Martin Jones not sole cause of Sharks' defensive woes early in season

Martin Jones not sole cause of Sharks' defensive woes early in season

SAN JOSE – If you’ve seen the Sharks in the first 20 games this season, you’re well aware they aren't playing the way they want to on many nights. At least, not for the majority of a game.

San Jose usually starts strong, but tends to move away from the all-around defensive makeup that has been its foundation for the last few seasons. The result are breakaways and odd-man rushes that, all too often, end up in the back of the net.

“The frustrating part is just that we haven’t played to our identity,” Joe Pavelski summarized Thursday after the Sharks' 5-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. “We do it for a few minutes … and then all of a sudden there’s a breakaway, and another breakaway. [Goaltender Martin Jones], we’re just hanging him out to dry at times with these odd-man rushes and chances.”

[RELATED: Why Sharks' tension with Nazem Kadri boiled over in loss to Maple Leafs]

There’s a lot of finger-pointing that occurs during times like this when a team is struggling, and right now, fans are criticizing Jones. When the Sharks start giving up those second-period goals, there’s no shortage of shade thrown in his direction.

Since this continues to be a talking point, here’s something to consider: This isn’t a black-and-white situation. There’s no one single player, or one single aspect of the game for that matter, that can take full blame. This is a collective effort that needs to be addressed by all members of the team.

Both the goaltending and the defense in front of the net have to be better if the Sharks are going to get back to the identity Pavelski mentioned.

Putting all the blame squarely on Jones’ shoulders doesn’t solve anything. When his teammates come out and say they need to play better in front of him, that’s the truth.

Besides, a team that lives and dies solely on how their goaltender performs isn’t going to have long-term success.

Look at what happened to the 2015-2016 Montreal Canadiens, who notched a nine-game winning streak to start the season and then spiraled into the abyss when netminder Carey Price was injured. Or look at this current season where the struggling Anaheim Ducks got a few wins early in the season after relying heavily on John Gibson’s performance between the pipes, only to come back to reality as Gibson's workload began to wear on him.

As far as the home team is concerned, the Sharks do need to play better in front of Jones – for a full 60 minutes, anyways. 

One of San Jose’s problems is, as coach Peter DeBoer classified after Thursday's loss, a lack of consistency. A strong start to a game followed by bouts of loose play that lead to San Jose turning over the puck. Entering Thursday, the Sharks out-scored their opponents 24-12 in first periods, but were bested 16-25 in second periods.

“When we’re playing at our best, we see how successful it makes us,” defenseman Brenden Dillon said of the inconsistent play. “We’re really not doing that for a full 60 minutes right now, we’re doing it in spurts.”

Those spurts are letting opponents find room to score.

Now, this isn’t a clean-cut problem that rests solely on the defense either. Jones has a .894 save percentage through 15 starts and has allowed 44 goals during that span. While he’s made some crucial late-game saves to keep the Sharks chances of winning alive, he’s also let some of those game-changing chances get by him. There’s no question these are areas that need improvement. 

But again, Jones isn’t the only one to blame. Keep in mind, the Sharks' toughest defensive outing was their 4-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues, and Jones wasn’t even in goal for that loss.

Speaking of St. Louis, the Blues visit the Sharks on Saturday for the first meeting since that 4-0 beatdown. Will the Sharks get revenge? Will they bounce back from their outing against the Leafs? Will they play that full 60 that puts their identity as a defensive force on display? 

They’ll need a complete defensive push from everyone, not just their goaltender, if that’s going to be possible.

Sharks prospects to watch: Dylan Gambrell can earn full-time NHL role


Sharks prospects to watch: Dylan Gambrell can earn full-time NHL role

Editor's note: This week, NBC Sports California will highlight five different Sharks prospects to watch heading into the 2019-20 season. Some have a chance to make the NHL roster as soon as year, while others face critical years in their development. We start with center Dylan Gambrell. 

Dylan Gambrell's second professional season didn't begin in the NHL, but it ended there. 

The 22-year-old split time between the Sharks and their AHL affiliate last year, scoring 45 points (20 goals, 25 assists) in 51 regular-season games with the San Jose Barracuda and leading all Barracuda players (minimum five games played) in points per game (0.88). That scoring touch didn't immediately translate to the NHL, but Gambrell ultimately scored his first NHL goal on a big stage during his 13th career game, when the rookie drew into the lineup in Game 6 of the Western Conference final. He signed a two-year contract with the team last week. 

The Sharks' litany of offseason departures up front should, barring any additional moves this summer, give Gambrell a chance to crack the big club's roster out of training camp and begin the season in the NHL for the first time in his career. Here's what to expect from the most recent San Jose draft pick to make his NHL debut.

Dylan Gambrell

Draft year, position: 2016, second round (No. 60 overall)
Position: Center
Shoots: Right
Height: 6-foot
Weight: 185 pounds
2018-19 team: San Jose Sharks/San Jose Barracuda (AHL)

Skill set

Gambrell is known for his versatility and two-way acumen, in large part because of his speed and hockey sense. He skated on the top unit of the University of Denver's power play and penalty kill under current Dallas Stars coach Jim Montgomery and played a big role for the Barracuda last season. 

