Power play at the center of Sharks' downfall in 2016-17

Power play at the center of Sharks' downfall in 2016-17

SAN JOSE – There was an NHL coaching casualty on Monday on a team that flamed out in the first round.

No, it wasn’t in San Jose. It was in Chicago, as the Blackhawks fired assistant coach Mike Kitchen, who was in charge of their penalty kill. Chicago, swept by Nashville despite finishing atop the Western Conference, finished 24th on the PK in the regular season.

When it comes to the Sharks’ coaching staff, there’s no doubt that head coach Pete DeBoer will return, but it’s fair to wonder if assistant coach Steve Spott is feeling a little heat right now. The Sharks’ power play, a primary focus of Spott’s, finished just 25th in the NHL this season (16.7 percent) after it was third in the league in 2015-16 (22.5 percent).

When asked if the full Sharks’ coaching staff would return next season, general manager Doug Wilson didn’t offer anything definitive.

“I haven’t sat down with them yet. I think they did an outstanding job,” Wilson said. “You go through the last 12 months with a compressed schedule, very few practices, integrating players. I’m very pleased with their performance.

“I think there are things that they want to do better. We all have to take a look back and be honest, and say since we’re not playing right now, what can we do better? I think that transparency and honesty is a really good part of this group. We’ll do that in the next week.”

And what was Wilson’s perspective of the power play?

“It’s got to be better. [The coaches] will tell you. …  It’s not [always] the percentage or the number, it’s when you score goals. We certainly have the talent, and historically we’ve done very well,” Wilson said.

There was no part of the Sharks’ game during the regular season and in the playoffs that was more baffling and frustrating than its performance with a man advantage. Last season’s success seemed to bleed into October as the Sharks were running at a 24.1 percent rate through the first month of the 2016-17 season, but after November 1 and through the end of the season, the power play was a miserable 15.7 percent (34-for-217).

In the playoffs the Sharks were a more respectable 5-for-28, but even DeBoer called that misleading as four of those came in the 7-0 blowout in Game 4. They were 1-for-18 the rest of the series.

DeBoer, as the head coach, took responsibility for that part of the Sharks’ game when asked how much the miserable power play grinded on Spott.

“It grinds on all of us,” he said. “This isn’t about Steve. The power play is not about Steve. The power play is about our whole staff. We sit on all those situations as a group, and I’m the ultimate guy responsible for all those things. 

“I think it ground on all of us. It didn’t give us momentum, it didn’t create momentum even when it wasn’t scoring. That’s what you want your power play to do, is at least give you some momentum that you’re feeling good coming out of it. We didn’t get that, so that’s something that’s right at the top of our list.”

One baffling aspect of the power play is that the coaching staff hardly ever tried anything different with its units unless it was forced into it due to injury. Patrick Marleau was bumped from the top unit for a brief stretch in the middle of the season, but it didn’t last very long.

The second unit generated just seven goals in the 82-game season, and none after Feb. 2 other than rookie Danny O’Regan’s score in the final game when several Sharks regulars were resting.

One argument regarding the top unit is that it simply became too predictable. Joe Thornton could be counted on to pass, Brent Burns was going to shoot any chance he got, and Joe Pavelski would be hovering somewhere around the slot looking for a deflection.

Pavelski said: “There were times where maybe we rushed it, forced a few things. Definitely all year it could have been a little better, a little more of our identity and what it has been in the past. So, that’s on us as players.”

DeBoer said: “I think we got a little stagnant. I don’t think we had as much motion as we usually have and as much movement, and that comes with some confidence. You lose confidence, you tend to stand still. That’s something that we’ve got to get back.”

Marleau wants to return, but extension with Sharks could be tricky

Marleau wants to return, but extension with Sharks could be tricky

SAN JOSE – Just like his longtime teammate and fellow pending unrestricted free agent Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau said on Monday that he would like to return to the Sharks next season.

“Yeah, it would be nice. We’ll see if that’s an option,” Marleau said. “A lot of time here before this decision needs to be made.”

When asked if there have been any talks yet about an extension, Marleau said: “Not really, no.” Marleau, who was actively exploring his options to leave the Sharks early in the 2015-16 season, would be eligible to sign with another team on July 1.

The 37-year-old forward said he still feels like he has “at least five good years in me, or maybe more.”

“I still think I can contribute and play,” he said. “Until I think I can’t do that anymore, I’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

Marleau has spent his entire 19-year NHL career with the Sharks. He’s the franchise leader in just about every offensive statistical category, including games played (1,493) goals (508) and points (1,082). Marleau became just the 45th player in NHL history to reach 500 career goals on Feb. 2 in Vancouver. In 82 games this season, he posted 27 goals (third on the team) and 46 points (fifth).

He was asked what it would mean to spend his entire career in San Jose.

“There’s only a few people who have ever done that in their careers,” he said. “That’s something special.”

If Marleau wants a multi-year contract, which is likely, it could make it tricky for Doug Wilson to keep him, though. Players such as Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are due sizable raises in their next contracts, as both will enter the final year of their current bargain deals in 2017-18.

