Sharks in danger of letting series slip away before they even know why

Sharks in danger of letting series slip away before they even know why

A pattern is developing in this Stanley Cup first-round series – namely, that there is no pattern except for the one where the San Jose Sharks never score.

This, I think we can all agree, is a problem for them.

For the second time in three nights, the Sharks started quickly, then watched the Oilers catch up, then pass, and finally win, this time 1-0 on Zack Kassian's goal with 9:15 to play.

Now you won’t need a lot of analysis of metric parsing to understand why that is not good for the local shinnyists, but in a series that has not been dominated or even controlled by the best players on either team, Edmonton’s youth and initiative is beginning to show its superior mettle.

With this caveat: Momentum in hockey travels easily within games, but does not transport game to game, so as Joe Thornton explained, “These (two losses) are just two different games. They were all over us the other night, but this was just a 1-0 playoff game.”

In that way, his explanation works. The game turned only on Edmonton third liner Kassian’s gift to the No-Overtime-Fun Consortium, accepting an overambitious pass from the deep right corner by San Jose defenseman David Schlemko and beating Martin Jones cleanly over his glove.

Other than that, it was the first evenly-played game of a series that still has not yet taken form. San Jose started slowly in Game 1 and then crushed the Oilers for the last two periods and the overtime, Edmonton owned Game 2, and Game 3 was a fairly formless affair with few serious shifts in fortune for either side.

Thornton played on his wonky knee but not materially affect the run of play, nor did Logan Couture’s abandonment of his facemask make him more noticeably intrepid. Martin Jones has been playoff-fine in goal for San Jose, but Edmonton’s Cam Talbot has been every bit his equal, thus negating one of the Sharks’ strengths from a season ago.

More troubling for the Sharks, though, is the fact that they have not punished the Oilers for the minimal contributions of the Connor McDavid line. Sunday, Oilers head coach Todd McLellan dropped McDavid’s right wing, Leon Draisaitl, to the third line with Kassian and Mark Letestu to try to kickstart his motor, and Patrick Maroon has been little in evidence on McDavid’s left.

So now they are down 2-1 with Game 4 Tuesday night. The raw numbers say that teams up 2-1 win 70 percent of the series, but the numbers in this series have been largely illusory when it comes to making sweeping judgments. Edmonton has corrected an early propensity for penalties, committing only two Sunday night and allowing no shots on Talbot. Thornton’s return was supposed to fix that, but in 3:12 of 5-on-4, the Sharks won only one faceoff, couldn’t hold the zone long enough to benefit from it, and never got sufficiently organized after that to trouble Talbot.

In other words, there was frankly little to San Jose’s game other than energy, which they should have as a minimal standard for membership in the playoffs. They played hard but not decisively, physically but not to the point of gaining the run of play, and other than Schlemko’s error would still be playing now, if that’s your idea of a good time.

But it is not Peter DeBoer’s. They have three goals in three games, all in a game in which they attempted 87 shots and three periods and change and owned the Oilers like they were the Oilers of old. Since then . . .

. . . well, since then, they have played your standard first round series – some good, some bad, lots in the middle, little of it memorable. Barring a new reversal in form, or more likely, a showing of form, this series could slip away from them before they know why, or how to arrest it.

The one thing we know for certain, though, is that what you just saw has no bearing on what you are about to see, and since the Sharks were middling but goalless Sunday night, there’s no telling what Game 4 may bring.

Or not. Depending on whether it does. There, I think we’ve covered all the possibilities without pointing to any one in particular. Just like this series.

After Erik Karlsson trade, Sharks in line for new defenseman pairings

After Erik Karlsson trade, Sharks in line for new defenseman pairings

SAN JOSE -- Since Peter DeBoer took over as Sharks coach ahead of the 2015-16 season, defenseman Brenden Dillon has played with plenty of partners. Seven defensive pairings have played 500 minutes of five-on-five hockey together in the regular season and playoffs during that stretch, according to Corsica Hockey, and Dillon has played for four. 

He’ll likely join a fifth this season. Dillon’s most regular partner over the last three seasons, Dylan DeMelo, now is in Ottawa after being traded to the Senators in the massive deal that brought two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson to San Jose last week. 

Dillon, like the rest of the Sharks' defensive corps, doesn’t know who he’ll skate with to start the season. But, he said, his experience regularly playing alongside many different players will prove beneficial when he does.

“I think it’ll be to my advantage for sure,” Dillon said Friday at the Sharks' practice facility. “I’m definitely excited. We don’t really know what the lineups are going to kind of shake out as exactly. I think even during the regular season in past years, too, you might start out with a certain guy and finish the game having played with all five guys. … There’s so many different variables.”

Dillon skated with defensive prospect Jeremy Roy on Friday. Marc-Edouard Vlasic paired with Karlsson for the third consecutive practice. Justin Braun, Vlasic’s regular partner to the tune of nearly 3800 regular-season and playoff minutes over the last three years, skated with Burns. 

At least in the Braun and Burns’ case, that was due to availability. Burns’ most common defensive partner last season, Joakim Ryan, played in Thursday night’s preseason game against the Anaheim Ducks, and thus skated in the second session. 

