Sharks

Sharks offseason questions: What's next for Erik Karlsson, blue line?

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AP

Sharks offseason questions: What's next for Erik Karlsson, blue line?

SAN JOSE - At the start of the 2018-19 regular season, all eyes were on the Sharks' defense after the team acquired Erik Karlsson and gave themselves one of the most dangerous-looking blue lines in the league.

With San Jose's offseason underway, the focus yet again is on the Sharks' d-corps and the decisions that could change how it looks next season -- and those changes aren't just hinging on whether Karlsson stays in San Jose for another season.

For starters, Karlsson isn't the only Sharks' d-man hitting free agency. Joakim Ryan and Tim Heed, who penciled into the lineup at various times this season when Karlsson was injured, are both without new contracts ahead of July 1. Neither one is guaranteed to come back, although Heed's chances of staying in teal seem a bit higher.

Even though Ryan, who will be a restricted free agent this summer, saw more playing time during the playoffs than pending unrestricted free agent Heed did, it never seemed like Sharks coach Peter DeBoer was completely satisfied with what he saw from No. 47. While the Sharks benefitted from having both players down the stretch when the blue line got banged up, it seems likely San Jose will give Barracuda blueliner Jacob Middleton a longer look at the NHL level in place of Ryan. 

Keep in mind, the Sharks also are hoping to have Radim Simek back healthy at the start of the next season. The Czech d-man has already made huge strides in recovering from a devastating knee injury that cut his impressive rookie campaign short.

According to teammate and fellow countryman Tomas Hertl, Simek has been "working really hard" and "will for sure be ready for next year." It's fair to say San Jose's defense looked its best when both Simek and Karlsson were in the lineup healthy. With Simek back alongside Norris Trophy hopeful Brent Burns next season, the Sharks' d-corps will get an instant boost.

Speaking of Burns, San Jose's blue line is already primed to look a little different next season now that Bob Boughner is rejoining the coaching staff. Boughner did great work with San Jose's blue line before taking the head coaching job with the Florida Panthers, including working No. 88 during this Norris-winning campaign. Just imagine the impact he could have on a defense with both Burns and Karlsson in the mix -- if Karlsson does, in fact, stay in the South Bay.

This brings us back to Karlsson, who is still the big player to watch. When addressing the media on locker cleanout day, Karlsson didn't give any indication as to whether he wanted to stay in San Jose or go somewhere else. Despite posting a tweet to Sharks' fans that looked as though he may have been saying farewell, SportsNet's Elliotte Friedman reported just a week later that Karlsson is strongly considering whether he wants to remain in San Jose.

[RELATED: Will sharks be able to bring back Nyquist next year?]

Although his 2018-19 campaign was hampered with injuries, Karlsson clearly was a good fit on the Sharks' blue line when he was healthy, tallying 45 points (three goals, 42 assists) through the regular season and 16 points (two goals, 14 assists) through the playoffs. 

Suffice to say even after Karlsson makes a decision, San Jose's blue line will remain an entity to watch as we get closer to the opening of free agency.

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.

[RELATED: Sharks mailbag: Is Wilson's job as GM in serious jeopardy?]

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.

Why polled NHL players want to drink beers with Sharks' Joe Thornton

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USATSI

Why polled NHL players want to drink beers with Sharks' Joe Thornton

If you ever wanted to buy Joe Thornton or Brent Burns a beer, you'd better hope none of their NHL colleagues are around. 

In The Athletic's annual player poll, 12 percent of 392 NHL players who participated said Joe Thornton is the player they'd most want to drink a beer with, just behind Alex Ovechkin (14 percent) and Sidney Crosby (12 percent). Defenseman Brent Burns, with 5 percent of the vote, finished fifth, while fellow Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson also received votes. 

Why Thornton? 

"He's a legend," a Pacific Division player told The Athletic.

Only Sharks teammate Patrick Marleau has played more NHL games (1,703) than Thornton (1,616), and Thornton, Marleau and Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara are the only remaining NHLers who debuted in the 20th century. The Athletic found that the average NHL player entering this season was around 27 years old, meaning the average player was about five years old when Thornton debuted in 1997. 

In this case, a good chunk of the league does want to meet one of their heroes, but Thornton's personality can't hurt, either. After all, he once signed a contract extension on a lawnmower, plays Risk in his downtime and famously posed in the buff alongside Burns for ESPN The Magazine's "Body Issue" in 2017.  

“He’d have good stories and he seems like a fun guy," an Atlantic Division player told The Athletic. 

[RELATED: Is Wilson's GM job in serious jeopardy? Brodie answers in latest Sharks mailbag]

Thornton, 40, has 19 points (two goals, 17 assists) in 60 games during his 22nd NHL season. 

If he returns for a 23rd, it's easy to imagine him and Burns on this list again next year.