The San Jose Sharks dug themselves into a deep early season hole, at one point holding a record of 4-10-1. Since then, the team has done a remarkable about face, winning nine of 11, and returning to standings relevance. Things such as the Sharks penalty kill have played a role, as has timely scoring.
Yet, for a team whose recent record is superb, the hot streak doesn’t convey the sort of confidence one might expect.
The Turnaround Factors
Two factors have keyed the Sharks turnaround. The first is the improved play of Erik Karlsson. Fans were troubled by Karlsson’s early season play, but it was always unlikely he’d be fully healthy to start of the season following off-season groin surgery. Two months into the season, Karlsson is playing better and his decision processes have improved. He’s also partnered with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who seems to play better with Karlsson than his prior partner, Brent Burns.
Burns himself has benefited from the second key factor, the return of Radim Simek. He and Burns have not been great together, but it has created stability in the defensive pairings. Head coach Peter DeBoer no longer resorts to a ‘five defenceman’ strategy (usually employed around a game’s midpoint) and the team is much better for it.
From Five Defencemen to Seven?!
During the latter part of this stretch, the Sharks have made use of a seven-defenceman strategy. This isn’t so much by design, but as an acknowledgement of deficiencies in the Sharks forward group, made still thinner by the absence of Tomas Hertl.
The Sharks fourth line has been a mixed bag in recent seasons, but it’s been flat out problematic this season. DeBoer doesn’t trust the lower line players. Experts have been critical of DeBoer’s approach and lack of trust in certain defencemen, but some agree with him when it comes to the team’s lower-end forwards. They simply aren’t NHL quality players at this point in time. Only 11 dress because there’s little reason to dress a twelfth forward who is a liability.
The strategy isn’t going to work in the long run because fatigue issues will show. But in the short term, it makes sense. Fatigue-related risks are something DeBoer acknowledges, but he’s acknowledged these sorts of risks before and still made questionable decisions.
The Sharks Challenges
The Sharks have won, but they haven’t been great. They’ve won in a variety of ways in mostly close games, which is a trademark of a poised team. In the 11 games, they have posted a 5-0 overtime/shootout record. Yet in regulation (and excluding a empty net goals for and against), the Sharks have not even outscored opponents in the 11 games (31 goals scored, 31 allowed). Three times, they’ve taken on weak teams and posted a large lead (three or more goals), only to see their opponents cut the lead to a single goal twice, and in a third case, tie the game and force overtime. This isn’t the trademark of a poised team.
Sharks Penalty Kill Plays Large
Losing the special teams battle is rarely a formula for success, but the Sharks have tempted fate in the streak. In consecutive wins over the Vegas Golden Knights and Los Angeles Kings, the Sharks spent an enormous amount of time serving penalties. Their opponents did not.
In the two games, the Sharks took 12 minor penalties compared to just three for the opposition. Sharks goalies saved 23 power play shots without allowing a goal (one goal was scored as a power play ended but before the Sharks player in the box returned into the play, technically not a power play goal). Statistically, the Sharks penalty was perfect. Meanwhile, the Sharks had just six power play shots of their own in those two games.
The streak has been aided by a pair of complimentary scheduling quirks – plenty of home games with a minimum of back-to-back games. The Sharks will pay for this over the course of the season, but for a team in need of a turnaround, the schedule proved helpful.
The Sharks are finding ways to win. They aren’t generally outskating opponents, but they are scoring enough, and at the right times, to come out ahead on the scoreboard. When they need a great goaltending effort, or even just a big save at the right moment, it has been there. When they need a clutch goal in overtime, it has been there. And when they needed a strong shootout performance, it has been there.
The lone constant for the team has been the penalty kill, which continues to lead the league. The Sharks penalty kill is a stunningly good minus-5, tied for best in the league. The Sharks penalty kill has allowed a league low nine goals (tied for the best) while scoring four (third best). All this, despite leading the league in the number of times the team has been short-handed.
Victories Cobbled Together
With different elements playing the decisive role, the Sharks have cobbled together enough victories to put them firmly in the league’s middle class. The sort of team which is never far from either entering or exiting a playoff spot. This describes roughly half the league.
This is not what the Sharks hoped for when the season began. To mix metaphors, they have dug themselves out of the hole, but they haven’t made their way out of the woods. December’s schedule is more challenging. We’ll soon see if the Sharks are able to build on their recent surge in the standings. For the 2019-20 Sharks team, nothing it seems, will come easy.
• It is worth nothing the defensive pairing of Vlasic and Karlsson is, by far, the priciest pairing in the league (and likely in league history). The two combine for a salary cap hit of $18.5million. This is about 23% of the salary cap. More sustainable would be to pair Karlsson with Brenden Dillon (the two were terrific together last season when Karlsson was healthy). This allows Vlasic to work with either Tim Heed (another strong combination last season) or promising rookie Mario Ferraro.
• Joe Thornton was a milestone machine in recent seasons, passing hockey royalty on various all-time lists, most notably the all-time assist list. His assault has slowed, in part because there are few players left to pass. He is eighth, six assists behind Adam Oates. And in part, because his game has deteriorated. Thornton has a meager seven assists this season.
More troubling, he’s been a turnover machine. Thornton has always turned the puck over a bunch with risky play. The trade-off was that his elite passing often led to scores. This season, the turnovers are there, but the passes leading to scores have been largely absent. Over his career, Thornton has rarely been a minus player, but he sits at minus-7 this season. It is too early to write off Thornton. Still his play is decidedly lower than it’s been over the last couple seasons.
ST LOUIS, MISSOURI – MAY 17: Tomas Hertl #48 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates with Erik Karlsson #65, Joe Pavelski #8 and Logan Couture #39 of the San Jose Sharks after scoring a goal on Jordan Binnington #50 of the St. Louis Blues during the third period in Game Four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Enterprise Center on May 17, 2019 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)