What To Make Of These San Jose Sharks?

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In recent years, the San Jose Sharks have been one of the hardest teams in hockey to figure out and pin down. At times when you watch them play, they somehow appear to be both underachieving and overachieving at the same time. Many fans and hockey pundits alike are still trying to figure out which it is. Truth be told, it’s probably both. That doesn’t make sense, you say? Welcome to Sharks hockey. It’s just hard to know what to make of the Sharks, which leads to the same questions every year. How good are these Sharks, really? How should we feel about them?

Well, now that the San Jose Sharks have won three straight games, including a huge 5-1 thumping over the Colorado Avalanche, most Sharks fans are understandably feeling happy about their team. So am I, just as I was happy after their recent victories over the Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings, and just as I was disappointed after the ensuing ugly losses to the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings. Because that’s how being a die-hard sports fan is, you generally only feel as good or bad about your team as their most recent performance warrants you feel (sort of like how certain fans argue that the shootout is integral to the NHL product after their team wins a shootout, then argue it’s the worst thing to happen to the sport after they lose one). Even if you make a concerted effort to consider the whole picture and come to an objective conclusion about the true quality of your team, it’s difficult not to have your analysis influenced by their most recent performances.

For example, the Sharks have not really changed at all as a team in the last week. The roster that inspired so much ire from the fans in losses to the Ducks and LA Kings last week is basically the same as the roster responsible for winning three straight games. Yet, fan opinion of the team, not just its current run, but the team as a whole, prospects for future success included, has skyrocketed.

How can the same fans feel so differently one week to the next about the exact same team? And which opinion is correct? If you had polled the fans last week about whether they thought the Sharks had a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup, the majority would have said no. Now far more would say yes–a winning streak can do that. Which is correct? Either the team is good or it’s not; it can’t be both. Right? Leave it to this crazy Sharks team to make me question even that! But I’ll ask the question anyway, assuming there has to be some sort of tangible answer out there in the ether: how good is this team, really?

The obvious, universal answer to this question, no matter what team it is asked about, is that (the Sharks, in this instance) are not as bad as they appeared at their most recent low-point, nor as good as they appear now, during their most recent high point. So that would leave them somewhere between awful and great. Not the most specific answer to our question.

Some Sharks fans might argue that, if you look at the Sharks’ record since the lockout, bad stretches of play are an exception to the rule, and thus should be disregarded. In other words, a month of bad play is a fluke that should be ignored–chalk it up to bad luck, maybe statistical anomalies in shooting percentage and save percentage–whereas a month of good play is what shows the true colors of the team (unless, of course, the good month was February and the bad month was a full 31 day month, then that would complicate things even more, naturally. But I digress). The Sharks have finished top two in their Conference in points every season since 2007-2008, including last year, and, some Sharks fans might argue, because the core of this year’s roster is the same as last year’s, plus an extra all-star defenseman in Brent Burns, the only logical conclusion is this Sharks team is better than their record indicates, and any struggles they may have had should be considered anomalies, and not indicative of the true quality of this team.

And when you look at the Sharks’ regular season record over the last five years, those fans would be right. The Sharks’ struggles this season have certainly not been in line with their regular season success of the last five years. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Sharks’ record this season is a fluke, either. Every year the league is different. The level of competition is different, as is every Sharks’ team season-to-season despite the familiar core. I would be more compelled to believe the Sharks’ regression in the standings this season was a fluke if, and Sharks fans forget this, something similar had not happened last season.

But, you say, the Sharks finished 2nd in the West last season. And that they did. However, the Sharks were actually out of a playoff spot, I believe in 11th place, leading up to trade deadline. That’s almost two-thirds of the way through the season, a very good sample size of games, and the Sharks were the 11th best team out of 15 in the Western Conference. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Only a week ago (approximately) the Sharks were in 11th place again this season, with almost 90% of the season completed, before winning their passed three games and ascending to 3rd in the conference by claiming the division lead. In fact, you could call the Sharks three-game win streak, which has allowed them to climb out of their hole, a microcosm of what happened late last season.

