Ratto: Face it, Sharks no longer a special team

January 28, 2011, 6:35 pm
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The Sharks, like the rest of the NHL, are at the All-Star Break, a natural time to stop and assess them.

Not unlike, say, when they hit the 41-game mark, when they had just been shut out by Buffalo at home and were tied for fifth. Yes, much has changed -- they went 4-4-0-1, dropped into a tie for eighth, and a tie for 15th overall.

And therein lies the real problem here. The Sharks are the worst thing a team can be other than the New York Islanders.

Just Like Everybody Else.

The third period and overtime of Wednesdays 3-2 shootout loss to Los Angeles were profoundly instructive. The Kings were the younger, faster team with the superior jump in their legs and the ability to harass San Jose for prolonged periods of time.

And yet, the Kings needed goalie Jonathan Quick to stand on his head to save them in a shootout -- or, if you prefer, the Kings hit two posts in the shootout to prolong the agony.

In short the Sharks and Kings are pretty much inseparable, and thats the real problem for San Jose. They are inseparable from Nashville, Anaheim, Phoenix, Chicago, Colorado, Los Angeles and even, all of a sudden, Calgary.

They are no longer a special team with special players playing special hockey. They are 18th in goals, 13 in goals allowed. 18th in home record, 12th in road record. They are middle of the road or worse in everything but faceoffs, shot differential and power plays, and in 5-on-5 situations, they are a dire 24th.

Indeed, for a team that is supposed to have stars on stars, they got only Dan Boyle to the All-Star Game and Logan Couture to the skills competition.

They have, in short, become an eighth-place team that could finish fifth or 12th. And at these prices for this roster, thats spectacularly insufficient.

The most notable things one gets from watching them are that they are no longer a fast team, or very good at getting the puck out of their own end. That means they have trouble getting into the offensive zone and staying there. That was one of their best attributes the past several years -- breaching the zone and controlling time, space and pace.

They have failed here despite still being second in faceoffs, though dramatically lower than they were a year ago. They simply dont dominate the puck.

You can cite toughness (hello, Ben Eager) or goaltending (where have you gone, Evgeni Nabokov, Long Island turns its lonely eyes to you) or Patrick Marleau (always a comfortable cottage industry for the hockey-disaffected), but it really shakes down to that.

They have players who need the puck, but arent as good at getting it and keeping it. Its not any more complicated.

Couture, Ryane Clowe, Kent Huskins, Benn Ferriero and Niclas Wallin are having better seasons that last year, and Boyle and Scott Nichol are having about the same ones as they always have. Everyone else is dropping off in one important metric or another, and the end result is a team that is faceless while having lots of faces.

Maybe they arent yet used to the grind of grinding for their wins. Maybe the aging process has been misjudged. Maybe they stopped getting better while Vancouver and Dallas and Anaheim and Nashville kept improving.

But those are guesses that, with the exception of Vancouver, could change in a month.

Right now, they are a puck-possession team that isnt very good at possessing the puck, and thats not coaching. Thats playing. They get shots, but theyre not normally great ones. Even with their power play, which accounts for 32 percent of their offense, they are a modest team offensively. At even strength, 5-on-5 or 4-on-4, they are outscoring only Toronto, Minnesota, Ottawa, the Islanders and New Jersey.

Thats teams 26, 27, 29 and 30 in your songbook. Makes you wonder how theyre in the race at all.

Can this be fixed? Sure, if Rob Blake wants to shave about six years off his age and play again. Or if the number of players operating at less than last years pace want to remember how much more fun it was not to be overmatched. A trade isnt likely to change it, and a coaching change is a ridiculous idea that alters nothing.

This, kids, may simply be who they are -- a team just like any other team. A little older, a little slower, and not at all like what they, or you, are used to seeing. They have a home-and-home with Phoenix at the end of the year that will almost certainly determine their fate. If you stick around for that, you will get to know how the other half lives for a change.

They havent been an eighth-place team in 11 years, after all, and havent had to sweat out the final day in 16. Who knows, maybe itll be fun.

Or really suck. With this team, you never really know.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.