3 reasons sharks are no longer Stanley Cup contenders
April 11, 2021 – The San Jose Sharks are just four points behind the Arizona Coyotes and a coveted fourth place in the playoffs with a game in hand against their rival. After a trade deadline with little player movement within the club, the Sharks turned to a possible playoff push.
And, as you can see from the headline above, the Sharks failed to advance to the playoffs. Currently, San Jose holds a 20-26-6 record and as of April 10, the team have won just two of their last 13. With an overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche, largely aided by missed saves from Martin Jones, the team is officially eliminated. of contention in the playoffs.
What shall we do now? The Sharks will have a busy offseason ahead. Major restricted free agents such as Rudolfs Balcers and Ryan Donato will need an extension. I’m also assuming that Alexander Barabanov’s five points in five games will warrant overtime, but he’s an unrestricted free agent. San Jose will also lose a player in the Seattle expansion draft.
However, I think it’s important to look at the club’s last three years and analyze where the Sharks went wrong. In the team’s 30-year history, this is the third time in franchise history that they’ve missed back-to-back playoffs. So, before the business rumors, mock drafts, and Seattle expansion ideas, let’s take a look at what went wrong in San Jose over the past two seasons.
Lack of a quality Top-6 and offensively gifted third center
During the 2018-19 season, the Sharks had an attacking talent in spades. The first six often consisted of Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Joonas Donskoi, who was upgraded to Gustav Nyquist at the trade deadline.
Last season the top six, who often weren’t together due to injury or poor play, consisted of Couture, Hertl, Meier, Kane, Kevin Labanc and one of Lean Bergman, Patrick Marleau or Noah Gregor. This group was much more inconsistent than the previous group and lacked the same offensive talent. For reference, the better forward of both seasons was Hertl, but in 2018-19 his points-per-game rate was 0.96, and in 2019-2020 it was 0.75.
The 2020-21 Sharks top six was nothing short of a revolving door. The group for the majority of the season looks like Kane, Couture, Hertl, Labanc, Meier and a random selection of John Leonard, Donato, Marleau, Balcers and now Barabanov. Hertl and Kane have been strong this season, both scoring over 0.8 points per game. After them, however, the group of attackers were simply disappointing. The second-highest striker is Couture, who has just 0.6 points per game, despite an incredible start to the season.
The first six the Sharks rode in the past two seasons didn’t deserve a playoff berth. Most Stanley Cup contenders have at least one, if not multiple, forwards scoring near a points-per-game rate. While Hertl has already hit that milestone and currently has 12 points in his last 10 games, he has no outstanding winger to elevate him to this elite scoring level for extended periods of time.
And, if the scoring wasn’t enough, the Sharks lacked a quality third-line cross over the past two seasons to really uplift the offense in the bottom six of the forward pool. Joe Thornton had a rebounding season in 2018-19, which led to the team having a super quality third row and getting a deep score.
In 2019-2020, Thornton regressed again and Dylan Gambrell was not ready for the role. In 2020-2021, Gambrell didn’t impress much in terms of attacking ability. In 2018-19, Thornton really added to the bottom six and had a 0.7 points per game scoring rate. Compared to Gambrell’s rate of .24 this season, it’s easy to see why the last six struggled to add evenly-matched offense.
Power play with little power
The Sharks are tied for the third worst power play in the NHL. As mentioned, the team doesn’t have an elite player like Nathan MacKinnon or Connor McDavid which really helps special teams score. However, the staff that coach Bob Boughner raced with on the power play and the styles of play often used by the team made no sense and were largely ineffective.
Brent Burns is not Alex Ovechkin. However, the Sharks at the start of the season, and somewhat recently, opted to use both Burns and Erik Karlsson on the power play top unit and have Burns throw unique chips from. from the left face-off point. The Sharks have tried this strategy in previous seasons; however, it didn’t work then and continues to not work now.
The strategy is very one-dimensional. Burns has scored two power play goals this season, and only one came from that specific tactic. In fact, Burns hasn’t scored a single shot of the strategy the Washington Capitals have used since Jan. 18. Most often the shot is wide and is often erased. It also puts power-play quarterback Karlsson in a tough spot.
