NHL Analysis: Is This Finally San Jose’s Time?

It’s been an up-and-down year for the San Jose Sharks—which is saying something, because the compressed schedule wouldn’t seem to lend itself to a lot of ups and downs. But with the season entering its final two weeks, the Sharks’ roller-coaster is at the top. They’re in fifth in the Western Conference, with a comfortable seven-point margin between them and the playoff borderline. For today’s NHL analysis, we’ll examine their strengths and weaknesses and see if this the San Jose team that can finally reach the Finals.

San Jose’s strength is in its defense, where they’re seventh-best in the NHL at goal prevention, but that’s really a roundabout way of saying that goalie Antti Niemi has been carrying them for a good chunk of the season. The ability to prevent shots has been lacking, and the defense team led by Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart has been subpar at limiting Niemi’s exposure. Fortunately for the Sharks, Niemi has bailed them out.

Offensively, the team is similarly one-dimensional, although in this case it’s much tougher for one player to save you. San Jose has good scorers in Patrick Marleu and Logan Couture, and another decent one in Joe Pavelski. But other than veteran center Joe Thornton, they do not a good job moving the puck. Indeed, Thornton is the only player on the team who ranks in the top 90 in the NHL for assists. That’s tough to fathom when you have players that can finish. Consequently, San Jose is better than only four other teams in hockey at lighting the lamp.

The offensive problems are further accentuated by the fact Pavelski, Couture and Thornton all play center and consequently are not on the ice at the same time. A forward besides Marleu has to step up. Maybe Raffi Torres can show a little something. Otherwise, the Sharks are left hoping for a few random players just doing what people like Dustin Brown and Dustin Penner did for the Los Angeles Kings a year ago, and that’s suddenly and without warning, morph into offensive juggernauts in the playoffs. Stranger things happen every year in the NHL postseason, but that doesn’t mean you want to count on it.

San Jose burst out of the gate this season at 7-0-1, but then had a very tough February, losing 10 of 12 games. March wasn’t a lot better, with a 2-7 stretch that bottomed out on March 20 with a shutout loss at Minnesota. Since then, the Sharks have gotten it back in gear. They’ve won eight of ten games, and one of the losses was in a shootout, enabling the team to still pick up a point in the standings. And this strong play isn’t because of a break in the schedule—San Jose has beaten Anaheim twice, Detroit twice, plus Vancouver and Minnesota, all of whom would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

The Sharks have been a consistently good franchise, having made the postseason 13 of the last 14 years. And they’ve done reasonably well in the playoffs, winning 11 series and making the conference finals three times. Most of those advances have taken place in recent years, with the team having won at least one round in six of the last eight years. The people of northern California have gotten used to extended runs of playoff hockey, just not championships.

But it’s championships—or close to it—that NoCal has gotten accustomed to in other sports—a World Series title, a trip to the Super Bowl and a Rose Bowl win. The nearby Golden State Warriors are going to the NBA playoffs.  San Jose is looking to make sure hockey is a part of the equation. They have the goalie to do it and in the NHL that means you have to be taken seriously. But if the Sharks want to go beyond getting respect and into playing for the Cup, some offensive help has to step up, particularly when it comes to feeding the scorers.