If 2021-22 season doesn’t inspire Sharks rebuild, what will?
PHT’s “What Went Wrong?” series asks that question about teams who’ve been eliminated from the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Why did this team fall short, and how surprising was that fall? Are there signs that things might go right next season? This series tackles those questions, and more. In the latest edition of “What Went Wrong?,” PHT breaks down the 2021-22 San Jose Sharks.
Read through enough of these “What Went Wrong?” features, and you may become fluent in failures. You may even identify “flavors.”
With teams like the Sabres and Red Wings, there’s the bitter of the present with a hope for a sweet future. There are the mystery flavors of the collapsing Canadiens and a Ducks team that started strong, then went sour.
Then there are the teams who make you wonder if they have tastebuds at all. The 2021-22 Flyers and Sharks send similar messages. Rather than embracing a rebuild, teams like the Sharks continue to swear by their current recipe.
That’s not an ideal formula when you’ve missed the playoffs three seasons in a row, and in each case, by a mile.
2021-22 Sharks: Not even close
No doubt, it would have been uncomfortable to trade a player as gifted as Tomas Hertl. Yet, by adding yet another long-term risk to what was already a heap of questionable contracts, it’s fair to wonder if the Sharks learned from 2021-22, and other recent failures.
Now, sure, the Sharks began the 2021-22 season on a higher note than anticipated. If anything, that really just highlights how far this franchise has fallen. Even in a weak Pacific Division, the Sharks weren’t even close to a playoff berth in 2021-22.
By April 6, the Sharks were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. That’s more than three weeks before their last regular season game (April 29 vs. the Kraken).
Are there scenarios where things could have worked out better? Sure, but you’d really be daydreaming if you gave them too much time. For the future, one of the scarier things about the 2021-22 Sharks is how much went right.
2021-22 Sharks can only blame so much on bad luck
These things went San Jose’s way, and may not work out quite so well again.
- There’s a strong chance that one or both of the Golden Knights and Canucks will be sturdier next season. The 2021-22 season may have been the best window for the Sharks to swipe something like the third spot in the Pacific Division
- The good news is that Brent Burns and especially Erik Karlsson rebounded to some extent. The bad news is that it’s unclear if they’ll maintain already-compromised level of play. Karlsson’s “an old 31,” being that he’s dealt with a slew of lower-body injuries. Somehow, Brent Burns is already 37.
- Tomas Hertl’s been great ... after a couple years where injuries dragged him down, from a mainstream perspective. As fantastic as he is, this season marks just his second 60+ point season ... in fact, it’s also just his second 50+ point season. While Hertl is a prime example of points not being everything, it’s also plausible that the Sharks signed him at the peak of his value. Between injuries and regression, Hertl could slip a bit -- he’s already 28.
- Speaking of wildly underrated Sharks forwards breaking through, Timo Meier recorded his second-career 30+ goal season (33) and already easily set a career-high with 73 points. His second-best year was 66 points in 2018-19. Third-best: 49 points, otherwise a couple of 30+ point campaigns.
To be clear, this isn’t Hertl and Meier bashing; they’re really good.
[What went wrong for the Montreal Canadiens]
It’s just that the 2021-22 Sharks enjoyed the best years of their careers ... and still missed the playoffs by a mile. Seems like a bad sign.
- Logan Couture also treated the Sharks to a respectable rebound.
- The 2021-22 Sharks couldn’t even really blame goaltending for their failures. Despite the very modest investment of a James Reimer - Adin Hill duo, San Jose received goaltending that was basically at the NHL average level. Based on Hockey Viz’s expected goals model, they allowed fewer goals than expected.
With career years from rising stars, rebounds from expensive veterans, and even good bang-for-your-buck in net, the 2021-22 Sharks still missed the playoffs by a wide margin, and endured a -45 goal differential.
Not sure there’s much here that screams “keep the gang together.”
(You’d need to project William Eklund as, say, Superman to think there’s much help coming.)
