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.”

 

Sharks have tall task against Penguins, who are in Stanley Cup form

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USATSI

Sharks have tall task against Penguins, who are in Stanley Cup form

The Sharks witnessed firsthand the emergence of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia native Nathan Mackinnon as a legitimate superstar in a loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday. Naturally, their reward is to face the NHL's first superstar from the area on Saturday. 

And of course, much like Mackinnon, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is playing some of the best hockey of his career. 

In 2018, no player has scored more points than the three-time Stanley Cup champion (15). In fact, three of the top five scorers in the new year skate in the Steel City: Evgeni Malkin is tied for third with 13 points, and Phil Kessel is right behind him in a tie for fifth with 12 points. 

The trio has powered the Penguins to a three-point lead on the Eastern Conference's final Wild Card spot. As recently as New Year's Eve, though, the Penguins were seventh place in the loaded Metropolitan Division, and three points back of the postseason. 

It was always a matter of 'when' rather than 'if' Pittsburgh would turn it on. Fatigue was always a possibility, as the back-to-back champions have played at least 13 more postseason games (49) than any other team in the league over the last two seasons, but any concerns seem firmly in the rearview mirror at the moment. 

The same cannot necessarily be said about the Sharks, whom the Penguins dispatched in six games in San Jose's first Stanley Cup Final appearance. Yes, they've won three out of four since the bye week, but haven't played all that well in the process.

Two of those wins came against the lowly Coyotes, and San Jose has barely out-possesed their opponents (50.74 five-on-five corsi-for percentage; 51.22 fenwick-for percentage, according to Corsica Hockey). They're scoring nearly a goal more per 60 minutes of five-on-five play (2.69) than before the bye (1.85), but are allowing nearly one-and-a-quarter more goals (3.58 five-on-five GA/60) than before the bye week (2.24).

The latter is, at least in part, because Martin Jones is not playing well. The Conn Smythe-like form that kept the Sharks in it against the Penguins two Junes ago has largely eluded him this season, and injury may have played a part. 

Jones is day-to-day with a minor injury, according to the Bay Area News Group's Paul Gackle, and the team recalled goaltender Troy Grosenick from the San Jose Barracuda on Friday as a result. That leaves Aaron Dell in net as the last line of defense against the Penguins. 

With Pittsburgh looking a lot like the team that celebrated a Stanley Cup win on San Jose's home ice two postseasons ago, stopping them will be a tall task. 

DeBoer's defense of Jones doesn't paint the whole picture

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USATSI

DeBoer's defense of Jones doesn't paint the whole picture

Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer passionately defended goaltender Martin Jones following San Jose's 5-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night. For the eighth time in his last 14 starts, Jones allowed four goals, but DeBoer tried to take a look at the bigger picture. 

"You guys like to grab little pictures of things that work for the story your writing," DeBoer told reporters in Denver after he was asked about Jones' recent struggles. 

"It's 14 games. You can go back six games and write whatever story you want. He's having a great year for us. Our goaltending has been excellent all year."

If you look at his save percentage, Jones is not having a great season.

His save percentage in all situations (.9097) is the lowest in his three seasons in teal, and ranks 22nd out of the 34 goalies that have played 1000 minutes in all situations, according to Corsica Hockey. His five-on-five save percentage (.9147) is also the lowest of his teal tenure, and sits 26th out of 30 goalies that have played 1000 five-on-five minutes. 

But save percentage doesn't always tell the whole story, as it doesn't take into account shot quality. As we've written previously, Jones has played behind a loose defense this season.

Among those aforementioned 30 goalies, Jones has faced the highest percentage of high-danger shots, the second-highest percentage of medium-danger shots, and fourth-lowest percentage of low-danger shots. 

Luckily, there's a metric that does take into account shot quality: goals saved above average (GSAA). GSAA works much like Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in baseball, and considers how well a league-average goaltender would do "based on the shot danger faced," according to Corsica's definition.

Jones has been better than his save percentage would indicate. His 0.54 five-on-five GSAA ranks 17th out of the 30 goalies that have played 1000 five-on-five minutes, and his all situations GSAA (8.69) ranks 11th out of 34 goalies that have played 1000 minutes in all situations. 

GSAA has the same downside as WAR, in that it's an accumulative statistic, and favors players that have played more. In order to equalize for playing time, we can look at GSAA/30 shots faced. 

Jones ranks 17th and 10th in five-on-five (0.03) and all situations (0.31) GSAA/30, respectively, among goaltenders that have played 1000 minutes in such circumstances. In other words, Jones has been about average during five-on-five play, and one of the league's better goalies across all situations, at least based on the kind of shots he's faced.

That's not neccessarily "great," but Jones has been better on the whole than his recent play would indicate. Of course, he's also been outplayed in his own crease.

Backup goaltender Aaron Dell not only boasts a higher save percentage than Jones, but his GSAA/30 in five-on-five situations (0.15) and across all strengths (0.44) are also higher than Jones'. Every 30 shots on the penalty kill, Dell (2.05 GSAA/30) saves nearly a goal more than Jones (1.06). 

DeBoer also acknowledged that Dell will have to play more out of necessity, with the Sharks halfway through a stretch of eight games in 13 days. That includes a difficult back-to-back this weekend, hosting the Penguins Saturday and facing the Ducks in Anaheim on Sunday. 

The coach was on to something on Thursday. Yes, Jones has been better than his recenty play, and his season-long save percentage, would indicate. 

But that doesn't mean he's been "great," nor does it mean he's San Jose's better option in net right now.