| Impaired magic
Benefits tilt east
by Ken Smyth
The brutal truth about the San Jose Sharks'
magical improvement with Joe Thornton era is that the magic only works against
Eastern Conference teams. Against a western opponent, Joe Thornton might as
well be Joe Murphy (I was going to say Craig Janney but that's uncalled for
cruel). Something needs to happen to change the mojo here, or Sharkie will be
booking kid's parties a lot earlier than expected.
Everyone jokes about moving into the Eastern Conference? Why not? The timing is
perfect right now. With Lemieux gone and a Super Bowl victory in hand, almost
nobody in Pittsburgh would notice if the Penguins never came back from the
Olympic break, except the team accountant who'd be jumping for joy. Like the
idea? Find some pictures of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman placing a bet with
Rick Tocchet (or better yet, vice versa) and call Sharks GM Doug Wilson and
Victor Chi of the San Jose Mercury News.
Barring that stroke of luck, the Sharks are on a pace to clinch the final
playoff spot for the Stanley Cup about the time the World Series starts. This
assumes that other teams take the summer off. Right now the Sharks are not
playing like a very good hockey team or a very bad hockey team. They're
mediocre in the precise definition of the word, not unlike presidential
candidates. As they play lots of other mediocre teams they win and lose
roughly equal numbers of games. The points distribute equally.
The result is that none of the seven teams in the 55-65 point range (Ducks,
Wild, Sharks, Coyotes, Oilers, Avalanche, Kings) seem to be moving much
slogging it out for the rights to face a division champion in the three bottom
slots in the playoffs. Being at the bottom of that pile now, the Sharks either
need to play a whole lot better or kiss this season (and about 4000 fans a
night) good-bye and Doug Wilson gets to take a long hard look at the team he's
Oddly enough it's a team that loses the same way Sharks teams of a few years
ago used to win. Those old Sharks teams would keep the game close hoping to
put an opponent to sleep and capitalize on mistakes. The 2005-06 Sharks are
especially vulnerable to that same strategy. They do well in wide-open games
with lots of scoring, but not in tight defensive ones. Even if they make the
playoffs, they'll have problems getting through the first round with this
temperament. Playoff mojo always follows the team that plays well in tight
games with a hot goaltender.
You can put a lot of blame on lack of experience. Brad Stuart and Mike Rathje
are both gone, so it's been open casting call on the blueline. More guys have
suited up on the blueline than are in section 226 on weeknight games. Scott
Hannan, Kyle McLaren, and Tom Preissing are spread thin, even more so when one
of them is in the penalty box. Hannan's plus/minus suffered horribly early in
the season, first with Stuart having several bad games and then being paired
with whoever coach Ron Wilson judged to be the weakest rookie on a given night.
Most of these guys will get better with time, but that's running out.
Both Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton become unrestricted free agents at the
end of the 2007-08 season. We all like to think that any player we like here
will also like it here, but like Michael Corleone's guards, players are
businessmen. They're not going to be standing around Willow Glen singing "Our
House" (Crosby, Stills and Nash version in this case) if this team is still
Re-signing Evgeni Nabokov took a lot of nerve considering his inconsistent
performance this season, and the groin injuries that he doesn't talk about last
season in Russia. If he can regain the form he had in 2003-04 he could be a
bargain. Wait until next year? Maybe, and if the Pens really do move to Kansas
City there will be a spot open back east.
Contact Ken at Kenin210@eudoramail.com
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