Welcome to my first post of what I hope will be many observations on the Sharks, the NHL, articles and columns written about Team Teal and other general thoughts about life in the Sharks press box. While we will eventually narrow our focus to specific games, topics and other articles from the mainstream press, we thought it would be good to start broad and take a general assessment of Silicon Valley’s sporting crown jewel at the one-third mark of the season.
Conventional wisdom says that December hockey is not critical what with two-thirds of a season left to play, annual upsets in the NHL playoffs that annually render a regular season moot and the distractions from other sports around this time of year — crucial NFL contests, the buildup to the BCS championship game and the tracking of whether or not LeBron James has sneezed. People will remind you of the numerous low seeds that have made the Stanley Cup Finals over the years, including last year’s Philadelphia Flyers and the 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers who upended the Sharks en route to a Finals loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. They’ll insist that it’s only important to enter the playoffs on an upswing.
The only problem with that reasoning is the recent Western Conference history suggests otherwise. Since that miraculous run of the 8th-seeded Oilers in the first season following the lockout, the West has been represented by a team that was at or near the top and more or less consistently dominant throughout the season. Where the Eastern Conference has been represented by a 7th seed (Ottawa in 2007), a 2nd seed (Pittsburgh in 2008), a 4th seed (Pittsburgh again in 2009) and another 7th seed (Philadelphia last season), every West Finals qualifier has either been first or a close second in the regular season.
The Sharks, of course, are one of 11 teams currently behind Conference-leading Detroit separated by a mere three points. Certainly, they still have time to make a run and nudge themselves back to the top of the Pacific, but even Head Coach Todd McLellan admits that it could take its toll if the team doesn’t put on the hyperjets soon.
You can point to McLellan’s old team the Detroit Red Wings who last season finished 13-1-2 to make up for a middling injury-riddled season to make the playoffs, but ran out of gas in the second round against the Sharks. True, the Finals runs the previous two years had a lot to do with their fatigue. Still, it’s still hard to argue that even a team as talented as Detroit can maintain a ridiculous .813 winning percentage over the course of three months which is what the Winged Wheel would have had to have done to qualify for a third straight Finals appearance. In the Western Conference, the teams that have managed to win four of every seven games in April, May and June are the ones that have done it, in large part, throughout the season. They don’t need to burn themselves out posting an .813 for survival because they’ve consistently done it throughout the year and posted enough obscene blowouts along the way to allow the top forward lines to cut back on their minutes every now and again.
Which brings us back to San Jose where the Sharks have had only one three-game win streak to date this season and are on pace to finish nine short of last season’s 51 wins. There are many understandable factors that explain the inconsistency, most notably the experimentation with ever-changing line combinations and an injury-riddled defense corps that has pressed four players with less than two years of experience into playing heavy minutes.
Truth be told, the line-juggling is a necessity, and we will be explaining in a future post why it is worthwhile to sacrifice some regular season wins to find alternative line combinations that work. And while Doug Wilson trots out stats to back his point that the loss of Rob Blake isn’t as damaging as Pierre LeBrun thinks, one has to think that another veteran defenseman will be added to the roster before the trade deadline. If the Sharks get their ducks (Anaheim or otherwise) in a row up front and on the back end, they could move up the standings with a much more well-rounded squad than even last year’s edition.
But if recent past is prologue, they better not wait until the trade deadline to do it.