My Two Cents for August 12th, 2013:
NHL Offseason Sharks Review- NHL.com this week did a 30 on 30 series on each team in the newly formed Pacific Division. The Sharks ofcouse were featured in this series of articles and answered many questions Sharks fans will have as the 2013-14 quickly approaches being less than two months away. The Sharks this offseason were not very active on the free agency market which is actually not unusual for the franchise. In fact, the Sharks generally avoid the UFA market in early July about as much as most of us try to avoid the plague. The Sharks focused on their own UFA and RFA instead and locked down Raffi Torres, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski to long term deals. The Sharks also announced that Brent Burns move to forward from defenseman is no long an experiment, but is now a permanent switch. The Sharks have their goalie for the future in Antti Niemi in place through the next two seasons and believe he is only starting to get into his prime as a player. In fact, it was Niemi who was the one constant for the Sharks when they were sliding through a bad 23 game stretch in which they had only managed six wins. The Sharks in their farm system have two very capable goalies in Alex Stalock and Harri Sateri, each of whom would make a more than decent back-up for Niemi.
The article also addressed the Sharks problems where even strength scoring had a times last season had become a huge issue for team teal. However the Sharks overall were no better or worse than most NHL teams when all the numbers were sifted through. The Sharks did have a number of offensive struggles to be certain, finishing 24th out of 30 teams in overall scoring, and ranked 18th in scoring in even strength situations. This is a stat that will need to be improved upon if the Sharks are to take that next step towards a championship. As the season progressed towards post season qualifying, and after a few player moves at the April 3rd trade deadline, the Sharks scoring and overall game picked up as a team and they were able to go from being almost out of playoff contention to a sixth seed in the Western Conference.
The Sharks penalty kill however was given a good deal of praise as the Sharks at 85 percent were one of the top seven teams in the NHL in this category. Credit for the success in the penalty kill was given to Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau who together created what NHL.com called a "suffocating forecheck". The penalty kill would also go on to pay dividends for the Sharks in the post season (with the notable exception of Game 2 of the LA Kings series). However the Sharks also had their troubles with the man advantage as many of those opportunities went by the boards with barely a single shot on goal.
The Risk of Raffi- The 30 in 30 article on the Sharks went as far as to assess if the Sharks trade deadline of Raffi Torres is worth the risk given his recent history of post season suspensions after hard on ice hits. Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson who was also interviewed for the article told NHL.com that this was a move that he has no regrets about because of what he brought to the table, as well as how quickly Torres was able to fit into the team chemistry. Prior to his season ending suspension in Game 1 of the LA Kings playoff series, Torres had provided a spark for team teal that included a game winning goal in overtime of Game 1 versus Vancouver in the opening round of last season's playoffs.
The Sharks signed Torres to a three year deal on July 5th. In doing so, Doug Wilson made a statement that he feels a player of Torres' caliber is what the Sharks need at this time going forward. Torres not only has the backside of his teammates, he is also looked up to already as one of team teal's leaders going into the 2013-14 season. Clearly Torres will have to be careful about what he does on the ice as two people who are not fans of his, Brendan Shanahan and Gary Bettman will be watching his every move. This is what makes Torres a risk, his above edge play is not something the NHL will long tolerate and everything he does will be under both Shanahan's and Bettman's microscope. The reward is Torres is a veteran who has been on a number of solid teams that have won consistently and he was never afraid to lead on the ice. Torres is a player for whom has to be accounted for on the ice by the oppositions each and every shift. The focus on Torres may cause the Sharks opponent to look away from others who can also do some damage.
Controlling Their Division- Winning the division in the NHL guaranteed a top three seeding in the conference come playoff time. This year with the number of divisions being reduced from three to two, top seeding will be more at a premium. In four seasons between 2007-08 and 2011-12 the Sharks won the Pacific Division. In 2011-12, the divisional crown went to the Phoenix Coyotes. Last season, the Anaheim Ducks claimed their first Pacific Division crown in six years. With the edition of the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames winning the Pacific Division title just got more complicated. Though winning the division will still guarantee a prime seeding in the post season, it will not be a death nell for the Sharks should they not be able to win the division. Eight teams from each conference will still qualify for the post season, and the way the divisions are now laid out their may even be more emphasis in just getting to the post season. "If you win the division, great. Otherwise just get into the post season..." will be a sentiment that a number of teams will echo given the new divisional alignments.
