In our season previews, our writers at Last Word On Hockey highlighted specific challenges facing the 2019 San Jose Sharks. We began by acknowledging the lack of depth, dove into greater discussion of the areas of vulnerability and covered in detail what the Sharks needed from their first month of the season as well as the team’s backup plans if the initial approach didn’t cut it. Three games into the season, the San Jose Sharks decided their initial plan was not going to cut it and they began implementing Plan B, signing Patrick Marleau.
2019 San Jose Sharks Plan B
For the 2019 San Jose Sharks, Plan A was to give their players with zero or little NHL experience (less than one season’s worth of games played) a chance to win a job. Through four games, the Sharks gave this chance to eight players.
Plan B was described as: If the Sharks go through several of their own players and not enough are NHL-capable, the team can execute Plan B. Players like Brian Boyle, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Eric Fehr and Patrick Marleau aren’t ideal, but they are inexpensive and available.
The Sharks took the first step on Plan B, signing Marleau to a one-year deal. The 40-year old returns to the team where he fashioned over 500 goals and 1,000 points.
Some suggested the Sharks pressed the panic button with the Marleau signing. I don’t see it that way. The team figured out that not enough of the younger players are ready to play for the Sharks so they added a player who is. This was always a strong possibility and it played out. The Sharks are following their plan.
The good news for the San Jose Sharks is they won for the first time this season to move their record to 1-4-0. It was a 5-4 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. Marleau’s return proved important in the win. He redirected a point shot for a power-play goal and scored at even strength from in front of the net.
For the Sharks, the win was important. They didn’t play particularly well, but it marked several season firsts. The Sharks took a lead for the first time all season in the third period. It also marked the first time all season the Sharks weren’t behind for the entire second and third periods. The five goals equalled their combined total in their prior four contests.
Still, the Sharks allowed far too many high-end scoring chances, including three clean breakaways where the Blackhawks came up empty. There is much work ahead.
The Patrick Marleau Fit
What the San Jose Sharks need from Marleau is not what he historically delivered. In his career, he’s been known first and foremost as a goal scorer. The Sharks don’t really need goal-scoring talent. They need players who work well together. Marleau is no longer a high-end talent, but he understands how to play with other high-end talents, and this was evident in his return.
The Sharks need chemistry from Marleau. Playing responsible defence and passing the puck effectively are critical (before the start of the season, we cited passing among Sharks forwards as a potential trouble spot – and it has been a problem to this point). For Marleau, being in the expected place at the expected time is more critical than scoring goals. It’d be nice if he provided effective forechecking, but that is a bridge too far.
Whether Marleau can deliver some or all of what the Sharks need is an open question. His recent season with the Toronto Maple Leafs was a mixed bag. He finished at minus-6, only one teammate finished lower. His 16 goals were eighth-best on the team, albeit one with an extremely potent offence.
Will Marleau Deliver?
Discussing Marleau’s recent season with my Last Word On Hockey colleague Oscar Elieff, he noted, “Patrick Marleau was effective on the second unit power play and his skating was still strong. However, at even strength, it seemed that the play often died on his stick. He was shuffled across the line-up and I sensed he was overused by head coach Mike Babcock. By season’s end and among a very good and deep group of Maple Leafs wingers, Marleau was seventh or eighth best. He belonged on a fourth line.”
Elieff also suggested Marleau’s consecutive game streak may have worked against him. At age 39, playing over 16 minutes per night and playing every game is less than an optimal workload (something Bob McKenzie also noted during his Friday discussion with Steve Kouleas on NHL Radio). Indeed, Marleau’s history of being at his best when rested played out again last season. His best months were November and after the All-Star break in February (21 of his 37 points in these two months). But in his last 19 games of the season, he managed just two goals (both goals coming in games the Leaf scored seven times) and two assists.
If Patrick Marleau can help the Sharks turn the tide in the early going, he’ll be a worthwhile signing. Alas, there’s a downside later in the season if he isn’t managed properly.
Patrick Marleau’s First Game
On his even-strength goal against the Blackhawks, Marleau made the sort of pass he’ll need to make consistently. He received the puck below the goal line (the Sharks must play below the goal line to be effective), moved to the side and quickly passed the puck to Brent Burns at the point. Marleau immediately headed for the front of the net. Burns took the Marleau pass and fired a shot. The puck was deflected on the way in, but Marleau was in the right place to collect the puck and score. The goal was important – but don’t overlook Marleau’s pass. It helped create the opportunity. This is what the Sharks need from him.
