Defense at heart of Sharks' problems

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Defense at heart of Sharks' problems

Its pretty simple sometimes, this game of hockey.

The Sharks are losing games at an alarming pace for a number of reasons, but what it boils down to is quite elementary the team simply cant keep the puck out of its own net.

On its just-completed road trip, in which the Sharks stumbled and bumbled their way to just two wins in nine games (2-6-1) and lost to some downright lousy teams in the process, the club surrendered 35 goals. That averages out to 3.89 per game. To put that number in perspective, the Sharks allowed just 27 goals in 13 games during a 10-1-2 stretch from mid-December to mid-January, or 2.08 per game.

Five-on-five play, which had been so strong all year, also took a step backwards. The Sharks were outscored 30-18 at even strength over the nine games.

Defensively we had a horrible trip, so thats where it starts, Dan Boyle said.

Ive said this all along, if were going to give up four and five a night and think were winning, were dreaming, Todd McLellan said after the 6-2 loss in Nashville on Saturday. We have to keep pounding and pounding and pounding that into their heads until they absolutely believe it.

Complicating matters has been the subpar play of starter Antti Niemi. It certainly hasnt been all Niemis fault, as hes faced a multitude of odd-man rushes and prime scoring chances, but he hasnt made the big stop, either.

RELATED: Antti Niemi game logs

On the road trip, Niemis numbers were horrible. He was 1-3-1 with a 3.94 goals-against average and .859 save percentage, and was pulled twice in the first period.

Since a win on Jan. 15 at Chicago, Niemi is 5-8-1 with a 3.10 GAA and .893 save percentage, and there was even a reported rumor from TSN that the Sharks offered him up to Philadelphia as part of a potential trade for winger James van Riemsdyk before Mondays deadline came and went.

Niemis confidence is shaken, too, as he basically admitted after Saturdays game when he allowed a pair of goals on odd-man rushes on the first two shots of the game to the Predators. After a stoppable one-timer by Kevin Klein got by him later in the first, Niemi was replaced by Thomas Greiss for the second time in three games.

After giving up two goals early, its not the easiest to continue, Niemi said after that game, adding that he felt good at the morning skate and in warm-ups.

There have been calls for Greiss to get more starts moving forward, and it will be interesting to see who mans the crease against Philadelphia on Tuesday. Greiss allowed four goals to the Wild on Sunday, but three came on a deflection in which he had no chance.

RELATED: Thomas Greiss game logs

That would certainly be a statement by the coaching staff, and could fuel a goalie controversy at a crucial time of the year.

Regardless of who it is, though, the Sharks know they have to button up their defensive game if the fading club is even going to make it into the postseason. Complicating matters is the fact that the Sharks have 17 games in the month of March, including another weeklong road trip, leaving little time for practice.

Assistant coach Matt Shaw, who spoke to the media on Sunday after McLellan was unavailable, explained.

We dont have any time to go back and think were going to get some good days of practice. Its just not in the cards, said Shaw. Its going to be a mental strength issue. Were going to become a little bit resolved and determined to right the way the road trip went. We fully expect everybody to do that.

The coaching staff, the players, everybodys involved in that process. We expect that to happen.

It has to. Quickly.

Mailbag: Which Sharks player is most likely to be traded?

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AP

Mailbag: Which Sharks player is most likely to be traded?

No one asked, but I’m going to begin this week’s mailbag with my prediction for the Stanley Cup Final – Preds in six. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to a few of your questions…

Most likely to be moved this off-season? (Nik @niknisj25)

If the Sharks do make a move – and I’ve argued here that I think it may be time for a shakeup – they’ll surely be looking for someone up front to boost the offense. In that case, they’d likely have to sacrifice a defenseman or two.

The Sharks defense is the strength of the organization at the moment, as they had one of the best one-through-seven groups in the NHL this season. But it’s also an expensive one. The Sharks have nearly $27 million committed to their top seven defensemen next season, while Marc-Edouard Vlasic is due for a hefty raise beginning in 2018-19.

