Empty seats send signal to struggling Sharks

Sellout crowds have long been the norm for San Jose Sharks games – 17,562 fans filing into SAP Center on a nightly basis to watch one of the league’s most dominant home teams.

So when three of the Sharks’ seven home games this season– including their last two – didn’t sell out snapping a streak of 205 consecutive sellouts, and when they are the only team in the West to have a below-.500 record at home thus far, questions have to be raised.

Correlation is not necessarily causation, but the team’s subpar start — coupled with the lingering effects of last season’s playoff debacle — has turned away some fans.

Indeed, the Sharks reported a dip in season ticket renewals before the season started. On Saturday night, a non-sellout crowd of 17,297 watched listlessly as the Sharks dug themselves a 2-0 deficit against the Coyotes and left quietly after Antoine Vermette scored the game-winning goal in the shootout for Arizona.

If the first quarter of the season has been any indication, expect similar non-sellout nights in San Jose in the future. The Sharks’ five losses at home this season have been to the Blue Jackets, Sabres, Canucks, Panthers, and Coyotes.

The Blue Jackets and Sabres are tied for the fewest points in the NHL, and the Panthers and Coyotes are the second-worst teams in their respective divisions.

In past years, these are teams the Sharks would have beaten with ease at home, where they would prey against weaker and weary Eastern Conference opponents not acclimated to the time change. But times are a-changin’ in San Jose.

The Sharks have shown through 23 games that they are not nearly the dominant regular season team we are accustomed to seeing, and management may be slowly but surely realizing that as well.

For all the offseason talk about a “rebuild” and giving the youngsters more playing time, the Sharks’ roster has not entirely embraced that notion until recently.

Last week’s trade of struggling Jason Demers to the Stars for Brenden Dillon, a defenseman with more upside and less mileage, may well have been the tip of the iceberg.

Shortly afterwards, seldom-used veteran forward Adam Burish was waived and novice defenseman Matt Tennyson was called up from Worcester to, in principle, take over Burish’s roster spot, but he will likely replace Scott Hannan on the third defensive pairing.

Hannan, at 35 years of age and over 1,000 games played, is still a serviceable stay-at-home defenseman, but the Sharks know what they are going to get from him. They are willing to sacrifice Hannan’s experience on the blue line to allow Tennyson to develop at the NHL level.

In case you weren’t keeping count, that’s two veterans – Demers and Burish – sent packing, and a third – Hannan – likely pushed out of regular playing time to make room for younger players.

That’s the message the Sharks’ front office sent from day one of the offseason. They foreshadowed more changes by shipping away Martin Havlat and Dan Boyle, but they appear to be further embracing the youth movement.

Nine of the Sharks’ next 11 games will be played at home, a pivotal stretch for them to gain ground and make up for a mediocre start to the season. We’ll find out a lot about this team in these next 11 games.

Are they contenders, or will the flounder on the fringe of a playoff spot? If this middling play continues, will the front office clean house? Is Todd McLellan’s job on the line?

Fans will pay to watch a winning team – the winning team that they are accustomed to seeing. Fans won’t pay money to see the likes of Dillon or Barclay Goodrow play, as young and promising as they might be.

It appears, at this rate, Sharks fans may have to get used to the latter option. And if so, prepare for more empty seats at the Shark Tank.


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