The San Jose Sharks are in a favorable position to go deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. At the time of writing this, they sit in first place of the Pacific Division with a seven-point lead on the second-place Edmonton Oilers.
They also have a 17-point cushion on the first team out of a Western Conference playoff spot, the Los Angeles Kings.
Still, there are a number of issues with this Sharks roster that could stop them short of the Stanley Cup. Declining play, fatigue, and a lack of scoring are all major concerns for the team. Though they are having a significantly better regular season compared to 2015-16, it is possible the franchise will not achieve the same success as last year.
Stars Not Shining
A number of key Sharks have underperformed throughout the regular season, including Joe Thornton and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
Thornton, who has 41 points in 65 games, is projected to end the year with just 52 points. That would be his lowest total in a full season since his sophomore campaign in 1998-99, and it doesn’t come close to his point-per-game pace last season.
The Sharks’ first-line center has a history of making players around him better—Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo, Joe Pavelski—but he has not executed at the same level this season. Even Pavelski, who had 38 goals last year on Thornton’s wing, is struggling to produce next to the 37-year-old.
Vlasic is also having a relatively down year compared to previous campaigns. He owns just a plus-two rating and has a corsi-for percentage of under 50 percent for the first time in his career.
This is far from what we expect from San Jose’s shutdown defenseman. He has historically been the most stable blue liner on the team, but this has been an off year for him.
During the 2016 playoffs, Vlasic and his partner, Justin Braun, nullified the efforts of the opposition’s best players. Names like Vladimir Tarasenko and Sidney Crosby were seemingly irrelevant against the Sharks throughout the postseason. If he can’t keep them off the board this year, then San Jose could run into trouble.
The Fatigue Factor
Getting to the Stanley Cup Finals is hard; doing it twice in a row is even harder. Since 1999, only four teams have gone to the final round in consecutive years (Dallas Stars, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings). That’s an 11.8 percent success rate.
Fatigue and salary cap issues are primarily to blame for this difficulty, and while San Jose hasn’t had many issues with the salary cap, they certainly will have problems with fatigue.
As I mentioned in a previous article, the Sharks’ already short offseason was made even shorter by the World Cup of Hockey. Players like Thornton, Pavelski, and Vlasic—among others—had an offseason of just 83 days rather the 177-day offseason of a non-playoff, non-World Cup of Hockey skater. Combine this with an aging core, and it’s easy to see why some of San Jose’s best skaters aren’t meeting their expectations.
Martin Jones will also be subject to heavy fatigue come May or June. Though he did not participate in the World Cup of Hockey, he is facing his second year with a heavy work load. This time, however, there is no James Reimer to help relieve him down the stretch.
Backup goaltender Aaron Dell has proven to be an exceptional netminder in his role, but San Jose’s management group has been hesitant to play him. Jones has even been called on to play in both games of a back-to-back, despite Dell having a .935 save percentage in his 12 starts. This type of decision is inexplicable, and the Sharks’ starter is going to pay the price for it.
Disappearance of Depth Scoring
Last season, San Jose prided itself on depth scoring with players like Joonas Donskoi, Chris Tierney, and Joel Ward all producing at a respectable rate. This year, however, is much different.
The Bay Area franchise is poised to finish the year with just four 15-goal scorers on the roster sheet, which is down from the seven last season. And even though the Sharks are 11th in the NHL in scoring, the bulk of the offense is coming from just four skaters.
In fact, the group of Pavelski, Marleau, Logan Couture, and Brent Burns has 51.7 percent of the club’s goals this season.
For comparison purposes, the top four scorers for the Pittsburgh Penguins make up just 44.3 percent of their team’s goals. Realistically, the Penguins could end up with six or seven players with at least 15 tallies in their lineup.
If San Jose wants to be competitive against elite teams like Pittsburgh, they need scoring from all four lines, not just four players.
Need a Spark
This roster for San Jose is better than the one that made it to the Stanley Cup Final last year, at least on paper. The additions of David Schlemko, Mikkel Boedker, and Jannik Hansen should make this team favorites to win it all, but the club has struggled in some key areas all season.
These players are talented, but something needs to change for the Sharks to go back to the playoffs and finally win the Stanley Cup. A spark needs to be ignited.