Yesterday we welcomed some of the best Sharks writers around to talk about the end of the NHL lockout, what the Sharks have been up to during the stoppage and if we’re in for a performance hangover. It looks like the season will kick off on January 19th, but the boys assured us most of the Sharks were staying busy and relatively healthy during the lockout. With more and more Sharks making their way back to San Jose as we speak, it’s beginning to look a lot like hockey season around the Bay Area.
Just because Team Teal is back at Sharks Ice and skating again doesn’t necessarily mean all of their issues have been solved. Among the biggest concerns plaguing the Sharks last year were some disappointing offensive outputs (especially in their playoff losses to the Blues) and a porous penalty kill. General manager Doug Wilson brought in Hall of Famer Larry Robinson to assist in rebuilding the PK unit, but it has many wondering: should Todd McLellan and others be worried?
Back to answer these questions are Brodie Brazil, Kevin Kurz and Derek T of Fear the Fin.
Brodie Brazil is the Sharks sideline reporter for Comcast SportsNet California, as well as one of CSN’s Sharks insiders. His forte may be hockey, but he’s a jack of all trades, often anchoring SportsNet Central on CSN Bay Area and co-hosting on 95.7 The Game. You can follow him on Twitter @brodiebrazilCSNand find his writings on CSNBayArea.com.
Kevin Kurz is a Sharks insider for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. Before coming to the Bay Area to focus on the Sharks, Kurz spent two years as a digital content producer at Comcast Sports Group’s Philadelphia affiliate and served in several different capacities for PhiladelphiaFlyers.com. You can follow him on Twitter @KKurzCSN and find his writings on CSNBayArea.com.
Derek T is the managing editor of Fear the Fin, SBNation’s hub for everything San Jose Sharks. He runs FTF’s twitter handle with objectivity and snark rivaled by no one, and his knowledge on the team in teal runs deep. You can follow him on Twitter @Fearthefin and he writes as “The Neutral” on Fearthefin.com.
Antti Niemi was 22nd in the league in save percentage and 17th in goals against average last season. Is he safe as a starter this season? Could Alex Stalock compete for that starting role?
Brodie: I spoke with Al (Stalock) about a month ago, who is experiencing a successful comeback season in Worcester. I think we’re more likely to see him compete for the #2 job in San Jose this year, than the starter. Also, consider this: with the faster pace of the schedule this season, the backup goaltender is going to be significantly more critical than during a “regular” season.
Kevin: If it had been a full year, I’d say Stalock might have gotten a look if Niemi faltered. At this point, though, I’d be surprised if Stalock is recalled if both Niemi and Greiss are healthy. I think Stalock’s turn will come next year, especially if the Sharks do not resign Greiss.
Derek: It’s always difficult to judge a goaltender based on one season’s worth of numbers since save percentage tends to vary fairly erratically. Since Niemi joined the Sharks, only seven goaltenders (all of them superstars like Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne, Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo) have posted a higher even-strength save percentage than he has. While Niemi has mightily struggled is the penalty kill, I think it’s a mistake to hang all of the failures of that unit on him alone. Overall, he’s a slightly-above-average starter signed to a reasonable cap hit. I highly doubt Alex Stalock has any realistic chance of even making the team as a backup this season, but with Thomas Greiss’ deal expiring in the summer, we can probably expect to see Stalock given a long look next training camp.
It seems like a decade ago, but there was a lot of speculation as to whether Todd McLellan would be back after last year’s early playoff exit. Just how long of a leash does McLellan actually have this year?
Brodie: I gather Todd is very safe right now. And in the context of this shortened schedule, I don’t anticipate too many coaching changes midseason in general. McLellan and his altered coaching staff have a fair amount of transforming to do, with the penalty killing being tops on the list. Certainly he/they recognize the clear-cut challenges, and understand that’s how they will be evaluated following this season.
