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The San Jose Sharks won in Montreal on Thursday, pushing their record to 4-5-1. In a lot of ways, it may seem like a step in the right direction. They now have points in five of their last six games after opening the season a dismal 0-4-0.
But even with that result, the team sits near the bottom of the Western Conference and, indeed, the entire league, along with a mishmash of teams everyone thought would be bad (the Rangers, Senators, Kings). Then there are a few who, like the Sharks, seemed to have at least a little more favor coming into the year (the Flyers, Wild, Devils, and Stars).
But the record isn’t some fluke thing: The Sharks just aren’t playing well in addition to having some bad luck offensively and predictable struggles in net. Even since they started winning, the Sharks have the second-worst expected-goals share in the league at 5-on-5. Only the success they’re having on the power play is keeping them afloat (17th in xGF%) in all situations since Oct. 10.
While the Sharks are (barely) out-attempting their opponents at full strength, the quantity and quality of their looks is among the worst in the league and they’re not playing good enough defense to make up the difference. Of course, as one might expect, their power play has been pretty good; they remain one of the best in the league at generating looks with the man advantage, but they’re not converting at the rate they arguably should given their talent level and so on.
You’ll recall that, last season with a very similar roster — they are, of course, minus a certain former captain — they were one of the most effective 5-on-5 teams in the league, among the best seen in the cap era. It’s hard to tell what, exactly, the problem is, but a big chunk of it seems to start at the back end.
Guys who were dominant last year, like Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, have been getting pushed around a little more. The Karlsson thing you might be able to chalk up to “he has other things on his mind right now,” given the circumstances around the birth of his daughter. Obviously he played behind Pavelski and Couture a good amount last year, which is going to help, and this year Tomas Hertl and Kevin Labanc aren’t up to the same standard, but his D partner (Brenden Dillon) hasn’t changed.
Can’t say the same for Burns, who went from playing with either Radim Simek or Joakim Ryan for much of last year to now having to lug around Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Last season, Vlasic and Justin Braun formed a shutdown pairing that didn’t do a great job of shutting people down, and this year it seems maybe it wasn’t just Braun that was the problem, as his numbers in Philly have actually been great in less of a “shutdown” and more of a “just take on the third line” role.
All of Vlasic’s numbers stink so far this year, and it’s the culmination of what now appears to have been a quiet but years-long trend. Pretty much everyone on the team has worse numbers with him than without him. Often by quite a lot. Some of that can be matchups and deployment, but there’s a Bart Simpson-esque “unmistakable Cone of Ignorance” for every WOWY, literally across the board. We can debate the efficacy of WOWYs another time, but the point is: Vlasic has been horrible and seems to make literally everyone around him worse.
There isn’t much you can really do here, of course. “Bury Vlasic on the third pairing or just bench him” would be a start, but it wouldn’t paper over the offensive issues entirely, though it would help more than you might think. Moreover, Vlasic isn’t the reason Martin Jones and Aaron Dell can’t make a stop, though again, he’s not helping.
And with Vlasic, who’s 32 and signed on a $7-million AAV through 2026, likely not going anywhere, the team needs other answers. A trade for a goalie might be a start, but it doesn’t fix everything. A new coach without lingering biases about Vlasic’s past efficacy as a shutdown guy could put a new system into place to both maximize everyone else’s effectiveness and provide cover for Vlasic’s clear weaknesses.
Playoff hopes are already fading. They’ll need to play well above a 100-point pace the rest of the way just to qualify. Fingers are already being pointed. Couture called out Labanc and Timo Meier for a bad change in OT against Buffalo. Peter DeBoer’s seat has to be heating up to uncomfortable levels. The goaltending situation seems unlikely to be sorted out any time soon.
All for what might be one last kick at the can for the core that did so much for the franchise over the years. Doug Wilson almost certainly understands what the problems here are, but whether he has the power or inclination to address them before it’s too late is another matter entirely.
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