By Stu Hackel
The San Jose Sharks lost again on Tuesday night, their fifth straight defeat, this time to the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Hey, that’s four wins in a row for T.O. — waffles for everybody!)
So are the Sharks just playing it coy, hiding among the plankton, getting ready to attack in the playoffs, trying a new approach after years of being a top team only to be ousted early each postseason?
Well, first, they have to make the playoffs. Right now, the Sharks are 11th in the Western Conference (tied for ninth in points, but with more games-played than the Kings and Wild). While they’re only two points out of eighth, these are not the waters in which the Sharks are accustomed to swimming. And it’s not certain that they will be moving up, either.
But let’s discuss the importance of the regular season, because the idea that teams can take it easy until the spring and then turn it on is something of a fiction.
In speaking over the years with a number of former NHL coaches, Scotty Bowman, Roger Neilson, Fred Shero, Harry Neale, Jean Perron and Pierre McGuire among them, the distinct impression they’ve imparted is that you don’t want your team ever treating the regular season lightly. For these coaches — and for every bench boss at this level who hopes to keep his job, and that includes the Sharks’ Todd McLellan — there are no games off.
This is something that the CBC’s Elliotte Friedman discovered and wrote about in his blog Monday after he was chided by Mike Babcock for saying that the Red Wings’ match against Vancouver on Saturday was a big game.
“Every game’s a big game,” Babcock admonished. “What, you don’t think we wanted to beat Dallas last game? That wasn’t a big game?”
“Won’t make that mistake again,” Friedman wrote.
Why? Because the regular season is where teams create and learn the habits that will allow them to succeed in the playoffs. In practices and team meetings, coaches stress adherence to their systems, repeatedly drilling the players to execute the game plan they feel will succeed. Coaches repeat these lessons on the bench during the games, emphasizing what their team is doing right and wrong, tweaking when necessary, but trying to get the best out of the players on a nightly basis. The purpose of it all is for these things to become second nature in the postseason.
Of course, all coaches have their own way of getting their players to work hard every game and every practice, and the methods sometimes succeed. Sometimes they get tuned out. Some are players’ coaches, some are disciplinarians, and neither type has a monopoly on success. But regardless, the idea that a team can ease its way into the playoffs and then turn it on when the games matter most is an anathema to them all. Coaches don’t believe it works. The way you practice and play in the regular season is the way you’ll play in mid-April — if you are still playing in mid-April.
It always doesn’t work out that way, as we all know. You can have a great regular season and then be undone by any number of tangibles and intangibles: injuries, poor goaltending, inexplicably sub par performances by key players, a style of play that works in the regular season but is not adaptable to playoff hockey, even a bad bounce that sets the team reeling and creates an inability by the suddenly uncertain players or their panicky coach to calm the situation and get things back on track. That’s how a promising regular season can end in disappointment.
Disappointment defines the Sharks’ playoff history. It’s not a new tale. Even the mighty Red Wings, who make regular season excellence a habit, have had their early-round playoff failures, and, ironically, the Sharks have sometimes been the David that has slain the Goliath.
But now disappointment could arrive earlier. As David Pollak writes in The San Jose Mercury News, “Through 43 games, the reality is that San Jose has lost its status as an elite NHL team….San Jose is on pace to finish the season with 90 points — not the 113 of last season or the 117 of the one before that. And that is a significant drop.”
Last season, the Sharks scored an average of 3.13 goals per game and gave up 2.43. This season, their goals-for and against are nearly equal, 121 for and 122 against for an average of 2.72 each game. McLellan has been critical of his team’s overall defensive game, although not his “Nemo and Nitty” goalie tandem of Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki.
The Sharks are still not a very fast team, and the NHL is increasingly about speed. Pollak lists some other major contributing factors in San Jose’s decline. The Sharks big three forwards — Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley – are not producing as they have in the past and haven’t spent as much time in offensive zone, their once-effective forecheck seemingly missing in action.
The team’s inconsistency — the Sharks have beaten some of the NHL’s best teams, but not some of the weaker ones — can be traced to an inconsistent work ethic, which McLellan has frequently cited this season and the players are now recognizing. Pollak quotes GM Doug Wilson saying “You show what you’re capable of against some very good teams, (but) you have to deliver that type of detail in your game on a night-to-night basis irregardless of whom you’re playing because of the parity in this league, particularly in the Western Conference.”
And some of that comes down to the team’s internal leadership. Pollak mentions these Sharks have undergone some roster changes, Rob Blake now retired and Manny Malhotra is in Vancouver. But he only notes what their absence has cost the team on the ice, with a diminished physical presence and in the faceoff circle. Similarly in his column on what’s wrong the Sharks, Mark Purdy of The Mercury-News even writes that Blake and Malhotra (and goalie Evgeni Nabokov) “have been replaced in decent fashion.”
But what their absence has meant in the dressing room can’t be ignored. Blake and Malhotra were the conscience of the Sharks, highly respected by their peers when they urged more from them. Whoever replaced them in the Sharks’ constellation had a tough act to follow.
Purdy has his own theory. He writes that the vibe around the Sharks is different. Last year, eight of them went to the Olympics and, “the dressing room was full of quiet and palpable pride about that. On the ice, the Sharks’ play reeked of confidence and jump.”
The big three forwards were motivated to be Olympians and that, in turn, made the Sharks go. This year, with no Olympics, only defenseman Dan Boyle was selected for the All-Star Game, while Logan Couture will be in the rookie skills competition.
But that wouldn’t explain why the “Thwarted Three,” as he calls them, had good seasons prior to the Olympics.
“Theories are like $8.25 beers,” Purdy writes. “Every hockey arena has them.”