But again: The San Jose Sharks are chasing the No. 8 seed.
The winner of four consecutive Pacific Division titles is swimming upstream to make the playoff cut this season, one year removed from a Western Conference Finals appearance — and after an offseason that saw GM Doug Wilson load up for what looked like a Stanley Cup run.
What the hell happened? Who do we blame? And even if they make the playoffs, can they still challenge for the Cup? We asked a few of the best Sharks bloggers their thoughts on the matter.
Here are Gray from Couch Tarts (and on Twitter @CouchTarts); Doug and Mike from Dudes on Hockey; Jason "Mr. Plank" Plank of Fear The Fin (and on Twitter @FearTheFin); and Megalodon from Battle of California, giving us the what-for about the Sharks, their struggles and the potential aftermath if they miss the playoff cup.
Q. What the hell is wrong with the Sharks, to the point where they're on the playoff bubble? Who should we blame for this?
GRAY: This has been a topic of much debate lately. I wish I could point to one thing and say "fix this!" and magically the team would be OK, but I can't. After a lot of discussion, thought and the occasional argument, I think whatever it is has to be a personnel issue.
I know a lot of people want to point the finger at the coaching staff, but I really don't think they're the problem. Something is fundamentally broken or missing within the player group. They can't find it in themselves to get up and motivated. That's been an issue since Ron Wilson was in charge, it's not new.
Is it the culture in the locker room? The leadership group? I don't know, but something fundamental needs to shift and shift now.
DOUG AND MIKE: The current State of the Union in San Jose is the Sharks have frigid special teams, lack of consistent passion and an allergy to burying the biscuit. At this point, everyone is on the hook. Doug Wilson's moves for Martin Havlat, Michael Handzus and his trade deadline additions have not yet paid off. McLellan's bizarre loyalty to Colin White, trotting out a 7th defensemen in Jim Vandermeer on the 4th line over better players in the press box, and picking rookie Tommy Wingels to take a critical shootout attempt when season saving points are on the line make you wonder if he's been concussed for all of 2012.
And, of course, the players are the ones laying an egg night after night on the scoreboard.
We believe the universe has cursed the Sharks and we have done our part on our latest podcast to break the curse by offering a sacrifice. Yes, it has come to this...
MR. PLANK: The easy answer here is bounces because if you're looking at scoring chances, Fenwick, CORSI, and just about any other underlying stat you can wrap your head around it becomes pretty clear that San Jose hasn't been as bad as their record indicates.
Unfortunately, there are no gold stars or plaques or hugs or blankets knitted with care that are handed out to the best team to miss the playoffs at the end of the season, so blaming it on bounces isn't going to get you very far (along with causing a pretty nasty case of cognitive dissonance, but I digress).
The second answer to that is "just about everything."
When the Sharks were actually scoring goals, Antti Niemi was having a helluva hard time stopping pucks. Now, with Niemi actually playing pretty well over the last 6 or so games, the scoring has dried up and San Jose has shown a complete lack of ability to finish on their scoring chances. It isn't necessarily a case of everything going wrong at the same time-- it's a case of one area absolutely falling off a cliff while another stays constant, and that whole dynamic taking a 180 degree turn a week later.
Enough to keep things close enough to give you hope, but certainly not enough to win hockey games.
MEGALODON: So going into the season the idea was that Martin Havlat was going to plug the glaring hole in the Sharks' top 6 forwards (at points during this season, the top two lines were Pavelski-Thornton-Marleau and Clowe-Couture-TOMMY WINGELS). But the thing is, everyone knows Havlat gets injured all the time. It's the No. 1 thing people know about him. So he finally joined the Sharks (after finishing his rehab from his last injury) and played for a couple of weeks and then got injured (shockingly). So that really sucks, but it's not exactly unexpected, right?
Other than injuries (aside from Havlat, the Sharks have suffered a number of key injuries this season, including Douglas Murray's broken Adam's apple), the Sharks have struggled to get all the parts of their game going at the same time. The defense has looked great at times, but the offense has sputtered. Other times the team has managed to score but has been let down by the defense or the goaltending. Is that bad luck? Bad coaching? Some sort of voodoo curse?
GRAY: They need to find their motivation. They need to find their desire to fight and win. With the large number of divisional games leading up to the end of the regular season, the Sharks can make it into the post season. They could potentially even move into a position that would allow them to really have a chance to compete. The question is, do they want to compete?
