The upcoming 2021 NHL season promises to be filled with surprises and challenges. For the San Jose Sharks, the expectations are low, the challenges substantial. A good season will be a surprise. And yet, there is a San Jose Sharks formula for hope.
The Formula for a Good San Jose Sharks Season
If the Sharks are to succeed, they’ll need a whole lot of bounce back. Players including Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Martin Jones, Devan Dubnyk and Erik Karlsson will need to be substantially better than they were last season. So will Marcus Sorensen and Tomas Hertl. Not substantially better than they’ve ever been, just back to form we’ve seen from them before. Kevin Labanc, however, will need to better than he’s ever been.
Further, the team will need contributions from a young group of modest talents. There are jobs to be had among the lower line forwards, with the potential for a top-6 role if any can manage to fit in. If nothing else, there should be plenty of motivation and energy.
Even all that has gone wrong with the San Jose Sharks in recent times, there is a path to success.
Finding Ways to Make the Team Better
I’ll offer one example of how the team can improve.
The Sharks lack quality forwards and there’s a clear path for a young player to get a forward job on a middle line. The team struggles to score goals, lacks depth scoring and has two elite right-shot defencemen.
I’d hope that every young Sharks forward candidate spent hours a day practicing re-directing pucks (or perhaps baseballs in a batting cage if practice ice was tricky to come by). None will be as good as Joe Pavelski in that role, but with Karlsson and Brent Burns firing point shots, there will be a ton of opportunity. Do that one skill well and an NHL ticket will get punched. Do that really well and a 20 goal scorer can emerge from the mist.
If the Sharks are to have a bounce back season, it’ll be because of players who find ways to work well in the unusually constructed roster.
Formula for Success This San Jose Sharks Season
The Sharks roster features Burns and Karlsson, first and second in career scoring among active NHL defencemen. Each is capable of dominating games and combined, they sport three Norris Trophy wins. The roster also features Hertl, Evander Kane and Timo Meier, a trio of high-end power forwards capable forcing play and scoring goals. No other NHL team has approached a roster this way. So how does the team leverage this?
There are two keys to the San Jose Sharks formula. On offense, it is spreading out opposing defences. And on defence, it is not allowing transition, quick-strike scores against them.
The Sharks Offence Formula
The power forwards need to work their magic behind the net. The talented defencemen need to occupy the point. This combination stretches opposing defences, leaving room for other forwards to maneuver in the slot areas. Using this approach can also generate power plays at a high rate, as power players behind the net tend to draw more than their share of penalties.
The open space can also enable Burns and Karlsson to go down the walls, to the net front or even go behind the net. This sort of spread offense is something the Sharks can do as well as any team in the league.
When you watch the Sharks early in the season, note how often these power forwards drag opposing defenders behind the net and stay there (not just cruise on through). The Sharks aren’t going to win the way other teams do. That said, if the Sharks play the sort of game they are capable of playing, few other teams will be good at defending them because other teams are not designed to stop this.
The Sharks Defence Formula
There is one other key to the offence. It must be an offence which transitions effectively to defence. The team’s forwards need to rotate into defenceman positions when the defencemen carry the puck down low. The young forwards can make a case for the roster by rotating back and playing solid defence when players like Burns and Karlsson freelance in the offensive zone. For Burns and Karlsson to be the full threats they can be, forwards need to have their backs covered.
Preventing other teams from transition offence is critical. Transitions often lead to high quality scoring chances. Preventing these, especially odd-man rushes, comes from disciplined play when the Sharks have the puck.
This isn’t complicated or hard to do, but it does require a vigilant commitment to playing the system. Failure to have power forwards go behind the net will make it easier to defend the Sharks. Failure of forwards to cover for defencemen who activate will leave the team vulnerable to odd man rushes the other way. An inability to redirect pucks coming off the sticks of Burns and Karlsson will limit the effectiveness of the two highly paid defencemen.
Success or failure is largely about mindset. If the commitment to playing optimally is there, the team can succeed. Without this commitment, the team won’t do well.
Challenges with the San Jose Sharks Season Formula
The unusual roster has plenty of holes. Some obvious, some not.
Among the bigger concerns, a lack of team speed, especially in transition offence. A so-so forechecking game is also problematic. In this NHL era, a lot of goals are scored off of turnovers created by effective forechecking. This isn’t the Sharks forte. Clean zone exits is a big deal and the Sharks need to improve here.
The passing, especially among the forwards, is problematic. Gone are superb and crafty passers like Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Joonas Donskoi and Chris Tierney. In their stead are, well, guys who are not as good at passing the puck. Playing fast with good puck movement enables numerous high quality scoring chances. This is doubly important for a Sharks team with modest skating speed. But this is an element the team lacked in 2019-20 and the personnel changes do not appear to address this issue.
Goaltending is a concern, though there’s reason for optimism. Both Dubnyk and Jones had ridiculous workloads over the past several seasons and their games diminished. We’ll see if a long offseason, a shorter regular season and something closer to a split of the netminding duties can help both players.
An area of considerable concern is the defence. It isn’t about the talent. I see two challenges, one mental, one physical. The Sharks need their defence to work and the key players, Vlasic, Burns and Karlsson must be mentally strong. During struggles (individual or team), these players can lose their focus and become problematic. We saw that too much in 2019-20.
