Sharks

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in San Jose's late 3-2 loss to Jets

Sharks takeaways: What we learned in San Jose's late 3-2 loss to Jets

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SAN JOSE -- For the first time in a long time, the Sharks had some life. 

San Jose played one of its best games to date, complete with a smothering defense that kept the visitors from Winnipeg on their heels and a relentless third-period push at SAP Center that made for some very entertaining hockey. 

Unfortunately, Connor Hellebuyck outplayed Martin Jones and a late-game mistake was all it took to derail the Sharks and hand them another loss, this time by a score of 3-2.

Here are three takeaways from Friday's game.

Defensive improvement 

You really do have to hand it to San Jose for playing a better defensive game. The Sharks did a significantly better job of controlling the puck and limiting Winnipeg's offensive-zone time. After Blake Wheeler scored the go-ahead goal less than eight minutes into the second period to give the Jets a 2-1 lead, the Sharks' defense did a spectacular job of limiting them to just two shots on goal over the remainder of the frame.

Unfortunately, the few small miscues that San Jose committed ended up in the back of their net. It didn't help that Jones looked a bit wobbly between the pipes. With the rest of the Sharks’ game showing signs of improvement, now would be a terrible time for the goaltending to fall off.

On that same note ...

5-on-5 is coming alive 

After several games of relying on their special teams to carry them, the Sharks finally played a game where they got some sustained pressure at 5-on-5. Heck, they almost looked more dangerous playing at even strength than they did with the man advantage, as the power play came close to coughing up a short-handed goal.

What the Sharks need to do now is fully establish a four-line identity. Barclay Goodrow did a good job leading the fourth line, Hertl and Evander Kane kept the second line rolling and Joe Thornton's third line had some of San Jose's best looks early on. If the Sharks can build off that performance, they'll be hard to play against.

[RELATED: What struggling Sharks need to fix on six-game homestand]

Second-period response 

The second period of games has been a problem for the Sharks, but that wasn't the case against the Jets. A big part of what kept San Jose in Friday's game was not sitting back in the second period after Evander Kane's goal was overturned and Wheeler immediately scored the go-ahead goal right after.

That resiliency spoke volumes as the Sharks launched over 40 shots on the evening and Hellebuyck stood on his head. If San Jose can bottle up that drive and put it on the ice against nearly any other goalie on his A-game, the Sharks will have a better chance of steering their season back in the right direction.

NHL expansion draft: Who Sharks might be forced to leave unprotected

NHL expansion draft: Who Sharks might be forced to leave unprotected

We don't know when the next NHL season will begin or end, but once it does, a new team officially will join the fold.

The still-unnamed Seattle expansion franchise will become the league's 32nd team, and in the process, the Sharks will lose a player from their roster as part of the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft.

Not everyone in San Jose will be up for grabs. The Sharks, along with the other 30 current NHL teams, will be permitted to protect a group of their players from the expansion draft according to one of two options. Either a) protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or b) protect eight skaters and one goalie.

So, where does that leave the Sharks? 

By narrowing down who San Jose is likely to protect, we can zero in on which players are likely to be exposed.

Automatically protected: Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (no-movement clauses)
Certain to be protected: Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier
Very likely to be protected: Evander Kane

That's six pretty-darn-sure things already, plus an unnamed goalie. So, under this assumption, the Sharks would only be able to protect three more forwards and one additional defenseman under Option A, or just two more skaters under Option B.

Though nearly all of San Jose's top prospects will be automatically exempt due to lack of service time, Jonathan Dahlen -- generally regarded as the Sharks' second-best prospect -- will be eligible for inclusion due to his playing AHL games in 2017-18. So, chances are, they'll protect him as well.

Regardless of which option San Jose goes with, that doesn't leave them many more choices. As such, here are some of the more notable names that the Sharks might be forced to make available to Seattle in the expansion draft:

Brent Burns

What the Sharks decide to do with Burns likely will depend on the trajectory of the team heading into the 2021 offseason. If San Jose successfully turns things around in short order, then keeping the 36-year-old Burns -- who has another four years left on his contract at $8 million per season -- will make a lot more sense than if an extended rebuild appears to be on the horizon.

The Sharks have several large salaries on their books, and making Burns available would be one possible way to alleviate some of that building pressure. Of course, if Burns has a Norris-type season next year, San Jose likely will do everything it can to keep him. More than anything, Burns' performance next season likely will have the most determining effect on who the Sharks make available.

[RELATED: Why Sharks shouldn't be counted out if Eichel seeks trade]

Martin Jones

Assuming he's still on the roster and doesn't have a major bounce-back season, Jones would seem to be one of the more likely inclusions on San Jose's unprotected list. He carries a hefty price tag and hasn't lived up to it for the last couple of years.

Of course, the Sharks don't really have anything in the way of an established goalie behind him -- Aaron Dell is an unrestricted free agent -- so if one doesn't emerge, they might be forced to protect him. If San Jose makes Jones available, that likely means one of the Sharks' goaltending prospects made a significant leap or a free agent outperformed him in the year ahead.

