Just one month into the 2019-20 season, the San Jose Sharks season sits on the brink. The team’s record is 4-10-1, which is six games below even. The last time the Sharks were five games below even was all the way back in the 2002-03 season. That season, not coincidentally, was the last time the team fired a coach mid-season. Following the season, the team also replaced the general manager. Is Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer on the hot seat? Absolutely. Is general manager Doug Wilson on a similarly hot seat? Doubtful. His job is less dependent on a bad month.
The Window of Opportunity
Truth be told, the Sharks have had stretches this bad in recent seasons. In March 2019 and March 2017, the team had stretches which were actually worse. In both occurrences, though, the team was already set for a playoff spot when they hit the skids. This is not the case now.
The Sharks have a window of opportunity in front of them. They have two weak opponents in their next two games. First up are the Chicago Blackhawks, followed by the Minnesota Wild. Both games are at home, as are eight of the 12 games which follow. The Sharks play a few of the league’s weaker teams in this upcoming stretch; twice playing the Los Angeles Kings and another match-up coming against the Detroit Red Wings. These are five very winnable games. The Sharks will need to do more than win these five, but it does give the team a fighting chance to become competitive again.
Peter DeBoer in Trouble
While the Sharks have a window of opportunity, it is a small window. The team will not sacrifice this season and a turnaround must occur soon. The downside scenario appears obvious. A failure to progress is going to force changes and Peter DeBoer is at the front of the line.
Can DeBoer make meaningful moves and alter his fate? Yes. Will he? We’ll find out, but he can do more than juggle lines and adjust ice time. Let’s explore some of the modest moves with the potential for immediate impact.
The Sharks are anticipating the return of defenceman Radim Simek, possibly as early as Tuesday’s game against the Blackhawks. Last season, Simek suffered a knee injury and required surgery. Now he is very close to making his NHL return. He just completed a two-game conditioning assignment with the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda. While Simek isn’t a major piece, last season he brought excellent chemistry with defensive partner Brent Burns. Simek’s availability will allow the Sharks flexibility in their pairings. Last season, the pairings of Brenden Dillon with Erik Karlsson, Marc-Edouard Vlasic with Tim Heed and Burns with Simek each had a ‘goals for’ rating of over 60%.
Alas, this approach would bench rookie defenceman Mario Ferraro, one of the team’s few bright spots, making this unlikely. It is worth noting the Sharks have spent most of the season with only six NHL-worthy defencemen. The organization has eight in total, but with Simek and Dalton Prout both injured, flexibility has been limited. The organization’s ninth defenceman, Jacob Middleton, is also out injured. Tenth defenceman Trevor Carrick has played a few games, but is clearly overmatched at the NHL level.
Odd Man Out
Simek’s return creates flexibility. Whether he is truly ready is an open question. If he is (and perhaps even if he isn’t), the odd man out is likely Heed, a frequent resident of DeBoer’s doghouse. But the right-handed Heed has a history of playing forward and moving him to right wing might work for both player and team. Right wing is, by far, the team’s weakest position (after losing three in the offseason, Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist). Heed can help in an area the team needs help while giving himself a chance to get out of the coach’s doghouse.
It wouldn’t be as dramatic as moving Burns to wing (he was an elite NHL winger several years ago), but Burns isn’t changing positions at this point.
Changes in Net
The Sharks have limited cap space, but it is possible they can make a move in goal. Barracuda goalie Josef Korenar is off to an impressive start, including a pair of shutouts. Neither current Sharks netminder, Aaron Dell or Martin Jones, is off to an impressive start. Whether the 21-year-old Korenar is NHL ready is a different question. One which might get tested shortly.
With the team constrained by salary cap issues, there are few options at forward which amount to much. The Sharks have players who can be traded. Unfortunately, Dillon is probably near the top of the list. He is one of the few Sharks who is having a respectable season. Dillon would command a healthy return and create cap space, both essential to getting another capable forward.
Deciding The Fate Of Peter DeBoer
If the moves discussed seem like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, there’s a reason for this. Talent is not the Sharks core problem, execution is. The team has been outskated most every game. The one anomaly came against the Winnipeg Jets, when the Sharks outskated them in a big way – and still managed to lose. The Sharks play fell back the next night when they were, once again, outskated by their opponent.
Unless and until the team decides to play within the systems the coaches have laid out, the team can expect to struggle. Fairly or not, the coaches, specifically Peter DeBoer, will be held accountable. If DeBoer has genuinely ‘lost’ the team, it is time for him to go. If the team can find its way – and find it quickly – then both the coach and the season may be salvaged. But time is of the essence. Right now, too many aspects of this Sharks team should be considered day-to-day.