Sharks

John Tavares’ pending free agency needs more drama

tavares-us.jpg
USATSI

John Tavares’ pending free agency needs more drama

In case you haven’t heard, New York Islanders captain John Tavares could become an unrestricted free agent next summer. 

It’s only the biggest national storyline this season. The longer Tavares remains unsigned, and the closer we get to the trade deadline, speculation about the center will only intensify. If he’s not traded and remains unsigned, things will reach a fever pitch. 

And for good reason. Tavares is an elite center, a perennial All-Star among the league’s best players, regardless of position. He’ll attract plenty of interest if he’s made available at the trade deadline, and/or if he becomes a free agent. 

The Sharks may be one of those teams, as Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported their interest back in April. They’ll have plenty of cap space, and a need for a top center as Joe Thornton continues to age, so the Sharks should be interested. 

There should be plenty of intrigue as Tavares takes the ice at SAP Center tonight. Yet the discussion surrounding Tavares’ potential free agency is, well, kind of boring. 

Perhaps it’s because the season isn’t even two weeks old. Perhaps it’s because Tavares is saying all of the right things. Perhaps it’s because of the tight-lipped nature of the sport. Perhaps it’s because it’s so rare to see a star of Tavares’ stature actually hit free agency. After all, Steven Stamkos didn’t after signing an eight-year extension with Tampa Bay in 2016, and Brent Burns re-signed with San Jose eight months before he could have hit the open market. 

Whatever the reason, there’s no fun in any of it. 

Free agency is one area where the NHL should take one out of the NBA’s book. Comparing pucks and hoops is comparing apples and oranges, but the NBA does free agency drama so much better. 

If Tavares was an NBA player, he wouldn’t be a sport-stopping free agent like LeBron James or Kevin Durant. He’s probably on the level of Paul George, and the Los Angeles Lakers have already been fined for tampering with George...with a year left on George’s contract. 

So let’s hope for more front office drama, and read-between-the-lines flirting between Tavares and his rumored suitors. Let’s see more photoshopped images of Tavares in other teams’ jerseys, and premature purchases of a “Tavares 91” jersey from increasingly desperate fanbases. 

It doesn’t have to end with a Jim Gray interview, but a little more intrigue surrounding John Tavares’ free agency is welcome. That is, unless you’re an Islanders fan. 

Sharks will have hands full with top Golden Knights line

marchy_sharks.jpg
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.  

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.