This season, the San Jose Sharks have gotten off to a great start. It hasn’t been unlike last year, when they won seven in a row to start the season. However, despite the lesser record this season (albeit still best in the league) this team looks much, much better than last season’s version of the Sharks.
But how? It’s still early, but there are quite a few differences already. And despite the fact that some of the team’s top guys like Martin Havlat and Raffi Torres have not played a game this season, the San Jose Sharks are clicking on all cylinders. What does help is that the defense and goaltending have been as strong, if not stronger, than last season. When you have a solid baseline like that it is easy to get off to a hot start. But now for the differences.
First of all, there is the difference in team speed. Guys like Matt Nieto and Tyler Kennedy are a vast improvement speed-wise compared to Ryane Clowe, Scott Gomez and Michal Handzus. It’s easy to see on the ice as well as on some nights the Sharks just look faster than their opponents. That speed also lends it hand to the forecheck, something which has been incredible for San Jose this season. The team as a whole is ninth in the league with 72 takeaways, partially due to the faster team which is taking away time and space from opponents in all three zones on the ice.
Another key this season for the Sharks has been their ability to get points from the blue line. Guys like Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jason Demers have really stepped it up this year and are making things a bit easier for the forwards.
Vlasic alone already has as many points this year (seven) as he did last year in 39 fewer games and is on pace to break his career high in points (36) which he got in the 2008-09 season with San Jose. Demers is also doing quite well with five points this season and he too is on pace to break his career high of 28 points set in 2010-11. Demers is also starting to get power play time on the top power play unit due to Dan Boyle’s injury, so expect those points to keep coming for him.
Also, once you add in offensive juggernauts (you heard right!) Justin Braun and Scott Hannan, who each have two goals already this season, and you can see what a difference it is when your defensemen are producing.
Probably the best indicator that this year’s team is better than last year’s team is their ability to score goals at even strength. Not only that, but the power play has remained just as dangerous through the first nine games of the season scoring 12 goals this season compared to 13 last season.
Again though, the difference is at even strength, where San Jose has scored 27 goals already this season; by comparison, the 2012-13 Sharks only had 13 even-strength goals, meaning power play goals accounted for 44.8 percent of their goals to start the season. This year that number is at 30 percent. In fact, the Sharks are the best team in the league so at both ends at even-strength so far this season with a 2.40 goals for versus goals against ratio when skating five-on-five.
Those numbers are in large part due to the top players on the team, but this year things are a bit different. The two rookies, Tomas Hertl and Matt Nieto, have stepped it up in a big way and have given some much needed offensive depth. Hertl started off really hot and had his four-goal performance topped of by the a goal of the year candidate while Nieto has gotten it done much more quietly, but still effectively. Combined the two have 15 points (Hertl with 10 and Nieto with five) and have filled the void left by Havlat and Torres nicely.
So as you can see, while there are plenty of the same names, the is quite a difference team from the one last year. They have pretty much improved in all aspects of the game without sacrificing what they were good at (mainly defense, power play and goaltending) and the end result is a Sharks squad that is poised for another Stanley Cup run. The trick though, which San Jose failed to do last season, is to keep it up for the entire season. We all remember last season’s squad who proceeded to lose five in a row after their red-hot start, then struggle to make the playoffs. If the Sharks are able to stay the course and play as strongly as they have thus far, this year could FINALLY be the year.