The Sharks halfway through the 2010-2011 NHL Season are very hard to gauge. They're an unknown commodity, a question mark, if you will. In the eyes of most folks, they have fallen short of their expectations - but in the eyes of those same, they might have exceeded some of them. What exactly does that mean, exactly? It's also hard to gauge, but I will do my best to explain. No, there is too much - let me sum up.
Coming into the season, there was already a well-established feeling of uncertainty in San Jose and among the Sharks fanbase. One of the biggest reasons they've been unable to put things together the last few seasons has been a suspect defensive unit, and they were only held together by fan-favorite Evgeni Nabokov and his fantastic net-minding. Nabokov reportedly needed more years than was offered, not necessarily more money - it was all about the family. Either way, he was gone.
Rob Blake was gone as well, and with him went a lot of positivity and confidence for Sharks fans everywhere. His defensive abilities were going to be missed, along with the fact that he fit very well as the team's captain. Still though, this was the team that dominated the regular season and didn't really "choke" in the playoffs the previous year. Surely it would all figure itself out.
"Figuring itself out," entails signing Antero Niittymaki to be the starter in net, which didn't sit well with too many fans. It didn't set well, but it still was not a bad move - he's a well-respected goalie who can hold his own, but on a team with lacking defense, things were beginning to look a little scary. So the Sharks went out and signed another goalie, Antti Niemi, fresh off a Stanely Cup victory with the Chicago Blackhawks.
It also was not very well-received, but it would end up being a good signing. Let's get into things now, shall we?
The Sharks went 1-2-1 in their first four outings and not much was immediately clear. Antero Niittymaki was the early favorite, out-performing Niemi in the early part of the season. They were 13-8-4 through November with four shutout losses in that time, and Antero Niittymaki was the guy drawing the starts with fifteen, and he was the guy winning said starts over Niemi (starting nine in the same time period).
Niemi struggled, giving up rebounds and soft goals, and when he didn't struggle, the Sharks defense did him no favors. There were stretches of time where the team just didn't show up, and morale was getting lower. December fared a little bit better at 9-5-1, and it got started off the right way with a win over the Senators and a huge win over the Detroit Red Wings on December 6th. The 5-2 win served to remind the rest of the league that "Hey, this is still one of the most offensively talented teams playing in the NHL today!"
There were many factors that lead to Sharks wins, though those same factors became reasons for Sharks losses. Joe Thornton began to illustrate his defensive prowess, and it did well to win San Jose a few hard-fought games in late Decemeber and early January, but it also lead to him lacking on offense. He stopped scoring, he stopped passing, he stopped being offensively sound. How is Joe Thornton supposed to act to get the best of his abilities? One really doesn't know.
Players like Jason Demers and Devin Setoguchi disappointed along the way. Setoguchi disappeared for long stretches of time, though he seems to be getting things together in February. Dany Heatley had a dry spell in which he wasn't even putting pucks in the general direction of an opposing netminder. Seriously folks, Dany Heatley of all people wasn't even attempting to score at one point.
There was a point where Dan Boyle was the Sharks most prolific shooter.
The above sentence stands alone to illustrate a point, and that is the lack of consistency with the 2010-2011 Sharks. This is the hardest midseason report I've ever had to put together for the simple reason that there's no real, solid and consistent data to go with. I can say that Joe Thornton is surging forward with defensive prowess, or I can say he's making strides to improve his offense. I can say that Setoguchi has been largely irrelevant, or I can say that his contributions are stellar when they're there. We can go over Patrick Marleau and his 22 goals and 43 points, but I'd have to also let you know that there have been times this year when he was just laughably bad at handling the puck.
One of the few constants for the Sharks has been rookie Logan Couture. If there is one thing that Sharks fans can hang their hats on, it's the play of Couture, and to a lesser extent, Ryane Clowe - who seems to love to dish the puck to him and pick up an assist. Couture has been consistent throughout the season thus far, being a source of goals in timely situations a number of times. He's been good with the puck and going forward, should continue to produce.
But back to the goalie situation - Niemi started to improve. He started to get better, and showed the level of play he showed for the Blackhawks in the postseason, and not the level of play he showed for the Blackhawks in the regular season. He started to hang on to the rebounds that were usually lost, and an increased offensive attack for the Sharks might be one reason for this.
If you just looked at the final scores though, you wouldn't know of any "increased offensive attack." That's because the Sharks suddenly faced an indomitable string of super-goalies that turned away every single puck that came within three feet. Early January saw a high volume of shots on net, and a high volume of goalies gaining weight from eating so many pucks before they could reach the back of said net. It was a frustrating thing for the fans and the team - and it showed.
Around that same time, the Sharks began to suffer from something I'll call "Phil Baroni Syndrome." Phil Baroni is a mixed martial arts fighter who might be the best fighter in the world for the first forty-five seconds of a fight, before he gets too tired and gets his block knocked off. The Sharks developed a staggering trend of relinquishing leads in the third period of play. It was the strangest thing, every third period was an uninspired mess that saw limited offense and abysmal defense throughout. The aforementioned super goalies gobbled down what little scoring opportunities their were for San Jose in said third periods. It was, in all ways, a disaster.
Six straight losses occurred when the disaster was in full swing. Six straight losses and the San Jose Sharks were outside of the playoffs looking in. Six straight losses and then the Sharks had to take on the Los Angeles Kings, division rivals and the preseason favorite to challenge San Jose for the Pacific Division crown. They were the respective last and second-to-last place teams in the division at the time. But it was one the Sharks needed to win bad.
So naturally, they lost it in the shootout. But it was a hard-fought game, and what followed put them right back in the thick of things - a five game win streak to kick off February. Everything was clicking, and everyone was doing their job. Injuries to Antero Niittymaki and Alex Stalock have Antti Niemi ingrained as the starting goalie, and he seems to have settled into it well. Douglas Murray has returned to high-level defensive play. Joe Pavelski is getting things going with regularity and is always an asset on the ice.
We're midway through February and if there's any certainty regarding the Sharks it's that you cannot count them out of things. There is a lot of hockey left and a lot of things bode well for the Sharks, still in the playoff race with a spot of their own. But the inconsistencies that marred the beginning of the season can always come back. It's not that you should bet against the Sharks, or that you should bet for them, it's just that you really shouldn't bet at all.