Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sharks Training Camp Preview

ZoneTag Photo Monday 8:30 pm 5/7/07 San Jose, California

The Sharks have to do a better job of protecting home ice this season

It is almost upon us. Teams are opening their training camps this week, and the Sharks begin Friday.

Okay, we are still over three weeks from any action that counts, but you can't blame a fan of the second-best team in the league (Both during last year's regular season and on paper this year) for being eager, can you?

Therefore, I want to take this opportunity to analyze what to expect of the Sharks this season. What things will be familiar? What things will be different? What things better change? I will examine three of each.

The Familiar

  1. Joe Thornton's passing: No one dishes the puck with Joe's skill. No one uses the half-boards with better efficiency. No one screens a defender from the puck better with his body. No one knows where his linemates are better. There may be players that can compare in one or more of those departments, but Joe's ability to excel in all of them is why he has led the league in assists since the lock-out ended.
  2. Size and speed: The Sharks have been one of the league's biggest and fastest post-lockout teams. They lost some bulk when Craig Rivet was traded to Buffalo, but Blake is bigger, and Lukowich is much bigger than Campbell or Carle. They lost speed on the blueline when Matt Carle was traded to Tampa Bay and Brian Campbell signed with Chicago, but Rivet was slow and Dan Boyle is no sloth-on-ice; with the increased ability of their new line to move the puck, the forwards (virtually the same unit as last season) can release more quickly.
  3. Evgeni Nabokov's Net-minding: Nabby may suffer a bit because of the team's new emphasis on offence, but he will still be aided by solid defencemen and some of the best defensive forwards in the game. Nabokov had one of his best seasons last year, and there is no reason to expect that to change.

The Changes

  1. Defencemen involved in the offence: Last year, the Sharks defencemen had about two-thirds as many shots on net as the team McLennan was an assistant coach for, the Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings. Obviously, General Manager Doug Wilson thought it was no accident that the Wings had more success, and blamed two things for that failing on the part of the Sharks: coach Ron Wilson and the blueline personnel. That is why he made changes to both. Rob Blake and Dan Boyle are two of the most effective defencemen in the NHL on the offensive end.
  2. Active Power Play: Despite the Sharks having one of the most effective power plays in the regular season each of the last two years, they have been shut down in the playoffs. This is because with a passer like Thornton, it is easy to exploit weak penalty kills and even some not so weak who may not make as many sacrifices in the regular season. But cross-ice feeds don't get through in the post-season, as defenders will be much more selfless and aggressive in stopping the puck. Expect to see the Sharks, accustomed to standing around and passing the puck around the perimeter, to move around much more and block the goalie's view like the Red Wings do so successfully.
  3. More of Brian Boucher: Nabby should be fresher because new coach Todd McLennan will have a very capable back-up for the whole season, unlike last year when Thomas Greiss and Dimitry Patzold had almost no NHL experience and coach Ron Wilson was reluctant to play them. Then again, he rarely played Boucher once he was signed, but McLennan has already indicated he wants to make sure he has two goalies rested and ready for the playoffs.

What Changes Better Follow

  1. Full effort every minute: One of the most frustrating things about Team Teal is its unwillingness to play 60 (or more) minutes every game. When they are on, they can truly dominate. Then they will let a team back in because they take a shift or two off, ruining all the hard work they've put in.
  2. Rebounding players: Doug Wilson has put his butt on the line for Patrick Marleau in particular, who has played poorly since the playoff loss to Detroit in 2007. He had a horrendous season in which his -19 rating was by far worst on the team, and he finished with just 48 points; one or the other might be forgivable, but the combination had many (including yours truly) calling for him to be traded. But he is not alone: Mike Grier had a horrible post-season, Jonathan Cheechoo (battling a sports hernia) had a slow start, Kyle McLaren couldn't stay healthy, and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic fell from +13 to -12, second worst among regulars on the team.
  3. Regular season success translating in the playoffs: This is obviously the big one, and with the above changes it should be expected. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, so that is why management changed some personnel and, more importantly, coaches, thereby changing their gameplan.

But there are other things that have to change to make this come about. The last three years, this team has bowed out because of a lack of guts (quitting after Raffi Torres' cheapshot), spine (losing their will after Robert Lang's late game-tying goal when the Sharks were on the verge of clinching), and heart (not showing up early in either round with determination and focus).

This is one of the reasons their new personnel also are known for grit and leadership...and championships. The question is whether they will be enough to change the culture of playoff failure in San Jose. We will not have that answer until hopefully June.

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