Still, it’s possible Braun will regularly play with someone other than Vlasic for the first time in years. The eight-year veteran last played with someone else for more than 500 five-on-five minutes during the 2013-14 season, when he logged just under 505 such minutes with now-retired defenseman Brad Stuart. 

Braun said there won’t be a big learning curve if he plays with someone other than Vlasic, since he’s played spot minutes with just about everyone else (other than Karlsson). Braun said he’d hope to play a couple preseason games with a new partner, but that practice might be an ideal time to learn their tendencies and develop chemistry. 

“You can learn anywhere,” Braun said. “There’s drills set up where there’s a lot of forechecking. You might chip [the puck], and he’s not there, and you kind of talk about it after. That might be the best place since they’re not scoring goals on you where it counts.”

It might be awhile before DeBoer provides a glimpse into his potential pairings. Karlsson will not play in Saturday’s preseason game against the Vegas Golden Knights at SAP Center, and the Sharks will not cut camp down to one group of up to 26 players (five forward lines, four defensive pairs, and three goaltenders) until Tuesday or Wednesday. 

After Saturday, San Jose will play three more preseason games before hosting Anaheim in the regular-season opener Oct. 3. Who Karlsson, and the rest of the defense, play with then is still to be determined, according to DeBoer. 

“We’ll see,” DeBoer said when asked if he envisioned Karlsson and Vlasic as a long-term possibility. “We’ve had a couple practices, but honestly I’ve got a bunch of different things rolling around in my head. The nice thing about getting [Karlsson] now is that it’s not a trade deadline where you’ve basically got six weeks to figure it out.”

DeBoer added that he hopes his pairings that open the season will stick together stick throughout the season, but he knows the nature of a long schedule will require changes. As Braun and Dillon both noted, that can happen during the ebb and flow of an individual game, too.

No matter who plays with whom, Dillon said he’s confident any new-look pairings will be able to become comfortable. 

“I think that’s just going to come with time,” Dillon said. “But, for us as a group, I think we can all cover for each other if we’re struggling a bit. At the same time, I think when we’re all going well, it’s going to be a tough group to beat.”

While Erik Karlsson tries to fit in, Sharks just want him to be himself

While Erik Karlsson tries to fit in, Sharks just want him to be himself

SAN JOSE -- At his introductory press conference Wednesday afternoon, new Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson drew an interesting parallel when he was asked about trying to fit into a new team, after being the leading man for so long. 

The Swede mentioned playing for his national team at best-on-best tournaments; first at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, and then at the World Cup of Hockey two years later. 

“It was something that I always enjoyed,” Karlsson told reporters, “And I think that it challenged me to do things in a different way sometimes … I’m looking forward to that here as well.”

It’s not necessarily an outlandish comparison. The salary-capped Sharks aren’t as good as a Swedish national team that, if its latest World Cup iteration played in the NHL, would have been about $28 million over the current upper limit. But, Karlsson’s move from the 67-point Ottawa Senators to the 100-point Sharks in last week’s blockbuster trade represents a significant upgrade in the talent surrounding him.

The two-time Norris Trophy winner joins a defense corps featuring another Norris recipient (Brent Burns) and a shutdown defenseman with international pedigree of his own (Marc-Edouard Vlasic), on a team led by a Hart Trophy winner (Joe Thornton), the NHL’s sixth-leading scorer since 2013-14 (Joe Pavelski), and the fourth-best player by Corsica Hockey’s wins above replacement (WAR) model last season (Logan Couture). 

“We’re a good hockey team,” Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said. “We still have a lot of work ahead of us. There’s a lot of good teams in the West, but I think [the Karlsson trade] puts us in position to have the ingredients to go compete with all the top teams.” 

Karlsson, then, just might be the active ingredient for a franchise still looking for its first Stanley Cup. He has two Norris Trophies to his name, four first-team All-Star appearances, and more points than any other defenseman since he entered the league. He led the Senators to within a double-overtime goal of the Stanley Cup Final just over a year ago, and scored more points than all but five defenders in a “down” year last season. 

If anything, Karlsson may have undersold his role on the Swedish national team when making the comparison. 

At the Sochi Olympics, Karlsson tied for the tournament lead with eight points, winning a silver medal. The Swedes weren’t as successful at the World Cup two years ago, but Karlsson still tied for the team lead in scoring. He also led his team in ice time in three out of four games, edging out the likes of Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman and Arizona’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson. 

The former ultimately won the Norris Trophy last season, while the latter will have the third-highest salary cap hit ($8.25 million) of any defenseman next season, when his eight-year contract extension kicks in.

In other words? “He’s one of the best players on the planet,” according to Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer, and not just because of his offensive ability. 

“We can use him in every situation,” DeBoer said Wednesday of his newest defenseman, adding that Karlsson was one of “very few players in the world that you could use in the last minute of games when you’re up to shut down the other team’s best players, or use to create offense when you’re behind.”

Karlsson sounded very aware of the situation he’s joining in San Jose. He knows he’s coming to a team that’s “been together for a long time that has good chemistry,” and he said it’s on him to find a way to fit in by doing whatever is asked of him. 

DeBoer indicated he will simply ask the four-time, first-team All-Star to be himself. 

“I don’t think there’s any adjustment,” DeBoer said. “We play up-tempo. We play aggressive. We play the way he plays.

“He’s gonna fit right in.”