It’s not often a team loses its captain and its leading goal-scorer and is still considered among the conference favorites. But such is life in the West where no one has really jumped forward aside from the Colorado Avalanche. The San Jose Sharks return Erik Karlsson, which if he can remain upright for even 60 games and more importantly the playoffs, is about half the battle in itself. While Joe Pavelski may be gone, they still return a host of nifty forwards who can fill the net on at least three lines. Brent Burns might be overrated by a factor of 12, and losing Justin Braun may turn out to be nearly as big as Pavelski. Still, this team never felt like it clicked for very long last year and ended up with 101 points and in the conference final (WHERE THEY FAILED US ALL MISERABLY AND SHALL NEVER BE FORGIVEN). Can they do it again?
46-27-9 101 points (2nd in Pacific, lost in conference final)
3.52 GF/G (2nd) 3.15 GA/G (21st) +31 GD
54.9 CF% (1st) 54.3 xGF% (4th)
23.6 PP% (6th) 80.8 PK% (15th)
Goalies: The only reason the Sharks didn’t end up with 110 or more points last season was their goaltending. Martin Jones was simply awful, Aaron Dell wasn’t any better, and the Sharks had to overcome it most nights. And most nights they did. Doug Wilson has bet that Martin Jones simply can’t be that bad again. And with good reason.
In the three seasons as Sharks starter before that, Jones never had a SV% below .912. That’s the thing with the Sharks, they don’t need Carey Price back there. They don’t need a Vezina finalist. They just need league average. Jones couldn’t even manage that in the playoffs and they still got to the conference final. Jone will turn 30 during the season, so it’s hard to imagine last season was the begin of age-related decline. It feels like a very weird and ugly outlier, and the Sharks need to hope so. Dell isn’t going to ride in like Mighty Mouse if Jones is coughing up his esophagus again, which would mean Wilson would either have to look for answer at the deadline or close his eyes, clinch a towel between his teeth, and hope his team can plow ahead dragging Jones along.
The Sharks always have the puck as well, giving up the least amount of attempts last season and in the top half in expected goals against. The job is just about as easy as it can be for a goalie. And they merely need to pass on a pass/fail course. Do that, and the Sharks can take this division.
Defense: That doesn’t mean they’re without questions. The first is will Erik Karlsson ever finish a season healthy? His groin having all the gremlins doomed them in the playoffs (NEVER FORGIVEN), and he missed large chunks of the season. He hasn’t managed a full slate of games in four seasons. They’re nowhere without him, so expect him to get a regular slate of games off to try and preserve him for April and May. When he’s on the ice he still dominates, as his metrics were seven or eight points ahead of the Sharks as a whole, who again, were one of the best possession teams in the league. He’s still otherworldly when on song.
After that though…Mar-Edouard Vlasic loses his main defensive running buddy in Braun and there isn’t an obvious candidate to take the hard shifts with him or to cover for whichever of Burns or Karlsson Pickels doesn’t. Brendon Dillon is a post. Tim Heed and Dalton Prout are seat-fillers at best. Jacob Middleton is a kid that will get a look, but coach Peter DeBoer famously hates any young d-man. One outside candidate is rookie Mario Ferraro, but he’ll also have DeBoer to overcome.
Burns was completely exposed as a runway in the playoffs last year, and there’s no reason that won’t be true this year. He’ll pile up a ton of points again, which will be close to empty calories. This unit could use some buffeting at the deadline too, because Burns can’t really be trusted with anything than a third-pairing yahoo deep in the playoffs.
Forwards: Losing Pavelski is a ballsy call. This is still a team that features Logan Couture, Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, and Evander Kane. It shouldn’t hurt for goals, it just might not have a wealth of them as it did before. Kevin Lebanc stepping up into a top-six role would help the cause, and maybe they think he’s ready for that. Joe Thornton is back for another go-around, and while he can still make a play here and there his days of being a genuine top-two center on a team are gone. Luckily, Couture and Hertl don’t require him to do that. There are enough foot soldiers to fill out the bottom six without standing out. But the Sharks always seemingly round out their bottom six with pieces from their system.
Prediction: It doesn’t feel like the doomsday machine they could have been last year but fell short of. The loss of Pavelski and Braun will be somewhat canceled out if Martin Jones can escape from whatever pod person took over his body last year, but not entirely. They look short a top four d-man and maybe one forward.
But there’s more than enough here to win the division and conference. The Flames haven’t gotten away from them, and whether the Knights want to admit it or not they have the same questions in net and on their blue line. Another 105-110 points seem on offer if Karlsson can manage 60-65 games or more. The bet is that Couture and Hertl at center can take some wingers with them even if they’re not Pavelski. Perhaps. But nothing the Sharks do will be judged until they get into April again. They could be in any kind of shape by then.