Sharks

Analysis: Sharks GM Wilson has made the right moves, so far

Analysis: Sharks GM Wilson has made the right moves, so far

SAN JOSE – It’s been a whirlwind few days around the Sharks organization. To quickly recap for those that have been sunbathing, scarfing down hot dogs or sparking up fireworks: Joe Thornton is back for another year, Patrick Marleau is off to Toronto, and crucial pieces Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are locked up long term.

For the 15th straight summer Doug Wilson is overseeing the transition from one year to the next. And so far, he’s looking pretty good.

Marleau’s departure, of course, is the most emotional moment for the fan base since the 2016 Stanley Cup Final – maybe even more so. I get the impression many Sharks supporters would have preferred to keep him around at any cost. Detractors will point to the team’s inability to win a Stanley Cup in the 19 seasons has was on the roster, and his frustrating nature of going extended stretches without having an impact, but my sense is that they are in the minority.

But Wilson offering him anything close to the three-year, $18.75 million contract that Marleau got in Toronto would have been nonsensical. Frankly, the two-year, $10 million offer that was reportedly on the table for Marleau might have been too much for a team that has $52.5 million tied up in contracts for just 11 players in 2018-19 (and Thornton a pending free agent again). 

Wilson may have only tacked on that second year in his attempt to placate Thornton, who was desperately trying to keep Marleau in the dressing room. Frankly, it’s fair to wonder if the organization is a bit relieved that Marleau didn’t take that final two-year offer.

Offering Marleau a third year in 2019-20 at the age of 40 was a deal breaker for Wilson for good reason. Not only will the Sharks have Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Martin Jones making big money, but Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski are both due to be unrestricted. If Tomas Hertl develops into the player the organization still hopes he’ll become, he could be making a pretty penny by then. Mikkel Boedker will potentially still be on the books. Prospects like Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc will have expiring entry-level deals, and if they or others in the system become full time NHL’ers, they could be getting big raises, too.

Paying an old, declining winger $5 million or more that season was a risk that Wilson was rightfully not willing to take.

As for Thornton, we predicted here before the NHL draft that Wilson might be making a calculated risk, knowing that Thornton – who originally wanted a three-year deal – was too committed to the area to sign anywhere else. That seems to be how this played out. Thornton’s one-year, $8 million deal is an expensive one, but it still makes sense from a team perspective considering his importance on and off the ice. The Sharks have the cap space to give Thornton that kind of money, and they are also protecting themselves with the one-year term in case Thornton has any problems with his surgically repaired left knee.

And if Thornton comes back strong next season, Wilson now knows for certain that the future Hall of Famer doesn’t want to play anywhere else. Getting Thornton to agree to another one-year deal, if that’s what Wilson wants, shouldn’t be nearly as complicated next time with Marleau already gone.

Don’t overlook, either, how Wilson managed to painlessly extend Jones and Vlasic to contracts that are fair for both sides. Had those contract talks lingered into the season it would have been an unnecessary distraction.

That’s not to say that the general manager should now pack up his bags and go on a two-month vacation until training camp begins. The Sharks still have cap space to add another impact player, and I would argue they should be on the lookout for another forward, probably though a trade now that the free agent market has dried up. I would be surprised if they paid the kind of price that Colorado reportedly is seeking for Matt Duchene, but perhaps others like Vegas’ James Neal or Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk are possibilities.

So far, though, Wilson has made the right moves in what has already been an eventful offseason.

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.”