The were few stories in Sharks Territory more awkward with less consensus than the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks coaching carousel.
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The team began the season helmed by Peter DeBoer, returning for his fifth season behind the Sharks’ bench.
Prior to his early December firing, DeBoer failed to develop the Sharks’ youth, used poor pairings on defence, rode the wrong netminder and used a failed defensive rotation strategy. The power play was abysmal and the team was among the worst in the league when it came to giving up high danger scoring chances. They were near the bottom in both scoring and save percentage. And the team’s veterans… the ones expected to lead the way, were all underperforming.
Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
DeBoer absolutely deserved to get fired. Beginning at the start of December, the team had managed five consecutive games without so much as a lead. They were outscored 22-7 in the games immediately preceding DeBoer’s dismissal. The DeBoer era ended following a 3-1 loss to the Nashville Predators on December 10, 2019 with the team’s record at 15-16-2.
I’ll not recap DeBoer beyond this. I covered it previously when I wrote about his dismissal back in December. Safe to say, firing him was the right call.
2019-20 San Jose Sharks: Bob Boughner Era
Immediately following DeBoer’s dismissal, defensive coach Bob Boughner took over. Boughner was given the title of interim head coach. At the time of the COVID-19 stoppage, the interim tag remained.
When Boughner took over, the Sharks were down, but still alive in the playoff picture. Alive partly because the team had sufficient talent to turn things around and partly because they were in the weakest division in the NHL. With the bar set low but urgency at a premium, the Sharks considerable talent gave them a chance.
Changes Under Bob Boughner
The team improved under Boughner. The forecheck was more effective and the defensive structure improved. The more aggressive forecheck caused more turnovers which led to more Sharks quality scoring chances. On the other end of the ice, defensive breakdowns decreased. The team’s energy was better – at least until the third period. The Sharks fell asleep late in games, managing to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory.
The Sharks led or were tied with ten minutes remaining in eight of Boughner’s first nine games (ahead in four, tied in four). That is 16 points of opportunity. Win the games with the lead, split the result in games which were tied and the Sharks net 14 points in the standings (6-0-2). Yet the team managed just seven points in these games. Competitive? Yes. Winning results? No.
One change Boughner made stood out over all others. He benched overused and struggling netminder Martin Jones to give Aaron Dell a chance to earn the starting job. Dell, underused and underappreciated by DeBoer, rose to the occasion and gave the Sharks their first quality and consistent goaltending since the 2017-18 season. Once handed the nets, Dell posted a .911 save percentage the rest of the way. It sure beat the heck out of the sub .900 save percentages from both Dell and Jones prior to the change.
Boughner fixed a lot of things, but he failed to get the Sharks scoring to gel. The power play remained mired in the muck, and the offence seemingly got worse, even if it felt like they were getting better chances on a more regular basis.
The 2019-20 San Jose Sharks are defined, in part, by two losses, both coming under Boughner. The team was even shut out by lowly the Detroit Red Wings on New Year’s Eve. Even though the team was competitive, the offence couldn’t find a way that evening. The Red Wings led the league in goals allowed by a large margin, giving up nearly four per game. The Sharks gave up a late empty-net goal, falling 2-0, squandering a rare solid performance from Martin Jones.
Six days later, the Sharks managed to blow a two-goal lead with under a minute left in the third period. The Sharks led 4-2 after Logan Couture tallied an empty netter with exactly one minute remaining. Game over? Not so fast. The Washington Capitals, with their net empty, scored twice in the final minute against Jones, then won the game two minutes into overtime.
These games were emblematic of Boughner’s stint as the bench boss. Very winnable games where the Sharks found a way to lose.
The 2019-20 San Jose Sharks lacked a few key elements in their game, elements present in years past. As expected, their forwards were not particularly good at passing the puck and the players were not particularly good at converting good scoring chances into actual scores. Surprisingly, the Sharks didn’t lack for opportunity once Boughner took over. But if it takes five things to go right to get a goal, the Sharks often managed just four.
From Boughner’s first game on December 12 through February 4, the Sharks went 8-11-2. Though most games were close, the team scored three or fewer goals in 17 of the 21 games.
