While many bristle over NHL's new bye week rule, Sharks wait their turn

While many bristle over NHL's new bye week rule, Sharks wait their turn

SAN JOSE – Nearly everyone in the NHL is in agreement that this season’s schedule is rough. The World Cup in September pushed the start of the regular season back about a week, and combined with the institution of the new bye week, as requested by the NHLPA, it’s meant more games in fewer days for every team.

Where opinions diverge, though, is whether the bye week is a good idea. 

Just this week, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall called it “the most asinine thing I’ve ever seen.” Kings head coach Darryl Sutter, when asked if he liked it, said: “No, no, no, no. … It’s been an awful schedule this year.”

The Sharks are currently in the middle of a stretch of seven games in just 11 days before the All-Star break. In a normal season, that kind of schedule is rare. This season, it’s commonplace.

Some teams have already had their bye weeks. The Islanders and Penguins were the first, taking the opening week of January off. The Sharks’ bye week isn’t until Feb. 20-24. Only Anaheim’s is later.

Sharks coach Pete DeBoer didn’t give his opinion on the bye week, but indicated that if it’s going to happen, late February is a good time to get some rest.

“The way it laid out for us, I’m happy with that scheduling,” DeBoer said. “There’s not many happy moments when I look at our schedule, but that is one that I felt laid out right for us.”

Neither DeBoer, nor Hextall, nor Sutter is playing games, of course. Polling some Sharks players, they seemed to like the idea of getting some down time in the middle of playing a condensed schedule. The Sharks won’t even be allowed to practice over those five days, and will resume their season on Feb. 25 in Vancouver (the Canucks have the exact same bye week, so they’ll be in the same situation when the teams face off).

The majority of the current Sharks team is coming off of a short summer following a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, and no NHL team had more than the five representatives San Jose had in the final round of the World Cup between Team Canada and Team Europe. Key contributors Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Martin Jones are all headed to the All-Star Game at the end of the month, too.

So, is having the bye week worth it for the condensed schedule?

“Yeah, I think it is, because if you take away those five days and you sprinkle two games in there, there’s no guarantees that you’re going to get a day off in between those days,” Pavelski said.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic said: “If I’m in San Jose I might as well play hockey, I’m not sitting around and watching. I get five days to go back home, which is good.”

It’s difficult to predict how the Sharks will respond to their bye week. Joel Ward preferred to take the wait-and-see approach.

“I think with a lot of hockey, it might be beneficial for us, especially for a lot of guys that played in the World Cup, played that many [games] and have played high minutes,” Ward said. “I think it could be beneficial for those guys, and some guys going to the All-Star Game, too. Hopefully it works out in our favor with some rest for our key guys. We’ll see how it plays out.”

Vlasic took issue with the way the bye week has been instituted. He thought it was the same week for every team, which isn’t the case.

“Weird is putting it nicely,” said the defenseman. “Why do some teams have a break in January when there’s an All-Star break coming up, and we get it the last possible week right before the playoff push? I’m not saying we shouldn’t have it at that time, but everyone should have it at the same time.”

A case can be made, too, that the bye week is adversely affecting the NHL product.

Take one game back on Dec. 18 when the Sharks were in Chicago. Instead of what should have been a thrilling matchup between two of the Western Conferences best teams, the game was tremendously dull for the first period-and-a-half. The Sharks were wrapping up a stretch of four road games in six days, while the Blackhawks were playing their fifth game in eight days, and second of a back-to-back with travel.

Playing so many games, with practice time at a minimum, leads to bad hockey, and that’s a disservice to the fans.

For at least one season, though, it’s something everyone is stuck with. The schedule is a reality, and Pavelski believes the Sharks are handling it well.

“At the end of the day, you get ready, you do what you need to do to prepare, and you show up and play,” said the captain. “I believe this group has done a tremendous job of that this year. We haven’t had any games where it’s just been a complete dud from the start.”

How the Sharks can catch the Golden Knights and win the Pacific


How the Sharks can catch the Golden Knights and win the Pacific

About a month ago, the Sharks appeared locked into the Pacific Division's second, third, fourth, or fifth spot. At the end of trade deadline day, they were 12 points back of the division-leading Vegas Golden Knights, and only two points up on the fifth place Calgary Flames.

