They’ve been searching like crazy, but it seems the Sharks are running out of answers. Brent Burns returned from his most recent injury to find himself skating on a forward line with Scott Gomez and James Sheppard. By the third period he was moved onto the top line with Logan Couture and Joe Thorton. Although Burns came up in the Wild organization as a forward, he certainly wasn’t brought to the Sharks to be one. The move signaled desperation, and although it paid off in the form of a second period goal, it wasn’t nearly enough to help the Sharks overcome the Blues in their 4-2 loss on Tuesday night.
Early in the season people talked about a regression to the mean in terms of slowed power play production and a return to mortality for Patrick Marleau. The Sharks have fallen far beyond that point now. In their 16 games since February 2nd San Jose has averaged 1.56 goals per game. The magic number for a win in the NHL is three and yet the Sharks have only reached it four times over that same span (going 2-2 in those contests). When the defense is clicking the offense is failing them. When the offense is on, the defense usually falls short.
The problem with the Burns move is pretty simple — the Sharks need production from the goal scorers already on their forward lines rather than pulling one of their best defenseman down to provide new life. Meanwhile, the coaching staff continues to trot out Douglas Murray and Brad Stuart on the same defensive pairing for reasons they’ll never be capable of justifying. The fact they considered pairing Murray and Stuart in the first place is bad enough; they’ve watched the experiment fail game-in and game-out without breaking it up. They were each -1 in their loss to the Avalanche on Sunday and they combined to give up another bad goal in the second period on Tuesday. The back breaker goal was on Niemi — a bad rebound that deflected right to Chris Porter — but in a vacuum goals are goals, and while Niemi is the best option the Sharks have at his position, Murray and Stuart are not.
Jason Demers continues to be a mysterious scratch for the Sharks while Murray still gets consistent, dangerous playing time. The Sharks have a strong core of young defensemen if you include Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Matt Irwin Justin Braun and Demers. Why either Braun or Demers keep getting scratched for Murray is a question no one cares to ask Todd McLellan, but it stands to be addressed at this point.
The personnel decisions at the blue line aren’t the only head scratchers for the Sharks. Why Ryane Clowe stayed on the second power play line as long as he did is anybody’s guess. Those positions are coveted and exclusively for the team’s best scorers (and Clowe definitely isn’t). Why Michal Handzus continues to get playing time on a team already considered slow while TJ Galiardi keeps seeing healthy scratches doesn’t make sense either.
The constant line jumbling is another curious decision by the coaching staff. Burns being moved from a line he scored with a period earlier shows the coaching staff aren’t huge believers in continuity. Marleau can’t find a home any more, and Gomez has been thrown around tirelessly since coming to the Sharks. None of it has solved the scoring problem, and as a team struggling to find a rhythm, continuity is something they might want to consider.
Panic seems to be setting in, both in the Sharks’ play and the way they’re coached. There are definitely some changes to be made –especially defensively — but beyond those, the best remedy for the Sharks may be not changing anything at all.