Sharks

Analysis: It's time for Sharks, Wilson to make a big move again

Analysis: It's time for Sharks, Wilson to make a big move again

Nashville general manager David Poile has made some blockbuster trades in recent years. He acquired a number one center in Ryan Johansen from Columbus midway through the 2015-16 season, sending highly regarded young prospect Seth Jones to the Blue Jackets, and last summer dealt captain Shea Weber to Montreal for P.K. Subban in a move that shocked the hockey world.

The high-risk decisions are paying off. Nashville has advanced to its first Western Conference Final, while playing all season in front of a raucous, capacity crowd in the Music City.

Just like Poile, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson has never shied away from shaking up the roster to acquire top talent. His biggest move, of course, was snagging Joe Thornton from the Bruins back in 2005, but there have been plenty of other high profile attainments along the way – Dany Heatley, Dan Boyle and Brent Burns among them. Recall last summer, too, when the Sharks were reportedly making a push for Steven Stamkos before he re-signed with Tampa Bay.

This offseason is a unique one for San Jose. The two best players in franchise history, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, are pending unrestricted free agents that may or may not return. There is offseason flexibility that the Sharks have rarely enjoyed during Wilson’s tenure.

The Sharks could bring one or both of the cornerstones back. That would at least keep them competitive in 2017-18. But if Thornton, Marleau, and the majority of the 2016-17 team returns next season without any major changes, it’s difficult to envision the aging club suddenly being a Stanley Cup contender again. 

In their own division, Anaheim is still strong while young Calgary and Edmonton are quickly improving. If the Sharks do decide to bring Thornton and Marleau back, they’re returning two soon-to-be 38-year-olds that while still effective, are not at the stages of their careers where they’re going to get dramatically better.

Even without Thornton and/or Marleau, the club still has several key pieces in place. Wilson has already called it a priority to re-sign Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the two biggest reasons the Sharks finished fifth in the league in goals-against this season. Likely Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns is not going anywhere. Joe Pavelski is one of the best captains in the NHL, commanding the dressing room with his win-at-all-costs attitude and tireless work ethic. Other than those guys, though, there may not be any other untouchables on the Sharks roster.

The Sharks can still be a competitive team without one or both of Thornton and Marleau, if they make the right moves.

Which brings us back to Nashville.

The two cities are comparable in that neither is a traditional hockey market. Both teams play in buildings that aren’t exactly state-of-the-art anymore. Both need to be winning teams on the ice in order to put fans in the seats.

Despite the Sharks’ run to the Stanley Cup Final last season, there didn’t seem to be much of a surge in interest. There were still plenty of empty seats in key home games over the second half of the season, even with the Sharks in first place in the division (officially, the Sharks sold out 26 of their 41 home games, but many of the announced sellouts didn’t appear to be capacity crowds).

In that sense, this is an organization in desperate need of a jolt. The Predators got one when they acquired Subban, selling out all 41 of their regular season games for the first time in the history of the franchise. They also remained competitive.

* * *

Whether the business side factors into hockey decisions likely varies from club to club, and it’s impossible to know whether that plays a role in the Sharks’ front office. It’s worth pointing out, though, that Sharks owner Hasso Plattner expressed concern in January 2016 about all the empty seats at SAP Center that year.

“I'm really concerned about the situation,” he said at the Sharks’ 25th-anniversary celebration.

Plattner has to be wondering why a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in June didn’t prevent many of those seats from going unoccupied in 2016-17, too.

Could he be pushing for the kind of trade that sparks more interest, thereby selling more tickets? Again, we can only speculate. But, recall a press conference in May 2015 when the Sharks were announcing their new lease at SAP Center, when the owner mentioned Evgeni Malkin’s name before quickly checking himself and saying he was using Malkin’s name “just for an example.”

The point here is that Plattner and Wilson do discuss potential offseason moves, as the owner made clear that day. And if Plattner is concerned about the empty seats, that undoubtedly comes up during his conversations with the hockey department.

* * *

Talking about a blockbuster trade is plainly much easier than making one. It’s still too early to predict which names might be on the market this summer, and if those potential names would make sense for the Sharks. 

A top center would likely be at the top of the list. Perhaps the Sharks will get involved in discussions for Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon or Matt Duchene. Maybe the Islanders won’t be able to re-sign Jonathan Tavares, and will deal him instead. Perhaps Philadelphia, which got lucky in the draft lottery with the second overall pick, will look to move captain Claude Giroux to make way for Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier.

If the Sharks were to go after a player like that they would have to part with at least one or two key pieces, just like Nashville did when it sacrificed Weber and and Jones. Think along the lines of Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Justin Braun or Timo Meier going the other way. 

And, to be clear, we’re not suggesting that both Thornton and Marleau need to depart in order to facilitate a big trade. Acquiring a top line center might allow Thornton to center the third line, where he’s probably better suited at this stage of his career, anyway.

Of course, it’s possible no big names become available. But, one thing is for sure – Wilson, a notorious worker of the phones, will explore. The general manager has mentioned before that he’s made a trade with every other NHL team during his 14 years in charge, and history shows he’s not afraid to pull the trigger on a major trade.

Now would be a logical time for him to do it again, for the benefit of the team both on the ice and off of it.

