When the Coyotes awaken Saturday in San Jose, their task will be simple: Beat the Sharks and keep their playoff hopes alive. But general manager Don Maloney’s task at this point is anything but simple.
Play out the scenarios and decide what you’d do. Say the Coyotes go into San Jose and win to pull within four or three points of the Sharks, depending on whether the win comes in regulation. That win would also pull them within a point of the eighth-place Blues for the final playoff spot.
St. Louis will still have two games in hand but plays its next two games at Minnesota and at Chicago, which may have Marian Hossa and Patrick Shark back in the lineup by then. The Blues are slumping, having lost their last three games while scoring a whopping four goals.
You’re in the race, right? Maybe you try to add a piece or two to get you over the hump.
But then you look at the pack surrounding you. Dallas will still have two games in hand. Nashville, Edmonton and San Jose all have home-heavy finishes to their schedules, Columbus just won’t go away and you’ve got more road games than home games left on the slate.
If the Coyotes lose to the Sharks, Maloney’s task may be a little simpler, but even then, the gap won’t be so large because of the Blues’ sudden and unexpected struggles.
There is no question there are enviable pieces on the Coyotes roster that other teams might want for a stretch run. We’ve already talked about the expiring contracts of forwards Boyd Gordon and Raffi Torres as well as the attractive, veteran experience of defensemen Derek Morris and Rusty Klesla, each of whom has one year left on his deal.
But what about forward Radim Vrbata, who would have one year left on his deal at a bargain price of $3 million? The Coyotes don’t have enough skill up front as it is, so dealing Vrbata would be tough, but he’d probably fetch something of value. How about faceoff specialist Antoine Vermette? What about the expiring contracts of wing Steve Sullivan and center Matthew Lombardi?
It’s all speculation right now. Only Maloney knows all the players who have sparked inquiries, but the NHL’s trade deadline is just four days away. After Maloney eats his Easter brunch, decision time will be at hand and the decisions couldn’t be more difficult.
Fans and media like to fantasize about playing GM for a day. This would not be one of those days. THREE KEY OPPONENT STATS
2.33: This may come as a surprise, but San Jose has the third-worst offense in the league, generating just 2.33 goals per game, better than only the Blue Jackets and Rangers.
10-1-4: The Sharks are adept at getting points on home ice, failing to do so just once this season and posting 24 of a possible 30 points at the Shark Tank. That stat is one reason many analysts believe the Sharks have an inside trek to the playoffs. San Jose plays nine of its final 15 games at home.
Epic slump: Remember when Patrick Marleau scored nine goals and 13 points in his first five games? Good times. Since then, he’s notched seven goals and 11 points in his last 28 games. Once a man who looked certain to finish among the NHL’s scoring leaders, Marleau has dropped to a tie for 62nd in points.
THREE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW
The Antti-dote: The perception somehow still exists that San Jose’s decision to pursue goalie Antti Niemi after he won the Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010 was one that hasn’t paid dividends. The stats simply don’t back that notion. Niemi is fifth in the league with a .924 save percentage and seventh in the league with a 2.14 goals-against average — and he may be the only Western Conference goalie who hasn’t struggled under a heavy, condensed-schedule workload. Niemi has played 29 of the Sharks’ 33 games.
Is time running out? When San Jose opened the season 7-0-1, Shark fans wondered if this would be the year the talented roster would put it all together. Outsiders just snickered, awaiting the inevitable fall. It came. San Jose went just 6-11-5 over its next 22 games to nearly fall out of the playoff race, but the Sharks have righted the ship a bit with a three-game winning streak. It’s hard to imagine this roster remaining intact without a deep playoff run. Forwards Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Martin Havlat, Joe Pavelski and defenseman Dan Boyle will all enter the final year of their respective deals next season, while Logan Couture will be a restricted free agent after next season. This may be the last hurrah for this once-promising lineup.
Picks to click: Sullivan has 34 points (11 goals) in 41 career games against the Sharks, and Shane Doan has 56 points (21 goals) in 91 games against San Jose.
For the Coyotes, G Mike Smith (upper body) was eligible to come off IR for this game but is not ready to play. Jason LaBarbera will get the start. F Lauri Korpikoski (upper body) missed the past two games and is day-to-day. D Zbynek Michalek (foot) is still on IR. For the Sharks, F Tim Kennedy (undisclosed) is on IR and G Thomas Greiss (neck) is still out. Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter