Before I get into things I'll quickly mention that Nick Petrecki was sent to Worcester in the AHL yesterday afternoon, bringing the roster down to 31.
The theme in last night's pre-season game between Phoenix and San Jose was similar to four of the previous five games this year: Close.
The Sharks record fell to 3-1-1 after losing in regulation to the Coyotes 2-1. Shots were dead even at 26, powerplay chances even at 3 and hits were 22-21 in favor of San Jose. David Runblad had a pair of helpers for Phoenix while Bracken Kearns scored the Sharks lone goal on a feed from James Sheppard.
Sharks head coach Todd McClellan summed up the game, and essentially the pre-season, with this comment:
"It was a good night for us to evaluate players. It was a tight game, with not a lot of space."
That quote could be applied to all of the Sharks pre-season games, with the exception of the Sharks 5-0 win over Vancouver, which leads me to my thoughts on the pre-season goal scoring.
The Sharks don't hover around the top of the league in goals during the regular season so it would be unjust to assume that would change in the pre-season when full rosters are few and far between. In the pre-season, though, that doesn't matter. A tight, close game allows for better evaluation of players in the pre-season.
During training camp the coaches prioritize evaluation of the little things, the things often left to the imagination in televised games. Sure, the Sharks would welcome a high offensive night on their side, but their system doesn't promote such a thing. San Jose's best opportunity to evaluate the depth of their roster is in close games where the staff can see how players' defensive games are, how their conditioning is and how focused they stay mentally when the game isn't out of hand for either side. Close games allow for your checking lines to match-up to top units who are looking to score, not just to ride the game out.
This year's pre-season have provided the perfect framework for evaluating the Sharks open roster spots while forcing players to dig deep each and every night to try and impress the head coach and his staff.
Browsing through last years statistics it's hard to determine what the Sharks missing pieces are for a run at Lord Stanley.
The case could be made for hitting and physical play, where the Sharks finished 22nd in the league last season in hits with an average of 21.5 hits per game and 22nd in fighting majors with 18. The problem with that is the Cup Champion Blackhawks finished dead-last in hits last year, seemingly obtaining the title of least physical team to go with their silver prize.
Defensive stats weren't an issue. San Jose was 2nd in blocked shots (800), 2nd in faceoff percentage (53.4) and 5th in takeaways (343).
Special teams did an excellent job last year, with the PP finishing 7th in the league and the PK slotting in at 6th.
Discipline was in the middle-10 of the league overall but the Sharks did climb into the top 10 in minor penalties, with the majority coming from lazy penalties (hooking, holding, tripping). This is one department where the Sharks could improve. Even with a top ranked penalty kill if you don't give the opposition several chances a game it's going to work out better for you.
The one glaring hole in the play of the Sharks last year was turnovers. The Sharks gave the puck away 477 times in 48 games last year, ranking only behind Toronto and Edmonton in that category. Puck control has to be of the utmost importance for San Jose this year and I'm sure Todd McClellan has that statistic bolded, underlined and highlighted.
Coincidentally, the Sharks top 2 players in the giveaway department are Dan Boyle and Joe Thornton, two of the three players who will be subject to trade rumors all season long. Thornton has long been linked to rumors to Toronto and there's a player on Toronto that would fit in the Sharks system with ease, Nikolai Kulemin. The talented two-way forward doesn't mind playing a physical game, plays sound defensive hockey and has a very good takeaway:giveaway ratio. I'm well aware of the salary cap, Joe's salary and the Leafs salary, I'm just using an example of a player who could help the Sharks in the intangibles department.
The question then would be who replaces Joe's offense? That's a question I don't have an answer to, and it certainly doesn't help the cause of chasing the Cup. If the Sharks are to trade Thornton, my wishlist would include, but not limited to, a Kulemin-type player, a defensive prospect and a pick.
It's difficult to pinpoint where, exactly, the Sharks are in the race for Lord Stanley right now. They're up against the cap, have key contracts expiring and look much like the Sharks of last season.
I don't expect to see the Sharks become more physical this season, they're currently averaging 0.5 more hits per game in the pre-season this year opposed to the regular season last year. I do expect them to be better, as a group, on turnovers and lazy penalties. The Sharks haven't been too far off from a Stanley Cup final appearance but it's the little things that have to be cleaned up before they can actually get there. A few less turnovers, a few lucky bounces and step-up offensive performances in the post-season could turn the corner.