Sharks

Vlasic, Jones extensions vital to Sharks' long-term success

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AP

Vlasic, Jones extensions vital to Sharks' long-term success

SAN JOSE – The biggest news coming out of Sharks-land on Saturday, the first day of free agency, was Joe Thornton agreeing to return on a one-year deal that will be finalized shortly and Patrick Marleau continuing to weigh offers from other clubs.

But more vital to the team’s long-term ability to compete was general manager Doug Wilson extending defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic and goalie Martin Jones to eight-year and six-year deals, respectively. Each player would have been an unrestricted free agent in exactly one year without an extension.

In Vlasic, 30, the Sharks will continue to employ one of the NHL’s best defensive defensemen, and a player that has been as vital to their success over the past decade as just about anyone. In Jones, the Sharks made it known that the 27-year-old is now their franchise goalie. He may be the first that can boast of that title since Evgeni Nabokov.

They are two pieces that the team can build around, to borrow a commonly used phrase from Wilson, both now and for the future.

“They are core pieces of our team in key positions,” Wilson said. “I said it at the end of the year and I say today, getting these guys under contract was just a really high priority for this organization. We’re glad it’s done and behind us.”

There never seemed to be much doubt that these deals would get done, as Vlasic and Jones both expressed their desire to remain in San Jose past the 2017-18 season. Vlasic, who earned an average $4.25 million over the course of his current deal, gets a pay bump to an average of $7 million per year, while Jones, who will earn $3 million this season, will see his salary nearly double to $5.75 million per year on average beginning in 2018-19.

Indications are that negotiations were smooth, and the fact that they were both signed on the earliest date allowable by the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement is evidence enough of that. There will be no distractions once training camp begins for two players that would have generated all kinds of interest had they reached unrestricted free agency.

“All I have to worry about it focusing on playing hockey right now. It’s important,” Jones said. “I didn’t have a lot of doubts that it wasn’t going to get done anyway. But, it’s nice to get it out of the way and just focus on hockey, for sure.”

Vlasic said: “I wanted long term because I want to be in San Jose for a long time.”

Along with Brent Burns, who will see an eight-year extension kick in this season, Vlasic gives the Sharks have the kind of one-two combination among their top four on their blue line that few teams possess. Vlasic will skate against the opposition’s top players more often than not, while Burns will create offense like few NHL defensemen can.

In March, Vlasic said a big part of the reason he wanted to stay in San Jose was because the Sharks are “competitive every year.” The team has missed the playoffs just once since Vlasic broke in as an 18-year-old rookie in 2006-07.

Speaking before it was learned that Thornton would return, something Vlasic was clearly hoping for, he said: “I signed because we have the players and the team to go all the way, and it starts with a foundation of players, with a good goalie, a good back end.”

Jones, who came to San Jose in the 2015 offseason, has shown he can handle a heavy workload while giving the team steady goaltending on a nightly basis. Critics point to his .915 save percentage over his two seasons in San Jose as being an average mark, but Jones doesn’t often see an abundance of shots, and tends to make some of his biggest saves in key moments. He rarely allows bad goals.

Jones also has a tendency to elevate his game in important situations, including the postseason, as he has a .925 save percentage and 2.01 goals-against average in 32 career Stanley Cup playoff games.

“He plays big when it matters,” Wilson said. “That’s always been his history. Obviously, we don’t get to the Stanley Cup Final two years ago without him. The ultimate compliment for a goalie is that his team loves playing in front of him and they trust him. He has that. He’s just coming into his prime, too, as far as a goaltender.”

Jones was no sure thing to succeed when Wilson made the gutsy decision to send a first round pick and a prospect to Boston for a goalie that had just 34 games of NHL experience. 

It’s a deal that currently looks like one of the best that Wilson has ever made in his 14-plus years as the team’s top hockey executive.

“They put faith in me, and ever since I’ve been in San Jose it’s been a really good experience for me,” Jones said. “I just felt really welcome and at home. Very excited at the prospect of just playing at least seven more years here.”

 

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.”