There’s not a lot of margin for error in the NHL. And there’s probably even less in the West this year, where it’s going to be particularly tough to whittle the competition down to just eight playoff teams by April. That means the clubs that legitimately intend to contend probably need to get out of the gate strong, and they can’t afford many lulls over the course of 82 games.
The San Jose Sharks have certainly checked off that first box, winning their first three games in convincing fashion. They seem to collectively be buying what new coach Peter DeBoer is selling, while also working in new netminder Martin Jones. And all he’s done is allow one goal total in three starts. Not bad.
Of course, the unfortunate reality is that injuries could be a deciding factor in what will likely be a tight race out West. With so many teams entering the year with strong rosters and high expectations, simple math says a few talented clubs are going to be left out. Some might simply underachieve, but the quickest way to drop out of a race like that is to lose a key player for an extended period of time.
That’s exactly what just happened to San Jose, who will be without Logan Couture for the next four-to-six weeks. The gifted center suffered a broken fibula in practice on Thursday, and is likely sidelined until late November. That’s essentially a 60-point-per-year player that just disappeared from the lineup for the foreseeable future.
How the Sharks handle this first major test of the season will go a long way toward determining their playoff hopes down the line. A quick 3-0 start has them at the top of the Pacific, but they haven’t opened any sort of gap up over Vancouver or Arizona yet. Complicating matters even more, Anaheim and Los Angeles are stumbling all over themselves right now, and that just doesn’t seem likely to last. What looked like a three- or four-team race in the Pacific, could quickly become a five- or six-team race. And that doesn’t even account for any and all wild card contenders that could come out of the Central.
Granted, it’s early to be talking about the playoff race. Absurdly early, in fact. But when you start projecting another four-to-six weeks into the season, well, that’s not so early anymore. Jones has been phenomenal in net, but they probably can’t rely on him to post 50 shutouts this season, so they’re going to need someone else to step up and score in Couture’s absence.
Who are the main candidates? Joe Pavelski is once again rolling, leading the way with four points in the club’s first three games. If the last seven years are any indication, he’ll calmly deliver a cool 35-40 goals and 70 points, quietly slide right in among the top scorers in the league and somehow be relatively overlooked for any and all major awards at the end of the season. San Jose can feel comfortable leaning on him for some pretty stable production.
From there, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are usually pretty reliable as well, though one or both of them are due to drop off at least a little here at some point. They’ve both started the 2015-16 campaign well though, and there’s no reason to believe that drop-off necessarily has to come this season. So they’ll be asked to do what they normally do.
After that, there are some players who will need to raise their games. And chief among them is Tomas Hertl. As a rookie two years ago, the young Czech set the league on fire, notching 15 goals and 10 assists in his first 37 games — and doing it in electrifying fashion. His production fell off a cliff in year two though, as he registered just 13 goals in 81 games.
Now Hertl will slide into Couture’s role as the Sharks’ second-line center. That means more opportunities to score, but it also means more responsibility. Assuming the rest of the line stays the way it was before Couture went down, Hertl will be skating between Marleau and Joel Ward.
That’s an important line, and one that will absolutely have to stay productive for San Jose to stay afloat. And while that’s an intriguing trio on paper, you never really know how well players are going to click on the ice until they’ve actually lined up together in a game situation.
Beyond that, the third-line figures to become a little weaker with Hertl moving up. Matt Nieto and Tommy Wingels will have to adjust with Chris Tierney likely centering them now. And both the power play and penalty kill units will have to be shuffled a little as well. More pressure will fall on Jones between the pipes too, in addition to the defense.
If Couture does, in fact, miss exactly six weeks, that would have him returning on Nov. 26. At that point, the Sharks will be 22 games into their schedule. As long as they can at least tread water in that stretch, they’ll still have plenty of season to make up any ground they might have lost. If they can keep building off this nice start though, they’ll be in line to receive a nice jolt with a player of Couture’s caliber returning.
Suddenly, the next month or so has become more pivotal than originally anticipated in San Jose.