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Impaired magic
Benefits tilt east
2/9/06 - 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 got.

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 moving sideways.

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

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