Kevin Labanc

He brings plenty of talent to the table and has been useful on the power play. But Labanc's problem is consistency. On some nights, he's one of the best players on the ice. Others, you hardly notice him. He bet on himself last offseason, but it didn't appear to pay off.

A restricted free agent, San Jose should be able to re-sign him at an affordable price. He still is only 24 years old, though. Should Labanc take a couple steps forward next season, it likely will come at a discount, which the Sharks would likely want to protect. If he's ultimately made available, he could offer the combination of youth and talent that would pique Seattle's interest.

Stefan Noesen

Acquired early in the season, Noesen, 27, made a strong impression during his first year in San Jose. He provided the occasional offense, scoring six goals in 34 games, as well as some sorely-needed toughness. He also immediately became a leader in the locker room.

Noesen currently is an unrestricted free agent, but it would be surprising if he didn't start next season in a Sharks sweater, and he shouldn't be too costly either. If he can build off this past season's performance, one would imagine San Jose would prefer to keep him around. Who else the Sharks protect likely will determine if he can be protected or not.

Dylan Gambrell/Antti Suomela/Alex True

Gambrell has accomplished the most of the three, but he's running short on time. A restricted free agent at the end of next season, he'll be eligible for inclusion in the expansion draft if he plays in at least 20 games. Unless he breaks out, Gambrell seems likely to be one of the names the Sharks leave unprotected.

You could say the same thing about Suomela -- assuming the restricted free agent is re-signed -- who has notched four goals and 11 assists over 47 NHL games across the last two seasons. He's still only 26, but has yet to live up to his potential. True, on the other hand, is younger (22 years old) and was fairly noticeable over the course of his NHL debut this season. He should have a good opportunity to begin the season with San Jose, and would seem to be the most likely of the three to carve out a long-term role with the big club.

Why Sharks shouldn't be ruled out if Sabres' Jack Eichel demands trade

Why Sharks shouldn't be ruled out if Sabres' Jack Eichel demands trade

Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel is a phenomenal hockey player, and it's easy to understand why he might be frustrated in his current situation. He's one of the top young players in the NHL -- a true franchise centerpiece -- but he'll enter next season having never played for a winning team and will be playing for his third general manager at the professional level.

The 23-year-old has totaled 337 points over his first five seasons in the NHL, and scored a career-high 36 goals in just 68 games this past season before it was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Sabres finished tied for the third-fewest points in the Eastern Conference, extending their playoff drought to nine seasons.

On a conference call with reporters last month, Eichel made it clear he was not satisfied with the trajectory of the franchise.

"Listen, I'm fed up with losing and I'm fed up and I'm frustrated," Eichel said. "It's definitely not an easy pill to swallow right now. It's been a tough couple of months, it's been a tough five years with where things have went."

"I'm a competitor," he added. "I want to win every time I go out on the ice. I want to win the Stanley Cup every time I start a season ... I'd be lying if I said that I'm not getting frustrated with where things are going."

Eichel's comments seemed to have a direct effect on Buffalo's decision to clear house three weeks later, firing GM Jason Botterill along with other executives and scouts. Clearly, the hope is that the new regime will help turn things around in short order. If it doesn't, though, one wonders when Eichel will reach his limit.

If Eichel ever demanded a trade, every team in the league would be on the phone with the Sabres to see if a deal could be made. He has already proven himself to be one of the top talents in the game, and he has not yet entered his prime.

The Athletic's Eric Stephens and Lisa Dillman recently questioned if the Anaheim Ducks should pursue a trade for Eichel, if he were ever made available. But, what about the Sharks?

First things first: any trade for Eichel would first be dependent on him wanting out of Buffalo. Even if he did, the Sabres' asking price surely would be astronomical. In speaking with Stephens, NHL Network's Mike Johnson suggested the package likely would have to include a current young player, a future first-round draft pick and two top prospects.

"It would take so much," Johnson said, "it would be a hard deal to sort out."

Given all of that, is there any possibility Eichel could be wearing teal in the relatively near future?

It's extremely faint, but as long as Doug Wilson is San Jose's GM, it would be unwise to count the Sharks out of any superstar pursuit.

Erik Karlsson. Joe Thornton. Brent Burns. Evander Kane. Dan Boyle. Dany Heatley. Bill Guerin. Wilson has a lengthy history of acquiring big names. Eichel would certainly qualify, though the cost might be prohibitive.

Factoring in both what Buffalo likely would demand as well as salaries, a Sharks' potential trade package for Eichel might look something like: Burns, Ryan Merkley, Jonathan Dahlen and a future first-round pick -- and even that might not be enough. Burns' talent surely would be attractive to the Sabres, but he's also 35 years old. Not to mention, he has a modified no-trade clause in his contract.

[RELATED: Sharks avoid nightmare scenario in 2020 NHL Draft lottery]

If Burns wasn't included, he likely would have to be replaced in the deal by another player making a considerable salary. The best fit currently on the Sharks' roster might be Timo Meier.

Is Eichel worth Meier, Merkley, Dahlen and a first-round pick -- assuming that's enough to get a deal done?

That's a question for Wilson to answer. He might not be able to, but the Sharks and every other team in the league should be asking it.