It may not be Boughner’s fault, but Sharks only have so many options if they won’t rebuild
For all that went right for the 2021-22 Sharks, let’s be honest: they still stunk. Check this Evolving Hockey Team RAPM chart, and you’ll note that they couldn’t even really capitalize on an unexpectedly effective penalty kill.
This brings us to a tough question: how much of this is on Sharks head coach Bob Boughner?
As with most teams, it’s not especially easy to separate team results from coaching impacts. This isn’t the NFL, where an obsessive coach can watch 100 hours of video a week, sleep in their office every night, and will a mediocre roster to the playoffs.
That said, we’ve seen some transformations around the NHL. Whatever’s in the secret sauce with coaches like Darryl Sutter and Bruce Boudreau, their teams took off once they took over.
Could a true difference-making coach turn the Sharks into a dominant 5-on-5 team? Look up and down that roster, and it’s difficult to imagine San Jose playing shutdown, Barry Trotz-style hockey. Yet, with salary cap limitations and what seems like a refusal to truly rebuild, the Sharks might need to throw a Hail Mary and hope some coach can make a feast with flawed ingredients.
Call it hockey’s answer to Chopped.
(On that note, maybe the real key is to simply make it entertaining?)
Sharks offseason preview: the rebuild may only happen for their front office
After Doug Wilson’s resignation, the Sharks need a new GM. If the Sharks wanted to sell some kind of more immediate change, a head coaching tweak may be in order. Obviously, these choices could create ripple effects throughout the roster and the front office.
There are rumblings that the Sharks aren’t in a rush to hire a new GM, and that the search could extend through the offseason.
To some extent, it’s wise to find the best candidate(s) possible. Yet, even if you ignore the possibly wise idea to change the Sharks’ head coach, this team should explore some tough questions during the offseason.
Timo Meier: Hertl situation repeat? Try to trade who you can? And other Sharks offseason questions
Even before the 2021-22 season and the Tomas Hertl extension, a Sharks rebuild looked difficult because of the already-imposing stack of long-term contracts.
With the Tomas Hertl extension, some might feel that the Sharks are kind of stuck. Cap Friendly estimates the Sharks’ cap space at about $9.68 million, with 18 roster spots covered. Most immediately, they’d need to make decisions, including possible contracts for RFAs Kaapo Kähkönen and Mario Ferraro.
Frankly, the bigger decision is one that could be put off. What should the Sharks do with Timo Meier?
Meier, 25, will see his $6M cap hit expire after the 2022-23 season. He’s a pending RFA, and who has arbitration rights.
In several ways, Meier parallels Tomas Hertl. A contending team could easily justify extending Meier, much like Hertl, risks and all.
But the Sharks? Despite backing themselves into a corner over and over again, the Sharks might be wise to trade Meier to help (cough) jump-start a rebuild.
[Meanwhile, the rival Anaheim Ducks look light years ahead of the Sharks]
Theoretically, a Meier trade could be just part of a rebuild-focused Sharks offseason. Consider a few options:
- Again, it’s kind of hard to believe that Brent Burns is already 37, but he is. His $8M cap hit runs through 2024-25. There may never be a better time to trade Brent Burns.
- Logan Couture’s another sneaky-old Sharks player at 33, and his $8M cap hit goes through 2026-27. Also like Burns, Couture’s contract features a list of just three teams he’d accept a trade to. That’s where a larger message of a Sharks rebuild could help. If Burns and Couture (understandably) wouldn’t want to be part of a rebuild, maybe they’d be more flexible with their trade lists? Comfortable or not, the Sharks need to be having these types of conversations.
- Should the Sharks buy out Marc-Edouard Vlasic, even if it would only provide limited savings?
A possible Meier trade and that bulleted list could make your head spin, and that’s just a taste of what the Sharks are up against. (Again, they must also answer immediate questions, like what to do with Kähkönen.)
Overall, the Sharks look like one of the biggest messes in the NHL, especially if a prospective GM had little room to rebuild. After the 2021-22 season, it would help if the Sharks at least acknowledged the mess for what it is.