Kevin: Again, with the shortened season, the only way I see McLellan getting fired this season is if the team struggles mightily from the outset. But, I expect the Sharks to compete for the Pacific Division with Larry Robinson now on board. I really think Robinson can improve the penalty kill, and his track record speaks for itself. That being said, I think McLellan has to make at least the postseason and quite possibly win a round to keep his job for next season.
Derek: Doug Wilson seems to genuinely admire McLellan for the job he has done behind the bench in San Jose and, really, why shouldn’t he? No active NHL coach has a higher career winning percentage than McLellan and he’s the only coach in franchise history to lead the team to back-to-back Western Conference Final appearances. Granted, he has had terrific rosters to work with but his emphasis on puck possession, creative power play zone entries (that have since been copied by every hockey team in North America) and willingness to play his best players in the toughest defensive situations have repeatedly maximized the potential of those rosters. McLellan is one of the best head coaches in the NHL and a few months or poor results doesn’t change that – nor should it put him on the hot seat.
Larry Robinson was pretty emphatic that he doesn’t want to be the head coach, but wouldn’t he be the obvious choice as the next man up should McLellan be let go?
Brodie: It’s true, one would think Robinson is an immediate leading candidate in such a situation. And it might not be up to him, should the reigns be handed over to Larry under drastic circumstances. But as stated above, there is not the likelihood of too many in-season coaching changes this time around.
Kevin: If McLellan got fired mid-season, yes. If McLellan gets fired this summer, not necessarily.
Derek: If McLellan is fired, I’d have to think Robinson gets the job but I also put quite a bit of stock into the organization’s claim that this isn’t a scenario that was heavily considered when bringing Robinson aboard. Robinson might be the grizzled, Hall of Fame veteran and McLellan the somewhat fresh-faced, less-experienced coach, but if Robinson was willing to let Peter DeBoer drive the bus in New Jersey all the way to a Stanley Cup Final appearance, I’m sure he can be just as effective a complementary piece to McLellan in San Jose.
The Sharks’ offensive philosophy was pretty frustrating at times last year and proved extremely ineffective against the Blues. The same can be said for their penalty kill, ranked 29th last season. Should we anticipate any changes in the offensive plan and, perhaps more importantly, the penalty kill now that Robinson is behind the bench?
Brodie: I believe that all facets of the game/issues last year were inter-connected. The Sharks were hesitant to play aggressive hockey… because they were cautious to take a penalty… because their shorthanded effort was so troubled. Getting some confidence in the PK will allow the Sharks to take more risks with and without the puck. It’s not to say they’ll want to spend more time in the box – just that the fear of doing so would not exist in the backs of their minds.
Kevin: The penalty kill will be completely different, and the Sharks will be much more aggressive when down a man. Other than that, I don’t expect their game plan to change a whole lot.
Derek: While Robinson wasn’t the chief architect of the Devils’ penalty kill, he likely had significant input into the strategy employed by a New Jersey PK unit that allowed fewer power play goals per minute than any other team each of the past two seasons. There are obviously systemic issues that have led to a woeful penalty kill in San Jose over that same span that hopefully Robinson will be able to rectify. As far as the team’s offensive struggles go, some of that is the result of building a roster with almost no scoring talent among its bottom six forwards, a problem the Sharks did not address in the offseason. Mostly, though, the Sharks suffered from some awful puck luck in 2011-12, scoring on just 6.6% of their shots at even-strength (league average was around 8.1%). San Jose still managed to generate significantly more scoring chances than their opponents, which tends to be a much more sustainable talent than shooting percentage, something that can fluctuate wildly from season to season. All bets are off in a shortened campaign, but I think there’s a good chance the Sharks will bury their chances at a higher rate even without reworking their strategy on offense.
Special thanks to Brodie Brazil, Kevin Kurz and Derek T. for their generous contributions to this round table. Stay tuned for the next installment, where the guys look at the Sharks’ competition in the West and weigh in on just how far the Sharks will go in 2013!