The second concerning issue is the pairings. The Sharks have talent, but the talent doesn’t seem to work well together. Success on the back-end is defined as much by chemistry between players as it is by talent. The Sharks had one great chemist last season (Brenden Dillon), but he was traded away.
As of now, only the Burns-Radim Simek pairing is proven effective and we’re not so sure about Simek’s knee, almost two years after his surgery for torn ligaments. The team seems set on using Vlasic and Karlsson together, though treading water is not what one expects for the league’s most expensive defender duo. Mario Ferraro has no natural partner in a third pair role.
Special Teams Impact the San Jose Sharks Season
Should the Sharks get a lot of power plays, it’ll help if they deliver. In recent seasons, the Sharks have had plenty of power play talent, but not nearly enough production. This season, the talent levels are less, but perhaps new coaches and some adjustments can improve the results. Indeed, the coaches are shaking it up, even if the names are all familiar.
The penalty kill was elite, but three key players are gone (Dillon, Barclay Goodrow and Melker Karlsson). This is a major challenge. Having the league’s best penalty kill gave the Sharks a fighting chance. They spent the third most time on the penalty kill time in 2019-20, but were still best in the league in penalty kill goal differential (minus-25). A drop to middle of the pack would be a major blow to the Sharks chances.
Last season, the Sharks spent over a minute per game more on the penalty kill than they did on the power play. They can’t afford this again.
Every good team depends on having above average special teams, but this Sharks team is probably more special teams dependent than most. They need to win two battles. Both the percentage battle where they are better than average in both power play and penalty kill. But also, they need to earn more power play opportunities than their opponents. The team is designed to do this, but personnel like Kevin Labanc and Evander Kane take more than their share of penalties, risking this potential advantage.
The Coaching Staff
Finally, there’s the new coaching staff. Hockey isn’t a particularly complicated game to coach, but with precious little practice time for a roster with plenty of new players, the San Jose Sharks formula is trickier to implement.
Head coach Bob Boughner was named interim head coach in December 2019. He got the full time job in the offseason. His new assistants include Rocky Thompson and John Madden. Evgeni Nabokov is the goalie coach and will try to revive two careers.
This combination of a mostly new coaching staff and a bunch of new players is sub-optimal. That said, it ought to be exciting for everyone. Few players have earned equity based on prior seasons –– and none of the coaches have it. Almost everyone gets to start with a clean sheet and a chance to prove themselves.
It’ll be up to the Sharks coaches to harness this energy. There is room for surprise. For example, Boughner’s team had a poor record at the end of last season with a roster which was essentially a hybrid NHL/AHL roster. The record was bad, but the team was competitive in most every game. Harness the energy more effectively, build on what was learned last season and this team can turn close losses into wins.
Where Does it Go From Here?
The experts don’t think much of the Sharks chances and it comes down to a one basic issue; they lack talent.
In recent rankings done by the NHL Network, the Sharks failed to place anyone in the league’s top 50 players. In Corey Pronman’s analysis of players under 23, the Sharks had no one in the top 50. Or the top 75 for that matter. The highest rated player, Ryan Merkley (85th on the list) has yet to play either an NHL or AHL game and is the organization’s only entry in the top 100. And when Craig Custance did his goalie poll of GMs and coaches, the Sharks starter came in 30th out of the 31 expected starters.
The experts see the Sharks as follows: no great veterans, no promising youngsters and a poor goalie. To them, the San Jose Sharks formula isn’t competitive.
Where There’s Hope
The Sharks appear to have too many holes and too many question marks to have a successful season. The forwards are not particularly good passers. The forechecking is suspect, meaning less turnovers which generate quick strike scores. The highly paid defencemen have all underperformed their contracts. On top of all this, the experts think they lack talent to compete.
If the Sharks have a chance for a good season, it’ll come because several things fall into place. The power forwards will play like power forwards. The special teams will be special. The youth will be better than expected. Somebody might figure out how to be a Pavelski-light and re-direct pucks effectively. The goalies will bounce back, as will the big three defencemen.
And their playing style can offer something which other teams struggle against.
Perhaps something else will show up. For years, the San Jose Sharks formula was to play the regular season and find another gear for the playoffs. Do this annually for over a decade and you get players who never get a full offseason to heal, train and improve. Maybe some combination of complacency and burnout set in.
Unlike prior seasons, this Sharks team has had plenty of time to heal, plenty of time to train and plenty of time to refocus. Or get mad.
The expectations are low this season. Perhaps there’s an anger which will fuel the team in 2021 that went missing the prior season. This is a team filled with players ‘with something to prove’ and that is new. In short, this team may be in a better place, mentally and physically, than they’ve been in a long time.
More than likely, the Sharks will ice 13-16 NHL-level skaters a night with two-to-five young players hoping to show belong in the NHL.
If things don’t start off well, look for the team to pivot quickly to evaluating their youth and turn this season into a rebuilding project. A 56 game San Jose Sharks season means a team can play their way out of contention quickly. Last season, the Sharks roster used several more skaters than in other recent seasons, evaluating over a dozen players looking for an NHL career. This season might turn into something similar if the Sharks can’t prove themselves contenders.
There’s reason to hope for something far better than last season. The climb will be both mental and physical. The odds are against it, but one doesn’t need to look back too far to find teams which beat the odds in a big way.
And if the team fails, as most expect, at least the season will go by quickly and they’ll have the draft to look forward to. It’s July 23rd. Might want to mark your calendars.