Sports

Inside the Tank: Figuring out the Enigma of the 2015-16 San Jose Sharks

By Brian Brownfield-

In sports, home-field advantage is a real thing. According to The Fix is In by Brian Tuohy, all sports teams enjoy this advantage. Specifically in the National Hockey League (NHL), home teams win their games about 56 percent of the time. Having the hometown fans on your side, playing inside the friendly-confines of your home stadium,  with some rules to aid the home team all gives them the advantage over visiting teams. For instance, home teams in all leagues get to choose which direction they want to go on the field. In Major League Baseball, the home team gets the last chance to win the game. These create legitimate opportunities for them to have more success than their visitors. For years, the San Jose Sharks have been one of the best teams in the National Hockey League (NHL) on their home-ice. The SAP Center, adoringly known as the Shark Tank, had once been a feared venue for opposing teams to play. Not anymore. Last year, the Sharks had their first losing record at home since the 2002-2003 season and this year have the third-worst home record in the NHL. What happened to the fear that the Shark Tank used to impose on opponents?

Every Sharks fan knew it was going to be an interesting season after firing longtime head coach Todd McLellan and hiring former New Jersey Devils head coach Peter DeBoer. After missing the playoffs last season, expectations were different for the Sharks this season with a bit of a younger lineup. Most notably, fans will look inside the net and no longer see goalie Antti Niemi, who was traded and eventually replaced by former Los Angeles Kings backup goalie Martin Jones. A lot of questions about the team were put on ice early, as the Sharks came out of the gates hot, winning their first four games. Reality soon settled in, and the Sharks have since been one of those teams that is very streaky. They can win five games in a row and look like one of the best teams in the NHL, and then lose five games in a row and everybody wonders what happened. Truth be told, it’s almost impossible to explain how this team can play that way.

No team has a larger difference from playing at home versus on the road this season. The Sharks home record is 9-12-1, but on the road they are 16-6-2. Statistically, this gives the Sharks a winning percentage of .375 at home and .696 on the road. The difference between the two is -.321, easily the largest gap between winning percentages in the league. Only eight teams in the NHL have better records on the road than at home, but five of those teams have winning percentages at home better than .500. What’s really going on behind these percentages for San Jose?

Historically, the Sharks have been a team that plays well as a cohesive unit. From season to season, roster turnover was not very high. The first line would always have the same five guys, the second line would always have the same five guys, and so on. Chemistry helped make the Sharks one of the most feared teams in the NHL during the regular season. Some hockey analysts might disagree with that statement, but getting ice time with the same group of players helps build trust and confidence. If a team does not have this chemistry, it is much harder to be successful as a unit. Now let’s be clear, the Sharks are not in a rebuilding season of any kind. But in the final season under McLellan, and in the first season with DeBoer at the helm, the roster has seen significant changes. Gone are the likes of Dan Boyle, Antti Niemi, and Andrew Desjardins, and in are fresh faces like Tomas Hertl, Joel Ward, and Martin Jones. The Sharks may be tinkering their roster slightly to try and find a magical combination that will get them their first Stanley Cup title, but these changes are largely cosmetic.

But chemistry can’t be the only reason the Sharks have lost their home dominance. Perhaps this San Jose Sharks team just isn’t as good as it used to be. The best players on the team are getting up there in age; Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Joel Ward are all at least 35 years old. Hockey is one of the most physically demanding sports, which makes it difficult to play the older you get. When Thornton and Marleau were in their prime (Ward was acquired before the 2015-16 season), the Sharks had one of the most formidable offenses in the NHL. Now that these players are on the downside of their careers, their performance is dropping. The only problem is, this still doesn’t explain why the Sharks have the best road record in the league but are so bad at home.

Sometimes all it takes is scoring first, and that is a problem the Sharks have had all season long. During their first thirteen home games, the Sharks gave up the first goal of the game nine times, losing all nine contests. Coincidentally, San Jose goalie Martin Jones has some of the best numbers in the NHL while on the road, but his record has been atrocious at home. While a goalie’s numbers may be reflective of how his team plays in front of him, it is interesting to note the difference in Jones’s statistics in San Jose and on the road. On the road, Jones is 14-3-2 with a goals against average of 2.25. At home, Jones is 8-10-1 with a goals against average of 2.61. To a non-hockey fan, that may not seem like a large difference in averages, but that slight difference plays a large role in determining the winner in a sport where scoring is low.

Many of you reading this article may still not fully understand how the Sharks can be so good on one end and so poor on the other. Look, I’m with you. It does not make a lot of sense and trying to understand it feels like getting checked into the boards, it hurts. But the Sharks have gone through their peaks and valleys this season, and despite all of their home struggles, they would still find themselves as the sixth seed in the NHL playoffs if the season ended today. And the scary thing about this Sharks team that we haven’t been able to say in the past is the way they can get streaky at any moment. Traditionally, Sharks teams have been really good all year long, but fade away at the end of the season and lose in the playoffs. This year’s team has not yet hit its high point of consistent hockey, or maybe they have. Nonetheless, they find ways to string wins together. That’s what it is all about in the playoffs, getting hot and just winning games. Even though there is a long way to go in the NHL season, the Sharks remain a puzzling team. While they are confusing to analyze, they are fun and intriguing to watch. And that just might bode well for them at the end of the season. If the Sharks can get in the playoffs and then get on a hot streak, the rest of the league might need to be careful. One good playoff run could bring the Stanley Cup title to San Jose, and Sharks could end the season on the ultimate streak.