Put a fork in it (and other topics)

So the Sharks came off the loss at the outdoor game with a few days off to rest and regroup, looking like a team that desperately needed both. The team gave the players a couple of days off, then went back into practice with what Coach McClellan called a “mini training camp” to reintroduce and reinforce some of the fundamental details of the way the coaches want the team to play and to get everyone’s head reset back into playing Sharks hockey.

The early results against the Red Wings were impressive and encouraging. Unfortunately, hockey is still a 60 minute game, and the Sharks still seem unable to keep their heads straight for a full 60 minutes. After almost blowing the Wings out of the building early, Detroit kept grinding away, tied up the game, and the Sharks panicked and started losing their fundamentals and almost made it easy for Detroit to take the lead and put them away.

Then Ottawa came in two nights later and we saw the same thing happen. End result, two losses. Most estimates show the Sharks need to win about 2/3 of their games to have a hope of making the playoffs, and honestly, it just isn’t going to happen.

Today (Sunday) the players asked for practice to be cancelled so they could go off somewhere privately and hash this out. My take: it’s never good when you hear a coach use the phrase “mini training camp” in late February or March. It’s never good when the team is still trying to figure out how to play together as a team this time of year.

That said, the last two games had a lot of positives to them, although it’s a lousy time of year for moral victories. The team has shown that when it does play to McClellan’s system and play hard, it can play some quite interesting and good hockey. It just can’t do it for 60 minutes in a stretch.

Other good things: this is not a team that’s tuned McClellan and the coaches out. It’s trying. The work ethic is there. This team is trying and it wants to succeed. So where’s the problem?

To me, it’s two problems: Fatigue and Confidence.

Fatigue: The veteran players are playing too many minutes because the coaches can’t trust too many of the younger roster players in critical moments, and so those players get tired as the game goes along, and when you get tired, your reactions slow down and you make mental mistakes. The only younger player averaging more than 18 minutes a game is Brendon Dillon — but Brett Burns is over 24, Vlasic over 22, Pavelski and Marleau almost 20, Couture over 19. Scott Hannan, bless him, is playing over 16 minutes a game (and is +3 doing it) — somehow.

Players hit a long-term fatigue problem that isn’t solved by sleeping in the day after a game, or by two or three days off. Legs slow down, lactic acid builds up, you don’t make decisions as quickly and you don’t make decisions as well. Hannan should be 12-14 minutes max. I think Marleau would be more effective at 16 minute a game, and I’d love to cut a minute or two a game off of all of these players. But who on this team is ready to take on those minutes?

This is the challenge of a team attempting to rebuild around younger players and still win at the same time. Not all of the players are ready to take on big minutes — so the veterans take on more of the load. throw too much of that load on the veterans, and they’ll try, but end up faltering when the legs won’t move or the brain misfires. It’s not lack of hard work, it’s lack of precise work, and in the NHL, that’ll killl you. That the Sharks are consistently losing it later in games is a strong indication to me this is a primary issue, and there’s simply no real solution other than reducing workloads. Which you can’t do when your roster has players like Mirco Mueller (who is at 17 minutes a night but really should be around 12), and Barclay Goodrow (12 minutes) on it. Those are both really good young kids iwth potential, but the Sharks won’t win more games if the team starts playing Goodrow and Tierney 15 minutes a night to reduce some of the loads on the veterans. They’re not ready for it.

That’s the challenge with a roster transitioning to youth while still being committed to making the playoffs. The kids need to be on the roster and played to help them develop, but it’s hard to win if the kids are playing too many minutes, and it’s really hard on the veterans when they have to take up the slack. I give this set of players credit for trying more than I criticize them for failing. I think Wilson was right in the offseason when he indicated he wasn’t sure this team was playoff bound, and I think his later backtracking from that was because of pressure from his bosses more than a real change of mind on his part.

As another aspect of fatigue, look at Niemi. he had a couple of days off and then had a couple of strong games. I expected more out of Staylock this year, and his relative poor play has put a big load on Niemi, and that’s hurt his overall play. Niemi’s stats are in the bottom third of the league, and you aren’t a playoff team with that kind of goaltending — but Staylock is buried below that, so the Sharks don’t have a lot of options (Troy Grosenick, who came up for a  few days and played well, is hurt and not an option — this year).

Laurie and I have been wondering if Staylock is hurt; when you see him on the bench, one of this wrists is wrapped in a bandage. Is that just a support wrap, or is his really dinged up more than the Sharks have let us know? Is one reason we’re seeing so much Niemi is because they have to limit playing Staylock to avoid a more serious injury — and given they’re very thing on goal in the minors with Grosenick hurt, are they keeping Staylock active and not playing because they can’t afford to strip another body out of their farm clubs?

I don’t know, I can only speculate. But it seems to me Staylock should be playing more often, and that there’s a really good reason why he’s not — we just haven’t heard what it is from the team and aren’t likely to until after the season is over (if at all). And the lack of playing time for Staylock is impacting Niemi’s play, which is impacting the team’s play, and the team has limited options to fix this. And every time a soft goal or a bad bounce goes in, the Sharks as a team tend to get the vapors and then bad things happen. Because…

Confidence. And then there’s confidence. The mental state of this team is fragile. A mistake, a bad penalty, a bad bounce and a fluke goal, and this team tends to fall apart. It doesn’t give up, but players start trying to do more and they end up getting out of position or trying to make risky plays to make up for earlier mistakes, and that’s when pucks get turned over and end up in our own net. It’s not a fluke that we seem to see two or three goals scored against us in a short period of time. This team loses composure and detail when something bad happens — and that leads to more bad things happening. No easy solution for this, either: except winning. And you do that by winning ugly a few times, which right now, the Sharks can’t figure out how to make happen.