The penalty kill only has four players, so when Burns insists on taking a shot at an insanely low percentage, the opposing team has no reason to score it. Karlsson has two options: move on to Burns who has a high wide shot percentage and clear the puck, or focus on the other half of the ice where the players are much more covered by the defense. This strategy is not suitable for San Jose staff.
And, when the power play unit consists of four attackers and a defender, it’s still not spectacular. The Sharks entered the season wanting to implement a power play similar to the Boston Bruins, who often score in the race. As Labanc said before the season, Boston is “one of the top scorers in the power play rush, so we kind of want to apply their play to ours and get that speed into the zone.”
However, San Jose does not do this at all. The Sharks use a drop pass in the neutral zone and while the attacker can often enter the zone successfully, the team rarely gains a rush opportunity on entry. With a typical power play of four forwards and one defender, the team are looking at their best, but they’re still underwhelming. The Sharks in 2018-19 had the sixth best power play and have fallen sharply to where they are now.
Defensive woes and brutal goalkeeper
In recent history, the Sharks haven’t been a stellar defensive team or had a sensational goalie. Previously, they never needed it, as they often had an elite attack to overcome their flaws. However, without great offensive producers such as Pavelski and Donskoi, the team had to be better defensively over the past two seasons and haven’t been.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Burns and Karlsson are paid to be elite defenders. However, not only do their big salaries make it difficult to sign strong defenders defensively, they have all declined from elite status and are falling short of the Sharks’ needs and expectations.
Among the pairs who have played at least 50 minutes evenly, there are two who have an average of 1.3 goals expected against every 60 minutes (xGoals Against / 60). These couples were Radim Simek with Nikolai Knyzhov and Vlasic with Knyzhov. Much of this success was down to the quality of the competition, as they were usually third pair used to defend the opposition’s worst lines.
Vlasic has taken a new step forward this season. His pairs with Burns and Karlsson are the two worst defensive pairs the Sharks have had this season, each averaging in the xGoals Against / 60 zone of three. His control of 42% of shooting attempts (Corsi%) is the worst of the team.
Karlsson was actually the only defenseman for the Sharks with a Corsi% positive, beating 52% so far this season. However, among the defensive pairs the team are currently leading, their pairing with Knyzhov is the worst. They only control 44% of expected goals while on the ice. Given Karlsson’s lack of offensive production this year, in part due to ineffective power play, his defensive play falls short of the team’s desires.
Burns has been hooked to Mario Ferraro most of the season. This pairing controls 50.5% of expected goals, so a fairly average top pair. Burns still often gives the puck in the defensive zone, or takes incorrect readings; However, this season he has greatly improved from 2019-20 where he was one of the worst defensive players on the team.
And, when the Sharks needed a goalie save this season, Jones wasn’t there. This season he has a save percentage of .896, which has been his exact number the previous two seasons. That total is largely inflated from an incredible form run he had in March. Outside of this month it has been worse than the last two regular seasons.
He was also retired seven times, setting a career high in a shortened season. With Devan Dubnyk traded and the save options for San Jose currently being young and developing, the Sharks have no margin for defensive error as their goalie is unlikely to be able to bail them out.
Well fixing the Sharks will be the topic of the offseason. Doug Wilson’s future as general manager might come down to how the team reacts next season. This offseason will be critical. Will the Sharks choose to try to improve and return to the playoffs in 2021-22, or will they fully accept a rebuild?
It’s impossible to say at the moment, but sharks have clear holes to fill in any direction. The team needs a long-term, networked solution and must determine whether this is done through one of their current leads, a signing from a free agency, or a 2021 draft pick.
The team must also bank on the development of Knyzhov and Ferraro to become quality defenders. Both have been huge surprises this season, taking on the top four defensive roles, but they still need to improve for the Sharks to get better at the back.
In addition, the Sharks must score. Kane and Hertl have been excellent offensively as the season draws to a close, but after them the team regressed, including young wingers like Labanc and Meier performing well below what is expected. They must develop or acquire a quality top six, and have scoring depth in order to regain playoff team status.