The first half of the NHL season is nearly over and there’s not much good with the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks. Meanwhile, bad and ugly are prospering.
2019-20 San Jose Sharks Ugly
The ugly is obvious. A team expected to make the playoffs and contend for a Stanley Cup sits last in its division. In the month of December, at least the part prior to the Christmas break, the Sharks managed just one win. The statistics on players expected to perform in key roles are stunning. Tomas Hertl sits at minus-14, Kevin Labanc at minus-13 and Brent Burns at minus-15 at 5v5.
The team is a wreck at 5-on-5, having given up more goals than any other team in the league. Not surprisingly, goaltending hasn’t saved this team, the Sharks rank 30th in a 31 team league.
Perhaps ugliest of all is the power play. It is just two for December, with one short-handed goal allowed. Logan Couture, Brent Burns, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Erik Karlsson have combined for well over 1,500 NHL goals. Timo Meier, Evander Kane and Hertl were all 30 goal scorers in 2018-19. There’s simply no excuse for the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks power play to be so bad.
2019-20 San Jose Sharks Good
Is there anything good in Sharks Territory? It takes some looking, but there are some positives. Since the change in coaching, the Sharks have played competitive hockey. They’ve been tied or ahead in the final period in each of the five games Bob Boughner has helmed the team. For a squad that was often non-competitive, this is a genuine change. The end results remain troubling, but the team is competitive.
The second ‘good’ is a long-overdue change in mindset with the netminders. It is more than a year overdue and took a coaching change to make it happen. Aaron Dell has been the team’s better netminder and it is not been particularly close. Dell shouldn’t become the undisputed number one netminder on a permanent basis. But over a year ago, it became more obvious that Martin Jones’s struggles meant it was time to give Dell the net. The prescription today is not much different than the one offered a year ago. Give Dell the lead role for the next quarter of a season and see how he does. Boughner has not indicated Dell will get this chance, but he appears far more open to it than his predecessor.
Other Bright Spots
A few other ‘good’ things have occurred. The penalty kill has been excellent. Rookie defenceman Mario Ferraro hasn’t been great, but he’s shown he belongs in the NHL. Barclay Goodrow, though slumping as of late, has shown he’s more than just a low-end role player.
Newcomer Stefan Noesen, formerly of the Pittsburgh Penguins, has played well, though it’s been just two games. In two games from Joel Kellman, there has been a positive showing in his play. He was recently promoted from the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda. The Sharks have gone through several forwards who’ve tried to make the leap from the AHL to the NHL, but none have stuck. Even with just 16 NHL minutes under his belt, Kellman looks more NHL ready than any of the others the team has tried.
Finally, Logan Couture is plus-1 at 5v5. He is the lone starter to be positive on this metric. It is a stretch to call this good, but there isn’t a lot of good to choose from, either.
The San Jose Sharks Bad
Where does one start with the bad (and how does one distinguish the bad from the ugly)?
The 2019-20 San Jose Sharks fired their head coach a few weeks ago, and most of the coaching staff, too. Coaching was a problem. Whether the new coach is the right fix is a different question. While there are things to like with Boughner, some troublesome things haven’t changed. In Boughner’s first game, he decided to put Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson on the ice together for on offensive zone face-off against the New York Rangers following an icing. Roughly 20 seconds later, the defensively challenged duo saw the puck go into their own net. It was a critical goal in a close game.
Did Boughner learn? The scenario nearly repeated itself in the Sharks game against the St. Louis Blues. Again, the duo was out for an offensive zone face-off following an icing. And roughly 20 seconds later, they allowed a high-grade scoring chance. At least it wasn’t a goal, but Boughner has to learn lessons quickly. The Burns/Karlsson pairing is oil and water. Boughner has no time to spare and missing the obvious won’t help him or the team.
The Sharks have defensive pairs which have proven effective and for whatever reason, Boughner is sticking with what he inherited, which is less effective. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is paired with Karlsson and Burns with Brenden Dillon. Last season, Dillon was extremely effective with Karlsson and Vlasic was highly effective with Tim Heed. To be blunt, the less Burns sees the ice at even strength these days, the better.
