At the All-Star break, 48 games into the season, the fate of the 2014-2015 San Jose Sharks is still very much uncertain.
“Uncertainty,” it seems, is a synonym for other descriptors of the Sharks’ season — inconsistent, erratic, unpredictable — that has seen flashes of both brilliance and mediocrity.
Even before the season, an aura of uncertainty surrounded the Sharks. This is, after all, a team that finished last season tied for the fourth-most points in the league with 111 only to collapse into epic disaster against the Kings in the first round of the playoffs.
Despite the historic letdown, and calls for head coach Todd McLellan and GM Doug Wilson to be fired, for Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau to be traded, for a fire sale to take place, for a true “rebuilding” process to begin in San Jose, the Sharks did none of the above.
Instead, San Jose carried forward with a nearly identical roster and group of core players. And through 48 games, it would be futile to try and predict how the next 34 games will pan out, much less the postseason.
Consider the various streaks, the ebbs and flows that the team has gone through in each month:
|October||6-4-2||Won 3 Lost 4|
|December||9-3-1||Won 3 Won 5 Lost 3|
|January||5-4-1||Won 2 Lost 2 Won 2 Lost 2|
San Jose has already suffered three losing skids of three or more games through 48 games; last season, they had three in the entire 82-game campaign.
Some nights, the Sharks bring their “A-game” and beat quality opponents. Other nights, they play down to inferior teams. Their last two games epitomize their season: A 5-2 loss to the hapless Devils on Monday, followed by a 4-2 win over the defending champion Kings on Wednesday.
Yet, the Sharks still have the talent, the skill, and the ability to go on five-game winning streaks and beat teams such as the Kings, Ducks, Predators and Lightning.
Said head coach Todd McLellan after Wednesday night’s win over the Kings:
“The win, the score, everything we’re happy with. But what’s most satisfying is the competitiveness that we showed up with. We shouldn’t need to talk about it. But now that it was there through 20 players, it should go recognized. We have to capture that, prepare to bring it to the rink, after the break every night. Because it’s shaping up to be a very tight conference.”
It’s the same vernacular that McLellan has used in many a postgame press conference. If the Sharks lose, it’s because they lacked effort and competitiveness; if they win, it’s because they brought those intangibles and played to their potential.
The Sharks have the talent to compete against any given team on any given night, which makes it all the more frustrating when they lose to the Devils, Oilers or Sabres.
There’s no question the Sharks should be closer than 12 points behind the Ducks and more than one point ahead of the third-place Canucks. If the playoffs started today, the Sharks’ first-round opponent would be the Canucks, a team the Sharks swept in the postseason two years ago but has beaten the San Jose twice his season.
San Jose is also dangerously close to missing out on the playoffs entirely. The Sharks are only four points ahead of the Kings, who are ninth in the conference with 52 points. Another losing skid could plummet the Sharks into crisis mode, especially if it happens late in the season.
They can avoid that by becoming a more consistent team, but that is easier said than done. McLellan has experimented with many different line combinations and defensive pairings, trying to find the right fit and manage players’ streaks and slumps.
Patrick Marleau isn’t having a great offensive season by his standards, with just two goals in his last 20 games. Sophomore forwards Matt Nieto and Tomas Hertl — expected to increase their production — are instead having down years compared to their rookie seasons.
Tommy Wingels, a gritty winger, and Justin Braun, one of their top defensemen, are going to be out long-term with upper body injuries, which means more line-shuffling and adjustments that may continue until Game 82.
One constant has been special teams, where the Sharks remain a dangerous threat with Thornton patrolling the ice on the man-advantage. Joe Pavelski, in particular, is feasting on the power play with 12 goals, tied for first in the league. He and Thornton are big reasons why the Sharks have the eighth-best power play in the NHL.
But for every constant, there is a variable — and that is Brent Burns.
Burns, a mainstay on the power play and penalty kill, is a pivotal special teams player for the Sharks. The forward-turned-defenseman is a monster on offense with a booming slap shot and an arsenal of moves, but is a liability on defense, as evidenced by his minus-6 rating. He is a wild stallion, prone to turnovers and costly miscues. Yet, when he plays well, the Sharks are a force to be reckoned with.
Antti Niemi appears to have grabbed the No. 1 spot in between the pipes, starting 35 games to Alex Stalock‘s 11 after the pair began the season alternating starts. Yet, Stalock’s goals against average is just decimal points higher than that of Niemi, 2.65 compared to 2.57.
To keep rolling with Niemi, who has won a Stanley Cup, shows that the Sharks believe they can contend this season, that they are not ready to hand the reins to Stalock, a younger netminder who had a breakthrough year last season and has a bright future. Niemi is an unrestricted free agent this summer, so the Sharks appear to be willing to ride out this season with him and see where it leads them.
Ultimately, uncertainty surrounds the Sharks at every turn, at every pivotal sector. They are capable of climbing up in the standings and joining the ranks of the elite — where they have lived for much of the past decade — and that’s completely up to them.
It comes down to whether they have the right mindset to compete and play up to par with their talent level, or they try to be cute and get carried away. The former is the team they should be, the latter is the team that has shown up too many times this season.
So when the question “Is this the finally year for the Sharks?” is inevitably broached, the answer remains as ambiguous as it can be.
For a franchise that has failed to reach the pinnacle so many times and a fan base tortured with postseason letdown after postseason letdown, it would be something for the Sharks to sneak into the playoffs and do what the Kings did twice in the last three seasons: win the Cup with an underdog playoff run.
After what this team has endured — especially last season — they more than deserve that. And in doing so, they would remove the “uncertainty” label off their jerseys for a good, long time.