To understand what I mean by that beyond the obvious similarities between ’10-’11 and ’11-’12, let’s take a closer look at what happened last season. It was around the start of February, and the Sharks were outside the West’s top-8, despite having very few man-games lost to the injury compared to their competition. Their only significant injury that I can remember was Joe Pavelski missing eight games in early January. Besides that injury, the Sharks had all their core players healthy for almost the entire regular season, which is a far cry from what most teams deal with. But despite this good fortune, the Sharks were still outside of a playoff spot leading up to the trade deadline. So Doug Wilson made some acquisitions in Kyle Wellwood, Ben Eager, and later Ian White. They seemed to jump start the team a bit, but what may have helped the Sharks more than anything is that many of their opponents were suffering from an increasing amount of significant injuries as the year went on, while the Sharks stayed almost perfectly healthy. And then what you had was the equivalent of the Sharks recent good run of form, only stretched over the last third of the season.

What do I mean by that? First, it’s important to note that the Sharks’ recent good play has corresponded with Martin Havlat’s return from the injured list (Havlat’s injury being the first time the Sharks have had a core player out with an extended injury the last two seasons). This should give Sharks fans an idea of the positive difference just one good player can make for the whole team. For an even better example, just look at what acquiring Jeff Carter has done for the Los Angeles Kings (certainly Voynov’s emergence on defense, Dwight King and in my opinion Jordan Nolan even more-so on offense, have helped, too, but Carter deserves most the credit).

Keeping that in mind, consider this. The first win of the Sharks three-game win streak came against the Boston Bruins by a 2-1 final, a Bruins team missing Nathan Horton, arguably their best goal scorer, and Rich Peverley, another one of their better forwards. That’s two top-six forwards out of their lineup. Sharks fans have seen what missing just one can do to a team; the Bruins were missing two. In what turned out to be a one-goal game, you don’t think those two top-six forwards would have changed the complexion of the game? Now, of course, there is no guarantee the Bruins would have won the game if they were as healthy as the Sharks, but it definitely would have been a different game, and a much harder game for the Sharks to win.

The Sharks’ next victory came over the Phoenix Coyotes, 4-3 in a shootout. Surprise, the Coyotes #1 best goal scorer, Radim Vrbata, was out of the lineup with an alleged illness, and their captain and best power forward, Shane Doan, missed the game due to suspension. That’s two top-six forwards, again, missing from the opposition. In a game the Sharks couldn’t even win in regulation or overtime despite the unenviable position the Coyotes were in, does anyone really think the presence of Vrbata and Doan would not have altered the game drastically, and perhaps the outcome? The Coyotes were 3-1 against the Sharks this season going into that game, and the Sharks did not look too convincing in failing to outscore a team without two of its three best forwards. It’s impossible to know what would have happened, but I think the Coyotes probably would have won that game if they’d had their full roster like the Sharks did.

The Sharks’ third victory came 5-1 against the Colorado Avalanche, whose best forward, Matt Duchene, has been playing with a severely injured ankle, and thus has not been his usual, effective self since returning to their lineup. The Avalanche’s best defenseman, Erik Johnson, was playing in his first game since missing time with a back injury. Peter Mueller, another of the Avalanche’s most talented forwards, also missed the game, although it is unclear whether that was due to injury or coach’s stupidity.

Would better health for the Avalanche have reversed the outcome of what was a very one-sided 5-1 victory for the Sharks? It’s far less likely to have mattered to the point of changing the outcome compared to the Coyotes game or even the Bruins game, but once again, we’ll never know. That’s really the dilemma here. The Bruins, Coyotes, and Avalanche will never know if they would have won those games had they been healthy because they never got the chance to play those games healthy. And likewise, Sharks fans have a hard time knowing how much credit to give the Sharks for those victories. If they would have won anyway, despite equally healthy opponents, then you give them full credit. But we’ll never know for sure.

Can we make informed guesses, assumptions? Yes. And that’s where I have some concerns about the Sharks, because the clues in this instance don’t seem to yield uniformly positive answers about the Sharks. For example, if the Sharks are truly an elite team, why have they found themselves in 11th place past the halfway point of the season two seasons in a row now? Or, just looking at the team’s recent performance, I’ve already been over the Sharks last three victories, and all three of them have come against beat up teams.

What happened the last time the Sharks played healthy teams? A 5-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings, and a 5-3 loss to the Anaheim Ducks. Two performances all Sharks fans agreed were embarrassing. And if you’re holding out hope that before those two losses, there will be better news, not really. Better results, yes, but the circumstances remain similar. The Sharks did beat the Detroit Red Wings, but once again it was a one-goal squeaker, decided in overtime against a very beat-up team missing its best defenseman and goal scorer, and this time on a controversial game-winner, perhaps a result of a bad officiating more than talent or merit.