One name that could be intriguing to other teams is Justin Braun. The 30-year-old has been a part of the Sharks’ top shut down pair with Vlasic for several seasons now, and is signed for the next three years at a reasonable $3.8 million cap hit. The Sharks could potentially move him for offensive help, and slot in a guy like David Schlemko alongside Vlasic, while finally giving Dylan DeMelo a chance to play on a nightly basis on the third pair. A Vlasic-Schlemko pair could be more offensive than Vlasic-Braun, too, because as adept as they were at keeping the puck out of their own net, the Sharks didn’t get many goals from their defenders outside of Burns.

Of course, the upcoming expansion draft all but assures that nothing will happen until Las Vegas selects its team on June 21. If the Sharks lose a defenseman to the Golden Knights, they’ll be more reluctant to move another one. Still, with guys like Joakim Ryan, Tim Heed, Julius Bergman, Mirco Mueller and now Radim Simek in the pipeline, the club might be able to handle a couple departures.

How do we fix the power play next season? Bring in a coach that could help us? Change up the lines, or style of play? (adam smith @kickback408)

One thing that won’t be happening is a new coach, as Doug Wilson recently confirmed that Steve Spott would be back alongside Pete DeBoer. Bob Boughner could move on if he gets hired as a head coach elsewhere, but Boughner’s focus is the team’s defense and penalty kill.

Obviously, the future of the power play depends on who is on the roster, beginning with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Both saw their power play production dip this season.

Thornton went from 29 power play points in 2015-16 to 19 this season (he had eight power play goals in 2015-16, and just one this season). Marleau saw a decline from 25 power play points in 2015-16 to 16 last season. Even if both return, it may be time to try other bodies on the top unit.

Do you see Meier, Labanc and/or Sorensen having a breakout season next year? Or anyone else on the Barracuda? (Colin Dunn @ColinDunnACA)

Someone better had, because this team needs to start getting younger, and soon. One of the bigger disappointments of the 2016-17 season is that none of them apparently showed the coaching staff that they were prepared to play on a nightly basis at the NHL level.

Timo Meier and Marcus Sorensen, I would surmise, are at the top of the depth chart as far as forwards go. Their line in the playoffs with center Chris Tierney was the Sharks’ best through the early part of the series with Edmonton. As for Kevin Labanc, I think he’s fallen a bit since he had a brief run of success for the Sharks in December.

While the Sharks did a good job stockpiling some young players through the 2013-15 drafts, they’ve traded away a number of picks in recent years. In last year’s draft they didn’t have a first or third round pick; this year they don’t have any picks in the second, third or fourth rounds; and in 2018 they are already without their second and third round picks. 

It’s great to accumulate young players, but at some point they have to break through. Now is the time.

Sharks, Robinson parting ways after five seasons

Sharks, Robinson parting ways after five seasons

After five seasons with the Sharks, Larry Robinson is leaving the organization.

Robinson, 65, spent the last three seasons as the club's director of player development. He served as an associate coach from 2012-14.

TSN in Montreal and the Montreal Gazette originally reported the news.

The Sharks confirmed that Robinson's contract would be expiring, and general manager Doug Wilson told NBC Sports California that the divorce was amicable, and "because of geography." Robinson lives in Florida.

According to the Montreal Gazette

Robinson’s contract with the Sharks expires on July 1, but agent Donnie Cape said Thursday that San Jose general manager Doug Wilson has given him permission to speak with other teams. Robinson lives in Bradenton, Fla., and the long travel distance to San Jose is one of big the reasons he’s looking for a new team to work for.

Robinson seemed to ponder retirement in 2014, but signed a three-year extension to remain in the Sharks' front office. He worked mostly from his home in Florida the past two seasons, making occasional trips to San Jose, including during training camp.

In the summer of 2015, Robinson underwent surgery for skin cancer.

Recognized as one of the best defensemen in NHL history, Robinson won six Stanley Cup championships with the Montreal Canadiens as a player, and holds the NHL record for playing 20 straight seasons in the playoffs. A 10-time All-Star and two-time Norris Trophy winner, Robinson was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995.

Robinson was the head coach of the Los Angeles Kings from 1995-99, and the New Jersey Devils from 1999-2002 and again in 2005-06. He led the Devils to the Stanley Cup in 2000. Robinson has nine Stanley Cup rings as a player and coach.

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The Sharks did not renew the contract of pro scout Jason Rowe, who had been with the organization for the past nine seasons. Rowe focused on eastern NHL and AHL teams.