- Editor's Note: Sheng Peng will be a regular contributor to NBC Sports California’s Sharks coverage. You can read more of his coverage on San Jose Hockey Now, listen to him on the San Jose Hockey Now Podcast, and follow him on Twitter at @Sheng_Peng.
Mike McKenna isn’t excited about the immediate future of Sharks goaltending.
Not that anybody should blame the former NHL goalie, who now is an analyst for Daily Faceoff.
James Reimer has an .895 save percentage, which ranks 33rd of 43 goalies who have appeared in 20 or more games. Kaapo Kahkonen has an .880 save percentage, third-worst in the NHL.
Digging deeper with Evolving Hockey, Reimer’s minus-7.01 goals-saved-above-expected is 36th and Kahkonen’s minus-16.54 is again third-worst.
Kahkonen, at least, might be turning a corner, with a 3-2-0 record and a .912 save percentage in the Sharks’ recent eight-game road trip. Those three victories came over impressive opposition in the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Washington Capitals.
The 26-year-old Finnish goaltender, acquired with a 2022 fifth-round pick from the Minnesota Wild last trade deadline for defenseman Jake Middleton, struggled mightily at the beginning of the season, so much so that by mid-December he was purportedly making serious alterations to his game.
“I think asking him to make some additions to the way he plays sometimes takes a little longer for goalies than others,” Sharks head coach David Quinn said.
“Just a lot of different movements in the crease and focus on beating plays on my feet and being in control and very basic and boring,” Kahkonen shared with San Jose Hockey Now in December.
Kahkonen’s problems did not surprise McKenna, who I spoke with before the All-Star break about the state of the San Jose's netminding.
The former goalie, who spent 14 years in the pros, touched on the "complete structural rebuild" that Kahkonen needs, Reimer’s trade value, why the Sharks’ struggle could be a blessing in disguise for Kahkonen and candid thoughts on Adin Hill, Evgeni Nabokov, and Peter DeBoer.
Sheng Peng: What are your thoughts on James Reimer and Kaapo Kahkonen’s performances this season?
My perception: The San Jose Sharks have created an adequate environment for them to succeed -- per SPORTLOGiQ, they’re 18th in the NHL in Quality Chances Against in All Situations -- but they’re second-to-last with an .882 save percentage.
Mike McKenna: I think this has been the case of what was expected in some ways.
It's been a tough environment in San Jose, in terms of what the product is in front of the goaltenders. But yeah, they just simply haven't been good enough.
Reimer has had pockets where he's been fine. But to me, that's who James Reimer is. He's a quality NHL goalie who's probably best suited as a No. 2, he's really not a No. 1 in the NHL; he's never been able to grab that type of role for a prolonged, extended period of time.
I mean, last year was his high watermark for games played in the NHL, 48. He'd never played more than that, that's half a season.
So expecting a guy at his age up into his mid-30's to suddenly become a No. 1 and carry the load and put up a .920 behind a team that's rebuilding and struggling is just not gonna happen.
So I think Reimer has been a little bit off, but I think he's just such a consistent goaltender in how he plays, right? Like his movements, his actual puck-stopping, you know what you're gonna get from him. And to me, Reimer is the one of the two that is probably a better reflection of how the team's played, like his play has been a little bit below. And it's been closer to where a goaltender should be for the club.
For me in San Jose, Kahkonen is the one that -- I hate to say it -- I'm not surprised by this at all. He's at the bottom of the advanced stats. He's at the bottom of the regular stats. And the reason being things that I saw in Minnesota that made me real nervous.
He plays way out of the net in the white ice. He plays very low and wide. He chases the game like crazy, and so much of that is from a structural standpoint.
Go to goals-saved-above-expected with Moneypuck.com. Who are your bottom goalies in the league? [Elvis] Merzlikins, Kahkonen, [John] Gibson, [Jonathan] Quick, out of your NHL regular starters. All four of those have something very in common. They all play way out of their net. They play really wide and low and then they can't move and rotate and they lose their net. All of them. You can't do that in the NHL anymore.
With Kahkonen, unless he can pull off a complete structural rebuild, I don't know what the path forward is for him. With goalies like him, if you insulate him and give him 20-something shots a night like he was facing in Minnesota -- where he can see everything, where he doesn't face backdoor passes or lateral passes -- he's pretty good because he's got great natural athleticism and reflexes.
He's like if you took Kari Lehtonen and mashed him up with Miikka Kiprusoff. It's kind of what he looks like with his stance and everything…
SP: Sounds like a great start for a goalie?
MM: It would have been a great combination in 2009 when you could play that way. You can't do that in today's game.
Kahkonen, to me, has not been good in any way. It's not a play your way out of it thing. It's not as simple as just trying harder mentally. He's got to make adjustments to how he plays, and I think it's going to all start with width and depth. He's got to play closer to home and a little more upright.
SP: Kahkonen actually has been making major adjustments in-season. Is that unusual for an NHL goalie, to be doing that during the year?
MM: For goalies, especially when you're on an NHL team, you've got a chance to work with a goalie coach every single day on the ice.
Let's face it, the Sharks aren't making playoffs. We're well aware of that.
So it behooves the San Jose Sharks to try to get something out of their $2.75-million investment. And that gives you a little bit of leeway. Because if you can retool his game in-season this year, you're hoping that it pays off for next season.
With Thomas Speer—having the goalie coach there—you need to have them on the ice as much as they can, because you can't do it in the off-season. [You] can't be on the ice with them in the off-season.
