The San Jose Sharks, in many senses, are the model NHL franchise. Over the last two decades-plus, the Sharks have made 19 playoff appearances in 21 seasons. No, they’ve never won the Stanley Cup, but that’s almost coincidental, as San Jose has reached the conference finals five times in this stretch of success.
That’s more than what you would expect when there are eight teams going for the Cup in a conference every spring, so not only have the Sharks been in the postseason regularly but they’ve been fairly successful at advancing, too. Sadly, too many uninformed “fans” only measure success by championships won, and since only one team wins every year, that basically means everyone else is a “loser” in the eyes of the clueless.
The Sharks have been stellar, amassing the best regular-season record in the NHL since the 1997-1998 season. In the last four seasons under Head Coach Pete DeBoer, the team has averaged 46 wins and 100 points, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2016 and making it to the Western Conference Finals in 2019.
This season, however, San Jose is scuffling along at 15-15-2, currently, and the team hasn’t had a losing season since 2002-2003. Something is amiss. The biggest issue is defense, where the Sharks have allowed the second-most goals in the league so far (111), and while they’ve only scored 88 goals, that’s still “good” enough for 20th in the NHL right now.
Overall, the team is not scoring like it should, and it’s giving up way too many goals. In truth, the Sharks are lucky to be playing .500 hockey right now. How do they fix it, then, whatever “it” is?
Here are some thoughts to ponder:
- The power play has to improve. San Jose is converting just 16.7 percent of its special-teams opportunities, and the league average is closer to 20 percent. Are the Sharks just missing former captain Joe Pavelski, who left in free agency over the summer? Maybe, but someone (or three someones) has to step up in these situations, and Joe Thornton is too old now to be the guy to do so.
- The 5-on-5 defense has been atrocious, as the Sharks penalty-kill unit is actually way above league average. It’s the basic situations that have buried San Jose in a flurry of shots and goals for the opponents. Both goalies have struggled, managing just an .867 save percentage in regular play. Compare that to the last few seasons, where Sharks goalies were stopping pucks at much better rate (.906 last year, .922 in 2017-18, .930 in 2016-17, and .928 in 2015-16—when the team reached the Cup Finals).
- Age is becoming a factor on the San Jose roster for the goalies and the top defensemen. Erik Karlsson is only 29, but Brent Burns is 34, and both goalies (starter Martin Jones and backup Aaron Dell) are 30 years old. When you play deep into many consecutive postseasons, too, the age is just one side of the story as the extra time on the ice takes its toll on the body and the legs, as well.
- While it’s not on Jones alone, his play has steadily declined over the past few seasons with the Sharks. His goals-against average has gone up every year of his career, in truth, even dating back to his early days in Los Angeles as a backup to Jonathan Quick. If Jones is not the answer, then the Sharks need a new goalie for a playoff push right away, because that’s a bad trend for your top netminder.
The San Jose organization has kept itself competitive for decades now, through smart signings and aggressive trades, but the window may have closed on the team’s chances for a Cup title. If this is the beginning of the end, a lot of it has to do with aging, and a lot of it has to do with the moves made to keep the team competitive every year—which costs draft picks, not to mention the success on the ice meaning lower draft positions for the picks that are kept.
You can only stay competitive so long in modern-day professional sports, as systems are set up for competitive balance—especially in the NHL, with its legitimate salary cap. The Sharks have a big test in front of them over the final 50 games of this 2019-20 season, and how they respond to this as a whole organization will tell us a lot about the most successful franchise in the league over the last two decades.
We will have more on the Sharks later this month when we see them play in person against the Arizona Coyotes and the defending Cup champs from St. Louis!