As the second-place team in the Pacific Division, San Jose hosts the third-place Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs Thursday. They will be lucky to have home-ice advantage in any of the potential three more rounds.
Does this qualify as a disappointment? Grading a team correctly requires taking context into account.
The Sharks finished with the third-most points (111) in franchise history. They endured multiple games with seven forwards (and one defenseman) out with injury and battled through the toughest road through the 2013-14 NHL season between the most travel miles and fifth-hardest strength of schedule among serious contenders previously examined in this column March 31.
At the same time, San Jose's perceived inability to show up against weak foes like the Nashville Predators, Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes (one total point in seven games against three of the seven-weakest non-rivals) qualifies as a disappointment. Even a .500 record in those games would have meant the Pacific Division title and top seed in the Western Conference.
On the other side of the ledger, few teams benefited more from shootouts that are not part of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Only the Washington Capitals won as many (10), and those came with four more losses. No other teams had as many shootouts, so only four teams finished further above .500.
Overall, this was still an impressive season. The Sharks were third in blocked shots, sixth in shots allowed, third in the ratio between them (shots/block) and had the fifth-fewest goals against on the 2013-14 NHL season. They were also third in takeaways and second in faceoff percentage, mitigating their fourth-most giveaways because of the time of possession.
This is also a disciplined team. Not only did San Jose spend the least time shorthanded in the NHL, it finished the season sixth in penalty kill proficiency to give up fewer power play goals overall than any other team. Add in that there are only nine teams with more shorthanded goals and the resulting 25 more goals allowed than scored rank best in the league.
The power play naturally had some struggles with all the players out, and it finished the 2013-14 NHL season barely out of the bottom third of the league at 17.2 percent. However, it got back on track by April as more healthy players returned. Since only one team had more power play opportunities than the Sharks, only six teams finished with more goals and only nine had a better differential (50 goals minus six allowed shorthanded).
San Jose's plus-44 is the second-best special teams goal differential in the NHL (the Pittsburgh Penguins are plus-50). That did not come all from the defensive end—no team shot as much (34.8 shots per game) and only five teams scored more (2.92 goals per game).
The Sharks have 10 players with at least 10 goals and have 16 players that averaged over a point per four games. That is balance between defense and scoring as well as primary and secondary production.
When a team is in the top-20 percent of the league and among strong contenders for the 2014 Stanley Cup, that puts it at the bottom of the "A" range for grades. It was just a tough break for them that three of those teams are in the Pacific Division and six are in the Western Conference.
Here is how each San Jose unit breaks down...
Doug Wilson deserves a lot of credit for the young talent being developed as general manager of the San Jose Sharks. Last spring the talk was how bare the cupboards were, yet two rookie forwards scored 10 goals.
Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels were veterans that accomplished more than they were projected to. Tyler Kennedy was the only true disappointment, though injuries hampered a few others.
Still, the Sharks will enter the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs with the best third line in the NHL. They could scratch two former 20-goal scorers on the same night.
That depth is because of the number of great performances by forwards in the 2013-14 NHL season. The top four forwards are all among the top-50 in the world, and eight scored about a point per two games. San Jose has two of the top-10 shot-blocking forwards in the NHL, and two of the top-20 in takeaways.
Even without easing the grade for injuries, this unit falls just short of an A+.
The San Jose Sharks have one of the best defensive blue lines in the world. All seven players had more than one blocked shot per game while both Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun were among the top-30 in the NHL. There are good skaters and enough physicality for the style the team plays.
Vlasic has become an elite defender with offensive capabilities, making him probably among the 20 best defensemen in the NHL. Braun has graduated into a shut-down defender himself, with enough skill to not be a liability. Jason Demers has become a skilled offensive player that is trustworthy in his own end. Scott Hannan has played well enough to make Matt Irwin the odd-man out.
Besides Irwin, Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart have been disappointing in part because of injuries. Still, they have been assets.
What was lacking in this unit was elite point production. They combined for just 153 total points, with 70 of those being scored by Boyle and Demers. Vlasic (24 in 81 games) is the only other player with even a point per four games. Offensively, that places this unit still among the top-10, so overall it garners a B+.
Antti Niemi did not have a very good 2013-14 NHL season. After starting hot, he stopped fewer than one in 10 shots in 25 of his last 57 starts.
Niemi finished tied for second in wins (39) but only 18th in save percentage (.913) among the 30 primary starters. Despite the great defensive commitment from San Jose Sharks skaters, 10 primary starters have a better goals-against average.
As disappointing as Niemi was, he knows how to get things done in the Stanley Cup playoffs. His backup had never even started a game at this level before the 2013-14 NHL season, but Alex Stalock has certainly exceeded expectations by playing this well this quickly.
He has been good enough to fuel a goalie controversy. While Niemi struggles, Stalock has a 12-5-2 record, with a .932 save percentage and 1.87 goals-against average. He was brilliant against the potent Colorado Avalanche Friday. He also moves the puck as well as almost any goalie in the NHL.
Still, they are at least five teams better set in net and a few in the same boat. Hence, this unit grades in the high B range.
The San Jose Sharks have the best top-to-bottom coaching staff in the hockey world. Todd McLellan's credentials as head coach are solid, but his assistants put him over the top: Larry Robinson has won the Stanley Cup as head coach and Wayne Thomas has built this team into a goalie factory. Jim Johnson is a great defensive coach and Jay Woodcroft might be the best video coach in the NHL.
They showed their talent when they completed the transformation of this team from an offensive-minded team to a defensive one. This helped the Sharks rack up points while weathering injuries. They also deserve credit for putting their two rookies in positions to succeed.
This was a masterful job of coaching this season—in the discussion for best in the league. However, they cannot get the "plus" because the head coach will not receive consideration for the Jack Adams: A.