Wilson called it “a priority” to get Jones and Vlasic signed before training camp. He can begin talks on July 1, per NHL CBA rules.

“Certainly Martin Jones is everything we expected him to be, and he’s crucial,” Wilson said. “Marc-Edouard Vlasic [is] arguably one of the best defensemen in the league. You saw what he did against one of the top players in the league (Connor McDavid). Marc-Edouard is still one of the most underrated players in the league in the outside world. 

“Both of them are extremely important to get under contract, and we can start those discussions in the next little while.”

Both Jones and Vlasic indicated they would like to stay in San Jose past next season, too, and it’s conceivable that the combined price tag for those players will be somewhere in the $13-$15 million range. Both made just a combined $7.25 million in 2016-17 ($4.25 million for Vlasic, $3 million for Jones).

“Oh, absolutely,” Jones said, when asked if he could see himself with the Sharks long term. “I love it here. The guys are great. It’s a lot of fun coming to the rink every day. City has been great. The fans are awesome, and we have a great team. I’m excited.”

Vlasic said on March 14 that he would like to play his whole career with the Sharks, and confirmed that sentiment again on Monday, although the timing of an extension gets seemed of little importance to the 30-year-old.

“When it happens it will happen. It doesn’t matter if it’s July 1 or during the season,” he said.

The Sharks also have several pending restricted free agent forwards this summer in Chris Tierney, Marcus Sorensen, Melker Karlsson and Joonas Donskoi. It’s likely that they’d prefer to keep all of those players, and some multi-year contracts could be the result. Other players like Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc showed flashes of becoming solid NHL contributors, too.

Along with the salary cap (still yet to be revealed), Thornton’s future, and which player the Sharks lose in the upcoming expansion draft, there are plenty of factors both sides need to weigh before any decision on Marleau gets made.

“[Marleau and Thornton] have been cornerstones of this franchise for a long time, not only as players, but as people,” Wilson said. “There’s a lot of variables that go into that decision, and the first one is me sitting down and talking with both of them. We haven’t had a chance to do that, so we’ll get there.”

DeBoer: Joe Thornton played through torn knee ligaments in playoffs

DeBoer: Joe Thornton played through torn knee ligaments in playoffs

SAN JOSE – There was finally some clarification on Monday on what Joe Thornton was playing through, as the Sharks gathered one final time at their practice facility before the offseason.

And, it was significant, as the 37-year-old was dealing with a “torn MCL and ACL” in his left knee, according to coach Pete DeBoer.

“I don’t know if the injury report has come out yet, but I’ve never seen a player play with a torn MCL and ACL,” DeBoer said. “Basically, his knee is floating there. It was as courageous an effort, him doing what he did, as I’ve ever seen.”

Thornton was scheduled to have surgery on the knee later on Monday afternoon, according to general manager Doug Wilson. Prior to that, the longtime centerman met with the local media.

"I'm going to go see the doctors right after this and see what they say,” he said. “So, I'll know more about it today. I just know it was pretty sore playing."

Wilson said: “I’ve been in the business a long time. To see a player play with that type of injury tells you everything you need to know about him.”

As for a timeframe for Thornton to return, Wilson said: “Don’t know. We’ll know after [surgery].”

Thornton, an unrestricted free agent who has spent the last 12 seasons with the Sharks, said that he would like to return.

"Yeah, I want to come back. I think this is a Stanley Cup caliber team and I think I'm a little bit older and I realize how good this team is,” he said. “Of course I'd like to [return]. But, we'll have to see. I'm sure we'll be talking. But right now I haven't been a dad for a long time. I need to turn into a family man for a couple months."

Thornton said there have not been any talks yet about a contract extension.

“I just wanted to focus on hockey this year,” he said. “There's no hurry, but yeah, I want to be back. This team is a real talented team, and I love playing here."

Wilson said: “We have lots of time … We’ve got four-and-a-half months until we’re back at it.”

Thornton, who has been downplaying the injury since it occurred on April 2 – including when he said three days later that there was “no doubt” he would return for the playoff opener, and then missing the first two games of the first round series with Edmonton – struck the same tune on Monday when asked what he had to go through to suit up.

"Just the normal stuff that hockey players deal with,” he said. “It was just unfortunate, the time of the year, that it happened three games before the end of the season and the playoffs [and] you’ve got to deal with something like that. 

“Hockey players are a different breed. There's probably five or six guys that had to deal with different stuff. But it is what it is. I'll go get it checked out today, and go from there."

Although Thornton’s was the most severe, there were other Sharks playing through injury as is commonplace at the end of any NHL season. 

Tomas Hertl suffered a broken foot in the same game as Thornton on April 2 in Vancouver, while forward Patrick Marleau had a broken thumb. Logan Couture played through a mouth injury that he has already revealed will require extensive dental work this summer, while Joonas Donskoi separated his left shoulder twice over the second half of the regular season.