Hockey

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?

2018-2019

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.

Everything Else

@ItWasThreeZero helped us out a couple weeks back with Sharks info. We’re using that again because quite simply we can’t afford the vaccinations it takes to get back where he hangs out. 

Did the Sharks err by not getting a goalie at the deadline? Martin Jones‘s playoff record is stout but this regular season has been awfully bad…
There’s no question that goaltending has been the Sharks’ Achilles heel this season. Frankly it defies logic that the Sharks have the fourth-best record in the league while ranking dead last in both overall and 5v5 SV%. In fairness to Martin Jones (and Aaron Dell), the team adopted a high-risk, high-reward style of play this season that would deflate any goalie’s numbers. System changes alone don’t explain or justify both goalies sporting sub-.900 save percentages in March though. I think the hope, both organizationally and among the fanbase, is that Jones’ playoff numbers will more closely resemble his career average of .912. That’s probably why we didn’t see them make a move at the deadline despite rumors of interest in Ryan Miller. It’s easy to envision how this team, with its elite offense, possession numbers and special teams, could make a Cup run if the goaltending can be anything close to average. But it’s hard to have any confidence in Jones pulling that off at this point.
Did you like the pickups of Nyquist?
Despite having the league’s third-best offense, the Sharks don’t have a Nikita Kucherov or Johnny Gaudreau or even a Mark Scheifele or Filip Forsberg-calibre player up front. In order to have a chance at beating the teams that do have elite forward talent they need to continue to score by committee (led, of course, by huge contributions from Burns and Karlsson on the back end). The addition of Nyquist allows the Sharks to roll out a top nine that features six players on pace for 60 or more points this season plus two others scoring at a 50-point pace. Throw in double digit goal scorers Marcus Sorensen and Melker Karlsson on the fourth line and you have arguably the best forward depth in the league that the addition of Nyquist makes even deeper.
Brent Burns is on track to blow past the 76 points that got him a Norris two years ago. Should he be in contention to get another one?
To the extent that the Norris Trophy just goes to whichever defenseman puts up the most points these days, sure. If we’re talking about whether Burns has been the best overall defenseman in the NHL this year, it’s hard to make that argument. He starts over 70% of his 5v5 shifts in the offensive zone, usually against opposing second and third lines. That’s not a knock on Burns at all – the luxury of having both Karlsson and Burns on the same blueline has allowed Peter DeBoer to deploy him in the kind of specialized offensive role he’s always been best suited for and the results speak for themselves. Burns has unquestionably been a huge part of the Sharks’ success this season but he hasn’t quite had the same all-around impact as defensemen like Mark Giordano or Morgan Rielly who aren’t far behind Burns in terms of production either.
It looks like the Sharks path is going to have to go through Vegas and Calgary to even get to Winnipeg or Nashville. Is that just too daunting for a pretty old team?
It’s a brutal road and underscores the importance of winning the Pacific Division to avoid that 2 vs. 3 matchup, a feat that may be out of the Sharks’ grasp at this point depending on the health of Erik Karlsson. This is, at least on paper, the best roster in franchise history though. And while the Sharks’ average age might be a little high, key players like Karlsson, Hertl, Kane, Couture and Meier are at least theoretically still in their respective primes and it’s not like age has slowed Burns or Pavelski down significantly either. They should be good enough to beat Vegas and Calgary if they can get anything resembling average goaltending. If last year’s Capitals can win the Cup after running the gauntlet of Columbus, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay there’s no reason this Sharks roster can’t pull off a similar achievement.

 

Game #77 Preview Suite

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@ItWasThreeZero followed us home one day. We fed him at the back door of the building. He won’t leave us alone. We figure we can at least use him to get Sharks info. 

Three points behind the Flames isn’t where the Sharks were supposed to be. Everything metrically looks great, so is their lack of taking off simply down to Martin Jones?

 A lot of it is. It’s hard to win games when your starting goalie is throwing up a sub-.900 SV% for the majority of the season. That said the Sharks are also top third in the league at yielding high-danger scoring chances so they haven’t been doing Jones or Aaron Dell many favors. The team adopted a higher-risk, higher-reward style of play in the middle of last season in response to Vegas’ success and while it’s made them infinitely more bearable to watch than the previous iteration of Peter DeBoer hockey, it’s also resulted in giving up quite a few more five-alarm chances. Still, it’s not unreasonable to expect Jones to at least be within striking distance of league average and once he starts trending in that direction the Sharks theoretically have the offense, possession numbers and penalty killing to run away with the division.

Is it really worth complaining about Erik Karlsson, as some have done, when he’s got 21 points and appears to be driving the play as he always has?

 Nah. Karlsson has clearly been the team’s best overall player to anyone watching the games and controls the pace of play every time he’s on the ice. What is concerning is that, over a third of the way through the season, the coaching staff still hasn’t quite figured out how to use him. They’ve paired Karlsson with Brenden Dillon at even strength despite how dominant the pairing of Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic was to start the season. They haven’t figured out how to best combine Karlsson and Brent Burns’ talents on a single power play unit, often having Kevin Labanc quarterback the struggling man advantage instead. Then they turn around and throw arguably the two most offensively dynamic defensemen in the league out there together in bizarre situations, like on the penalty kill or a defensive zone faceoff. I don’t think the Sharks are a serious Cup contender until the coaches can figure out how to get the most out of Karlsson.

