Sharks

Sharks' first round opponent still up in the air as season draws to close

Sharks' first round opponent still up in the air as season draws to close

SAN JOSE – As we predicted midway through February, the San Jose Sharks are going to be battling with the Calgary Flames for first place in the division right down to the wire. Heading into the fourth and final game of their current homestand, San Jose sits on the cusp of taking over the top seed, just one point behind Calgary in the standings.

So, of course, there’s one question on everyone’s minds: Who might the Sharks face in the first round of the playoffs?

As many already know, the Vegas Golden Knights are the likely opponent should San Jose remain in second place. While the Vegas squad has lost some of its oomph in its sophomore season, they’ve held on to that third place spot in the rankings for the latter portion of the regular season.

San Jose has battled Vegas with mixed results this season, including a 6-0 shutout loss on November 24 and an emotional 3-2 victory on January 10. Both games took place at T-Mobile Arena, which has quickly gained a reputation for being a tough building for visiting teams to compete in.

The Golden Knights play the Sharks tough, and to top it off, Marc-Andre Fleury is the winningest netminder in the league this season. But again, this isn’t the same Golden Knights team that steamrolled everyone in their inaugural season, and the Sharks are certainly a more stacked team than they were last year -- especially when they’re healthy.

Long story short: An opening series against the Golden Knights would be a winnable series for the Sharks, but challenging nonetheless. 

But things could be different if the Sharks take first place in the Pacific division. If the playoffs started today, the top team in the Pacific would match up against the Wild in Round 1. Minnesota has gone 6-2-2 in their last 10 contests, including a 3-0 shutout of the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. The Sharks have taken the first two games of their season series with the Wild, outscoring Minnesota 8-3 in those games combined.

In addition to being a change of pace from the teams San Jose has squared off against in the playoffs in recent years, a series against Minnesota would definitely be interesting -- if not also one the Sharks could take control of.

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But things don’t stop with Minnesota. Should the Sharks take first place in the standings, the teams still in the hunt for a playoff berth shouldn’t be ignored. The Coyotes, who currently sit three points out of a wild-card spot, have gone 8-2-0 in their last 10, including a 2-0 shutout of the Flames that helped the Sharks make up ground in the standings. The Colorado Avalanche are only four points out of a wild-card spot, and while they just received news they’ll be without Gabriel Landeskog for about a month, this is the team that squeaked into the playoffs last season. The Edmonton Oilers are seven points out of a wild-card spot, but riding a winning streak that could potentially boost them into competition with Arizona, should Colorado falter.

With San Jose playing their next game on Saturday and Calgary not playing again until Sunday, the standings could shift within the next 48 hours. With just 15 games left in the season, it’s going to be a wild race to the finish to see who the Sharks will face off against in the first round of this year’s playoffs.

Three things going right for Sharks in otherwise frustrating season

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AP

Three things going right for Sharks in otherwise frustrating season

It's far easier to point out the main things that have gone wrong for the Sharks this season than it is to identify things that have gone right. Alas, that's what happens when you're in the midst of your worst season in more than 15 years.

Through the first 50 games of the season, San Jose has been inconsistent as can be. The Sharks already have four losing streaks of at least four games (and are one loss away from a fifth), but also put together a stretch in which they won 11 of 13. It's that inconsistency that ultimately forced general manager Doug Wilson to make the tough decision to move on from former head coach Peter DeBoer and hand the team to current interim head coach Bob Boughner.

For a team with as much collective experience as San Jose, it sure hasn't translated to the ice often enough.

That said, it hasn't all been bad. Yes, the Sharks are 11 points out of a playoff spot with 32 games remaining and a boatload of teams ahead of them to leapfrog, but their season isn't over. We have seen less likely turnarounds throughout NHL history, and it wasn't until the conclusion of the All-Star break that the eventual 2019 Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues finally found their stride.

If the Sharks are going to do the same, they'll have the few things that have gone right in the pre-All-Star break portion of the schedule to thank.

The penalty kill

Far and away, the most positive development for the Sharks in what has thus far been a very disappointing season is the continued dominance of their penalty kill. San Jose has taken the fourth-most penalties in the league, and if not for the success of the penalty-kill unit, whatever lingering hope the team has of making it back to the postseason would have been snuffed out long ago.

The Sharks have killed off 87.7 percent of the penalties they've taken this season, and that's even with a bit of recent slippage. That easily is the best penalty-kill percentage in the league, and the difference between their rate and second-place Washington (84.2 percent) is larger than the difference between the Capitals and the 15th-ranked Ottawa Senators.

While the forwards and defensemen have done a tremendous job of applying consistent pressure despite being at least one man down, the goaltenders have gotten in on the fun as well. San Jose is the only team in the NHL with a higher save percentage while shorthanded than at even strength, and it isn't even close.

The Sharks are a below-average offensive and goaltending team, and the penalty kill has constantly bailed them out in both categories. It's arguably the only thing San Jose has been able to rely on since the season began.

The kid

Mario Ferraro should not be this good, this quickly. He made the jump straight from juniors to the NHL, and at only 21 years of age, he has seamlessly slid into the Sharks' defensive corps.

He only has one goal on the season, but it's not necessarily his offensive plays that catch your eye. It's his defensive positioning, vision and awareness that seem to be well beyond his years and have allowed him to hit the ground running.

He's averaging over 15 minutes of ice-time while sharing a locker room with players nearly twice his age. It's still quite early in his career, but he sure does look like the second coming of Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

The old guys

Speaking of the age difference in San Jose's locker room, anything the two 40-year-olds have provided has to be considered in the things that have gone right category. I mean, they're 40-freaking-years-old.

