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Three reasons for excitement, concern as Sharks reach midway point originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
Editor's note: Sheng Peng will be a regular contributor to NBC Sports California's Sharks coverage for the 2021-22 season. You can read more of his coverage on San Jose Hockey Now, listen to him on the San Jose Hockey Now Podcast, and follow him on Twitter at @Sheng_Peng.
Timo Time still is ticking.
Punctuated by a Sharks franchise record five-goal eruption earlier this week, the wheels still are rolling on Meier's breakout campaign.
That might be the best news for the Sharks as they head into the second half of the 2021-22 NHL season.
At 21-19-2, the Sharks -- on pace for an 86-point campaign -- are hanging on to the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. This year has been a pleasant surprise, considering that the 2019-20 Sharks were on a 74-point pace in an 82-game season and the 2020-21 Sharks were on a 72-point pace.
Meier is one of three things that Sharks fans should be most excited about at the halfway point of the season. There's also three things that they should be very concerned about as the Sharks attempt to make a playoff push in the second half.
What hasn't been said about the five-goal man?
Underscoring his importance to the Sharks' offense, he's tied for the team lead at 21 goals with Tomas Hertl and paces the Sharks with 25 assists. He's got more even strength points (38) than Hertl has points (37).
Another way to look at it?
Per SPORTLOGiQ, Meier leads the Sharks in Zone Exits, Zone Entries, Shots on Net, Slot Shots, Cycle Chances, Forecheck Chances, Rebound Chances, and Offensive Zone Possession Time. He's second to Hertl in Inner Slot Shots and Rush Chances.
I'm running out of categories.
In all three zones, Meier has emerged as the Sharks' key offensive player and he's entered the MVP conversation.
Not just Team MVP -- Meier is in the midst of a Hart Trophy-caliber season.
The Sharks have shaved 0.4 goals off their Goals Against Average. Last year, their 3.50 GAA was tied for second-worst in the NHL.
This year, their 3.10 GAA is 20th in the league, on the cusp of average.
The improvement is reflected in the Sharks' goaltending: Both James Reimer and Adin Hill are above a .900 Save Percentage. The last time that the Sharks were able to get both their regular goalies over that hump was 2017-18.
They've done all this without sacrificing any offense: The Sharks are scoring 2.71 Goals Per Game, a slight uptick over last year's 2.61.
"Our team defense, how we collapse, how we don't give a lot of inner slot chances, that's a big improvement," Boughner offered about his team's first half.
The Sharks have struggled a little defensively since Christmas, giving up seven goals twice and eight goals once, but by and large, their underlying stats paint the picture of a reasonably stout defensive squad.
To Boughner's point, after 41 games, the Sharks were 12th in league in Slot Shots Against at Even Strength, per SPORTLOGiQ.
Since Dec. 5, Hertl has been on fire, his 13 goals tied for the NHL lead with Chris Kreider. He's potted a pair of hat tricks along the way, on Dec. 7 against the Calgary Flames and on Jan. 8 at the Philadelphia Flyers.
The 28-year-old centerman is on pace for a 41-goal campaign, which would be a career-best.
Meier might be the Hart candidate and the Team MVP, but his linemate is having a pretty special season himself.
Hertl is at the end of this list of biggest Sharks successes through the first half of the season -- and he's also at the beginning of their concerns.
Will the impending unrestricted free agent, their top center, be a member of the Sharks past the NHL Trade Deadline?
The Sharks are the only team in the NHL with two 20-goal scorers -- and they're still a bottom-10 scoring group.
The biggest culprits for a 23rd-ranked offense? The Sharks definitely expected more from Nick Bonino (one goal and two assists in his last 15 games), Noah Gregor (one goal in 26 games), Jonathan Dahlen (one goal in his last 26 games), and the injured Kevin Labanc (six points in 21 games).
There also are no obvious solutions for this scoring malady in San Jose, be it on the Sharks or the AHL's Barracuda.
If the Sharks miss the playoffs, this is likely to be the main reason.
The power play can make up for some of your lack of secondary scoring, but not so in San Jose. The Sharks are 22nd in the NHL with a 17.4 percent success rate.
The Sharks entered the season talking about having a shot mentality on the power play, but that mentality seems to have drifted away as the year has worn on.
In October, they were the fourth in the league with 116.43 Shot Attempts Per 60 at 5-on-4. Since then, they're 18th in the NHL at 92.77 Shot Attempts Per 60.
It's gotten so bad, they recently reunited Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson on the power play, an experiment that Boughner declared over in training camp.
But desperate times call for desperate measures for a Sharks power play that hasn't had any consistency since their trip to the 2019 Western Conference Finals. From Oct. 2019 to now, the Sharks have had the fifth-worst power play in the league.
Creating Scoring Chances
How to manufacture goals without compromising defensive structure is Boughner's big question.
“It’s simple hockey, go on the forecheck, put pucks in a good place, go get it back," Meier said about the team's identity in November.
The problem with this forecheck-first mindset? The Sharks don't appear to be a remarkable forechecking squad, at least based on their scoring chances generated from it.
Per SPORTLOGiQ, the Sharks are 22nd in the NHL in Slot Shot Attempts Off the Forecheck at Even Strength.
"We're doing a good job of getting in and getting pucks back," Boughner pointed out. "I think we just got to do a better job of holding on to them [and creating offense]."
The bigger problem? The Sharks aren't exemplary in any method of creating scoring chances.
They're 20th in Slot Shot Attempts Off the Cycle, 27th in Slot Shot Attempts Off the Rush, and 30th in Odd-Man Rushes.
They’re 16th in Slot Rebound Attempts but making your offense reliant on simply crashing the net probably won't solve your offensive woes.
This is another Sharks problem with no obvious solution, but at least with a forecheck-first offensive approach, you get the puck in deep, which helps your team defense because you're making your opponents skate the full length of ice the other way to score.