Five questions for the Sharks' stretch run

564274.jpg

Five questions for the Sharks' stretch run

As the Sharks prepare for the stretch run and the calendar turns to February, here are five questions to ponder about the Pacific Division leaders.

Is the Pacific Division race in the bag?

Maybe not in the bag, but it sure seems like the Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings are the only two teams with a chance to capture that automatic high seed in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The division as a whole has taken a step backwards this season, as Dallas, Phoenix and Anaheim are all but out of the race for first place. The Kings, meanwhile, are the worst team in the league when it comes to goal scoring (2.16 per game), although a solid defense corps and goaltender Jonathan Quick help to make up for their lack of firepower. Its the Sharks division to lose, as San Jose still leads it with several games on hand with the Kings. They would be wise to wrap it up before the final two games of the season though, when the Sharks and Kings face off in a home-and-home series to conclude the regular season. Theres still a distinct possibility those two games will determine the Pacific Division championship.

Do the Sharks need to upgrade at forward?

Yes. As they stand right now, the Sharks' depth up front cant compare to fellow Western Conference powers like Vancouver, Chicago and Detroit. The third liners have had their moments, and Jamie McGinns 10 goals are a pleasant surprise, but players like Torrey Mitchell and Michal Handzus have been inconsistent. Injuries to forwards Marty Havlat and Ryane Clowe exposed San Joses offense, which struggled mightily with two goals or less in six of the eight games before the All-Star break. Whether or not the Sharks can make a move to upgrade the position will be determined in the next couple of weeks leading up to the February 27 trade deadline, but you have to believe Doug Wilson is seeking help.

How will the schedule affect the Sharks?

San Jose arguably has the toughest schedule of any team in the league from now until the end of the regular season. February includes a 16-day, nine-game road trip, while March has no less than 17 games on the schedule a franchise high for any month in team history. The Sharks wont be able to rely on goaltender Antti Niemi this time around, either, as Todd McLellan has remarked that Niemi may have been a bit tired when the playoffs began last April. Fortunately, he has Thomas Greiss at his disposal, and Greiss has been outstanding as the backup goaltender. Hell have to keep up his strong play, too, as McLellan is likely to give him at least six-to-eight starts during what is a grueling couple of months.

Will Havlat and Burns have better second halves?

Brent Burns, yes; Havlat...tough to say. The two big additions this offseason havent exactly performed up to their potential, leading many to question the trades with Minnesota over the summer. Still, Burns appeared to be getting more and more comfortable headed into the All-Star break, and was showing some of his flash on offensive by jumping into the zone to generate scoring chances. His defensive play has been very good for most of the year, but he can do more than 17 points in 47 games. As for Havlat, a hamstring injury will keep him sidelined until March. That will give him time to get back his skating legs as the team prepares for the playoffs, but the Sharks will simply need more out of him than they got in his first 26 games while wearing a teal uniform (2g, 13a). If they dont, and the team makes an early playoff exit, it will be safe to say that the Havlat acquisition was a bust.

Will the power play improve?

As well as the Sharks have played five-on-five this season, the power play was dismal in the two months leading into the All-Star break. With so much talent at forward and on the points, its difficult to determine why, although the team could probably be accused of trying to be too fancy at times. That includes Joe Thornton, who has thrived with a man advantage in his career but whose numbers are way down in that category. The power play runs through Thornton, and its a good sign that the Sharks captain has a power play assist in two of his last three games. If the Sharks are going to make any noise in the playoffs, the power play absolutely has to produce more than it has.

Sharks' Vlasic joins Canada for World Championships

Sharks' Vlasic joins Canada for World Championships

Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic will compete in the upcoming IIHF World Championships for Team Canada, it was announced on Friday.

The tournament runs from May 5-21 in Paris, France and Cologne, Germany. 

Vlasic, 30, a native of Montreal, has played in the tournament twice before in 2009 and 2012. He also represented Canada in the 2014 Olympic Games, helping it to a gold medal, and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, which Canada also captured.

