The first two months of the 2016-17 NHL season are in the books. The following are the top-10 San Jose Sharks that must improve to win the Pacific Division:
Individual improvement is a necessary step to any team’s success anywhere in life. Two months into the 2016-17 NHL season, every team is looking for certain players to live up to their expectations. Hence Blades of Teal examines the top-10 San Jose Sharks whose improvement could bring them a Pacific Division title.
The resulting top seed gives them the best position to return to the Stanley Cup finals. The uncertain future of longtime Sharks like Patrick Marleau and the pending expansion draft increase their urgency.
Each player listed below has produced less than expected for one reason or another. San Jose’s scoring woes dictate that most of that underachievement is offensive, but not exclusively. Players are listed from the most-to-least potential for improvement along with reasons they can turn it around. All stats are courtesy of the team and league websites.
There is no debate as to which of the Sharks has underachieved the most over the first two months of the 2016-17 NHL season. Mikkel Boedker was signed to bring speed and scoring but has played tentatively and produced just five points through 28 games.
There is always the possibility that he is miscast. A Pacific Division scout familiar with Boedker in both San Jose and with the Arizona Coyotes described him to Blades of Teal as more of a threat on the power play than at full strength.
Still, there are many reasons to believe Boedker will get better. He is adapting to a new team and has three points in his last six games. He has also scored more than a point per two games in each of the last four seasons.
The Sharks made Joonas Donskoi their rookie of the year last season. Is he suffering from a sophomore slump or have teams adjusted?
That is hard to say with just one year in the league. So far Donskoi has just two goals and six assists over a third of the way into the 2016-17 NHL season.
However, he got stronger as last season progressed and still plays smart hockey. His puck-possession skills are invaluable and he will score more as the power play’s second unit gets in sync.
Veteran grinder Joel Ward has just two goals and seven assists so far. He is playing well defensively but is used to scoring more, having over a point per two games in each of the past four seasons.
He did just turn 36 but has only played seven full seasons. Look for his point production to increase as San Jose’s secondary scoring does.
It is really no surprise the 37-year old Marleau’s production is low. His points have been on the decline for two consecutive seasons.
However, seven goals and three assists is an unprecedented low. Marleau has only failed to exceed a point per two games in his rookie season, when he had 32 in 74 games. He is currently on pace to finish with 29 in 82. Expect the five points in his last 10 games to be more indicative of his production the rest of the way.
No one realistically expects Brenden Dillon to score much, but a lone assist over 27 games (he missed one) is too low. His worst previous full season was in 2014-15 when he was traded from the Dallas Stars.
Dillon has not played as well as hoped in the defensive end, either. He leads the team in hits but is only 10th in blocks per game, by far the blue-line’s worst ranking. Only two Sharks have a worse giveaway-to-takeaway ratio than his 8:1.
Dillon needs nine points over 53 games to match his previous season-low rate. That is a reasonable expectation, as is some modest defensive improvement.
Boedker is not the only fast-skating forward San Jose was expecting more from. Matt Nieto carried that mantle perhaps up until the 2016-17 NHL season.
Instead Nieto has been relegated to a part-time, fourth-line role. He has a chance to stay or even ascend if he scores more before Tomas Hertl returns from a knee injury to push him out of the lineup.
Great defenders are valuable, and Justin Braun has been that so far this 2016-17 NHL season. He is among the best defenders in the world and capable of moving the puck in the offensive end.
However, no goals and four assists is too low. Braun has never been below one point per six games and has been better than one per four in each of the last two seasons. Look for him to pick it up just enough to clear that hurdle.
Being on the list of Top-10 San Jose Sharks who must produce more is not an indictment of Kevin Labanc. Indeed, quite the opposite.
Labanc has played well so far and needs to stay in a lineup that lacks scoring. All four of his goals and both assists have come in the last 11 games. He has also been defensively responsible. That should afford him more ice time and a chance to produce even more.
Hertl has been injured and will be out into at least January. That means if he returns for even twice the 17 games before the injury, he will produce more than he has to this point. He has four goals and five assists so far and we can expect to see him finish with more than 10 and 12, respectively.
The Sharks have one other major potential source of additional scoring: Joe Thornton. He has two goals and 16 assists through 28 games on the 2016-17 NHL season. That is good production, especially for one of the team’s best defensive forwards.
Hwever, it is also near his worst production in this millennium—the 2014-15 NHL season. Then again, it is more than he had through 28 games last season (16).
That is precisely when Thornton came alive. He scored 66 points in the last 53 games and scored to lead San Jose in every win after American Thanksgiving. Even close to that kind of finish is probably good enough to lead the franchise to its seventh Pacific Division title.