Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sharks Dominate League One-Third of Way Into Season

Now that we are a third of the way through the season, most of what we see is more than a mere streak, it is an indication of what to expect the rest of the way.

As a Sharks fan, this makes me really happy.

The Sharks are by far the best team in the league so far. And I cannot believe they are getting less coverage than the Boston Bruins.

Don't get me wrong, Boston is really good. But would even a Bruins' fan, among the most cynical of hockey fans I have come across, can honestly say they believe the Bruins will come out of the East, much less hoist the Cup.

Pittsburgh is too talented, and has more playoff experience to draw from on their roster despite being so young. And they're competing with everyone in the East right now without their best defenceman.

In the rest of the toughest division in hockey, there are the New Jersey Devils, winning without one of the greatest goalies of all time. The bad news for everyone else is he will be coming back before the playoffs to get his game ready, but will no longer be worn down from playing over 70 games. Then there are the New York Rangers, who are long on talent with a well-established goalie.

That's not all. The Montreal Canadiens are perrenial contenders who have yet to get an historically dangerous power play on track. The Washington Capitals are winning with half their roster and have arguably the best player in the world.

Boston will make it to the playoffs. They might even be good enough to win their division, which will allow them to probably allow them to avoid any of the above teams in the first round and get to the second. But that's as far as they will go.

Why? Boston's Tim Thomas is a Vezina Trophy candidate, but he has no track record of playoff success. Historically those goalies do not fair well.

By contrast, the Sharks have Evgeni Nabokov. He is not playing as well as Thomas, but he won more games in the first round last season than Thomas has won for his career, and Thomas is older. Nabokov has won the Calder Trophy and was a runner-up for the Vezina Trophy last year. He has taken his team to the Western Conference Finals.

I know, I've heard it before: the Sharks are chokers. But I ask you, do you say that because they are, or because you keep hearing it? Let's really look at their "lack" of playoff success:

* In 2004, the Sharks made it to the Western Conference Finals as a surprise #3 seed after not being in the playoffs at all the previous season. They beat perennial contender Colorado along the way.
* In 2006, the year after the lockout, the Sharks made it into the playoffs as a #5 seed and lost to Edmonton in the second round. Granted, Edmonton was a #8 seed, but a vastly different team at playoff time because they had made a trade that brought in Dwayne Roloson to solidify their defense. They not only beat the President's Trophy winning Detroit Red Wings in the first round, they would have won the Cup had Roloson not gotten hurt (Ty Conklin replaced him and mishandled the puck, giving a goal to Carolina in a game they needed overtime to win).
* In 2007, once again as a #5 seed, the Sharks lost to the top-seeded Red Wings.
* In 2008, San Jose failed to show up with enough intensity early in the second round against the Stars (and in a couple games in the first round), digging themselves a hole they could not emerge from. This got coach Ron Wilson fired and half the blueline replaced, forcing the Sharks to spend up to the salary cap for the first time since it was instituted.

Thus, San Jose is not even the same team. For the first time in years, this defence has experience to match its talent on the blueline, with three Stanley Cup winning players. And there is still more depth among the forwards than anywhere else in the NHL.

Let's just look at a few ways this team stands head-and-shoulders above most of the league:

1. The Sharks average the most shots on goal in the league AND are in the 90th percentile in shots against, easily giving them the best shot differential in the NHL.
2. San Jose leads the league in scoring from the blueline, while in previous years they were among the lowest in the league. There are four defencemen (Rob Blake, Dan Boyle, Christian Ehrhoff, and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic) who are among the top thirty in the league, meaning they have outscored all defenceman on many teams. Two are in the top ten.
3. The Sharks have seven players with over 20 points.
4. San Jose has the best goal differential in the league, and is one of only two teams to out-score opponents by more than a goal a game (Boston is the other).
5. HP Pavilion, home of the Sharks, has assured the Sharks of at least one point in every contest since February 14, 2008. This year, the team is 16-0-2 in the friendly confines.
6. San Jose is in the top quarter of the league on both the power play and penalty kill.
7. Only Minnesota in the West has allowed fewer goals per game, and only Boston in the East.
8. No one has scored as many goals as San Jose, who is averaging 3.78 per game.
9. San Jose is an astounding 19 games over .500, five games better than Boston and Detroit and 14 better than the second place team in the Pacific division.
10. The Sharks have the most points through 26 games in NHL history, and the fifth-best record if all overtime games were counted as ties as they used to be. All four other teams made the Stanley Cup Finals, and two of them won it.

This is not to say they should start etching names on the Stanley Cup right now. It is the greatest trophy in sports because it is so hard to earn.

Detroit is still a serious contender, and I had them as the league's top team before the season started. Any of the above-mentioned Eastern teams, with the easier travelling schedule and easier playoff run, could be a tough finals match-up if the Sharks get there.

I just hope everyone keeps talking about one reads my columns anyway, do they?


Angie said...

I just read the column. :)

MJ Kasprzak said...

Thanks--now keep the Sharks success on the down-low! :)