In 75 games with the Sharks this season, Vlasic posted 28 points (6g, 22a) and a +4 rating. He was second on the team in shorthanded time on ice (2:04 per game) and blocked shots (146).

A pending restricted free agent in 2018, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson called getting Vlasic signed to a long-term deal an offseason priority for the club. The two sides can begin negotiations on July 1.

“Vlasic [is] arguably one of the best defensemen in the league,” Wilson said. “[He] is still one of the most underrated players in the league in the outside world.”

The Sharks lost in the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs to Edmonton, although Vlasic and partner Justin Braun helped to keep Connor McDavid in check at even strength. The league's leading scorer had just one even strength point in the six-game series, an empty net goal with less than one second left in Game 6.

Boedker tops list of disappointing Sharks depth forwards

Boedker tops list of disappointing Sharks depth forwards

SAN JOSE – The Sharks didn’t make any blockbuster moves last summer, content to make another run in 2016-17 with largely the same group that came within two wins of capturing the Stanley Cup.

They still acquired a notable player, though, when Mikkel Boedker was signed on July 1 to add an element that the Sharks knew they needed more of moving forward – speed. Boedker was expected to make the team faster, after the Sharks were exposed for not having enough of that against Pittsburgh in the NHL’s final round, as well as play in a top six role. 

At the time, it was hailed as a slick, under-the-radar move that wasn’t going to change the dynamic of the club but could help push it over the top.

When Boedker was a healthy scratch in games three and four of the first round against Edmonton, the evidence became clear, though, that this was a decision that fell flat on its face. 

Frankly, Boedker – who is signed for three more years with a $4 million salary cap hit – brings back visions of Sharks bust Marty Havlat. You know the skill is there, but the desire to use it on a nightly basis while showing any semblance of a battle level is lacking. 

Should the Sharks give Boedker another chance next season, or should they do everything in their power to try and move him? That’s a question that will likely be debated in the front office over the next several weeks.

On get-away day on Monday, indications were that the Sharks were planning on sticking with the 27-year-old, who finished with 26 points in the regular season (10g, 16a) and added one goal and one assist in four games in the playoffs.

“He has the things we’re looking for: his career scoring average, his speed, [penalty killing] ability,” general manager Doug Wilson said. “Did he meet the expectations that he had for himself [or] that we had for him? No. Can we get that out of him? Pete [DeBoer] believes we can.”

DeBoer has known Boedker since he played for him in 2007-08 in Kitchener (OHL). Despite scratching him in the playoffs, DeBoer said he saw “huge improvement” in Boedker throughout the course of the season after the forward spent nearly all of his NHL career in Arizona.

“There was an adjustment. He’s played 6-7 years a certain way in the NHL,” DeBoer said. “We’ve asked him to play differently here, and there was an adjustment.”

Boedker still believes that he can be a fit in San Jose.

“I think it will be and it can be,” he said. “It’s learning period, but you’ve also got to look in the mirror yourself and see what you can change and what assets you need to bring. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m ready to do that.”

The list of Sharks depth forwads that had frustrating seasons hardly begins and ends with Boedker, though.

Veteran Joel Ward’s production dipped from 43 points last season to 29 in 2016-17, although that probably isn’t too surprising considering he’s 36. Tomas Hertl is proving to be a streaky player, too, although his season was interrupted by another a knee injury.

The bigger disappointment came from players like Chris Tierney and Joonas Donskoi, who both made big impressions in the 2016 playoffs but struggled to produce consistent offense this year. Both were mentioned by name by DeBoer on Monday.

There are some promising youngsters in the pipeline like Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorensen, but it’s still too early to project any of them as can’t-miss scorers at the NHL level.

“I think we’ve got a large group of guys that I like, but need to step up,” DeBoer said. “Is Sorensen [like] Donskoi next year, where he takes a step back, or [does he take a] step forward? We’ve got a lot of guys that there’s a lot of potential there – Chris Tierney. 

“There’s a lot of those guys, but they need to have big summers and take a step, and show that they’re not just one season or one month players.”