It’s not all bad news, as the Sharks did beat a healthy Nashville Predators squad. However, the Predators looked uninspired to me that day, and have since gone on a 2-4-1 run, so it seems the Predators team the Sharks beat is not the same one that has played so well for most of the year. Has the Alexander Radulov situation been distracting them? Is it something else? Hockey has so many variables, but if there’s a bit of a trend emerging, it would seem that even in the games the Sharks look great, it might just have more to do with their opponent playing awful than the Sharks actually being great.

But most of this is not necessarily news to Sharks fans. At least, it wouldn’t have been three games ago. But optimism has skyrocketed since then, in light of the three victories. Maybe that’s the “news,” then, or the “findings” of this investigation into the quality of this San Jose Sharks team: the winning streak is an encouraging sign, and it’s not without some merit of its own, but at the same time, we should not lose sight of the overall picture as it pertains to the team’s body of work and hints at their true quality.

Otherwise, maybe the end result is what’s happened this year with the Sharks: a season-long struggle than many did not foresee, primarily and perhaps most disturbingly, Sharks GM Doug Wilson.

It seems like Doug Wilson looked at the Sharks as the second best team in the Western Conference last year based on them, well, finishing 2nd in the West during the regular season, and then making the Western Conference Finals in the postseason, too. But did he ever ask why exactly the Sharks were 11th out of 15 teams in the West two-thirds through the season, even though the Sharks spent more money on players than many of those teams and had much better health? It does not seem like he did, because a year later, the Sharks have found themselves in a very similar position.

And wasn’t it the Sharks’ number one goal for this regular season to avoid digging themselves a hole the way they did last season? Doug Wilson and Sharks head coach Todd Mclellan have both gone on record as saying that they thought digging themselves a hole in the regular season last year, and having to expend so much effort just to dig themselves out of it to make the playoffs, was a big factor in their elimination for the second straight year in the Western Conference Finals. In other words, they scraped up their knees so badly just crawling back into the playoffs, they didn’t have enough (knee skin? The metaphor is falling apart) left once they got to the playoffs. Or, and here’s how a professional blog would put it, according to Todd Mclellan and Doug Wilson, the Sharks used too much gas just to crawl into the playoffs, they didn’t have enough left once they got there.

That was goal number one to fix for this season. Did they fix it? No, it’s even worse this year. If the Sharks didn’t have enough gas left in the tank to win the Cup last year, and they have even less gas left now for this season, where does that leave their playoff chances? In that sense, the Sharks season is already a failure. It doesn’t mean they can’t still go to Plan B and win the Cup that way (also known as Operation Prius), but let’s not fool ourselves, the fact that they are already on plan D is not a good sign.

But let’s not fool ourselves on this, either. That may not be a good sign, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of good things to talk about with the Sharks, too. For starters, they’ve won three straight games, circumstances be damned. Not all teams win the games they are supposed to win even when their opponent is banged up. The Sharks went 3-for-3 in those games. Them’s Buster Posey numbers. Moreover, the Sharks are not the only team with Cup aspirations to experience turbulence this season, or in season’s past. The Chicago Blackhawks lost nine games in a row earlier this year, and they actually had a similar losing streak the year they won the Cup, which proves even great teams can struggle in the regular season.

I have also been impressed with the Sharks’ ability to take care of business more nights than not. They had two very poor showings against the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings that I really don’t know how to explain besides that they are two of the only good and healthy teams the Sharks have played recently, and yes, the implications of those losses under that postulate do worry me, but, those games aside, the Sharks have played committed games and found ways to get the two points. Always a good sign.

So how good is this team? How should we feel about them? They have six more games this season, all against teams that should be mostly healthy. I think we will learn a lot more about where the Sharks truly stand over the next six games than the last six. The one illusory game from the fan perspective is I believe the first game against the Stars, in San Jose. That game is the second of a back-to-back for the Stars, and while back-to-back’s are less than ideal for everyone, for the stars they are absolute auto-losses. The Stars have a record of 1-10 or so in back-to-back’s this season. So that may be a game where the Sharks look a lot better than they are.

But the other five games should all be games that feature much closer to two full and healthy rosters facing each other than Sharks fans have grown accustomed to during the recent stretch of games. And while games against Pheonix, Dallas, and Los Angeles may not tell us how the Sharks would fare against the true elite of the Western Conference, at least they will give us an idea of how the Sharks, with Havlat healthy, stack up against other teams fighting for low playoff seeds, also healthy.

It’s going to be a very interesting stretch of hockey here, provided the referees and National Hockey League do not ruin it. I’ll be back with my playoff previews once the seeds are set.

Written by Shark Circle