone. With Dillon, Burns' second-most common defensive partner, the Sharks have lost the scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance battle, despite starting in the offensive zone 63.35 percent of the time.

It should be no surprise the Sharks have been badly outscored with Burns on the ice at even strength, to the tune of 17 goals for and 38 goals against. With all due respect to Fetty Wap, you don't want to see that. 

No matter who he's played with, Burns has struggled defensively in 2017-18. The problem is that his partners haven't struggled nearly as much without him.

Without Burns, Ryan's shot attempt numbers are worse, but his scoring chance numbers are much better (57.55 percent of the scoring chances, 55 percent of the high-danger chances), despite starting more shifts in the defensive zone (51.39 percent offensive zone starts). Dillon's possession numbers, as well as his scoring chance numbers, are also better away from Burns, and he too starts more shifts away from the offensive zone. 

As a result, it'd be fair to question why the Sharks waived Martin. After all, he was Burns' partner as he ascended into the league's upper echelon of defenseman, right?

But Burns and Martin were ineffective together in limited minutes this season, getting out-possessed, outshot, and out-chanced despite favorable deployment (61.11 percent offensive zone starts). Plus, Burns was actually better away from Martin over the last two seasons, as the Sharks controlled a greater share of the shot attempts, shots, and scoring chances when Burns played with a different partner. 

Perhaps, with more time together, Burns and Martin would have rounded into their defensive form of the last two seasons. Now, one of Martin's skates is out the door, and it's foolish to expect significant improvement from two players on the wrong side of 30 regardless.

Paul Martin's imminent departure, then, should send a clear message to Brent Burns. His security blanket is gone, and it's on him alone to plug the holes in his defensive game.