Sharks

Analysis: Sharks lack of offseason change is perplexing

Analysis: Sharks lack of offseason change is perplexing

Here’s a prediction.

When the Sharks hold their media day in about two weeks on Sep. 15, also the first on-ice day of training camp, general manager Doug Wilson and head coach Pete DeBoer will both proclaim that the team is still in win-now mode and considers itself a Stanley Cup contender. There isn’t any rebuilding here, or, to borrow commonly used phrase by Wilson, a “reset/refresh” for a team that reached the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

And that’s what makes this offseason so perplexing. 

The Sharks lost a major offensive piece in Patrick Marleau, and to this point have made no notable trades or free agent acquisitions to try and bolster their roster, which continues to get older and seems to have some holes up front. Sure, they have a strong defense core led by Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and goalie Martin Jones is about as steady as they come, but they lack weapons at forward.

An offense that finished 10th out of 14 in the Western Conference in goals-per game has, on paper, only gotten worse since the team’s first round playoff exit in April.

We wrote here back in early July, after Marleau had signed with Toronto, that Wilson had made all the right moves to that point. Signing Vlasic and Jones to long-term extensions was a home run. Getting Joe Thornton to commit for another year was vital. Letting Marleau walk, rather than extending him a third year, was also the correct decision.

But after that, Wilson seems to have lost his phone in the sofa cushions. There was no big splash in free agency (the free agent market wasn’t overly stocked, but there were some players that might have helped). A big trade, perhaps one in which the Sharks could have surrendered some of their defensive depth for a scoring forward, never materialized.

One high-ranking member of another team recently told me that he “kept waiting for the other shoe to drop” when it came to the Sharks’ roster. That makes two of us.

To be fair, there is still time between now and the season opener against Philadelphia on Oct. 4. There’s even more time until the 2018 trade deadline, when contending teams frequently attempt to put the finishing touches on their roster in the hopes of a long playoff run. It’s easy to forget this time of year just how long the NHL season really is.

And what the Sharks do have is salary cap flexibility, something that they rarely enjoy. Barring any major moves before opening night, the team should have approximately $6.5 - $7 million in cap space. That could come in handy if they get off to a poor start and need to shake things up, or are seeking assets for a playoff push.

The message when camp begins, though, will be simple – the Sharks are counting on their younger players to step up and score goals. That includes Timo Meier, who I recently tabbed as the team’s biggest X-factor this season, and has a higher ceiling than any forward currently in the organization. Others like Kevin Labanc, Marcus Sorensen, Barclay Goodrow and Danny O'Regan will get a chance to impress in camp, too.

But the underperforming Sharks from a season ago will also have to be better. Mikkel Boedker, Joonas Donskoi and Tomas Hertl, in particular, were supposed to be the younger, improving players that gave the Sharks a deeper offensive attack than the season before. None of them met expectations in 2016-17 – in fact, they all regressed. Boedker and Donskoi were each healthy scratched for games in the first round against Edmonton, capping off poor campaigns for each, while Hertl dealt with yet another knee surgery.

It’s clear that the Sharks are banking on those players rebounding, with some added jam from the prospects. If they get both, they could still be a contending team. 

That’s quite a risk, though, and don’t be surprised if you see some preseason prognosticators leaving the Sharks out of the playoffs – like this recent offering from The Hockey News – as the Sharks compete in what should be a very difficult Pacific Division.

All eyes on the goaltenders ahead of Sharks-Golden Knights series

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USATSI

All eyes on the goaltenders ahead of Sharks-Golden Knights series

Don't expect a lot of goals in the second-round playoff series between the Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights. The goaltending matchup, featuring red-hot shot-stoppers Martin Jones and Marc-Andre Fleury, is arguably one of the best in postseason history. 

Since the NHL changed up its playoff format in 2014, no two opposing starting goalies have entered a round with a higher combined save percentage than  Jones and Fleury (.973). Among goalies that played at least 175 minutes in a playoff round (or, about three games) all-time, Fleury and Jones' first-round performances rank 8th and 20th, respectively, in single-series save percentage. No other goaltenders in the top-20 played another in the following round. 

It shouldn't surprise you, then, that Fleury and Jones sit atop the league leaderboard in save percentage and goals-against average during the Stanley Cup playoffs this year. It's also shouldn't surprise you that both goaltenders stopped pretty much every shot they faced, no matter the type, in the first round. 

In five-on-five situations, where they've played the vast majority of their minutes, neither Jones nor Fleury allowed a goal off of a low-danger shot, according to Corsica Hockey. They each allowed one medium-danger goal, and Jones allowed the only high-danger tally.

Their save percentage against each type of five-on-five shot represented an improvement over the regular season, but some of their biggest improvements were arguably a result of improved play in front of them.

