Ratto: Sharks-Blackhawks Will be Telling

November 24, 2010, 5:31 pm
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SAN JOSE -- Twenty games is a handy breaking-off point to check on any NHL team, given that it is 24.390243902439024390243902439024 percent of the season is done and most teams pretty much are what they are going to be, barring trades, catastrophic injuries, owner plea bargains or other hockey staples.

In other words, if everything stays the same for all 30 teams, you may now begin to panic about the San Jose Sharks.

Of course, they don't stay the same, ever. But off the evidence we know as the Sharks prepare for Game 20 against their newest archrivals, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Sharks are producing the kind of results an average team should produce. Average. And given that they haven't been below average in eight seasons, this season looks particularly malignant.

That's what expectations will do for you. And there's still -76.82926829268292682926829268292776 percent of the season still to play.

But today, they miss the playoffs. Today, they are mediocre, with their best players being their oldest ones and their younger ones barely carrying a quarter of the weight. Today they have two lines, one exceptional defenseman, an odd goaltending tandem and a coach who probably would like to put his head in a desk drawer and ask one of the stick boys to slam the drawer shut 35 or 40 times.

The Sharks are 9-6-4, which means they're really 9-10. Except that if you factored the old way, with ties, they'd actually be 8-6-5. In short, they're as middle of the pack of as you can get. Sixteenth in goals for, 15th in goals against, 10th on the power play, 14th shorthanded.

But they are a lopsided 9-10, and an inefficient 9-10. They are second in faceoffs, but 23rd when they score first. They are 26th in giveaways, 26th in blocked shots, and 28th in hits. And since after a quarter of the season you can pretty much figure that every team's propensity to bend the stats essentially evens out, you have here a picture of a team that:

- Knows how to win draws, but doesn't do a very good of doing anything once they get the puck.
- Doesn't make it difficult for the other team when on defense, and lets shots go unimpeded toward either the net or close to it.

Pretty much a recipe for being the Atlanta Thrashers, that.

But then you get down to individuals, and average is probably putting it charitably. Their top line, Patrick MarleauJoe ThorntonDany Heatley, is performing decently, but the second line, which is normally Joe PavelskiRyane CloweDevin Setoguchi isn't. The third- and fourth-line centers, Logan Couture and Scott Nichol, have been superb, but the wings have been ineffectual. And defenseman Dan Boyle is on pace to weigh 143 by the end of the year.

Much has been made of San Jose's inability to get any points from its defensemen, and this is fairly clear. They rank 26th in defenseman goals (tied with the very defensive Boston Bruins), 26th in assists, and 26th overall. Of the teams behind them, Columbus is better, Dallas is the same, and New Jersey and the New York Islanders are considerably worse.

Boyle has done his bit, as you might guess, and Kent Huskins has been what he is, a fifth defenseman who stays at home well. But Marc-Edouard Vlasic, whom the Sharks needed to have a breakout year or close to it, has provided minimal help as the logical inheritor to Rob Blake's role, Jason Demers is overbilled as a third defenseman, Douglas Murray has been either hurt or below average, and Niclas Wallin's tread is getting thin.

On the other hand, Antero Niittymaki seems to have won the trust of the staff in goal, and his raw numbers bear that out. He hasn't stood on his head to close games, but much of that is due to San Jose's inability to keep the puck late in games and its defense's shortcomings both physically and blocking shots.

And if it helps at all, Evgeni Nabokov ranks 25th in goals against average and 31st in save percentage in the Kontinental (cq) Hockey League, behind such industry giants as the 100-year-old Dominik Hasek, Robert Esche and Steve Valiquette.

In sum, this is a team that has lost the gift of puck possession, is vulnerable at the back and not so hot moving forward, and with some but not enough exceptions doesn't consistently do the rotten jobs well. If that doesn't scream 10th place and a very annoyed fan base, then your hearing aid needs a new 2032, because the old battery has gone to silicon heaven.

Chicago isn't dramatically better, but they figured to drop off after having the franchise semi-gutted by self-made cap problems. The Hawks sold their futures for a glorious recent past, and haven't landed hard enough yet to say that it wasn't worth it. They, after all, have those hubcap-sized rings.

The Sharks don't have such an excuse, so the nerves are a bit more taut and exposed. Wednesday's game with the Hawks won't necessarily tell you anything you don't already know, but the Sharks will need to have repaired their failings in the next 24.390243902439024390243902439024 percent of the season, or panic, anger and recriminations will be fully justified.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.