The Sharks are officially set to begin the stretch run to the postseason, with the final 32 games packed into 68 days. Making the playoffs shouldn’t be an issue, as they sit atop the Pacific Division at the All-Star break, but this team has higher ambitions than just getting to the tournament after a trip to the Stanley Cup Final last year.
Here are five predictions for push to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
1 - Logan Couture will lead the team in second half points
Brent Burns is the Sharks’ leading scorer with 51 points, and there’s no reason to think he’ll slow down over the second half. Logan Couture, on the other hand, has had a disappointing first half that’s perhaps been overshadowed by Joe Thornton’s drop off in production. Couture, if you remember, had 30 points in 24 playoff games last spring. He’s sitting on 33 points through 49 games now. That’s a pretty drastic decline.
The 27-year-old has had a variety of linemates, as coach Pete DeBoer has been in search of consistent offense throughout the first half, so that probably hasn’t helped. Prior to the break, Couture looked to be gaining some chemistry with Patrick Marleau and Mikkel Boedker, though.
He’ll have a hard time keeping up with Burns, who is in the midst of a remarkable campaign. But from this point forward, we’re predicting here that Couture has the most points until the regular season finale on April 8.
2 - Martin Jones will get more rest
The Sharks’ number one goalie hasn’t shown any signs of being tired, but the team is playing a dangerous game if it keeps playing him as much as it has. Aaron Dell has started just eight of the first 50 games, and that kind of workload will have to increase over the second half to assure Jones isn’t overworked.
Or, if the Sharks coaching staff doesn’t trust Dell – he has started just two games against teams currently in the playoffs, and those two teams, Calgary and Philadelphia, are just barely in – then the club better go out and find someone who they believe can win games against top competition.
It’s not like the Sharks’ brass doesn’t know the value of having a rested goalie for the playoffs, either. James Reimer started eight of the final 19 regular season games last season, and DeBoer and Doug Wilson both commented at the time on the importance of having two reliable, well-rested goalies. It’s hard to imagine they’ve suddenly changed their minds.
We’ll put the over/under on games Jones plays this year at 65 – the same number he hit last season. To reach that, he’ll have to sit more frequently.
3 - The trade deadline will be quiet, but at least one move will be made
Maybe the Sharks are still seeking a more veteran backup than Dell, and an argument can be made that they need to upgrade the offense, too. The main issue they face, though, is they are right up against the salary cap, and the guys that we figured were the most likely to get moved are already gone in Matt Nieto and Tommy Wingels.
They could get creative, though, perhaps sending a high round draft pick along with an underperforming forward with a high salary to a team that’s in a rebuild. (For example, and this is purely hypothetical, they could package some draft picks and a player like Joel Ward to Arizona for Martin Hanzal, who has been mentioned in some trade rumors to San Jose).
We all know Wilson makes a ton of phone calls to GMs around the league. The guess here is that it leads to at least one notable upgrade to the roster before the deadline on March 1.
4 - At least one player will get bumped from the top power play unit
It was telling that in the game just before the All-Star break against Edmonton, DeBoer put two completely different power play units on the ice early in the third period for a extended four-minute advantage. If there’s one part of their game that will have to improve going into the postseason, it’s the power play, which is just 19-for-128 (14.8 percent) since Nov. 1.
Maybe DeBoer puts Burns, Couture, Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau back together for Tuesday’s game against the Blackhawks. But it’s likely that they’re now on a short leash. We know Burns won’t get moved from that group. Couture leads the team with seven power play goals. Pavelski won’t be going anywhere, either, with his ability to redirect pucks and find loose change around the net.
Could Thornton be a candidate to get dropped to the second unit if that top group continues to struggle? That would have been unthinkable at the start of the year, but it might be time to consider it.
5 - Sharks will face the Oilers in the first round
Yes, that means that I’m predicting that the Ducks will win the Pacific Division. Let’s face it, this Sharks team has never had the personality to go all out in the regular season just to try and earn a higher playoff seed. Finishing in third place in the Pacific last year obviously had no effect on their ability to get out of the Western Conference, either.
And, frankly, a first round matchup with Edmonton is probably a good one for the Sharks. As long as they play a sound defensive game, like they have all year, they’ll score their goals against a team that doesn’t have a great defense corps and is not quite ready to contend for a championship. There will be extra motivation among some of the Sharks, too, to beat their former coaching staff.
Mark it down – Connor McDavid’s first NHL playoff series will be against the San Jose Sharks.