During the regular season, Jones ranked 46th out of 51 goaltenders that played a minimum of 1000 five-on-five minutes in medium-danger save percentage (.900), while facing the 11th-highest percentage of medium-danger shots. In the postseason, Jones has faced the lowest percentage of medium danger shots (25.53), and has the fourth-best save percentage (.958), per Corsica. 

Fleury, meanwhile, cleaned up on high-danger shots in the first round while his teammates limited those opportunities. In the regular season, Fleury's five-on-five high-danger save percentage (.768) ranked 44th out of 51 goalies (minimum 1000 minutes), according to Corsica. While he faced the 10th-lowest percentage of high-danger shots (16.91), he faced an even lower one (9.28) against the Los Angeles Kings. 

If the first round was any indication, though, the improvements of both goaltenders will be tested in the second. In four games against the Golden Knights, 42.71 percent of the five-on-five shots Kings netminder Jonathan Quick faced were of the medium-danger variety, the third-highest percentage of the 18 goalies that played at least 100 five-on-five minutes in the playoffs entering Monday. Against the Sharks, nearly a fifth of the five-on-five shots Ducks goaltender John Gibson saw were high-danger, the fifth-highest percentage (19.51 percent) among those aforementioned goalies, per Corsica. 

Some regression should be expected, but just how much is anyone's guess. Jones has plenty of playoff pedigree, and although Fleury doesn't (.912 career playoff save percentage entering this postseason), he's in the middle of what is easily the best season of his career. Plus, an additional four-to-seven games may not be enough of a representative sample size to expect any meaningful returns to normalcy. 

In other words, if you like to see pucks cross the goal line, there's a good chance this series will disappoint you. 

Sharks will have hands full with top Golden Knights line

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USATSI

Sharks will have hands full with top Golden Knights line

The Vegas Golden Knights are not a one-line team, but one line will worry the Sharks most in the second round. 

The top trio of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Reilly Smith was one of the league's best this season. Only Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen were on the ice for more five-on-five goals together in the regular season (47) than Vegas' first line (46), according to Corsica Hockey. In just under 700 five-on-five minutes together, they controlled 55.54 percent of the shot attempts, 56.55 percent of the shots, 56.41 percent of the expected goals, and two-thirds of the goals, outscoring opponents 46-23. 

They did so playing primarily against the team's top players. According to HockeyViz, Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith spent an above-average amount of time matched with their opponent's top-four forwards and top-three defensemen. Per Corsica, no Vegas forwards faced competition that accounted for a higher percentage of their team's ice time, a higher percentage of shot attempts, or a higher percentage of expected goals in the regular season.

Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant continued to use them this way in the first round against the Los Angeles Kings. They were attached to the hips of Los Angeles' top line, playing nearly an hour of five-on-five time against Anze Kopitar alone, according to Natural Stat Trick. Kopitar's next-most common forward opponent, James Neal, played only 15 minutes against him five-on-five in the entire series. 

When the Sharks and Golden Knights face off in Sin City later this week, Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith will undoubtedly see a lot of San Jose defensemen Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Gallant will likely primarily ice his first line against Peter DeBoer's top trio of Joonas Donskoi, Evander Kane, and Joe Pavelski, especially if recent history is any indication. Smith was injured the last time the teams played on March 31, but Marchessault and Karlsson played (at least) three more minutes against Donskoi, Kane, and Pavelski than any other San Jose forwards. 

It will be interesting if those same matchups are used when the series shifts to SAP Center for Games 3, 4, and possibly 6. On March 22, the last Sharks-Golden Knights game in San Jose, Mikkel Boedker, Logan Couture, and Tomas Hertl drew Marchessault and Karlsson (Smith was hurt then, too) most of the game. Boedker, Couture, and Hertl functioned as San Jose's shutdown line in the first round, playing most of their minutes against Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell, who consistently remained on the Anaheim Ducks' top line.

No matter which Sharks line draws Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith, it will need to improve on its first-round performance. San Jose's top-six forwards, who spent most of their time against Anaheim's top-two lines, were the team's six-worst forwards in terms of five-on-five corsi-for percentage (none eclipsed 43 percent), and only Couture was not outshot, according to Corsica Hockey. None of them were outscored five-on-five, but that was largely owed to the team's strong finishing ability and the outstanding play of Martin Jones in net. 

Jones is a proven playoff performer, but the Sharks were unlikely to continue to score on nearly 12 percent of their five-on-five shots before factoring in the presence of Marc-Andre Fleury, the playoff leader in five-on-five save percentage, in the opposite crease. That's even less likely now. Plus, the Golden Knights are far more disciplined (plus-16 penalty differential in the regular season) than the Ducks (minus-60), so San Jose likely won't be able to mask any five-on-five mismatches with a strong power play.  

Thus, it'll go a long way for the Sharks if their top-six forwards keep pace with Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith. Getting the best of the matchup would go even further.