The team’s playoff chances effectively ended in brief by an awful road trip in mid-January. The trip, just three games, all regulation losses, marked the only non-competitive streak under Boughner, with the Sharks outscored 14-4.
When DeBoer exited, so did his staff, save for Boughner himself. The new assistants came from within the organization. Former player Mike Ricci filled one assistant slot. Roy Sommer filled another. Sommer, the long-time head coach of the Sharks’ AHL teams, is both the winningest and losingest coach in AHL history. The Sharks also grabbed their goalie coach from their AHL team, tapping popular former Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov for the job.
Of all the coaching changes, the Nabokov hire proved the most inspired. Flailing starter Martin Jones remained benched for much of the middle of the season, seeing only occasional duty as he rebuilt himself and his game. Did it work? Jones returned to the regular rotation and started eight of the team’s last 13 games. He delivered sparkling play, with a .927 save percentage a GAA just shade above 2.00. How much credit goes to Nabokov? That is tougher to figure, but given the magnitude of the turn, one has to think Nabokov played a meaningful role.
The Shifting Roster
In Boughner’s term, he’d see three key players traded (Barclay Goodrow, Brenden Dillon, and Patrick Marleau) and three others injured (Erik Karlsson, Logan Couture, and Tomas Hertl). He’d also lose Evander Kane for three games due to suspension.
With the Sharks outmanned, Boughner managed to guide the Sharks adequately until gravity took over in mid-February. In the last dozen games, the team faltered, posting a 3-8-1 record with game-day line-ups featuring many AHL-level players. That said, the depleted team competed for Boughner, six of the eight losses were by one goal (excluding empty netters).
2019-20 San Jose Sharks Coaching Challenges
Many of the same issues which dogged DeBoer also dogged Boughner. The power play continued its futility, along with the rest of the offence. He settled on defensive pairings which were less than optimal. And for reasons which make no sense, he increased the playing time of Brent Burns after the season had gotten away from the team. Burns averaged over 27 minutes of ice time in February. In the team’s final five games in March, he averaged over 28. Burns crossed the 30 minute mark in a game three times this season, all three came in the season’s final ten games.
Several younger players received playing time. Noah Gregor seemed to play better under Boughner, while Joel Kellman and Alexander True both debuted under the interim coach and played reasonably well. These are the three with the best shot at sticking in the NHL next season.
Boughner finished with a 14-20-3 mark, which looks like a downgrade relative to DeBoer. It wasn’t. When Boughner got the job, I was more optimistic than most. He did make things better, but not enough. I’m skeptical Boughner is the right coach for this team in the near-term. However, general manager Doug Wilson said Boughner has the upper hand on getting the full-time job.
Coaching Twists and Turns
There were two other notable coaching stories which surrounded the team.
As legit NHL head coaches were being let go, the Sharks had ample opportunity to tap into one if they so desired. Gerard Gallant and Bruce Boudreau were among the successful coaches axed in midseason. If Wilson was going to replace Boughner, it would made sense to do so during the season. There is no reason to wait on a culture change, and it’d make sense for the new coach to get acquainted with the roster. Plus, the market for these coaches will be more competitive after the season than during it. So it is notable that Wilson stuck with Boughner for the duration.
One coach who did get fired and hired elsewhere was DeBoer. And when the announcement came, it was a doozy. DeBoer replaced Gallant as head coach of the arch rival Vegas Golden Knights. To say “Sharks Territory took note” is an understatement.
2019-20 San Jose Sharks Coaches Silver Lining
It was quite a year for Sharks coaches. DeBoer was a disaster. Boughner was a distinct improvement. But he was not enough to change the team’s fortune, their place in the standings, or the suddenly troubled culture. The lone really good story line among Sharks’ coaches is Nabokov. Fixing the goalies is essential for the Sharks and under Nabokov, the two netminders played much better. For the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks coaches, the season wasn’t good. The lone silver lining belongs to a new assistant coach with a lengthy history with the franchise. Like he did many times in his playing days, Evgeni Nabokov stood tall this season.