DOUG AND MIKE: The Sharks are acting like Maverick after Goose died in "Top Gun." Joe Thornton is drinking water in airport bars without a shirt. Logan Couture can be seen sulking behind cool shades. They need to stop feeling sorry for themselves and get mad.
The Sharks players and coaches also need to understand they can't just set a system in September and ride it all the way to paradise. The Western Conference is too good for that. They need to adjust to other team's strengths and take advantage of their weaknesses. More importantly, the Sharks need to look in the mirror and adjust their own weaknesses. Acquiring three penalty killers in the last month (remember, they're 28th in the league), and then not playing them on the penalty kill, indicates an inflexibility that is infuriating.
MR. PLANK: Like I said earlier, they have to start getting some bounces. We've all heard about regression to the mean and understand what that entails, but over a 15 game stretch the gambler's fallacy may definitely be in play-- just because everything has come up tails for San Jose lately doesn't mean they're going to start getting heads from here on out. 15 games is a short period of time where randomness will reign supreme.
Outside of that, at least offensively, I think this team could do a much better job of getting to rebound opportunities. Opposing teams have done an admirable job of holding San Jose to one and done chances and collapsing hard to the net to take those "better" opportunities away. It may not explain the disparity between opportunity and results, but it has played a role in things going the way they have.
One of the scarier things about this has been the fact that San Jose's best forwards have actually been respectable as of late. Usually when a team hits a massive slide like this you can pin it on the top six, but that hasn't been the case -- San Jose's scoring depth and goaltending have been much bigger issues.
MEGALODON: All the other teams in the Pacific need to get a lot worse.
I don't think the Sharks are going to be able to put some sort of crazy run of wins together that will get them into the playoffs on their own - they'll need either Phoenix or Dallas or (preferably) both to start playing like the not-quite-playoff teams most people thought they would be this year.
Q. If they make the dance, can they still challenge for the Cup? Or have you seen enough where you feel the window has closed for this group?
GRAY: I'm always going to say yes here, because I think anything can happen in the playoffs. History may say otherwise, but low seeds have made it to the finals before, it can happen again. It may be hard, but it's not impossible.
It's been my belief that this team will make it to the big dance and win at a time when no one expects them to. One of their biggest mistakes was starting the "This is our year" campaign. No one knows it's your year until the year is over. I desperately want them to win, but right now, I just want them to fix whatever is wrong and get going. There's not much time left.
DOUG AND MIKE: If the Sharks get to the playoffs, it will be because they got hot enough to win critical games at the end of the season that will likely have a playoff type atmosphere. We've seen teams like Edmonton and Philadelphia take a wild ride from a bottom seed to the Stanley Cup Finals in the past few years. We believe this team has the horses to win it all, but the window of opportunity for this group is only one more year ... and maybe less if Marleau is out golfing with Roenick in April.
MR. PLANK: It all depends on Antti Niemi and Martin Havlat. Those two players are going to be absolutely crucial for San Jose both leading up to and (provided they make it) in the playoffs. Niemi has had a very rocky season and Havlat has missed about 2/3 of the year with injury.
If Havlat can come in and be the player that the organization felt he would be, the Sharks will have added a top-six player in a moment when they really need it. It's similar to the Sidney Crosby situation in Pittsburgh -- although Havlat clearly doesn't come close to the level of talent that Crosby has, nor have the Penguins fallen out of the playoff picture, both are important players that allow you to do many more things with your forward group.
I still think this team has to win the Pacific in order to go deep this spring — facing Detroit, St. Louis, or Vancouver in the first round on the road (and probably another one of those team in the second round as well) might not be a death sentence but it'd be close — but I still believe this team's window to compete for a Cup is wide open and up for the taking.
If they miss the playoffs or get bounced in the first round though, that window won't matter. Because considering how much overhaul management was willing to do after going to the Western Conference Finals two years in a row, that type of end to the year would cause a major house cleaning to end all major house cleanings.
MEGALODON:If all the pieces were in the right place and the team could get everything clicking at the right time, the Sharks could beat anyone. Niemi already has a Stanley Cup. The top five forwards have all had dominating performances in playoff series previously. Boyle, Vlasic and Burns are enough to give the team everything it needs on defense.
But how often can a team expect everything to go their way? Something will always go wrong. Players will always be injured (especially Havlat). Great teams find a way to win regardless. Right now, the Sharks don't look like a great team - or even a good one.
I think the Sharks have another two seasons or so in which they can realistically be viewed as Cup contenders, based on their roster. Whether they actually get their act together and make a serious run is in the hands of the hateful and bloodthirsty hockey gods.
In conclusion, [expletives deleted].
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