SAN JOSE – If you’ve seen the Sharks in the first 20 games this season, you’re well aware they aren't playing the way they want to on many nights. At least, not for the majority of a game.
San Jose usually starts strong, but tends to move away from the all-around defensive makeup that has been its foundation for the last few seasons. The result are breakaways and odd-man rushes that, all too often, end up in the back of the net.
“The frustrating part is just that we haven’t played to our identity,” Joe Pavelski summarized Thursday after the Sharks' 5-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. “We do it for a few minutes … and then all of a sudden there’s a breakaway, and another breakaway. [Goaltender Martin Jones], we’re just hanging him out to dry at times with these odd-man rushes and chances.”
There’s a lot of finger-pointing that occurs during times like this when a team is struggling, and right now, fans are criticizing Jones. When the Sharks start giving up those second-period goals, there’s no shortage of shade thrown in his direction.
Since this continues to be a talking point, here’s something to consider: This isn’t a black-and-white situation. There’s no one single player, or one single aspect of the game for that matter, that can take full blame. This is a collective effort that needs to be addressed by all members of the team.
Both the goaltending and the defense in front of the net have to be better if the Sharks are going to get back to the identity Pavelski mentioned.
Putting all the blame squarely on Jones’ shoulders doesn’t solve anything. When his teammates come out and say they need to play better in front of him, that’s the truth.
Besides, a team that lives and dies solely on how their goaltender performs isn’t going to have long-term success.
Look at what happened to the 2015-2016 Montreal Canadiens, who notched a nine-game winning streak to start the season and then spiraled into the abyss when netminder Carey Price was injured. Or look at this current season where the struggling Anaheim Ducks got a few wins early in the season after relying heavily on John Gibson’s performance between the pipes, only to come back to reality as Gibson's workload began to wear on him.
As far as the home team is concerned, the Sharks do need to play better in front of Jones – for a full 60 minutes, anyways.
One of San Jose’s problems is, as coach Peter DeBoer classified after Thursday's loss, a lack of consistency. A strong start to a game followed by bouts of loose play that lead to San Jose turning over the puck. Entering Thursday, the Sharks out-scored their opponents 24-12 in first periods, but were bested 16-25 in second periods.
“When we’re playing at our best, we see how successful it makes us,” defenseman Brenden Dillon said of the inconsistent play. “We’re really not doing that for a full 60 minutes right now, we’re doing it in spurts.”
Those spurts are letting opponents find room to score.
Now, this isn’t a clean-cut problem that rests solely on the defense either. Jones has a .894 save percentage through 15 starts and has allowed 44 goals during that span. While he’s made some crucial late-game saves to keep the Sharks chances of winning alive, he’s also let some of those game-changing chances get by him. There’s no question these are areas that need improvement.
But again, Jones isn’t the only one to blame. Keep in mind, the Sharks' toughest defensive outing was their 4-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues, and Jones wasn’t even in goal for that loss.
Speaking of St. Louis, the Blues visit the Sharks on Saturday for the first meeting since that 4-0 beatdown. Will the Sharks get revenge? Will they bounce back from their outing against the Leafs? Will they play that full 60 that puts their identity as a defensive force on display?
They’ll need a complete defensive push from everyone, not just their goaltender, if that’s going to be possible.