24 days later, thanks to an 8-2-0 record over the last 10 games (second-best in the NHL), San Jose's still in second place. Now though, those margins are eight points and 11 points, respectively. 

The latter's pretty much locked the Sharks into a playoff spot, while the former's created a path for a late run at the Pacific Division crown. Beginning Thursday night, they will play the Golden Knights twice over both team's final nine games. 

What does the path look like to the Sharks' first division title since 2011? To start, they'll have to beat the Golden Knights twice in regulation to even have a shot. 

That is the foundation of any run at the Pacific's top spot. If the Sharks win both remaining games in regulation, they'll trail the Golden Knights by four points, leaving aside results against other teams for now.

They have to win in regulation, however. A win in overtime or the shootout on Thursday would only cut the gap to seven, and a subsequent win in regulation would leave it at five. Two losses, in any situation, would create a gap of 10-12 points, which would be nearly impossible to overcome this late in the season. 

One point doesn't seem like a lot, but this late in the season, it makes a world of difference. A five-point gap means they'll need to earn six more than the Golden Knights in those other seven games, while a four-point gap means they'll need to earn five in order to pass them. 

The simplest way to five extra points, is for the Sharks to have a record that's two wins and an overtime loss better (2-0-1) than the Golden Knights in the seven games where they don't play each other. That's impossible if Vegas earns at least 10 points in those seven games, so a 5-2-0 or 4-1-2 record would ensure a division banner raising in Sin City.

Taken all together, then, the Golden Knights' 'magic number' is 10 points. Even if the Sharks win on Thursday, their path to a Pacific title remains difficult, if not improbable. 

If a season with an expansion team leading their division has taught us anything, though -- it's that improbable is not impossible.  

The anatomy of Jannik Hansen's recently-broken scoring drought after nearly one year


The anatomy of Jannik Hansen's recently-broken scoring drought after nearly one year

Jannik Hansen's game-winning goal against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday marked the first time he scored in 355 days. 

Hansen last scored on Mar. 30, 2017 against the Edmonton Oilers, his second goal with the Sharks following an in-season trade. His scoring drought, in all, lasted 44 regular season games, 50 if you include the postseason. 

How exactly does a goal-scoring drought last nearly a year? The right (wrong?) circumstances all need to come together, and that was certainly the case for Hansen for much of the last year.

For one, the Danish forward was in and out of the lineup. San Jose played 83 regular season and postseason games between Hansen's second and third goals, and he did not play in 33 of those games. Plenty of players have had rough 50-game stretches, and that's often without not playing for weeks at a time, as Hansen has done a couple of times this season. 

When Hansen did draw into the lineup this year, however, he wasn't generating offense at the same rate he had in the past. This season, Hansen's five-on-five shot rate (6.19 shots per 60 minutes), shot attempt rate (10.53 individual corsi per 60), and unblocked shot attempt rate (8.95 individual fenwick per 60) were all down from his career averages, according to Corsica Hockey. 

That decline is natural, considering Hansen turned 32 just six days ago. Those rates were not down enough, however, to expect him to fail to score in his first 39 appearances this season. Naturally, a long run of bad luck played a big role in Hansen's dry spell.

Hansen went 0-for-66 in shots over the 50 consecutive regular season and playoff games in which he did not score. He's a career 11-percent shooter, and had he shot at his career average, he would have scored seven goals during that time. That feels about right for a bottom-six forward. 

In many ways, all of these factors fed into one another. Hansen wasn't generating shots or scoring, then was scratched, then couldn't find the back of the net when he returned and was scratched again. All the while, fellow fourth-liners Marcus Sorensen (26.7 percent shooting percentage this season), Joel Ward (14.3 percent) and Barclay Goodrow (13.2 percent) were converting on their chances, forcing Peter DeBoer's hand. 

His possession play has been solid all season (50.74 percent corsi-for, per Natural Stat Trick), but the offense hasn't followed. When it does, as was the case Tuesday night, he can be an effective fourth-line forward, and the goal on Tuesday bought him more time to prove it.