Although he has finished with more assists than goals in every season dating back to his days at Denver, Gambrell boasts a strong shot. He scored on 13.6 percent of his shots in the AHL last season, and 11.8 percent of his shots in college. Gambrell's lone NHL goal, a quick wrist shot past Blues netminder Jordan Binnington, provided a glimpse at his shooting skill

Training-camp proving ground

Once the Sharks make it official and re-sign veteran center Joe Thornton, there could be up to three forward spots up for grabs based on the lineups San Jose iced in the Western Conference final. Joonas Donskoi, Gustav Nyquist and Joe Pavelski signed elsewhere earlier this month, arguably leaving roles vacant on three separate lines. 

Gambrell, who was used on the wing and down the middle by Sharks coach Peter DeBoer last season, has an opportunity to win a spot as a bottom-six forward. That likely would be as the fourth-line center, allowing Barclay Goodrow to move back to the wing. Whether or not the Sharks reunite with Patrick Marleau, Gambrell seems like a longshot for a look on the wing higher up the lineup. Still, his offensive pedigree at lower levels can't necessarily be discounted given who San Jose will have to replace. 

Best-case scenario

Gambrell seizes an opening among the Sharks forward corps at training camp, eventually becoming a staple in San Jose's NHL lineup. He begins the season as the team's fourth-line center against the Vegas Golden Knights on Oct. 2, and remains in the spot in the regular-season finale against the Anaheim Ducks six months later. 

As the season progresses, Gambrell earns a role on the penalty kill and allows DeBoer and the Sharks coaching staff to selectively manage the minutes of top centers Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl. Chipping in 20 to 25 points against bottom-six competition would be an added bonus. 

Worst-case scenario

Gambrell can't seize a spot in training camp or crack the NHL lineup outside of intermittent injury call-ups. He continues to play well with the Barracuda but becomes a "Quadruple-A" player in his age-23 season: Prolific in the AHL, but unable to earn a regular role in the NHL. 

That makes the Sharks, who are light on draft picks and tight against the salary cap, explore acquiring a fourth-line center at the trade deadline ahead of the Stanley Cup playoff push. 

[RELATED: How rival Golden Knights look after free agency]

Realistic expectations

Gambrell might not spend the entirety of the season in the NHL, but it is fair to expect him to win a spot on the roster out of training camp and enter the postseason as a regular forward. 

After re-signing defenseman Erik Karlsson and winger Timo Meier to big contracts, the Sharks need contributors on cheap deals. Gambrell, who reportedly carries a $700,000 salary-cap hit over the next two seasons, fits that bill. 

A shortage of available forwards pressed him into the Sharks' lineup in the Western Conference final, and he responded by scoring San Jose's only goal in Game 6. He'll need to rise to the occasion again in a similar situation this fall.

NHL free-agency review: How Vegas Golden Knights stack up in Pacific Division


NHL free-agency review: How Vegas Golden Knights stack up in Pacific Division

Editor’s note: NHL free agency was fast and furious, and the moves that teams did (and did not) make set the tone for next season. All week, we’ll examine the Sharks’ Pacific Division rivals, and whether their free-agency approach put them in better, worse or the same position. Today, we dive into the Vegas Golden Knights.

The 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs can't be talked about without Game 7 between the Sharks and the Golden Knights in the Western Conference first round

In addition to being the ultimate edge-of-your-seat viewing experience, it gave the rest of the hockey world a glimpse into the bitter rivalry that has very quickly manifested between these two teams.

Despite being around for only two seasons, the Golden Knights have become a force to be reckoned with. And with most of the Pacific Division teams having down seasons, Vegas has emerged as San Jose's biggest competition on the West Coast.

So while the Sharks have a lot to focus on this offseason in terms of their own roster, it doesn't hurt to take a peek at what the opposition is up to, especially a team with no cap space to work with.

Here's a look at what Vegas has been up to since the free-agent market opened up.

Players who stayed

Vegas has been incredibly busy getting its players signed to deals this offseason, keeping important pieces of its roster together. They made the most noise in late June when they signed high-scoring center William Karlsson to an eight-year deal. The top-line pivot ranked second on the team last year with 56 regular-season points.

Vegas also kept some of their depth from last season, locking up forwards Tomas Nosek and Brandon Pirri, and backup goalie Malcolm Subban. 

The Golden Knights still have a couple of players hanging out as free agents. But given they currently have zero room under the salary cap, according to CapFriendly, there will be moves made before anyone else gets signed.

Players who left

The lack of breathing room under the salary cap has, as expected, signaled the exit of a handful of players Vegas had on its roster last season.

Defenseman Colin Miller was traded to the Buffalo Sabres and forward Erik Haula was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes ahead of free agency. Center Ryan Carpenter signed a three-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks in the first couple hours of free agency, and French forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare became one of many players scooped up by the Colorado Avalanche that same day.

Rumors have also been swirling that RFA Nikita Gusev could be headed to another team given Vegas doesn't have any room left under the cap, but there could also be another trade in the works to free up some money.

While the moves leave roles to be filled on Vegas' roster, it allows some of its promising young prospects to step up. The Golden Knights likely aren't done making moves this summer.

Better, worse, or the same?

Even with some pieces being moved around this offseason, the core of the Golden Knights is still intact.

With no cap space to work with, Vegas probably will make more moves this offseason. The Knights still, however, look like they're going to be the Sharks' toughest division rival for another season.