Bay Area

Sharks enter New Year looking for more

As the first half of the NHL regular season comes to a conclusion, the best that can be said about the San Jose Sharks is that they have survived. Going into the New Year, they’ll need to make a move if the 2015-16 season is going to be one where they thrive.

Entering Saturday night’s home game against the Winnipeg Jets, the Sharks sat in fourth place in the Pacific Division with 38 points and a 18-16-2 record, just one point out of a second-place tie with Arizona and Vancouver. Under the NHL’s playoff format, the first three teams in each division are assured playoff positions, and it looks like third or better is the Sharks’ only opportunity, as the two Western Conference wildcard positions will almost certainly go to team in the conference’s Central Division (note that the Sharks’ 38 points would put them seventh in the Central, just two point up off the last-place Jets).

So, what’s it going to take for the Sharks to solidify a playoff spot?

Full strength

Coach Peter DeBoer joined the Sharks this past offseason with the intention of rolling four full lines throughout every game. Due to injuries and suspensions, he hasn’t been afforded that ability very often this season.

First, forward Raffi Torres was suspended for the first half of the season after an ill advised hit in the preseason. An oft-suspended repeat offender of the NHL’s player safety rules, Torres is a critical component of the Sharks team on both ends of the ice. He plays with a grit and passion that sparks the entire team, has the speed and physicality to aggressively forecheck and slant the ice in the Sharks’ direction, and his surprisingly good hands make him an offensive threat on the third and fourth lines.

In addition to his suspension, Torres is also recovering from a relatively minor surgical procedure to clean up his injured right knee, which might delay his return just slightly. But, when he hits the ice, his impact will be felt.

More impactful is the return of forward Logan Couture to the lineup. Couture played in just his sixth game of the season in December 30’s victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, and his two assists in that game showed how important he is to the success of the team. Couture is a top-six forward on any team in the NHL, with a deft scoring touch and a defensive accountability that makes him a staple on the penalty kill. If Couture can stay healthy, the Sharks will be a better puck possession team with more success on both ends of the ice.

Defense that’s not just offensive

It’s shaping up to be a record-setting year for the Sharks defensemen, but not so much for defense, but rather for offense. Brent Burns leads all NHL defensemen with 15 goals, and is halfway to becoming the ninth defenseman in NHL history to score 30 or more goals in a single season.

But, that’s not all. Justin Braun has 14 points on the season so far, on pace to move past his career-high total of 23 points set last season. Plus, stalwart shutdown defender Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s 16 points is on pace to threaten his career-high of 36 points.

So, while a pretty good year from a points perspective, it’s a not so good year from a defensive perspective. The Sharks have a minus-2 differential in goals, scoring 100 goals while allowing 102 (almost unbelievably, the first-place Los Angeles Kings are the only Pacific Division team to have a positive goal differential). Even strength, five on five, the Sharks are a minus-10 (61 goals for, 71 goals against).

Simply, the Sharks need to tighten up on defensively, and while Couture’s puck possession abilities as a forward will help, the real requirement for the Sharks is the health of its blue line players.

While Sharks continue to search for a third defensive pairing, they are dependent on solid play from their top-four, and when one or more is missing, the Sharks feel the immediate effects. The Sharks are 1-6-1 in the games that Paul Martin, Braun or Vlasic have missed from injury. For the Sharks’ defense to turn it around, be it five-on-five or on special teams, they absolutely have to be at full strength.

Home cookin’

The Sharks have been horrible at home in SAP Center this season, going 5-10 with a league-low 10 points, and continuing their surprisingly poor home play from last season. The Sharks used to have one of the biggest home ice advantages in the NHL, and they will need to return to the form of their home rink heritage if they’re to break back into playoff picture.

Photo Credit: Don Smith/Getty Images

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Ray Hartjen

A Public Relations pro by day, by night @RayHartjen follows parallel - yet somehow still often conflicting - paths searching for hair metal guitar legend status, a career as a journeyman 4th line center in the NHL, and the treasured laminates to be a hanger-on in the circus that is Formula 1.
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