What now for the disappointing Sharks?
Mired in a five-game losing streak and sitting in 11th place in the Western Conference, albeit only three points out of sixth in that crazy race, the Sharks have been as perplexing an enigma as there has been in the NHL this season.
"We go back to a couple of things that are usually prevalent in teams that play well and are having success -- how you play when you don't have the puck, and how you commit to your team structure," Sharks GM Doug Wilson told ESPN.com Wednesday.
"We've been inconsistent. Where we stand is probably where we deserve to stand because of our commitment to those two areas. Once you have those two things established, then your talent takes over."
That talent, which came through last season in clutch playoff wins over Colorado and most notably Detroit, has been maddeningly inconsistent this season. Coach Todd McLellan is turning grayer by the week. Scratch that, by the day.
Last season, the Sharks finished fourth overall in goals per game at 3.13 and eighth in goals against at 2.55. As of Wednesday morning, they were 17th in goals per game at 2.70 and 14th in goals against at 2.75. Talk about a drop-off.
Joe Pavelski (currently injured) was sensational both in the Olympics and the playoffs last season. But he's regressed this season. So has Patrick Marleau. And keep going down the list of players to find other underachievers.
"Your best players have to be your best players and they haven't played up to their capabilities," Wilson said. "If you did a progress report and got an honest answer from our players, they would grade themselves around a C. That's probably right where we lie.
"Your team still has to play up to its capabilities and we certainly have not done that individually."
Now Couture, a serious candidate for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, is out thanks to a knee-on-knee hit from Toronto tough guy Colton Orr during Tuesday night's 4-2 loss to the visiting Maple Leafs. Wilson did not know the severity of the injury as of our morning conversation Wednesday.
"No we don't, until the swelling goes down we have no idea," Wilson said.
So what now?
Sharks fans have inundated message boards with pleas for Wilson to make a trade, specifically for a top-four blueliner. He never did replace Rob Blake last summer after the future Hall of Famer retired. Easier said than done. Top-four blueliners don't grow on trees. Sharks fans should be happy Wilson didn't go out and sign Sergei Gonchar or Anton Volchenkov to those big contracts they got last July 1. Look at them now. Finding that top-four D-man is extremely difficult.
It's not like the Sharks GM didn't try. He courted Willie Mitchell, but the Los Angeles Kings added a second year to his contract. Injuries have limited Mitchell's effectiveness in L.A., so the Sharks may be happy on that front. Wilson also slapped an offer sheet on Niklas Hjalmarsson, but the Chicago Blackhawks matched it. He'd look good in a Sharks uniform.
"There's reality and there's perception. People say, 'You always want to add a centerman or a D-man.' Well, the reality is, where are they? They aren't out there," Wilson said.
"People want trades. There are not enough good players to go around in key positions."
Anyone look at next July's UFA market? Not a whole lot out there. The good to great players are getting signed long term in this CBA.
Wilson will continue to scour the market until the Feb. 28 trade deadline, but his team better pick it up on the ice if he's going to go out there and add a rental piece.
In the big picture, the Sharks will continue to do what they've done for a long time.
"The onus is on developing your own players, that's the important thing," Wilson said.
Say what you want about the Sharks, but they draft and develop a lot of their own. That's the reason they've been competitive for so long, Couture being the latest example. And young blueliner Justin Braun looks like another up-and-comer.
Still, that won't appease Sharks fans who want the team to take the next step after reaching the final four last spring. Those fans should recalibrate their expectations. Just getting into the playoffs should now be the realistic target.