Veteran Andrew Cogliano, just 30 games into his first season in San Jose, has proven to be an eloquent spokesman for the Sharks.
“We just have to be more desperate. We’re in a situation now where we’ve given some games back. And in a race that there’s a lot of teams in,” he acknowledged after the San Jose Sharks dropped a 5-2 decision to the Vancouver Canucks. “Our will to win needs to increase here.”
This jibes with what an NHL scout told me while watching the Sharks lose their last game 3-1 to the cellar-dwelling Seattle Kraken: “They’re letting them hang around.”
After beating the Dallas Stars 2-1 on Saturday, San Jose was riding high after kicking off their homestand with two victories, the other against the Pacific Division-leading Calgary Flames. Their lone loss was to Central-leading Minnesota Wild.
This was the way to start a 24-day stretch, starting Dec. 7, where the San Jose Sharks would play nine home games and just one road game, Dec. 27 at Anaheim. So for 24 days, the Sharks weren’t going to leave California.
This was a golden opportunity for San Jose to truly establish themselves in the Western Conference playoff race.
But now, they’ve dropped back-to-back games against clubs that are chasing them.
Can the San Jose Sharks beat back this tide of mediocrity to finish December? They’ll see Vancouver again, along with the Edmonton Oilers, Arizona Coyotes, and Philadelphia Flyers at SAP Center. There’s also that aforementioned road trip to Anaheim.
Speaking of tonight’s game, Bob Boughner admitted, “We probably needed a save earlier that we didn’t get and sometimes that’s demoralizing too. You’re sitting on the bench, thinking you’re carrying the play, and you’re chasing the game.”
It’s a fair assessment of last night’s loss. For example, the Sharks managed to hold the Canucks off the shot counter for 13 minutes in the middle frame. And yes, San Jose didn’t finish their chances — but goaltender Adin Hill did not come up with a big save either.
Leave him open in this spot and this is going to continue to happen! pic.twitter.com/nKJFG51tq1
— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) December 17, 2021
It’s Brock Boeser. It’s also, you need a big save at some point too.
That's gotta be a dispiriting second period for #SJSharks — more chances, 12-5 shots, lose ground in the game
— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) December 17, 2021
After the defeat, Hill now is sporting a .900 Save %. That’s the second-worst Save % in the NHL for a goalie who’s started 15 or more games.
On the flip side, James Reimer’s .936 is the second-best in the league.
It’s not time to give up on Hill though.
Not that the San Jose Sharks have much choice about the matter: Reimer has never played in more than 44 games in a season, so counting on the 33-year-old to carry you for an entire year is probably not the most prudent bet.
Hill has flashed the talent that got San Jose to send a second-round pick to Arizona for him over the summer. But can he find some consistency? If he were to, it wouldn’t be the first time that a goalie has turned it around after the 30-game mark in San Jose Sharks history.
In 1997-98, Mike Vernon was sitting at a .873 Save % through 30 games — Vernon ended up with an .896 and an eighth-place finish in the Vezina Trophy voting.
It was a different era for save percentages.
More recently, in 2010-11, Antti Niemi limped out to an .896 through 30 games — Niemi ended up with a .920 and an eighth-place finish in the Vezina Trophy voting.
Besides matching Vezina voting results, Vernon and Niemi were also in their first seasons in San Jose.
So hopefully, Hill, also making his debut in teal, can get comfortable, and follow Vernon and Niemi’s paths.
In defense of the embattled Hill, his penalty killers didn’t do him any favors by allowing this seam pass through to Bo Horvat.
Bar down and in off the captain's hot stick 🔥🏒 pic.twitter.com/q4jyHE1hYM
— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) December 17, 2021
The once league-leading Sharks PK has taken on a little water, killing just 79.4 % in their last 15 contests.
Cogliano, however, spoke up for this group: “I’m very confident in our penalty kill. I think [assistant coach John Madden] does a great job with how we kill.
“We kill very aggressively. We try not to let teams pass around and make plays.
“We have guys that are really committed and everybody really cares.”
Maybe, like the Sharks in general, the PK is just in a little slump.
Finally, and in perhaps the biggest sea change of the night, Boughner flip-flopped his top defensive pairings, placing Mario Ferraro with Erik Karlsson and Jake Middleton with Brent Burns.
“You’re just looking for offense at that point in time. We’ve scored two goals in five periods, almost six periods,” Boughner said. “Just looking for different looks to see if we can create offensively.”
It didn’t amount to much tonight, but could this be something we see going forward?
“Yeah, we’ve been talking a little bit about that. You know, just having a different look,” Boughner admitted.
My initial thought: I know the underlying numbers are a little ugly, but I think Ferraro is the Sharks’ top defensive defenseman. And Burns, to his credit, has done his best to become a defense-first rearguard.
I wrote about Burns’s drop in Offensive Zone Faceoffs at 5-on-5 last season — and that imbalanced ratio still applies this year.
So essentially, because of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Erik Karlsson’s declines over the years, Ferraro-Burns has had to become San Jose’s de facto shutdown pair. Especially last season, there was no way that you were trusting Karlsson with a heavy defensive load. So they gave Karlsson more OZ faceoffs, to try to cater to that part of Karlsson’s game.
It’s a new year though, and there are signs that Karlsson is starting to regain his two-way dominance of yore (not last night though, he was awful) — so Ferraro-Karlsson could conceivably be the new shutdown hotness and undisputed top pairing, and Middleton-Burns could soak up all the extra OZ Faceoffs that Karlsson had been getting.
Or Ferraro-Karlsson and Middleton-Burns could be a more balanced top-four, playing about equal minutes and getting an even share of offensive and defensive zone starts.
Karlsson’s re-emergence does offer that option.
Boughner will have a lot of time to contemplate this: The Sharks’ next game is Tuesday against these same Canucks.
This unusually long in-season break would be about the right time to implement some significant changes.
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