The 2019-20 San Jose Sharks were designed to win from the blue line. The Sharks season featured three premium defencemen. Two had Norris Trophy wins, a third won an Olympic gold medal. In terms of salary cap hit among NHL defencemen, these players are first, tied for fifth and 14th.
Previously: Season Overview
Previously: The Forwards
Up now: The Defencemen
Up next: The Goalies
Not only did the Sharks have three elite defencemen, they had partners for each, proven out in the 2018-19 season. Two-time Norris winner Erik Karlsson, paired superbly with Brenden Dillon. Norris winner Brent Burns paired well with Radim Simek while Olympic gold medalist Marc-Edouard Vlasic paired well with Tim Heed. In 2018-19, each of these paring had a goals for rate (GF%) in excess of 60%. In total, when these pairings were on the ice in 2018-19, the Sharks outscored opponents by 33 goals, 79 for the Sharks, just 46 against.
One hates to say it was obvious what the Sharks needed to do with their defensive pairings, but it was obvious.
2019-20 San Jose Sharks Forgo the Obvious
Note that Simek was absent early in the season due to knee surgery and underperformed after he returned. The logical replacement was fellow left-side defenceman Mario Ferraro. The Sharks let Joakim Ryan leave in the off-season. Ryan was a solid partner for Burns in two prior seasons. The Sharks made this move, even knowing Simek might not be healthy for a good chunk of this season. But this questionable personnel move aside, the Sharks had exactly what they needed. It helped that Ferraro was stylistically similar to Ryan.
Even if the team felt the Burns-Ferraro pairing was less than optimal to start the season, there were ways to mitigate this. Simply use Burns less at even strength and add to his special teams time (he is excellent on both the power play and penalty kill).
And for reasons which one can’t explain, head coach Peter DeBoer decided to go a different way. The obvious choice was anything but. He broke apart the pairings which had demonstrated chemistry in favor of ones which hadn’t fared as well. And stubbornly refused to go back to what worked.
2019-20 San Jose Sharks Wrong Numbers
The three pairings that were described should have finished first, second and third in ice time this season for the Sharks. They finished third, sixth and 16th.
The Burns-Simek pairing finished third among pairings in ice time, despite Simek missing 22 games early in the season. Their ice time together was unchanged from the prior season.
The Dillon-Karlsson pairing finished sixth, and accounted for less than 20% of Karlsson’s 5-on-5 ice time. Their time-on-ice together dropped by 65% from the prior season. This was exceptionally troubling. The Dillon-Karlsson pairing was electric in 2018-19 and once they were paired together, they were the best pairing in the NHL. In a 19 game stretch, beginning with their pairing in early December and ending with Karlsson’s injury in January, they posted a 63% CF% and the Sharks outscored opponents 20-6 at 5-on-5 – a stunning 77% GF%. Neither DeBoer nor his replacement, Bob Boughner thought it’d worthwhile to revisit that sort of success.
The Vlasic-Heed pairing was 16th. Vlasic played over 1,000 even strength minutes this season, but saw only 50 minutes with the player he partnered with most successfully in 2018-19. In all, the pairing saw their ice time together drop by 77%.
Credit Where It’s Due
Any review of the individual defencemen must be taken in context. DeBoer deserves significant “credit” for undermining a good defensive core.
Boughner didn’t help much on this front either, though he did improve the team’s defensive structure considerably. Still, using the proven pairings was something he also avoided.
It’s hard to find something positive in the ugly. Karlsson did indeed, play well after a slow start. He was coming off off-season groin surgery. Though he started the season on time, some understood he might not be fully recovered. Still, more than a few fans were disappointed by Karlsson’s early season play. When you get a $5mllion raise, as Karlsson did; sign an eight-season deal, as Karlsson did; and become the highest paid defenceman in league history, as Karlsson did; it turns out expectations go up.
Karlsson’s athleticism was compromised early on and he made a lot of mental mistakes, too. The former was not a surprise, but the latter was. He was out of position far too often and made several low percentage plays which led directly to opponent’s goals. Karlsson’s mental game improved over the course of the season. Being at less than full health is an understandable issue. Being unfocused is not.
Karlsson demonstrated he’s still capable of playing at an elite level. That was perhaps 30 games or so out of the season. Karlsson didn’t finish the season, though. Surgery for a broken thumb ended his campaign.
Vlasic, too, showed signs of improving as the season evolved, usually when partnered with Karlsson. Still, there’s something wrong with this picture. Easily the most expensive defensive pairing in the league ($18.5mil, 22% of the salary cap), the team must dominate with that combination, not gently tip the ice a tiny bit. In the 2020 portion of the season (when Karlsson was healthy), the Vlasic-Karlsson combination was on the ice for nine Sharks goals – and 8 by opponents, while posting a CF% of 53%. This was the team’s most used pairing over the course of the season, and finished with a GF% of 51%. Not what a team needs from the highest paid blueline duo in the league.
Vlasic had a career-worst season, finishing minus-19 at 5-on-5 with a GF% of under 40%. The Vlasic-Burns pairing, the team’s fifth most-used duo, was a disaster. The long-time teammates with a combined $15million market cap produced a mediocre CF% of 45% and a terrible GF% of 27%. Vlasic was one of only two Sharks defenders to play every game.
