Derek from Fear The Fin was kind enough to answer a few questions about the Sharks, a team that still looks good even though they actually traded for Mike Brown.
Jeff Chapman: I'm jealous of Tomas Hertl, I want one for the Oilers. He's got sixteen points in eighteen games, his shooting percentage is near 20%, and he's caused at least one goalie this season to retire. He leads the NHL rookies in goals, points, and is tied for eighth in the league in goals. What's the ceiling on this guy?
Derek / Fear The Fin: Not to toot my own horn here (are the kids still saying that?) but I've been a big fan of Hertl's game since his draft year and actually picked him in the 2012 SB Nation Mock Draft before the Sharks did so at the real thing in Pittsburgh. Like so many forwards before him, from Jonathan Cheechoo to Joe Pavelski to Logan Couture, who fell to San Jose in the draft due to questions surrounding footspeed, what Hertl lacks in out-and-out skating ability he more than makes up for with tremendous vision, particularly through the neutral zone, terrific puck skills and an ability to protect the puck under pressure. The fact that he's been riding shotgun on a line with one of the best passers of this generation in Joe Thornton hasn't hurt his totals either and his 20.8% shooting percentage is a great bet to regress over the course of the season. But he's generated shots at an elite rate during five-on-five play and hasn't been a passenger when it comes to driving play on that line so it's probably fair to say his success is more than just smoke and mirrors, especially given that he put up impressive numbers playing against men as a teenager in the Czech Elite league. Before the season started, I would have been thrilled with Hertl eventually developing into a second-line scorer but it seems possible he could top out even higher than that. If he can establish himself as a first-liner that would certainly help counteract the problems the Sharks will face in the near future with their key forwards reaching the wrong side of 35.
JC: A little while ago, the Oilers traded Mike Brown to the Sharks. How's he held up since joining San Jose?
DFTF: Given that he's been a healthy scratch the past two games despite the Sharks still being short two forwards up front in Brent Burns and Raffi Torres, poorly. The move to acquire him never made much sense to begin with; Brown's usefulness in the non-facepunching aspects of the game appeared to be steadily declining through his stints in Toronto and Edmonton to the point where some of the Sharks' AHLers like John McCarthy and Freddie Hamilton are clearly better options. The entire notion that the Sharks needed to replace the injured Adam Burish seemed flawed given that Burish was probably the team's worst regular forward last season. Brown has essentially come as advertised: a forward with good speed and a better moustache (albeit one he recently shaved off) but with nowhere near the hockey sense to be anything more than a possession anchor. The coaching staff wised up to this and have had him watching from the press box in favor of McCarthy as of late.
JC: Who is your biggest surprise so far this year? Biggest disappointment?
DFTF: Marc-Edouard Vlasic has probably been the team's MVP so far but it's hard to call him a surprise at this point so I'll go with his most frequent partner in Justin Braun, who actually leads the team in average ice time by nearly a minute and a half per game. The uptick in usage is a good indication of how much his play has improved since fully recovering from the hamate bone fracture he sustained during the lockout. Braun has done much more than merely ride Vlasic's coattails at even-strength and has been a major reason that pairing is so effective at turning play the other way against the league's best forwards. He is tasked with the bulk of the zone exit work when paired with Vlasic and manages to succeed in that area on a consistent basis despite being predominantly deployed against opposing first-liners. The biggest disappointment so far has been Brad Stuart, who Braun has been paired with over the past two games since the coaching staff broke up the Vlasic/Braun partnership. Despite Stuart starting more even-strength shifts in the offensive zone than his own end, the Sharks earn just 50.5% of the shot attempts when he's on the ice in score-close situations as opposed to 56% when he's off it. Last season, his first in teal since being traded for Joe Thornton in 2005, Stuart's play was unimpressive but I mostly wrote it off as a result of being paired with the likes of Douglas Murray and Scott Hannan. So far this season, he's struggled regardless of his partner and looks to no longer be a top-four option. Not helping matters is that Matt Irwin, who was an important part of the blueline last season, has fallen out of favor with the coaching staff after a brutal road trip earlier in the year. If the Sharks are to make a move at some point this season, I have to think it will be to acquire a left-side defenseman who can competently play second-pair minutes.
JC: The Sharks stormed to the top of the West to begin the season, but have since cooled a little going 4-2-4 over their last ten. What's different now than in October?
DFTF: They haven't had Brent Burns for any of those games so that's far and away the biggest reason. Since the start of the shortened 2013 season, the Sharks are 21-9-2 and average 3.25 goals per game with Burns in the lineup as a forward but are just 16-9-10 and average only 2.51 goals per game with Burns either out of the lineup or in the lineup as a defenseman. Obviously not all of that is his doing but Burns is largely the straw that stirs the drink for the Sharks in terms of scoring and driving play at evens. Last season, only Sidney Crosby averaged more points per 60 minutes five-on-five than Burns among forwards who played at least 300 minutes. Beyond the loss of Burns, the Sharks went through a stretch of sloppy play in their own end extending from their win in Ottawa to their shootout loss in Winnipeg, allowing shots at a higher rate than they had in the first month of the season and not having the luxury of Antti Niemi, who was mired in a slump of his own, bailing them out as he usually does when that happens.
JC: Finally, can you tell us about a player we might not know much about? An up and comer? Someone to keep our eyes on?
DFTF: Matt Nieto, the Sharks' second round pick in 2011, wasn't expected to receive big league minutes until next season at the earliest but an injury to Raffi Torres in preseason action opened the door for the 20-year-old winger to make the team out of training camp. He's averaging an impressive 9.5 shots on goal per 60 minutes at evens, the Sharks earn 57% of the shot attempts when he's on the ice and he's been one of the team's best players at generating zone entries. The hockey gods haven't exactly rewarded him for his efforts just yet, as he's stuck on two goals and six points on the season, but when the pucks start going in for him, he'll be one to watch.