If there’s a silver lining to the Sharks’ 3-1 loss to the Dallas Stars on Saturday night, it’s that the SAP Open road trip is finally over and the team is headed back home. Beyond that, there’s nothing of value to pull from the defeat. Sure, the penalty kill was solid yet again and Antti Niemi continued to be the only reason why San Jose even hung around, but holding your opponents to two tallies a night won’t help you win when you can’t put up three of your own. The Sharks’ signature over the last several years was their offense, but now it’s gone and the fundamental problems with the team remain the reason why they’re stuck in the mud yet again.
The Sharks’ issues run deeper than just scoring. Every team sport is connected like an infinity symbol, with one loop feeding off of the other. While the defense has been solid protecting it’s own end, it hasn’t been strong moving the puck into the attack. Teams have been clogging up the Sharks in the neutral zone, and when entries fall flat there’s no hope of setting up and scoring. The offense needs the defense if it has any hope, and yet the defense needs the offense if the Sharks want to be anything more than a .500 team.
What’s even more alarming is how the Sharks’ effort has waned. A small handful of players appear more and more frustrated with the team’s failure, and even fewer are handling it well. While Ryane Clowe is watching the game on the couch and waiting for his discipline hearing, Joe Thornton is the only Shark willing to drop the gloves and tell his team to get it together with his fists. It puts the team’s most valuable scorer in the penalty box serving fighting majors while the Sharks miss the message, surrendering momentum from the fight to their opponent.
The team as a whole appears to lose energy and a willingness to battle when things don’t go their way. There’s a disconnect, with players either playing out of their roles or not living up to them. The captain has been the spark twice on this road trip, while players like Adam Burish take up important on-ice minutes and secede offensive possessions. The fundamental aspects of hockey — the type of things teams like the Stars or Blue Jackets do well in beating the Sharks — are exactly the tasks seemingly above some of the Sharks players. It’s too early in the season to be tired. It’s too early in the season to give up. And yet it’s the only way to describe the way this team is playing: tired and submissive.
The hot start the Sharks got off to in January wasn’t entirely a facade. This team has talent. It could certainly use some more — the third and fourth lines are scoring anemically and even moving Thornton to the second line couldn’t help Martin Havlat find his way — and they still may add some before the trading deadline in April. It’s just hard to picture the Sharks suddenly finding their stride simply by returning to the comfy confines of The Tank. The answers to the team’s problems don’t simply lie in familiar zip codes.
I wondered aloud before this season began whether Todd McLellan would be on the hot seat. He’s been one of the most successful regular season coaches in hockey since coming to San Jose, but then that’s always been the rub on the Sharks, hasn’t it? Regular season champions. They even have a banner for it hanging in the rafters at HP Pavilion. The guys insisted McLellan’s job would be safe, but at this point I’m not so sure anyone’s job with the Sharks is safe. Big changes could be coming, and they may start with the man behind the bench.
McLellan has altered just about every aspect of the team that could possibly be altered. All of the line juggling and AHL call-ups have been like Band Aids in a bathtub. providing momentary fixes before ultimately proving to be no match against an even larger problem. No, the solution has to go above McLellan’s head now, in the form of a major trade or a head coaching change. There’s talent still to be utilized on the San Jose Sharks, but as the team stands now, it’s wasting away.