Burns history as a defenceman is to have long stretches of brilliant runs and long stretches of bad runs. 2019-20 will go down as a bad run. Burn, for the sixth consecutive season, played every game. And once again, he played enormous minutes, even after the season had gone south. Overall, he was second in the league in ice time. And he finished with mediocre figures across the board. His scoring was down (38 fewer points in 12 fewer games), his CF% was down and his GF% was down. The brightest spot on Burns’ resume for the season was his penalty kill, where he was, again, excellent.
If there was a player who was a bright spot, and kI’ll need to emphasize the word ‘was’. Because Brenden Dillon was a Shark until his February trade to the Washington Capitals. In the 2020 portion of the season and prior to his trade, Dillon was locked in as Burns’ partner. The team outscored opponents 13-8 while the duo was on the ice. It was one of the few combinations which worked this season. Indeed, the combinations which worked all seemed to have a common element: Dillon.
Not only was Burns best with Dillon, Dillon was the best partner with the other two right-handed defenders (Karlsson and Heed). Both pairings CF% exceeded 56%. Over the course of the season, when Dillon paired with the primary right-handed defencemen, the Sharks outscored opponents 36-26.
It may seem odd, given the resumes and paychecks of the Sharks prominent defencemen, but Dillon had the best all-around season. Not because he was the best player or biggest talent, but because he found chemistry with every right-handed partner he played with.
The Sharks integrated the rookie into the line-up from the start of the season. Ferraro was the lone rookie to earn a job. While often praised by fans, the reality was less pretty. He was marginal all season long.
It’s been a theme in this article and it’ll show up again. Questionable coaching didn’t help Ferraro. The left-handed Ferraro’s top three partners in ice time were Simek, Dillon and Vlasic, all left-handers. Not that it made a huge difference, the Sharks were outscored (at 5-on-5) 28-23 when Ferraro was paired with the top three lefties and outscored 23-13 when paired with the top three righties. But for a young player to learn, playing the vast majority of time with partners on their off-hand (or Ferraro playing on his off-hand) isn’t a helpful.
Ferraro had 50 minutes of 4-on-5 ice time, sixth among Sharks defencemen. In that time, the Sharks scored three goals and gave up just one. Being a plus-player on the penalty kill is not sustainable, but perhaps there’s something there. If nothing else, the test drive went well.
Ferraro’s skating is NHL quality, though he’ll need to be more physical in the years ahead. The area he’ll need to grow the most, decision making, should come. At just 21, he has an NHL future. But it’d be a stretch to suggest he’ll be more than a second pairing defender at any point, and that may be generous.
For now, he’s a third pair defender in search of a partner. The Sharks would have been a better team this season with less of Ferraro. Still, the investment made in Ferraro during 2019-20 may be one of the few which offers an outsized return in seasons to come.
Tim Heed and Radim Simek
Heed repeatedly found his way into the coach’s doghouse, though his 54% CF% led the team. Heed made too many mental errors and couldn’t find much chemistry between frequent benchings and rotating partners, resulting in a GF% of just 34%, lowest on the team. Still, his work with his most frequent partner, Mario Ferraro, was solid, the duo posted a 56% CF% and just a minus-2 at 5-on-5.
Simek didn’t look like the player who made a splash in the 2018-19 season until deep in the 2019-20 season. It is common for hockey players to play before they are back to full strength (Karlsson had that issue as well) and that was Simek’s story this season. The knee injury suffered in March 2019 seemed to hinder his play well into the 2020 portion of the season. Typically, it takes about a year to recover from the type of surgery Simek went through and the season ended slightly less than a year after the surgery.
For some reason, Simek received a four-year contract extension at above market pricing. This for a player with only half of season of good play in his career.
The Rest of the Blueliners
Injuries played a role, including early in the season. We’ve already touched on the injuries to Simek, who missed the first 22 games of the season, and Karlsson, who began slowly. There may have been some expectation that rugged but oft-injured Dalton Prout could fill a void, but he managed only a single game before an injury ended his season. Trevor Carrick had a brief turn in teal, but simply wasn’t NHL ready. Jacob Middleton’s play was mediocre early on and he returned to the AHL. He was better in the latter portion of the season when line-up holes opened up again. Nikolai Knyzhov, age 20, made his NHL debut in a three-game late-season cameo and was overwhelmed. Veteran Brandon Davidson came over in a trade. The Sharks are his sixth team in his six NHL seasons. Against his expected status as a fill-in of last resort, he played reasonably well in his five appearances.
The San Jose Sharks 2019-20 Blueline in a Nutshell
The 2019-20 San Jose Sharks blue line was built to dominate. It featured six returning starters, all playing in the same system they’d played last season. It included three marquee talents and a solid complimentary cast.
They didn’t dominate; they weren’t even close.
The 2019-20 San Jose Sharks began the season with DeBoer behind the bench and he repeated his long-standing use of five defencemen, benching one of the six starters in mid-game. It was a disastrous approach from the beginning of his tenure and probably played a role in his firing.
A Sharks coach could literally go 60 minutes a night with an elite defenceman on the ice. Or at least a defenceman with an elite resume. But chemistry matters and the coaches did all they could to undermine this. The partners were wrong, the five defenceman approach wrong, the ice time usage wrong. There was a whole lot of wrong and the Sharks defencive group suffered.
If there was a single moment which captured the dysfunction, it came in February when they traded away the team’s most functional defender.
Should the Sharks defencive group have been better despite all this? Probably. But when the coaches don’t put players in their best position, bad things happen. And for the Sharks blueliners, bad things happened all season long.