The San Jose Sharks Are Done Tanking
For the second time this calendar year, the San Jose Sharks have started the season with no regulation losses. Back in January they followed up a dominant start with seven consecutive losses to crash back to .500. They won’t fall victim to the same mistakes again.
Through nine games, Todd McLellan‘s teal terror has rolled to he NHL’s best record, and they’ve made it look easy. The Dallas Stars needed a shootout to hand the Sharks their only loss of the season. The Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings were the only other teams to come close. The Sharks have won their other six games by three or more goals.
San Jose hasn’t been bowling over cupcakes either. Six of their eight victories have come over 2013 playoff teams. Their signature win was a 9-2 drubbing of Henrik Lundqvist and the defensively stout New York Rangers.
That contest introduced the world to the NHL’s brightest young star: Tomas Hertl. The Czech youngster arrived in the States as a Calder favorite, but his four goal explosion against the Rangers made him a viral phenomenon. In addition to picking up hockey’s best nickname, the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Hertl” potted seven goals in his first eight NHL games. He remains tied with Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Alexander Steen for the league goal-scoring lead.
While Hertl has made-off with the attention of the hockey world, people might overlook the fact that two other Sharks are also part of the six-way tie atop the scoring table. Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski have both struck seven times in the early going.
Marleau scored nine times in his first five games last season, but a precipitous drop off left him with just 17 in late April. He scored just once in his final sixteen games, becoming the face of the Sharks’ inconsistency. Pavelski was just as mercurial. He posted 12 points in seven January games, but he needed 30 games to add his next 12.
So what’s changed since San Jose’s 2-6-4 February nightmare?
For starters, the Sharks only have to play the Chicago Blackhawks once in their next twelve games. The Stanley Cup Champions handed the Sharks three losses last February, but strength of schedule was only part of the problem.
Hubris hit the Sharks hard last season, and that won’t happen again. With experience to guide them, this team won’t take their first ranked offense for granted. They won’t start to get too cute, and they won’t be so easily frustrated when the red light stops flashing so frequently.
More importantly, they are a much deeper team then they used to be. While the Sharks remain star-studded at the top of the depth chart with the likes of Joe Thornton and Logan Couture continuously dishing out helpers, the bottom-six has been beefed up.
In addition to six players averaging more than a point per game, there are four guys with more than half a point per contest. Tommy Wingels is nearly half way to a career year in his third NHL season, and rookie Matt Nieto has been very effective in limited minutes.
Justin Braun‘s emergence as a top-pairing defenseman has also been a pleasant surprise for fans in Silicon Valley. A seventh rounder back in 2007, Braun has become San Jose’s minutes-leader. While playing roughly 21 minutes per game, he has racked up a plus-10 rating.
Braun’s conservative play on the top-pairing has nicely complemented the explosive forwards, especially considering offensive-defenseman Brent Burns has made his move to forward permanent.
Though much has changed since the abridged 2013 season, one thing has stayed exactly the same. That constant is Antti Niemi in net. A Vezina Trophy finalist last season, the 30-year-old has been predictably elite as he chases the starting job for Finland’s Olympic squad. That competition, which features Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne and Kari Lehtonen, is bringing out his very best.
The Sharks haven’t missed the playoffs since 2003, and their postseason streak will inevitably continue this spring. After falling short so many times, San Jose has turned a corner. Though they have made a habit of teasing fans with early success before stumbling in the clutch, their mentality seems to have changed.
Having now learned every possible lesson about let-downs, the Sharks will hang on to their killer instinct this winter and into the summer. The growing desperation of aging stars like Marleau and Thornton, the youthful spark of Couture and Hertl, and the proven puck-stopping of Niemi might finally get this team over the top.
They have the early edge in a very competitive Pacific Division, and realignment will force them to keep the pedal to the metal if they intend to win it. The Kings, Ducks, and Canucks better beware, these Sharks smell blood.