Can San Jose maintain the pace at SAP Center? - This is a verbatim question asked in this article and it's a valid point. The Sharks last season were one of the best teams when it came to defending home ice. The Sharks were 17-2-5 in 24 home games in last season's abbreviated schedule. The Sharks also held serve at home and were a perfect five for five in the post season defeating the Vancouver Canucks twice and the Los Angeles Kings three times. The Sharks know the importance of defending their home ice and often times it just comes down to a team being very comfortable in their home surroundings. When you have over 17 thousand fans cheering on your every move it is helpful from a psychological standpoint for any team. The Sharks even during their rough patch last season managed to get five games into overtime that they did not win, however still gained a point in the standings because of forcing the extra period. Those five points in the standings made every difference for the Sharks as they went from looking as if they were out of contention to clinching the sixth overall seed in the Western Conference.
As for the Road- What the article did not address though is that the Sharks had more than their fair share of woes on the road last season and truthfully the last two seasons. The Sharks during the latter half of the last decade had established themselves as a strong road team. However that has dropped off quite a bit as team teal struggled on the road through the regular season. The Sharks will be road tested early in 2013-14 as they have three road trips before Thanksgiving that will take them on the road for five games twice and four games once. Team Teal will certainly have their work cut out for them early in this department as they will travel over 57,000 miles as a team next season.
To be fair as with most teams playing on the road more often than not is a difficult proposition that each team must handle 41 times in the regular season. The Sharks certainly do not need to be perfect each time away from the Shark Tank, but they do need to find a way that works best for them as a team. The idea on the road is to finish .500 or at least as close to that mark as they can get. You can finish .500 on the road in the NHL and not need to win half of the games thanks to the points system. A good team will usually have a mark of around .700 to .750 at home, and will split the difference on the road. If the Sharks can come together as a team while away from San Jose and find effective ways to be successful while on the road, this will go a long way towards bolstering their seedings for the post season.
The Defense Doesn't Rest- NHL 30 in 30 points out that the Sharks made a somewhat bold move in taking Brent Burns and changing him from a defenseman to a forward. While this turned out to work very well for the Sharks and paid good dividends, this also led to a void on the defensive side of the ledger. Matt Irwin as 30 in 30 points out was inserted into Burns defensive spot and the Sharks seemed to have been just as strong on defense as they were before the switch was made. Irwin has teamed well with Mark-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun as the Sharks made a fairly seamless transition in this area. With the help of veteran defenseman Dan Boyle and a power play that was vastly improved over the previous season, the Sharks finished sixth overall in goals allowed and enjoyed a successful season on the penalty kill after a down year the season before. Boyle meanwhile again was a huge asset for team teal in his own right. Boyle, who was acquired from Tampa Bay in July 2008, has been one of the Sharks most consistent players and bigger contributors on the ice. He has scored a number of goals that turned out to either be game winners for at least put the Sharks in a position where they could win.
Boyle, 37, still has two years left on his deal with the Sharks and seems to be in as good of shape as anyone else on the team. Boyle may have at least two good years of hockey left in his tank to which should only be a help for team teal.
Overall Assessment of 30 on 30- On the whole the series of articles written here give a somewhat fair assessment of where the Sharks are as a team. The Sharks with an evolving core of players in Couture, Pavelski, Burns, Vlasic and even Niemi are starting to see a rather quiet and seamless changing of the guard. The old guard meanwhile is not going anywhere yet as they are still under contract at least for this coming season and those players can still be strong assets to this team. For the Sharks right now it's about not only the veterans but also the growth of the players on the team that are becoming the face of the franchise, perhaps one day soon supplanting stalwarts Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
It's also not so much about where the Sharks have been as it is where they are going as a franchise. The post season failures of the past are significant to the point of lumping the franchise in with other professional sports teams who have rather dubious distinctions for post season failures which followed on the heels of some rather successful franchise campaigns. The Sharks have to own that, and to their credit have without complaining or trying to make excuses for it. The Sharks as a franchise will have to wear those monikers up until the year in which they finally win the Stanley Cup. It's hard to say if this young core as it is now can lead the Sharks to their ultimate goal. It depends on a lot of factors, some of which they control, and some of which they don't. Doing their best to stay healthy and remain consistent as team are demands that are made on each NHL team. Some handle this challenge better than others. How future Sharks teams will handle it remains to be seen. However when you look at what they Sharks have now in the way of core players, all things considered it's a decent core group. More work will need to be done if this group is to contend for a title. This is also where GM Doug Wilson and company will be saddled with the task of making the smartest business decisions of their management careers. It is their only option here.
...just my two cents...
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