Joe Thornton, currently in his 22nd NHL season, has appeared in all 50 games thus far. He ranks third among all Sharks forwards with 17 assists, and has even chipped in a couple of goals as well.

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Patrick Marleau rejoined San Jose after the first four games of the season and has appeared in every single one since. Only Evander Kane, Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, Logan Couture, Kevin Labanc and Brent Burns have scored more than the franchise's all-time leader in goals, points and games played. Those are supposed to be the Sharks' best players, and frankly, Marleau has been one of them.

Of course, that also helps explain why the Sharks currently find themselves in the position they do. If you're banking on two 40-year-olds being main contributors, something has gone very wrong. That said, both Marleau and Thornton appear to have plenty left in the tank, and the times in which they've succeeded have provided some of the most enjoyable moments of San Jose's season thus far.

The Sharks might not be happy with the way their season has gone, but Marleau and Thornton have definitely made it more entertaining.

Main reasons for Sharks' struggles in atypically disappointing season

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USATSI

Main reasons for Sharks' struggles in atypically disappointing season

To say the Sharks' season thus far has been a major disappointment would be the understatement of 2020. San Jose is in the midst of its worst season in more than 15 years, and it has been a bumpy ride from the start.

The four consecutive losses to begin the season weren't the final nail in former head coach Peter DeBoer's coffin, but they did set his eventual dismissal in motion. A dismal October was counteracted by an impressive November, but a lengthy losing streak to begin December prompted Sharks general manager Doug Wilson to make a change behind the bench.

San Jose had been performing better under interim head coach Bob Boughner since the switch, but three blowout losses heading into the All-Star break have dried up any momentum the team had generated. The Sharks sit 11 points back of playoff positioning with 32 games left to play and several teams ahead of them to leapfrog. Here are the main three reasons San Jose finds itself in such unusually bad shape:

Goaltending 

The most obvious sign that a team's season has taken a wrong turn is a coaching change. The second-most obvious? A goalie switch.

Martin Jones entered the season as the Sharks' No. 1 goalie by default. His playoff experience, combined with his hefty and immovable contract, gave him the leg up on backup netminder Aaron Dell. But not all of that postseason experience has been impressive, and Jones didn't do anything to answer the question marks he entered the current season with. He lost nine of his first 11 starts, and the Sharks have only won one of his last 10. Over those two separate cold streaks, he failed to post a save percentage of .900 or better in 16 of the 21 games.

Other than stopping pucks, consistency is arguably the most important quality in a goaltender, and Jones simply wasn't providing that, nor has he for quite a while. Dell, on the other hand, has been a breath of fresh air since taking over the No. 1 spot, stealing Jones' job and running with it. While Dell's numbers aren't overly impressive since becoming the starter, they're better than Jones', and it's likely Dell's steady presence in net that has given Boughner the confidence to stick with him.

Despite the improved goaltending since the coaching change, the Sharks still rank near the bottom of the league in all of the important metrics. San Jose's cumulative save percentage (.891) ranks third-worst in the NHL, while the team's cumulative goals-against average (3.10) is tied for sixth-worst. And that's not the worst of it. The Sharks' goalies have actually performed substantially better when the team has been shorthanded than they have at even strength.

There are no obvious ways for the Sharks to improve their goaltending situation moving forward, so what you see is likely what you're going to get. If San Jose is going to make a second-half comeback, both Dell and Jones will have to be considerably better than we've seen thus far.

Power play

The Sharks are averaging nearly one fewer goal per game than a season ago, and when you combine that with some substandard goaltending, disaster ensues. Just ask DeBoer.

Some of that offensive drop-off was expected, but San Jose's fall from a power-play juggernaut to its current middling state certainly was not, at least not to this extent. Last season, the Sharks scored at the sixth-highest clip in the league with the man-advantage, scoring on 23.7 percent of their power-play opportunities. This season, that scoring rate has plummeted to 16.7 percent, seventh-worst in the NHL. And that's only half the problem.

Through the first 50 games, San Jose has had only 138 power-play opportunities (2.76 per game), the sixth-fewest in the league. Last season, the Sharks went on the power play 241 times, or 2.94 opportunities per game.

So, not only are the Sharks going on the power play less often, but they're also not being very effective with the opportunities they do get. For a team that has been shorthanded 163 times already (fourth-most in the NHL), that's just asking for trouble.

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Emergence of younger players

When Joe Pavelski, Gustav Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi departed in free agency over the offseason, the Sharks lost 58 goals -- or roughly one-fifth of their 2018-19 season total. It wasn't going to be easy to replace that kind of production, and with little in the way of offseason signings in the forward group, San Jose inevitably was going to be reliant on several of its younger players taking the next step in their development to help fill the void.

Well, that hasn't really happened.

Tomas Hertl, an injury-replacement All-Star, is on pace to score 25 goals after notching 35 a year ago. Timo Meier appeared to make the leap last season when he tallied 30 goals and 66 points, but he has failed to expand upon that promise in the current campaign. Barclay Goodrow might already have set a career-high with eight goals scored and Kevin Labanc is on pace to do the same, but even that improvement hasn't been as considerable as necessary. Furthermore, none of the prospects the team had hoped would explode on the scene actually have, whether it be Antti Suomela, Sasha Chmelevski or Dylan Gambrell. 21-year-old defenseman Mario Ferraro has been the one major bright spot, which should tell you everything you need to know about the current state of the Sharks.

San Jose entered the season as one of the oldest teams in the league and knew it would need some of its younger players to step up. They haven't, and while that already has negatively impacted the franchise's present, it could continue to moving forward if some players don't emerge.