Meanwhile, Joe Thornton is average a near career-low in points per game. Just getting that old? Reason to worry?

 2018-19 is in all likelihood the Joe Thornton Farewell Tour so by those standards he’s been surprisingly effective. It helps that the Sharks haven’t really needed him to be more than a third-line center and occasional contributor on the power play and he’s played both of those roles admirably. Really the only goal with him is ensuring he’s healthy for the playoffs after missing the majority of the last two postseasons due to knee injuries.

What’s up with Timo Meier‘s breakout?

 Meier has always put up an insane shot rate going back to junior hockey and has taken that strategy to a new level this season. He’s currently third in the league in unblocked shots per minute at even strength, and with those shots going in at nearly twice the rate that they did last season it’s not surprising that he’s on pace for 50 goals. I don’t expect him to maintain that shooting percentage but based on the shot rate alone, and more importantly the types of chances he’s getting, Meier is going to blow away his previous career high of 21 goals and should easily clear the 35-goal mark as well. The biggest key is probably that his line with Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl has the size and cycling ability to get Meier those chances in front of the net that are his bread and butter but they also have the speed and passing to create chances off the rush that Meier really didn’t generate much of last season.

 

Game #35 Preview Suite

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@ItWasThreeZero seemed lost and confused and wandering around. We figured that was the best type to answer our questions about the Sharks. Just another Bay Area refugee who can’t understand the outside world.

First look we’ve gotten at the Sharks. Somewhat comfortable in second in the Pacific, and yet we don’t know if they’re actually good? Are they good?

At this point the better question might be “is anyone in the Western Conference good?” Nashville probably is but unless William Karlsson and Erik Haula are gonna keep shooting at Mike Bossy levels for Vegas, the Predators might be the only legitimate Cup contender in the conference. The Sharks are clustered alongside eight or nine other teams with postseason aspirations and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they finished anywhere from second in the Pacific to 11th in the West and out of the playoffs.

The main issue with the Sharks is their lack of offensive firepower as most of their former high-end scoring threats are firmly in the “old as balls” and/or “signed a three-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer” stages of their respective careers.  That said this is a deep roster that can capably roll four lines even in the midst of key injuries and has eight NHL options on defense. Combine that with good goaltending and strong special teams and you have a solid if unspectacular team. That might be enough to make the playoffs and even a win a round or two in the West this year.

Kevin Labanc has 31 points this season. Is he a thing?

 Labanc is the most recent late-round gem the Sharks’ scouting staff has unearthed and he fits the mold of previous finds like Joe Pavelski. He’s a smaller dude and far from an effortless skater but what he lacks in size and speed he makes up for with puckhandling ability, vision and a heavy, accurate shot. Labanc scored over 250 points in his final two OHL seasons and was a point-per-game player as a 20-year-old in the AHL last year getting his first taste of pro hockey. The kid is legit and seems to have a bright future as a middle-six scoring winger. He’s basically Kirkland Signature Alex DeBrincat.

Timo Meier is getting his first serious run in the NHL. We know there are high hopes for this kid. What have you seen?

 Everyone knows the Sharks should have taken Mathew Barzal 9th overall in the 2015 draft. What this answer presupposes is…maybe they shouldn’t have? Okay they definitely should have but that doesn’t mean their actual selection, Timo Meier, hasn’t been a valuable addition to the team. He’s a big kid who always showed a preternatural ability for generating shots in junior and that’s carried over to his nascent NHL career. He currently has the 20th best 5-on-5 shot rate of anyone in the league (min. 200 minutes) and while his actual finishing ability could still use some work he should flirt with 20 goals this year, which is all you can ask for from a 21-year-old winger in his first full professional season.

Joe Pavelski only has 15 goals so far. Is this anything more than Thornton being hurt for part of the season? He is 33, is this the decline?

Pavelski has actually scored five of those 15 goals in the 14 games since Thornton went down with a knee injury so it’s not that. In fact, he’s played his best hockey of the season since being moved back to his natural position of center in Thornton’s absence. Some of his decline in production can be blamed on injuries he was playing through earlier in the year but the reality is Pavelski, like many of the Sharks’ key players, has probably aged out of his scoring prime.

He’s still a useful player but it’s likely he’ll never score 30 goals again and that’s something Doug Wilson has to plan around this summer. Pavelski is still a big name and it might be worth it to the Sharks to get some future assets for him while they still can. On that note it’s a shame the NHL didn’t send players to the Olympics this year because the whining from Toronto over Mike Sullivan or whoever giving Pavelski more minutes than Auston Matthews would have been hilarious.

The Sharks finishing second means they’ll probably see a pretty flawed team in the first round. They then could get Vegas or a wild card if the bubble bursts on the Knights. Could the Sharks simply fall upwards to a conference final?

 It would be the most Patrick Marleau thing ever to play through 20 years of increasingly painful heartbreak with the Sharks only to have them turn around and fall ass backwards into a Stanley Cup the year after he leaves, thanks to a weak playoff field and Steven Stamkos’ leg falling off or something. Now I’m convinced this is going to happen.

 

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