‘Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions. The San Jose Sharks can win the 2017 Stanley Cup by keeping the following five…
Every time the calendar flips, people think about personal improvements. The San Jose Sharks are one body looking to get two more wins this June than they had last.
The current standings show the Sharks leading the Pacific Division 37 games into the 2016-17 NHL season. They have endured their two longest road trips (both in games and miles) and overcame a rash of forward injuries.
That is enough to make San Jose a Stanley Cup contender. Rising above half a dozen other contenders requires getting better in key areas. With that in mind, here are five New Year’s resolutions that would collectively bring the franchise its first title.
1. Improve Faceoffs
The Sharks are a puck possession team. The easiest way to keep the puck is to take possession of it after every whistle.
San Jose was the second-best faceoff team (Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes) from the 2006-07 NHL season through last. So far, only the Columbus Blue Jackets and Winnipeg Jets are worse this year.
The Sharks dropped to a modest 50.7 percent last season— the first season under new head coach Peter DeBoer. Still, that was good enough for seventh.
So why the precipitous drop to 47.8 percent just one year later? Most of that is attributable to one player: Logan Couture.
San Jose’s other forwards are 50.1 percent in the circle while Couture is 38. He won 47 percent last season while the rest of the team won 51.2.
If Logan Couture was winning faceoffs at the same rate as last season, he would have a whopping 37 more wins. That would put the Sharks at 49.5 percent as a team—good for 16th in the league.
2. Time to Rest
As has been laid out here before, goalie Martin Jones needs rest if San Jose is to win a Stanley Cup. The evidence is overwhelming.
For one, Martin Brodeur is the only goalie in at least 40 years to win a title after starting over 83 percent of his team’s games. (He did it twice.)
The Sharks have also had bad experiences with overworked goalies. Postseason performances dropped all three times they had a goalie play over 68 games. Antti Niemi also had his worst playoff after starting 36 of the last 37 games in the 2010-11 NHL season.
Backup Aaron Dell has earned a chance to start more. He is an amazing 4-1-0 with a .936 save percentage and 1.78 goals-against average in his first NHL season.
San Jose has 11 back-to-back sets left this season. If Dell does not start one game of at least 10, Jones will exceed the “magic number” of 68 starts. (Note that Brodeur accomplishing the feat proves it can be done and is thus no magic number.)
3. Youth Play
Similarly, the Sharks need to give more chances to their young skaters. They have a great deal of talent deserving of an opportunity.
Rookie forwards Kevin LaBanc and Timo Meier have already shown what they can do with an opportunity. Near-rookie Dylan DeMelo has looked good in limited action during the 2016-17 NHL season. Young blue-liner Mirco Mueller should get his first start of the season (per the San Jose Mercury News) Tuesday, Jan. 3.
San Jose even has options in net, with Troy Grosenick playing well in his NHL debut and in his first season as an AHL starter. Thus depth should not be acquired at the trade deadline unless there is a season-ending injury to someone in the top half of the depth chart.
The young forwards must stay in the lineup when Tomas Hertl is off injured reserve. Mueller should be given a chance to keep playing until Marc-Edouard Vlasic returns from injury. Finally, DeMelo should play even afterwards.
There is also forward talent with the San Jose Barracuda that deserves a chance to play if there are other injuries. Ryan Carpenter and Daniel O’Regan have already gotten looks this season. Barclay Goodrow and Nikolay Goldobin have made NHL appearances over the last two seasons and are playing well in the AHL.
4. Pass Less, Shoot More
The Sharks are among the most prolific shooting teams this 2016-17 NHL season. Only two teams have outshot their opponents more often. Only six average more full-strength shot attempts. They have been among the top teams in shooting percentage while games are close all season.
That does not mean San Jose should not shoot more. There are key times the team tends to look for the skilled, pretty play instead of keeping the game simple. That will lead them from the bottom third of the league in scoring to the top half. That is good enough for an elite defensive team to win a Stanley Cup.
Shooting more applies most to Joe Thornton and the first unit of the power play. It is why DeBoer moved Patrick Marleau to the second unit and promoted Joel Ward for his superior net-front presence.
Attacking the net will result in more man-advantage success. Specifically for Thornton, shooting more will open up passing lanes and keep defenders honest.
The Sharks should see this evidenced in watch the success of their rookies. They keep their game simple and fire the puck on net, resulting in scores.
LaBanc has scored five goals in his last 11 games. Meier scored his first NHL goal on his first shot, putting home a rebound.
5. Stay Healthy
This may seem something that is out of San Jose’s control, but it is not. It comes down to managing the roster.
Key players can be given more time off in lopsided games. This applies especially to the six Sharks that are over 31 years old.
In addition, DeBoer must resist the urge to shorten the bench except in tight games against other Pacific Division contenders. Continuing to give his players timely days off also helps. Managing travel and lodging as well as nutrition and morale will result in better roster health.
If San Jose can stick to most of these resolutions, it will win the Pacific Division. If it accomplishes all through June, it brings home a Stanley Cup.