The Sharks Versus Golden Knights Case Study
The Sharks most recent effort against the Vegas Golden Knights is indicative of the Sharks ability to compete and fail. The Golden Knights solidly outskated the Sharks, but Dell proved formidable in the net. The Sharks allowed the game’s first goal when Erik Karlsson went above the half wall to take on Paul Stastny who was playing the puck near the left point. Stastny moved the puck down low to teammate Valentin Zykov. Karlsson, unwisely, followed the puck down low, ignoring Stastny who slid easily into the slot. From there, he received a tape-to-tape pass from teammate Alex Tuch. An uncontested Stastny buried the grade A opportunity.
The Sharks rebounded early in the third period with Burns taking the puck behind the net and finding Logan Couture on the backside of the play. There’s been plenty of recent discussions whether the Sharks should consider moving Burns to forward. After all, minus-15 says he’s not doing well on defence. The Couture goal probably adds fuel to the fire, as Burns looked a lot more like a power forward than a defenceman on the play.
With the game tied at one and just over 12 minutes remaining, Sharks goalie Aaron Dell got a massive ovation from a home crowd unaccustomed to seeing a Sharks goaltender hold his team in a game. Alas, less than a minute later, the Knights would get a fortunate bounce off of Burns’ skate and score to take a 2-1 lead. The lead was extended to 3-1 when Karlsson made another unwise play, challenging Reilly Smith on a bouncing puck in neutral ice. If Karlsson makes the play, it is unlikely to result in a meaningful benefit to the Sharks offence. If Smith wins, it could trigger a 2-on-1 break for the Knights. Smith won the battle, the 2-on-1 break happened and the Knights padded their lead with Jonathan Marchessault scoring off a feed from Smith.
The Sharks were outskated but were competitive and in a position to win the game or at least get to overtime. A pair of egregious judgment errors by the team’s top defenceman proved costly this game. In different games, it’s been different issues, but the result has been the same.
Slim and None
Since Boughner took over, the San Jose Sharks have been far more competitive. The team is playing like a potential playoff team. They’re even playing better than they did in November when they piled up wins despite playing average hockey. Of course, how they are playing now doesn’t solve the problem they have in the standings.
The team’s main problem is no longer the process, but the result. Yes the power play needs fixing and the defencive pairings are less than optimal, but the general quality of play is good. The team is finding ways to lose despite playing competitive hockey. In the five games under Boughner, at the 48-minute mark, the Sharks have led twice by a single goal and were tied in the other three. Yet they are just 1-4-0 in the five games.
The deep hole the Sharks are in can only be exited with wins. Lots of wins. Last season, by the late January 2019 All-Star break, the Sharks were essentially locked into a playoff spot. This season’s team, however, needs to win a bunch of games soon or they’ll be essentially locked out of a playoff spot by the 2020 All-Star break. When Boughner took over, we noted he didn’t have the luxury of time.
The Sharks chances for a playoff spot are slim. The team must pile up wins right away or Slim is leaving town.
There have been plenty of things that haven’t gone well in Sharks Territory in the first portion of the season. But among the most unexpected are issues is with the pre-game anthems. The troubles began on opening night with a disastrous anthem from one of the Sharks usually reliable singers. Another time, an ethnic singing group had their microphones turned off until they were well into the anthem. A third time, a different singer oft used by the team stumbled early in the song. An anthem gone awry happens from time to time. For whatever reason, it’s happened quite a bit this season.
Another area where the Sharks are off this season is the team’s television advertising. The Sharks have used a variety of themes of over the years, most featuring the players and often using inside humour in the process. This season features low-end animations. It is strange to see a rabid, animated Joe Thornton, foaming at the beard. It just misses the mark. For what it’s worth, I favoured Detective Joe Pavelski, marriage counsellor Todd McLellan and last season’s ad featuring Thornton and Goodrow playing chess. In the latter, an exasperated Thornton tells Goodrow to “pull the trigger.” Of course, the longstanding complaint with Thornton is his reluctance to “pull the trigger” when he has a good shooting opportunity.