Sharks

Sharks counting on three prospects to fill Marleau void

Sharks counting on three prospects to fill Marleau void

SAN JOSE – There are nearly three full months between now and the start of the 2017-18 Sharks season, when San Jose hosts Philadelphia at SAP Center on Oct. 4. That leaves plenty of time for Sharks general manager Doug Wilson to try and fill the void left by Patrick Marleau, who signed a three-year contract with Toronto on Sunday, concluding his 19-year run with the organization.

Whether Wilson tries to sign ink of the remaining free agent forwards or attempts to make a trade could depend on how confident he and the other members of the Sharks’ brain trust are in the young players in the system. They will all have a better idea of their NHL-readiness after this week, as the annual prospects camp concludes on Friday.

The two forwards at camp with the best chance of making an impact would seem to be Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc, who both spent long stretches with the NHL club as rookies last season with mixed results. The opening is there for at least one of them – along with Marcus Sorensen, who is not in camp – to try and make up some of Marleau’s 27 goals last season.

“It’s hard not to kind of pay attention (to Marleau leaving) because you see it all over social media,” Labanc said. “It’s just kind of blown up. You don’t really want to think about it too much. You just want to stick to your game. … You’ve got to take advantage of the opportunities that are open.”

Meier said: “Whatever happens, my goal stays the same. There might be some more openings, or less openings, but for me I just want to make the team. Obviously something like that, such a great player leaving – [but] I think it’s a great chance for young players to step up.”

It was this time last year when Meier, 20, was thought to have an inside track on making the opening night roster. In training camp, though, he came down with mononucleosis, and didn’t make his NHL debut until Dec. 16 in Montreal.

“It was tough. I felt it over the whole season,” Meier said.

Although he scored a goal in his first game at Bell Centre, it wasn’t all smooth sailing from there. Meier was reassigned to the AHL Barracuda for a stretch in February and March, and finished with a disappointing three goals and three assists for six points in 34 games.

While Meier registered an impressive 85 shots on goal (2.5 per game), Sharks coach Pete DeBoer indicated during the season that Meier’s shot selection needed some improvement. 

Meier said: “This season I didn’t score a lot of goals in the NHL, but I know if I keep working hard and get some chances and maybe be smarter about the shots I take, maybe more quality shots, and when I get the chance, put it in the net.”

Labanc, 21, found success with the Sharks quickly, posting seven goals and 12 points in his first 26 career NHL games. But then he went ice cold, going 28 straight games without a goal in between trips to the Barracuda. Unlike Meier, who played in five of the six first round playoff games, he didn’t suit up for the Edmonton series.

Naturally, he’s seeking “a little bit more consistency” this season.

“It was a good learning curve for me,” said Labanc, who was arguably the best player on the ice during the Sharks' prospect scrimmage at SAP Center on Thursday night. “This year I want to make the team, I want to prove myself, and I want to excel in every game that I play in.”

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.