Our friends and SBN compatriots, Fear the Fin, were kind enough to answer some questions for us and provide a
deluded helpful Sharks-based perspective heading into tonight's series opener. You can find Fear the Fin's extensive coverage of this playoff series here, and I suggest you follow them on twitter (if you like bad tweets about a bad hockey team, I mean).
Q: State of the Sharks: for those who may not have been keeping tabs on the Sharks this season, how are things going? Who's playing well/not playing well? What's working/not working with this team?
A: Essentially all of the team's most important players had standout seasons which is good, considering pretty much everyone else spent significant time on the shelf with various injuries. In spite of Tomas Hertl missing the second half of the season and Raffi Torres missing just about the entire year with
karma an ACL injury, the Sharks remained one of the league's elite possession clubs and were great on special teams, although their power play wasn't rewarded for it all that often. Joe Pavelski took advantage of the opportunity to play with Joe Thornton (along with a gift from the shooting percentage gods) by scoring 41 goals to finish 3rd in the league in that category. Marc-Edouard Vlasic had a fantastic season logging tough defensive minutes and still managing to post the 3rd-best shot differential in the league behind Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin. Brent Burns completed his transformation from top-pairing defenceman into top-line power forward by scoring 22 goals and regularly hounding opposing defencemen on the forecheck.
The negatives have mostly come down to health concerns (along with strange personnel decisions by the coaching staff) that have whittled away the Sharks' once-formidable forward depth at times. Beyond Vlasic, Jason Demers and Justin Braun, the Sharks' blueline is fairly thin seeing as Dan Boyle just isn't what he used to be. And Antti Niemi had the weakest season of his career, although he still wasn't far off from posting league-average numbers.
Q: The Sharks have bravely soldiered on despite their tragic lack of a first-line centre. What do you think the forward lines & defensive pairings will look like to start this series? Do you think that's optimal deployment of the Sharks' personnel?
A: We've seen different combinations from them in practice every day this week but I'd bet that they open up with
Vlasic/Demers, Stuart/Braun and Hannan/Boyle are my guesses for the defense pairings based on what they deployed down the stretch and were working with in practice. Assuming Hertl and Torres are anywhere near healthy, I think they're completely misusing their forward depth with these combinations. Sheppard has been a disaster at centre but some flukey on-ice percentages convinced the coaching staff he was competent there, so you can look forward to Jarret Stoll's line clobbering him throughout the series. Playing Mike Brown over Marty Havlat and Tyler Kennedy because he brings a "physical presence" (coupled with a sub-NHL level hockey-playing presence) is incredibly silly.
Ultimately, the Sharks' best chance at winning this series is if they can go three lines deep with Pavelski centring the third and Tomas Hertl back on the top line with Thornton and Burns where he belongs. On the blueline, I think the Sharks are better off icing Matt Irwin on the third pairing ahead of Hannan due to Irwin's value on the power play but, apart from that, these pairings are pretty close to the best they can do. That's simply not the case up front.
Q: Obviously Tomas Hertl's return is a big storyline for this series. What do you expect his impact will be?
A: "X-factor" is a term that gets painfully overused this time of year (log onto NHL.com and they have like seventeen different stories beginning with the label X-factor) but I think it's a pretty apt description for Hertl. The truth is that nobody, coaching staff included, really knows what to expect from Hertl. He hasn't played meaningful hockey in four months and if he's forced to spend the series with Sheppard and Wingels, it's very likely he doesn't make much of an impact at all. That said, if he can quickly re-acclimate himself to NHL hockey and find his way back onto the top line, he could be the difference in the series. Hertl and Torres are the two significant forwards the Sharks have at their disposal this time around that they didn't when they met the Kings last spring but if neither is healthy enough to be effective, history could repeat itself with regards to the series outcome.
Q: You've been doing a series on getting to know individual Kings players. Who do you think will turn out to be the impact players for the Kings?
A: Much like Hertl and Torres are the key new faces (or key faces that aren't suspended this time...for now, in Torres' case) for the Sharks compared to their matchup with L.A. last postseason, the Kings' new face is obviously Marian Gaborik and I think he gives Los Angeles an infusion of offense that they didn't really have last year. The Logan Couture line and Marc-Edouard Vlasic did a terrific job shutting down Anze Kopitar last May but the calculus certainly changes if it's Gaborik playing left wing on that line rather than Dustin Brown or Dwight King. I'm also probably going to piss myself every time Drew Doughty decides to go on one of his end-to-end rushes.
Q: In terms of the match-up, what areas do you think the Sharks compare favourably to the Kings, and vice-versa?
Special teams is key for the Sharks. They were the best team in the NHL this season, for the fifth year in a row, at shot generation on the power play but a brutal shooting percentage killed their PP%. I'd expect that to change going forward. They were the fourth-stingiest team at allowing shots on the penalty kill and they had the top differential between penalties drawn and taken in the NHL. The Kings were great at drawing penalties too but they were also awfully undisciplined and their special teams units look about average in contrast to San Jose's. The Kings are the better even-strength team and that starts with their blueline which is far better than the Sharks'. With Dan Boyle declining in old age, the Sharks don't have anyone who can match Doughty's two-way ability and their third pairing doesn't really compare to the Kings' Mitchell-Martinez duo.
Q: In terms of those comparative strengths/weaknesses, which do you expect to be ultimately the most impactful in deciding the series outcome?
If the Sharks win this series, I think their power play will have played a major role. As mentioned above, they couldn't buy a bounce at 5-on-4 in the regular season and the hope is that their luck turns around. If L.A. can avoid undisciplined penalties and keep the majority of play at even-strength, they should be able to dictate terms. But ultimately the deciding factor is whether or not Todd McLellan has his come-to-Jesus moment and uses the deepest forward corps in the NHL the way it was intended. If that never happens, or doesn't happen until San Jose is already down something like 3-1 in the series, L.A. should move on. If he's able to make adjustments early on in the series, I like the Sharks' chances.
Q: And, of course, your prediction - who wins, in how many games?
I'm contractually obligated to pick the Sharks in seven games. And that's really the only reason I'd have given you this answer if I was asked this question a week ago. But the return of Hertl and Torres to the lineup make me slightly more confident San Jose can pull this off, provided they're both healthy and can contribute in bigger roles than the ones they're currently pencilled in for. Either way, it should be an awesome series.
BONUS Q: Just because we all like to laugh at the Ducks, do you think they survive their series against the Stars to set up another California conference semi-final?
Hahaha of course not. So at least whichever fanbase ends up losing the Sharks/Kings series can take consolation in the fact that the Ducks will be going home too. Make sure to search for their fans on twitter for maximum therapeutic schadenfreude.