The San Jose Sharks season may well become a lost season, but there’s no reason to throw in the towel too early. Indeed, there are reasons to hope the Sharks can turn this season around.
San Jose Sharks Season Hopes
Around this time of year, things start to crystallize across the NHL and teams fall into one of three categories. There’s a group that knows they are going to the playoffs and this is the most fun group to be in. There’s a group that knows they aren’t going to the playoffs and there’s value in knowing this because it clarifies the approach needed for the rest of the season. And there’s the middle group, which have a shot at the playoffs but are not a sure thing.
The Sharks are currently in the middle group, though hanging by a thread. The most likely scenario (by a lot) is the thread gets cut within the next few weeks and the Sharks find themselves in the group not going to the playoffs.
Plenty is being written about what the Sharks should do next, writing off this season and suggesting they do the things teams do to reload for the future. Alas, while many are commenters are already there, the team isn’t. Nor should they be.
Reason 1: New Coach
The new regime, led by interim head coach Bob Boughner, has the Sharks playing differently. And more effectively. The team has been in every game under Boughner. They’ve been ahead in the middle of the third period in half the games, tied in most of the rest. They’ve only trailed twice in the middle of the third period, each time by a single goal. The standings don’t reflect this improvement since the Sharks have managed to cough up far too many late goals and undermine their mostly solid play.
Under the prior regime, the team was not competitive. They are now.
In the last five games, the Sharks have been highly competitive and done it against the league’s best and hottest teams. Mostly on the road. They’ve played the Columbus Blue Jackets twice and won both – these are the Jackets only regulation losses in their last 16 games. The Sharks beat the Pittsburgh Penguins. They lost in overtime to the Washington Capitals (coughing up a win by allowing two goals in the game’s final minute) and they lost to the St. Louis Blues in a very close game by a 3-2 score. The Caps, Blues and Pens records are first, second (tied) and fourth-best in the league.
Most recently, the Dallas Stars came to the Shark Tank. The return of Joe Pavelski resulted in a rare packed house. Pavelski received several ovations from a grateful fan base, including a long and loud one following a tribute video just prior to puck drop. Pavelski and the Stars entered as owners of a six-game win streak and the second-best record in the Western Conference. The Sharks snapped their Stars streak, emerging victorious in a tense, entertaining affair.
The Sharks are going toe-to-toe with the league’s best and holding their own. At home and on the road.
Reason 2: Changing the Goaltender
The Sharks’ prior regime brought down Martin Jones to the point Jones is among the league’s worst netminders. The same regime decided it wasn’t worth trying Aaron Dell. Bob Boughner decided it made sense to try Dell. The decision has paid off. Dell has been solid since taking the nets, performing like an NHL starter. Whether Dell holds up over an extended period is an open question, but he’s been good thus far. Genuinely good. Dell isn’t likely to wear down since he only took the starting job near the midpoint of the season. Furthermore, he’s in the last year of his contract, which gives him further incentive to play the best hockey of his life.
Reason 3: Younger Players
The Sharks tried a number of young players earlier in the season and most flamed out. This is par for the course. Young players often take an up and down path to get an NHL role. There’s little point putting a young player with potential on the NHL roster to play very limited minutes in a fourth-line role.
These players have one thing in common, they are on the steep part of the learning curve. Some may never climb it sufficiently, but perhaps some will. The team’s need is most significant at forward, right-wing in particular.
In total, the Sharks have skated 20 forwards this season. Nine of these have spent time in both the AHL and NHL this season. Only one seems to have made the jump, but even if just one or two others can, it will help the Sharks.
The team gave these players NHL experience early in the season. They can use the NHL experience to work on their games in the AHL. There’s a better chance these players can take the next step now than there was in October. Antti Suomela is the forward getting the long hard look currently, and while it is too soon to cast a verdict, he looks more effective than he was in his prior call-ups.
It is also worth mentioning one young player who made the NHL roster at the start of the season, defenceman Mario Ferraro. Ferraro has had mixed results this season, but he is playing better as the season progresses.
Reason 4: Recent Upgrades
Two players the Sharks added to the roster recently have given the Sharks a better fourth line. Stefan Noesen, claimed on waivers from the Pittsburgh Penguins, has been better than the players he moved out. Meanwhile, Swedish import Joel Kellman is NHL ready and has given the line a lift. He’s the lone forward who has made the jump from the AHL San Jose Barracuda to the Sharks.
While I’m reluctant to place too much emphasis on these additions, the team’s fourth line has been a disaster for most of the season. Noesen and Kellman haven’t turned the fourth line into a competitive advantage, but at least it’s better, which is a meaningful upgrade for this season’s team.
Reason 5: Pacific Division
Take the Sharks record and put it in the NHL’s Eastern Conference (either division) and the season is already over. The Shark reside in the Pacific Division and the bar is lower here. Substantially lower. Not only are the Sharks much closer to a playoff spot than they should be, several teams in front of them have limited experience in making a playoff push. Specifically, the Arizona Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers have combined for one playoff appearance in the last four seasons. These are not battle-tested teams.
Reason 6: Lots of Season Left
While there is plenty of reason for skepticism, there are a lot of games left to play. The deficit is significant and the Sharks sit 13th among teams in the Western Conference. But decisions on what to do with this season’s team do not need to get made until mid-February, 10-12 games away from now.
San Jose Sharks Season Turnaround Essential Ingredient
For the San Jose Sharks season to turn around, there is one essential. The team must play to their ability all game, every game. The team too often matches their opponent’s energy instead of pushing themselves to a higher level. Matching is not a formula for success – it is how a team loses close games to down and out opponents like the Los Angeles Kings and Detroit Red Wings. This has to stop.
San Jose Sharks Season and Playoff Chances
One good run and the Sharks will get close to the teams in front of them. They are playing well now and capable of this sort of run.
There’s still a difficult schedule in front of them over the next few weeks. Failure to make substantial progress in the standings will clarify the team’s position before the trade deadline. Between now and February 10, the Sharks play six games against Pacific Division rivals ahead of them in the standings. The trade deadline is March 1, so the team has an opportunity. Get hot now and things could be vastly different in just a few weeks.
Make no mistake, a Sharks turnaround which results in a playoff spot is a longshot. There is no point in denying reality. But at this moment, reality still has the door cracked open.
The Sharks have found a solid formula and the team is playing well. The power play is working, the netminding is better, and the team is more competitive at even strength. None of this was true a month ago, before the coaching change.
The overall picture may be bleak, but it is too early to write of this San Jose Sharks season. Because as we’ve seen time and again. If you make the Stanley Cup playoffs, anything can happen.
A medical issue ended the playing career of John McCarthy. McCarthy had a few brief stints with the Sharks, but spent most of his career leading the Sharks AHL teams, including as captain of the San Jose Barracuda. McCarthy was quickly given a role on the Barracuda coaching staff. Among his career highlights, he was a member of US Olympic Team in 2018.
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