Evgeni Nabokov

Sharks sign Alexei Melnichuk, Fredrik Handemark to address weaknesses

Sharks sign Alexei Melnichuk, Fredrik Handemark to address weaknesses

The NHL is in a holding pattern while the league looks into possibilities of restarting the currently-paused season in the wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but that hasn't stopped the Sharks from being active. On Monday, San Jose added to its organizational depth by signing two European prospects to entry-level contracts.

After going into the weekend as "front-runners" to sign Russian goaltender Alexei Melnichuk, the Sharks sealed the deal and made the signing official on Monday. Melnichuck, 21, was ranked eighth on NHL Central Scouting's list of 2018 international goaltenders.

"Alexei was being pursued by a number of teams and we're pleased that he decided to join the Sharks," San Jose general manager Doug Wilson said in a team statement. "He has a unique blend of athleticism and technical play and has impressed at each level he has advanced. This past season he has proven that he can more than hold his own amongst players much older than he and we are excited for him to work with Evgeni Nabokov and our development staff."

In 16 games during the 2019-20 season with SKA St. Petersburg in Russia's top league, the KHL, Melnichuk went 8-5-1 with a 1.68 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and four shutouts. He won several honors, including KHL Goaltender of the Month (Sept.), two-time Goaltender of the Week (Sept. 23/30) and two-time Rookie of the Week (Sept. 30/Dec. 30).

"I think that this gives [the Sharks] a glimmer of hope," NHL.com's Pete Jensen said of the Melnichuk signing on Monday's episode of the "NHL Fantasy on Ice" podcast, "and a piece to solidify their biggest position of weakness, which is huge. It sounded like many teams were in the running for this guy, Melnichuk, and the fact that they could get him speaks that maybe the window might still be a little, couple of inches open."

Also on Monday, the Sharks announced the signing of 26-year-old center Fredrik Handemark. The 6-foot-4, 209-pound native of Sweden brings plenty of European experience with him to San Jose, along with a penchant for winning faceoffs.

"Fredrik is a well-rounded player who can play in all situations and ranks as one of the top faceoff centers in Europe dating back to his time in juniors," Wilson said of Handemark in a team statement. "He is a powerful skater with high character and leadership qualities having been the captain for the Malmo Redhawks the past three seasons and has played well the last few years at the National level. We are happy to have him join our organization."

Across 52 games with the Redhawks in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) this past season, Handemark recorded 38 points (14 goals, 24 assists), posted a plus-nine rating, led the SHL in face-off percentage (.615) and in total faceoffs taken (1,029), and finished tied for seventh in game-winning goals. In his time with Malmo dating back to the 2015-16 season, Handemark never finished a season below a 50-percent win-rate in the faceoff circle. In 329 career SHL games, he tallied 136 points (47 goals, 89 assists) with a 57.3 faceoff win percentage (2,770-for-4,834).

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Goaltending has been the Sharks' Achilles heel over the last two seasons, and San Jose was tied for 25th in the NHL in faceoff win percentage when the season was indefinitely paused. Clearly, Wilson is hoping Melnichuk and Handemark can eventually help bring about improvement in those areas.

Joel Ward hopes to become Sharks coach after announcing NHL retirement

Joel Ward hopes to become Sharks coach after announcing NHL retirement

Outside of Barclay Goodrow and Joonas Donskoi, Joel Ward arguably is responsible for the biggest goals in Sharks franchise history. Whereas Donskoi's earned San Jose its first-ever win in a Stanley Cup final game, Ward got the team there to begin with.

His two goals in Game 6 of the 2015-16 Western Conference final extended what was an early Sharks lead into a three-goal cushion, the second of which proved to be the game-winner and series-clincher in a 5-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues. A team that had time and again suffered disheartening postseason exits finally, at last, sat atop the Western Conference.

Sadly, the Sharks couldn't check off the last box on their playoff list -- one that still remains unchecked today. Donskoi provided the overtime heroics in Game 3 of the Final, but San Jose ultimately was vanquished by the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. 

That was the first of three seasons Ward spent with the Sharks, as he became a fan favorite due to his gritty style and penchant for the clutch. He last appeared in 52 games with San Jose during the 2017-18 season, and the 11-year veteran officially announced his retirement from the NHL on Monday.

"I loved it," Ward said of his career on a conference call with reporters Monday. "The game treated me so well, and I'm at peace with everything. I got to play a few hockey games, which was great, more than I could even imagine I'd be playing. It feels great to have it out there and everybody knows."