So to me, that's similar to a couple of years ago when Aaron Dell went to goalie school mid-year. Struggling a little bit under Pete DeBoer, he took pretty much a whole week-and-a-half or two weeks off where they just drilled down on things. I think it's similar in that way for Kahkonen.
In my eyes, Speer is a very modern goalie coach. I can't help but think that he's got a game plan for Kahkonen.
When a goalie doesn't change a whole lot, even though they're working on things, either they don't truly want to change or they just can't. And that's a scary place to be if you're a goalie. Because you're trying as hard as you can, you're going out there every day in practice, you're 26 years old, you've had some success in the NHL, and then you just can't get it to stick. You can't get your brain to override your natural instincts, modify, and modernize.
That's going to be the hardest thing for Kahkonen is to just rewire his mindset to doing something different.
SP: When should the San Jose Sharks expect a change in Kahkonen? Or we won't really know until next year?
MM: I think by the end of the season, you'll be able to. You're looking for a little bit of consistency in the net and you're hoping by March or April, it starts to come. But, it's really hard when you're playing for a team that gives up so many chances.
You're not going to have those games where you go out and the team is just incredible in front of you and you can still screw up and get away with it. That's why it's really hard for a goalie to rebuild their game on a bad team, because you just don't feel good about yourself walking out of the rink very often.
SP: So it seems like Reimer is at least valuable as a placeholder? You don’t want to ruin Kahkonen by just throwing him out there over and over again if he’s not ready.
So Reimer is kind of buying time for Kaapo to reset his game by next season? That might be a reason to keep Reimer and not trade him, because you’re not getting much for him anyway?
MM: I think it's a fair assessment.
What I don't know though is what teams out there are really going to be interested in James Reimer? I don't mean that as a slag to him. What role does he fill for a team?
I don't think that James Reimer has ever been viewed as a goalie that's going to come in and win a playoff series. That's just real talk.
But he has been miraculously consistent throughout his career. You can bank on a .905-to-.910 Save % out of Reimer most years. So if you're an NHL team that suddenly faces some injury trouble towards the Trade Deadline—or maybe you're just not comfortable with your top two goalies—maybe you bring in a Reimer.
But I don't think it's going to be a big return.
SP: Big picture, the San Jose Sharks have not done well with bringing in goalies over the last half-decade, save maybe Reimer. Kahkonen is off to a rough start, Adin Hill never got untracked, even ballyhooed prospects like Alexei Melnichuk flopped.
When we’re talking about the Sharks’ goaltending talent evaluators, is this a worrisome trend or just a bad cycle, you’re not going to hit on every goalie?
MM: It'd be tough to put it on Thomas Speer at this point, because he's only had a year. And you're receiving goods that you've already had in place. If he got a chance to go out and pick two goalies and go from there, it'd probably help a little bit. You'd get somebody who you think is probably more in line with what you think stylistically.
What I'm struggling with here, is the last couple of hirings. I feel bad about this, because I don't know [director of goaltending Evgeni] Nabokov at all -- he was an unbelievable NHL goalie -- but when he became the goalie coach, I went "Huh? What has he done goalie coaching-wise?"
It was 2015 when he last played. So I'm thinking, "Has he modernized? Does he know everything that went on in the last 10 years? Has he been teaching them? Has he been working with youth players? Junior players?"
There's a real art form to coaching goalies. And that's why you see a lot of NHL goalie coaches come from major junior, or they work their way up. Even if they're ex-NHL goalies, they work their way up because they've had to stay very current with it.
The results don't look good [in San Jose]. There's no way around that.
I can't help but think that Nabby wasn't a technical savant.
Again, it feels amazingly awful criticizing somebody like Nabby that was such an unreal goaltender. But this is why teams that develop goalies have such a great pipeline. They've got a good NHL goalie coach [and] they've got a development goalie coach that all fall in line and they know how to get results. They know modern ways of doing that.
I'm just not sure that that San Jose has had that in place for a long time, especially under Pete DeBoer. Pete isn't a goalie guy at all and he wants full control over the goalies.
How much input did Johan Hedberg really get? Johan got kicked to the curb pretty hard there. And that was tough because I know how much Johan put into the job.
Maybe it's just as much on head coaches as it is on the goalies that are there, because they've got to work together to try to get the best out of them.
SP: And the Sharks traded valuable assets to bring Hill then Kahkonen in…
MM: Here's my question [about] both those goalies.
You can look at their numbers before they came to the San Jose Sharks. And if you look at their traditional numbers, you probably go: "These guys are pretty good! They've got something going on."
Did anybody watch how they played?
That's what I want to know. Adin Hill is doing the exact same thing in Vegas this year that he did last year in San Jose. He's on his back all the time. He's chasing. He doesn't rotate.
There seems to be an affinity in San Jose for these so-called "athletic goaltenders." All that means is a goalie who's mega-explosive and flops around. By today's standards, that means "inefficient."
It's the exact opposite of Reimer. Like Reimer could use a shot of energy and some better hands if you're trying to build him into being the best version [of himself].
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I couldn't help but wonder [if] Hill's numbers were masked a little bit in Arizona [by] a couple of pretty strong defensive [Rick] Tocchet teams. Did you watch how he played?
And then Kahkonen, the same [thing]. Did you watch this guy?
Because he'd rattle off those shutouts [for the Minnesota Wild] where they had 21-22 shots against. He'd make one or two highlight reel saves where he was out of position. He looked like a world beater.
To me, that's just a complete lack of pro scouting of the goaltending position. I don't know who's on staff there, at the time when those decisions are made, but they threw away some pretty good draft picks, prospects, and players to make that happen.
Now you're looking at neither Hill nor Kahkonen, at this point, has worked out for them.