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.”

 

Play of Jones, Khudobin this season proof of how fickle goaltending can be

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USATSI

Play of Jones, Khudobin this season proof of how fickle goaltending can be

Martin Jones was a Boston Bruin for less than a week.

The “Original Six” franchise acquired Jones from the Los Angeles Kings on June 26, 2015. Four days later, Jones was traded back into the Pacific Division, this time to Northern California.

The Sharks gave up a first round pick and prospect Sean Kuraly for Jones. It seemed like a fairly high price at the time, but it’s one San Jose was happy to pay: No goalie started more games than Jones over the last two seasons, and the team signed him to a five-year extension this summer.

The first Jones trade in 2015 set off a flood of goalie transactions, as five netminders were traded during Jones’ extremely brief Boston tenure. One of those was Anton Khudobin, who will start for the Bruins as Jones backs up Aaron Dell against  his “former team” on Saturday night.

Khudobin was traded from Carolina to Anaheim, where he started seven games before getting sent down to the AHL. He then signed with Boston in 2016, returning to his former club as the Bruins tried to fill the hole that trading Jones left behind entrenched starter Tuukka Rask.

Jones and Khudobin will have taken vastly different paths to their respective creases on Saturday night. The former enters the game as his club’s undisputed franchise goalie, and the latter the unheralded backup.

Naturally then, Khudobin’s been the better goaltender this season.

Among the 46 goalies that have played 200 five-on-five minutes this season, Khudobin’s .962 five-on-five save percentage was the best entering Saturday, according to Corsica.  So, too, is his .954 save percentage off of high-danger shots.

Jones, meanwhile, ranks 27th (.920) and 14th (.833) in those respective categories.

What does it all mean? For one, it’s early in the season, and the fact that Khudobin’s made seven fewer starts undoubtedly plays a role in his superior performance to Jones.

Mainly, it speaks to just how fickle goaltending can be.

The Bruins backup is arguably getting the nod Saturday night because of how bad the man ahead of him has been. Rask, once one of the league’s best goaltenders, has steadily declined over the last three years and reached a new low this season: This year, he’s 40th out of 46 qualifying goalies in five-on-five save percentage.

Jones has demonstrated this, too. He’s stopped a lower percentage of low-and-medium danger shots at even strength than the last two seasons, but has stopped a higher percentage of high-danger shots.

Plus, he’s played behind one of the league’s best penalty-killing teams after playing behind one of its worst last season, and has benefitted from a corresponding bump in his shorthanded save percentage.

So much of what a goalie does is out of their control. Yet who’s playing in front of them, what kind of shots they see, and how often they see those shots all can affect their performance.

Khudobin and Jones are living proof of that this season.

Time is now for Sharks to experiment with new lines

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USATSI

Time is now for Sharks to experiment with new lines

The San Jose Sharks were shut out for the first time this season on Thursday night, but it sure didn't feel like it.

You’d be forgiven, albeit mistaken, if you didn't think the loss was their first goose egg of the season. San Jose’s been one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league this year, and has scored two or fewer goals in all but two of their six games in November.

The Sharks controlled play, but their raw possession numbers were misleading: Through the first two periods, San Jose was outshot 23-18, and poured it on in the third looking for the game-tying goal.

In order to break out of his team’s extended slump, head coach Peter DeBoer appeared to throw his lines in the proverbial blender. The changes weren't very significant, though, as DeBoer worked mostly around the edges.

Joe Thornton remained with Joe Pavelski, while Melker Karlsson and Timo Meier rotated in on their wing. Joonas Donskoi swapped in with Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl, and on and on.

The core pair of each line remained intact, while DeBoer swapped complimentary wingers. Subtle changes, unsurprisingly, didn't lead to drastically different results.

He’s been amenable to bigger changes at times, briefly breaking up longtime linemates Thornton and Pavelski last Sunday against Los Angeles. The bottom six, especially the fourth line, has mostly been a revolving door.

That's a start, but far from enough. 

As long as the Sharks struggle to score, similarly significant changes are in order.

DeBoer shouldn't want to sacrifice the team’s defensive dominance, or its strong possession game. But, the Sharks haven't scored enough through 17 games to justify using the same forward combinations. 

In Thornton and Pavelski’s case, those struggles date back to last season. For just about everyone else, the sample size is getting increasingly more significant as the season approaches the quarter pole.

The Sharks bench boss expressed a willingness to mix up his power play units earlier this week, and needs to do the same at even strength. It's time to try Pavelski on Couture's wing, Meier on Thornton's, or any number of permutations.

Tweaking around the edges hasn't made much of a difference, so far more comprehensive adjustments are not only welcome, but necessary. Of course, DeBoer may not find the perfect lineup solutions.

At this point, though, it's worth a shot. It's hard to imagine the Sharks scoring any less than they have so far this season, and the Sharks need to explore if any line changes can provide a remedy.