Ward totaled 133 goals and 171 assists across 726 career regular-season games, and he added another 22 goals and 30 helpers in 83 playoff contests. After going undrafted, he broke into the NHL with the Minnesota Wild before playing for the Nashville Predators, Washington Capitals and, finally, the Sharks.

San Jose -- where he still resides -- holds a special place in his heart and although his playing days are over, he still might have a role within the franchise ... as a coach.

"I've had some talks with the Sharks kind of briefly, going back and forth a few times," Ward said. "We've chatted about some different areas. I've kind of shared that I'd like to hopefully get on the ice at some point with them, if it can work out. It's been on and off chats with the Sharks. If things did work out, yeah, it would be great to stay here. We've got to wait and see what's going to happen after [the season pause]."

Ward admitted that he knew he was "pretty much done" playing for quite some time, but the official retirement announcement was meant to let others know that he is looking for work in the league, and is serious about it. He played with and for a number of all-time greats and brings a vast array of experience to the table, and now he wants to pass that on to the next generation of NHL players.

"I've had such great teachers, coaches, I think I've learned so much over the years that it would be a shame to keep it to myself," Ward explained. "I've gone through a lot of teams with different philosophies and everything. I played in all different aspects of the game. I've been fortunate to play on some top lines a couple of times and on the bottom. I've been fortunate to be around a lot of great hockey people."

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Bob Boughner remains the Sharks' interim coach for the time being, though general manager Doug Wilson recently said he has the "upper hand" to have that interim tag removed and remain behind San Jose's bench. Boughner promoted multiple former Sharks' fan favorites -- Mike Ricci and Evgeni Nabokov -- to coaching positions upon taking over for Peter DeBoer.

Perhaps he adds another in Ward.

Sharks' Martin Jones finding his groove, offering hope for next season

Sharks' Martin Jones finding his groove, offering hope for next season

SAN JOSE -- Martin Jones stopped all 30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins' shots Saturday night for his fifth shutout since the start of last season. All five have come against either Pittsburgh or the Minnesota Wild.

So, what gives?

"Nothing, really," Jones said after the Sharks' dominant 5-0 win. "Coincidence."

Whatever you want to call it, Jones will take it. He has had a rough go of it, to say the least, and dabbles with success have often been separated by long stretches of significant struggle.

Saturday not only marked Jones' first home shutout since the second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, but also established his first set of victories in consecutive starts since the end of November. In fact, it was his first time starting back-to-back games since San Jose's final two games of 2019.

As Jones' struggles continued, his backup Aaron Dell surged and at least temporarily took hold of the starting spot. The two netminders had alternated starts over the Sharks' last eight games, but interim coach Bob Boughner stuck with Jones against the Penguins after he was solid in San Jose's 3-2 overtime win over the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night. Counting the shutout of Pittsburgh, Jones finished the month of February with a 3-2-0 record, .951 save percentage and 1.40 goals-against average. It isn't a huge sample size, but it's promising nonetheless.

"He has been good for a long stretch here," Sharks captain Logan Couture said of Jones. "He played well on that road trip, too. We're confident in him. He looks confident in the net. He's making tough saves look easy. He made a big save in the third, coming across on his glove hand. It energizes our group when he's playing like this."

To regain his form, Jones had to go back to the drawing board. When Dell seized the starting role, he put in more practice time with goaltending coach Evgeni Nabokov, which appears to have paid off.

"It's nice to play and get in a little bit of a rhythm," Jones explained, "but it could have been a good thing to have me get some of that practice time in. It's tough. I've played a lot of hockey over the last five years. I just wanted to work hard in practice and make sure I was ready when I did get the call."

He got the call Thursday and Saturday, and from the sounds of it, he'll get it again when the Sharks continue their homestand -- undefeated thus far -- against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night.

"The fact of the matter is, now, it's been a healthy competition," Boughner said of San Jose's goalie tandem. "They've both given us some great goaltending in the second half, but Jonesy is a guy who has a lot of pride and he has won a lot of games here over the last few years. If you win, you're gonna stay, and we want both of them to be competing for the net all the time."

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In terms of the competition in net, it would appear Jones currently has the upper hand. But, given the lack of consistency that has been at the root of his struggles over the last couple of seasons, the leash isn't long, nor should it be. 

If he can continue to build off Saturday's performance, Jones has an opportunity to generate some positive momentum heading into next season. There arguably isn't a more important thing at stake for San Jose in the final 17 games that remain in the current one.