The 2014 season may be the last chance for the San Jose Sharks current core group of players to prove that they can win the Stanley Cup. Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle and Joe Pavelski will all be free agents heading into the offseason, and it could be tough for Doug Wilson to re-sign them all. Despite not winning the cup, the Sharks have tons of talent and have always put a competitive team on the ice. They have as good a shot as any to win it all this year, but in order to do so, it would help to make some changes.
Take more risks
When you think of the Sharks you probably picture their offensive talent, with the likes of Marleau, Pavelski and Logan Couture coming to mind. In fact, besides Dan Boyle it may be tough to name their other defensemen. Considering their offensive star power and their lack of notable names on the blue line, it’s odd that they allowed the seventh fewest goals in the NHL, but scored the 22nd fewest. In my opinion this discrepancy is a result of the style of play that Todd McLellan preaches. The Sharks play a board style game and try to minimize mistakes in the defensive zone by rarely ever using the center of the ice. Although this reduces turnovers, it also makes it harder on the forwards to gain space and speed when trying to create breakouts. A lot of the time they simply jam the puck through the other team’s forwards on the boards, get it out to center ice and change lines. They need to start utilizing the center of the ice to help with the breakouts, which will result in not only more possession, but also more scoring chances.
Taking risks is also important in the offensive zone. When the Sharks play a high scoring team like the Chicago Blackhawks, they get pinned in their own zone by the Hawk’s defensemen, who pinch at the blue line. However, what the Sharks do too often is take the safe route and pull their defensemen back to center ice, allowing the puck to leave the zone. Simply put, they need to generate more sustained pressure. Plus, the Sharks have fast defensemen who have the ability to get back in position if they do make a mistake playing aggressively.
Give line combos a chance
Although it’s smart to mix up lines to account for injuries or inconsistent play, the Sharks change lines way too often. It does not allow their forwards to build chemistry and this is evident from the scoring, or lack thereof in the regular season and playoffs. I’ve seen McLellan switch up lines which have been hot for several games, based on one bad period. All players and lines have scoring slumps, but it’s important for them to get through these rather than change the lines. When forwards play with each for an extended period of time, they start to learn about each other’s tendencies and communication improves. Last year it seemed like Marleau played with every single forward on their roster, which in my opinion made it difficult for him to gain momentum offensively. I understand that creating the most effective line combos is a huge part of coaching in the NHL, but it’s important that McLellan does not over coach and prevent his forwards the chance to gel with one another.
Not just the stars
The star players on the Sharks tend to receive the majority of the criticism for a failed playoff run. The problem with this is that their stars usually have productive regular and post seasons, and it’s the role players that tend to come up short. Although the stars like Thornton and Marleau make the big bucks and are expected to lead the team, they cannot do it on their own. The Sharks need secondary scoring, and until they receive that, they will have a tough time bringing the cup home to San Jose. Assuming the Sharks top two lines consist of Thornton, Marleau, Couture, Martin Havlat, Raffi Torres and Brent Burns, Pavelski will be able to center the third line. If newcomer Ian Kennedy plays up to his abilities, the third line should provide plenty of secondary scoring. Also, the fourth line, which could very well consist of Tomas Hertl, Tommy Wingels and Andrew Desjardins, has a ton of young talent that can put up points. Its promising that the Sharks have strayed away from the slow, enforcer type players on their roster and have filled in those spots with younger and faster talent. Production from the third and fourth lines will not only help win regular season games, but it will allow McLellan to keep his stars fresh for the playoffs.
It’s highly probable that all of the changes I am hoping for will not be made. McLellan may choose to shuffle lines five times a game, or implement a New Jersey Devils style of offense (meaning, no offense). Furthermore, the third and fourth lines may put up lousy numbers and the stars could once again be forced to carry the load. However, even if all of this happens, the Sharks still have a chance to win the cup. They have played this way for several years and have always competed for the finals, along the way giving their fans hope until the team runs into a hot goalie or an awkward overtime bounce. My point is that if they can alter their style of play slightly to allow their talent to take over, and rely less on a predetermined system, they may find it easier to break free in a tough series and finally reach the cup finals.