NHL

Sharks must avoid stints of sluggish play to succeed in 2014-15

Tommy Wingels hit the nail right on the head when he spoke to the media following the Sharks preseason loss to the LA Kings.

“I think we looked fatigued. I think every guy in here will tell you that we’re not fatigued. But we played that style. When you play that way, you’re late to pucks, you’re late to scrums, and you don’t have success.”

It was true. Just as it was in Round 1 of last season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. No guy in the Sharks dressing room wants to admit to playing lethargically, yet they didn’t look awake for a full 60 minutes of hockey.

And, unfortunately, this case of appearing to “snooze on the job” doesn’t only strike when San Jose faces LA. We saw it during the 2013-2014 regular season as well, when the Sharks were unable to win home games against non-playoff-contending teams. The Sharks have a stacked roster, yet were losing late-season tilts on home ice to teams like the Florida Panthers.

Now Team Teal can start anew, put the embarrassing playoff collapse and long arduous summer behind them and start a new season. Well, you know, after they sit and wait in the Staples Center dressing room while the Kings raise their championship banner.

But how are they going to completely move on if the issue of falling asleep at the wheel is still an issue?

We will see if the new, young additions to the roster are of any help. True, the Sharks are rolling out the same top two offensive lines that they did for the bulk of last season. But the younger set which emerged from training camp to make the NHL club could be the fire underneath San Jose’s skates. Forwards Chris Tierney and Barclay Goodrow beat out more seasoned prospects for spots on the opening night roster. (Granted, Goodrow will enter the season on IR with a hand injury, but he isn’t expected to be out long.) The Goodrow-Tierney combo showed promise during exhibition play, even picking up steam and producing on the penalty kill during the second stanza of the Sharks-Kings meet-up. Newly-acquired Tye McGinn, who the Sharks snatched from the Flyers to fill the void left by Raffi Torres, could be the gritty boost the offense needs. During an impressive camp the 24-year-old winger showed that he can also be a productive agitator, something San Jose needs with Torres on long-term injured reserve. Defenseman Mirco Mueller continued to build up confidence during the preseason, and his ability to think quickly could benefit a Sharks blue line that doesn’t consistently give their goalie any cushion.

But it isn’t just the newbies who have the ability to lift the Sharks out of their fatigue-plagued style of play. This whole process of turning the team over to the younger set includes looking to the greener members of last season’s roster to take on leadership roles. The Sharks are, for starters, expecting Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto to take on more responsibilities in their sophomore campaigns. Both have been building on those expectations since developmental camp back in July and have secured spots on the Sharks top two lines. But San Jose is also looking to Wingels, who was signed to a three-year contract extension over the offseason, to create chemistry and lead the young set, bringing energy and leadership to the bottom six.

Okay so we have new blood on offense and the blue line. Is that what it takes for the Sharks to shake off the looming lethargy?

Difficulty staying in the game for a full 60 minutes was a problem in the goalie’s net too. Antti Niemi’s level of play dipped as the last season continued on, and his habit of letting soft goals in past him became more and more of a regularity. Alex Stalock on the other hand continued to gain confidence down the stretch, appearing to be a more dependable netminder than his veteran teammate. The Sharks signed Stalock to a contract extension in the offseason, showing that San Jose is looking to give him more opportunities to earn the starting job. He also had a better camp, going 2-1-0 with a 1.68 GAA and .915 save percentage; Niemi registered a 0-1-2 preseason record with a 2.23 GAA and .909 save percentage. One would think that the more impressive camp would put the lively Stalock between the pipes over a still seemingly sluggish Niemi. However the 27-year-old still wasn’t a lock to start opening night in Los Angeles, making it look as though the starting goaltender position is still very much in question.

Which brings us to the questions about the Sharks team chemistry and change in captaincy that are still hanging in the air as the Sharks prepare to start their 2014-2015 run. While the majority of the roster is the same, the culture of the dressing room is still a bit unknown. The players quickly dismiss rumors of locker room friction — their responses to interview questions on the matter have been soaked with hostility since training camp opened back on September 19. Yet the team is still entering the new season with not one but two former captains in the dressing room — remember, Patrick Marleau has now been stripped of both a ‘C’ and an ‘A’ during his tenure in Teal — and a locker room in need of establishing new identity. News that the team took a weekender together as a “bonding” experience certainly sounds promising for repairing a fragile locker room mentality. But again, we won’t know if those bonds are being repaired or not until the season gets underway, or how much of an effect it has on San Jose’s energy level on the ice.

Just looking at all the things that San Jose has to implement to bounce back and put last season’s cataclysmic end in the rearview mirror is enough to make you tired. We’ll see if they can put these tools to use and get over the habit of “playing fatigued.” Heck maybe all they need is to sit in the visiting locker room on October 8 and listen to the LA crowd cheers as they celebrate the Kings Stanley Cup championship; that’s one way to wake a team up.

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