To me, the biggest problem with the Sharks is that they finally hit the point where they had to admit they missed the window with the old team and needed to rebuild for the next try — and we’re in the middle of that rebuild.

I’m tired of hearing about the Red Wings (revisited)

Can the Sharks rebuild and win? People keep pointing to the Detroit Red Wings and ask why the Sharks can’t do what they did? Let’s look at the playoff histories of two teams:

Team A

  • Lost quarterfinal in 5
  • Lost semifinal in 7
  • Lost quarterfinal in 5
  • Lost semifinal in 7
  • Lost semifinal in 5

Team B

  • Lost quarterfinal in 7
  • Lost semifinal in 7
  • Lost quarterfinal in 5
  • Lost conference final in 5
  • Lost conference final in 4

Team A is of course the Detroit Red Wings, who have made the playoffs in the last five years (and in fact, since 1989, longer than the Sharks have existed), but lost in the first round twice and the second round three tiemes.

Team B is the Sharks, who have made the playoffs five times (and have since 2002-2003 and only missed it once since 1997). The lost in the first round twice, the second round once, and the third round twice. They did, in fact, go head to head against the wings twice in those five years and beat them both times.

The thing is, if you look at the last few years, the Sharks have been better than the Wings and gone deeper in the playoffs, and beaten them head to head when they meet.

What the critics do is take a point back in time when the Red Wings did win their cups — a time when the Wings had Scotty Bowman on board, but one the Wings in fact haven’t seen either for seven years. Bowman, of course, is now with the Blackhawks, who have won two of the last four Stanley Cups.

The Sharks, for what it’s worth, have been ejected from the playoffs twice in the last five years by the eventual cup winner. The Wings have been ejected from the playoffs twice by the Sharks.

There are two lessons to be learned from this:

  • First, stop comparing the Sharks to the 2007 Red Wings. That’s now a historical comparison and the current Red Wings would lose to that team as well. The Sharks don’t stand up to the 1977 Montreal Canadiens, either, but then no team would, including today’s Canadiens.
  • Second, it seems the argument we should be having isn’t “Why don’t the Sharks act like the Red Wings?” but should instead be “How much would it cost to hire Scotty Bowman?” — just follow the cups, folks.

One of the interesting things about how the internet has changed things over time is that it’s both destroyed (or reshaped) traditional media forms like newspapers and at the same time allowed new ones to spring forth. It gives us a wider and hopefully more interesting set of opinions and information than we had back in the day when the only real access to your favorite team was through the beat writer of your local newspaper.

These sites and publications run the gamut from flamboyantly fannish to varying degrees of trying to sound and act professional to the math-filled, opaque (and to me, mostly unreadable) sites of the enthusiastic statheads. Since I decided to reboot my writing about the team, I’ve been doing some exploring to see who’s covering the team that I didn’t already know about and this week I ran into a site that’s new to me, the Gackle Report. It’s run by two Canadians relocated here to California who are trying to do serious and thoughtful coverage. I don’t mention the sites I check out often but I wanted to mention this one because it reminds me of something.  It looks a lot like the site I wanted to build but didn’t.

A decade — almost 15 years now! —  ago when Laurie and I were retiring from the mailing lists I took a serious look at whether there was an opportunity to build our an online site as an independent beat reporter covering the Sharks and hockey in general.

Ultimately I decided not to do it. At the time, advertising opportunities were limited, sponsorships were still in the future, and I was 40ish, married, had a good carrier and a job I liked and a mortgage. While I felt there was a possibility, it seemed to risky to me. If I’d been 25 and single I probably would have done it. If I was 25 today instead of in my 50’s, I’d definitely do it because a lot of the pieces needed to build and support this kind of operation now exist — not just advertising networks and sponsorship opportunities, but things like Kickstarter and Patreon.

For me, it’s fun to watch people figure out these new business models and try to make them work. Having spent a few hours working through the Gackle Report website and listening to a couple of their podcasts, I have to say I’m impressed. I have little tolerance for most Sports Talk — radio or online or podcast — these days because so much of it is two people attempting to out loud each other and so little of it is reasoned and informed discussion.

So while I’ve only known about this site for a few days, I can give it this recommendation: it’s the kind of site I’d build if I were building a site like that, and I think if you like the kind of writing I’m trying to put out here, it’s probably a site you ought to check out and see if you agree.

(footnote: before all the statheads start firing off angry emails at me, let me explain: I’m not anti-stats. They’re useful and I’ve been fascinated watching the NHL come to grips with understanding, using and now publishing advance stats like Corsi. Where I stop being interested is where the people start acting like the stats are more important than actually playing the game and when people grab a specific stat out of its larger context and try to prove some point with it that the stat can’t actually support [hello, plus-minus numbers].  Stats are a way for me to get perspective about what goes on on ice and while I love arguing stats as much as any sports fan, excuse me if I beg off when it turns into either fantasy talk or when the talk shifts to arguing about stats for stats sake…)

And that seems to be enough for one rant.. See you next time!