The 2019-20 San Jose Sharks entered the season with the same goalie pairing they’d used in the prior three seasons. It wasn’t good last season and the team hoped for a bounce back this season.
Up now: The Goalies
The 2019-20 San Jose Sharks season began with Martin Jones in the net as the team’s full-time starter. Jones was the most used netminder in the NHL in the prior four seasons (by a large margin) and in the 2018-19 season, his play declined substantially. But that didn’t deter head coach Peter DeBoer from putting his faith back in Jones. And as he did last season, Jones disappointed.
Dysfunction From the Start
The Sharks dysfunction was spread across the team, and the netminders were no different. Even as Jones failed to deliver, back-up, Aaron Dell was only given occasional starts. And he also failed to deliver. Still, the idea of sticking with a failing plan was nutty.
The Coaching Change
DeBoer stuck to his failing plan and it helped get him fired in early December when he was replaced by Bob Boughner. Boughner started Jones one more game and then turned to Dell. And once Dell got the nets, he made clear the extent of the folly DeBoer had foisted upon the Sharks. Dell was substantially better. While the Sharks struggled to win, they were far more competitive with Dell turning in one solid performance after another.
DeBoer’s firing also wiped out most of his staff, including goalie coach Johan Hedberg. Popular former Sharks’ netminder Evgeni Nabokov was Hedberg’s replacement. Nabokov is a cerebral sort who was tutored during his NHL career by the highly-regarded Warren Strelow. Now it was Nabokov’s time to see if he could emulate his late mentor and become an effective teacher at the NHL level.
While Dell carried the load, and carried it effectively, Jones mostly sat. From mid-December until mid-February, Jones only played six times – with just one game between Jan. 17 and Feb. 14. On Feb. 15, Boughner decided it was time to see if Jones had found his long-lost game. Between the lengthy break and the tutelage of Nabokov, something worked. Jones returned to form. Beginning on Feb. 15, Jones was effective. In his final eight games, he posted a .927 save percentage, allowing only 16 goals.
The backstory here is troubling. In three seasons under DeBoer, Dell received just one extended look in net (six games). It occurred when Jones was injured in 2018. And Dell had responded then. But even though Jones was melting down night after night both last season and this season, DeBoer rode Jones. Right into the ground. We advocated for change in November of 2018 and again in November of 2019. By February of 2020, some other publications caught on.
Do the Sharks have a capable goaltending tandem? Maybe, if they are coached well and used properly. But despite bright flashing warning lights that it wasn’t working the prior season and wasn’t working early in the San Jose Sharks 2019-20 season, DeBoer refused to change. His was a plan for failure and the coaching change exposed just how big a failure it was.
What To Do: Then
In the 2019 off-season, several questioned if the team had the right pair of netminders. The 2019-20 San Jose Sharks season provided both clarity and confusion. Many criticized the Sharks for not making changes in net prior to the this season. But the issue was always complex.
It would have been tough to trade Dell, coming off a down season. The alternative, a buyout coupled with a replacement goalie, would have saved very little. On top of which, any backup needed to come from elsewhere as the Sharks AHL prospects were not NHL ready. So getting rid of Dell would have proven problematic. And in hindsight, wrong.
Moving on from Jones was a different story. He was untradeable, given his large contract and poor performance. A buyout meanwhile, would have left the Sharks without a core netminder but with very long-term salary cap implications. Hindsight on this one is less clear.
It made sense, however awkward, for the Sharks to go into the season with their goaltending duo.
What To Do: Now
The practical “what to do?” question did not go away. It is being asked again this off-season.
Dell is a pending unrestricted free agent, while Jones remains on his long-term and unmovable contract. Barring an unusual league-wide move associated with COVID-19 (such as allowing an amnesty contract buyout), the Sharks will have Jones in nets next season.
Dell proved he deserves an NHL roster spot. Back-up goalies require three qualities: Give the team a chance to win in spot starts. Play effectively for a time if the primary starter is injured or struggling. And give the team a shot if the starter has to get pulled from a game. Dell has proven he can do this. His $1.9million deal, which expires at season’s end, places him 43rd in salary cap hit, squarely in the middle of back-up goalie pay.
Many suggest the Sharks need a change in the nets since the Jones/Dell duo underperformed. But the issue has been Jones and not Dell. Both were harmed under the former coaching regime, both were meaningfully better under the new regime.
It seems silly to stick with Jones, who was the problem this season and jettison Dell (who might leave anyway) who was part of the solution. From the beginning of December through the end of the season, Dell posted a respectable .911 save percentage.
The question is about Jones. Again. Should the Sharks stick with him or take the painful buyout? Given what he showed at the end of the season, it’s probably worth giving Jones another season in teal. If the Sharks go this route, Dell is a very good complement. After all, there’s a good chance that a less-used and well-coached Jones is a viable NHL goalie.
2019-20 San Jose Sharks Future In Goal
The goalie position provided one of the Sharks more intriguing story lines. Jones’ play had fallen well below NHL standards, let alone that of a starting goalie on a premium contract. When given the chance, Dell proved himself worthy. But before season’s end, Jones showed signs of a resurrection.
The San Jose Sharks 2019-20 netminding story has odd twists and unexpected turns. In the end, the Sharks face a few mysteries. Who is the real Martin Jones from here onward? Is Aaron Dell worth keeping? And is Evgeni Nabokov a miracle worker?