San Jose Sharks Without Numbers
It is largely unhelpful to look at the Sharks by their numbers. They’ve been bad across the board. It does not matter if the player is young or old, getting paid a lot or a little. It does not matter which position, either.
Still, this is an evolving team. From the opening day roster, the Sharks have added Marleau, Erik Karlsson (he missed the opener due to the birth of his daughter) and Evander Kane (suspended for three games for “abuse of official” in a preseason game) to their daily line-up. But injuries have forced out three defencemen (a fourth is still recovering from an injury last season) and one forward. All after losing four starters from last season. The Sharks are a team still filling out its line-up with unknowns.
Is Plan B the Answer?
By adding Marleau, the Sharks have made it clear they have a short leash on their young core of players. Or perhaps they concluded these players are not NHL ready.
But the Sharks problems are only indirectly related to their younger players. The team is playing badly because they are not playing together. Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been a turnover machine and sits at minus-8. Erik Karlsson rewired his game last season to play the Sharks style and was brilliant. He has regressed and his risk-reward choices have been bad, which is why he is also minus-8. Only Kevin Labanc, who sits at minus-10, is worse across the entire league. The younger players aren’t doing great, but the returning Sharks players are the most problematic.
The team’s passing, especially among forwards, is off. The forecheck is largely absent. The penalty kill is one of few areas the team has been acceptable, but the power play has been a full-fledged disaster (five games in, they’ve allowed as many goals as they’ve scored).
Marleau can help, but expecting him to be a frequent difference maker is a false hope. Plan B has begun, but there might be further veteran signings if younger players are unable to establish themselves at an NHL level.
The Change The San Jose Sharks Need
Head coach Peter DeBoer has received enormous criticism for his team looking out of sorts this season. I differ somewhat here. The team’s plan to go with younger players made sense. DeBoer played the younger players. It is early to have a full evaluation, but there’s been a lot of learning in a very short time. And unlike DeBoer’s history, he’s played these younger players meaningful minutes (except for defenceman Trevor Carrick, tenth on the defensive depth chart, who’s averaging a very meager six minutes a night).
Meanwhile, injuries to defencemen Radim Simek (suffered last season), Jacob Middleton, Tim Heed and Dalton Prout have left the blue line in a constant shuffle. Pairings are frequently sub-optimal and on occasion, downright bad. Add to this DeBoer’s preference to use just five defenders for much of the game (a strategy which has served the Sharks badly, time after time) and there’s a recipe for inconsistency. In five games, the Sharks have already used nine defencemen the same total they used all last season.
For all the criticisms levelled at DeBoer, one can’t be levelled. DeBoer’s system is not the problem. The Sharks are not playing the system DeBoer teaches. His is a defence-first system, allowing pressure to flow from other teams’ mistakes, as opposed to aggressively creating them. While it seems passive, the intent is to make it very tough to get easy scores against the Sharks. Minimize opponent’s high-grade opportunities and win by having better special teams, puck possession and superior talent. Thus far, almost all the scoring against San Jose has come from quick strikes. Odd-man rushes, turnovers and matador defence have been the culprits. Teams haven’t been grinding out goals, they’ve been seizing on Sharks mistakes. The sort DeBoer’s system, when played correctly, minimizes.
The Sharks can become competitive quickly if they return to the style of play used by last year’s team. It’s been the same style for the last four seasons. It works.
Plan B can help the San Jose Sharks, but playing the style of hockey DeBoer teaches will do much more to fix the team’s problems.
The Sharks committed to bringing Marleau on board before the game against the Nashville Predators (the team’s fourth of the season), but formally signed him after the game ended. This allowed Marleau to keep his consecutive games streak alive (789 games), currently the sixth-longest in NHL history. Consecutive games are only counted when a player is signed to an NHL team. Marleau ‘missed’ the season’s first four games, but it didn’t end his streak since he was not on an NHL roster for those games.
Patrick Marleau Main Photo:
SAN JOSE, CA – APRIL 22: Patrick Marleau #12 of the San Jose Sharks looks on during the game against the Edmonton Oilers in Game Six of the Western Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center on April 22, 2017 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images)