Speedy Sharks and Golden Knights ready to fly on the ice in second round

Speedy Sharks and Golden Knights ready to fly on the ice in second round

Speed kills, and it claimed another two victims in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs: The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings. The "heavy" playing style that powered three combined championships in Southern California since 2007 was left in the dust by a pair of speedier division rivals, the Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights, en route to the only sweeps so far this postseason. 

San Jose learned this lesson firsthand. In a six-game series loss during the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, the Sharks could not keep up with the Pittsburgh Penguins' team speed.

Pittsburgh deployed three, mobile defensive pairings and sprinkled speed on all four forward lines. San Jose, meanwhile, had a few fast forwards in the lineup and strong skaters among its top-four defensemen, but its speed was only a relative strength against teams in the Western Conference.

Following the loss in the Final, the Sharks have infused their lineup with speed and skating ability. Mikkel Boedker was signed the following summer, and Evander Kane was acquired at this year's trade deadline. Kevin Labanc, Timo Meier, and Marcus Sorensen debuted last season. Dylan DeMelo, Tim Heed, and Joakim Ryan played extended NHL minutes this season, and there's nary a Roman Polak in sight. 

Take it all together, and San Jose played at a high pace this season. Using team-level shot-attempt rates as a proxy for pace of play, as Sean Tierney of HockeyGraphs and The Athletic did with the graph shown below, the Sharks played at the league's third-highest pace this season. 

The Ducks were pretty far behind the Sharks on the season, at a rate of about five fewer shot attempts per hour. Keep in mind that data includes 67 games of Cam Fowler, one of Anaheim's best skaters on the blueline who missed the entirety of the first round with a shoulder injury. The Golden Knights don't rank as highly as one might expect, but still played at a faster pace than the Kings.

Vegas didn't have the same inciting incident as San Jose to fill its roster with strong skaters, considering the expansion team didn't play its first game until October. Instead, the Golden Knights saw the writing on the wall, and placed a premium on skating ability in the expansion draft, and in adding to their team afterward. 

"That was our basis for who we chose," Vegas pro scout Kelly Kisio told NBC Sports California in a February interview. "Guys that had hockey sense, and guys that could skate. If you have those guys, they will somehow make it happen."

43-goal scorer William Karlsson is a burner, and they acquired another one, Tomas Tatar, at the trade deadline. Blue-chip blueliners Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore were prized for their mobility well before landing in Sin City. Even bottom-six forwards like Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and depth defensemen like Jon Merrill are good skaters. 

The disparity was clear in Vegas' first-round series with Los Angeles. Five-on-five, only three teams in the first round have accounted for a higher percentage of expected goals entering Friday (Winnipeg Jets, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Washington Capitals) than the Golden Knights, according to Corsica Hockey. 

Neither Vegas nor San jose will enjoy gap in skating ability against one another, however, setting up a what should be a standout second-round matchup. The games will be fast, but the length of the first-ever playoff series between the two should be anything but. 

DeBoer: Now healthy, series-clincher Hertl can reach 'another level' in playoffs

DeBoer: Now healthy, series-clincher Hertl can reach 'another level' in playoffs

SAN JOSE -- Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer thought Tomas Hertl’s series-clinching goal on Wednesday, in the midst of the best season of his five-year NHL career, was a long time coming.

“He would’ve gotten to this level earlier than this year if he had been healthy,” DeBoer said after San Jose swept the Anaheim Ducks out of the first round with a 2-1 win in Game 4. “He’s had some really bad luck with some really bad injuries. He’s healthy and he’s playing at another level, and I still think he’s got another level he can get to, too.”

Hertl deflected Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s point shot through Ducks goaltender John Gibson’s legs for the game-winner with 10:51 remaining in regulation, and just over a minute after Anaheim tied the game. As NBC Sports California statistician Darin Stephens noted, it was the Czech forward’s second career game-winning goal in the postseason.

Since entering the league in 2013-14, Hertl’s tied for 37th with 22 game-winning goals in the regular season and playoffs, according to STATS. Only Joe Pavelski (32) and Logan Couture (23) have more during that time, and Hertl’s played 85 fewer games than Pavelski, and 26 than Couture.

Were it not for recurring right knee issues that caused him to miss 45 games his rookie season, cut short his Stanley Cup Final in 2016, and forced him to miss another 33 last year, he’d almost certainly be higher on the list.

Five-on-five, only 11 players that played a minimum of 500 minutes have generated expected goals (xG), or shot attempts that account for quality, at a higher rate than Hertl (0.95 xG/60, according to Corsica Hockey) since he entered the league. If you include the postseason, he jumps into the top 10.

DeBoer’s right to think Hertl can reach another level, too. The 25-year-old’s 21 non-empty-net goals matched a career-high, no player underperformed their expected goals total across all situations more than Hertl, as Sean Tierney of HockeyGraphs and The Athletic pointed out.

With health back on Hertl’s side, DeBoer doesn’t see this as the young forward finally maximizing his potential. Instead, the head coach thinks Hertl is just beginning to reach it.

“This wasn’t about anyone pushing him…[He’s] been healthy and he’s starting to find the level that he’s capable of being at, I think, for a long career.”