There were seven teams that did not qualify for the NHL’s expanded 24-team playoff field this past season. Over the next few days we are going to take a look at each of them to examine whether or not they are capable of bouncing back this upcoming season. We start today with the San Jose Sharks.
There was no bigger disappointment during the 2019-20 NHL season than the San Jose Sharks.
Coming off of a trip to the Western Conference Final, there was still a championship level of expectation surrounding this team at the start of the season. But instead of competing for the Stanley Cup the Sharks ended up finishing with the worst record in the conference and the third-worst record in the entire NHL.
It was just the third time in the past 22 years that they failed to make the playoffs, while their .450 points percentage was one of the worst in the history of the franchise. Only the initial expansion years and a random down year in 2002-03 were worse.
In a word, everything.
• They never addressed the goaltending issue that plagued them the previous year as the duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell finished with the second-worst combined save percentage in hockey (ahead of only Detroit). They were 31st the previous season.
• Karlsson and Brent Burns both had down years.
• For as bad as the 2019-20 season went this is not a hopeless situation. There is still a good amount of top line talent here.
Logan Couture, Timo Meier, Evander Kane, and Tomas Hertl are all excellent players provided they can stay healthy. Even this past season — a down year for a couple of them — they were all still on track for a 25-goal, 60-point pace over 82 games.
• Scoring depth beyond that top-four was a big issue following the departures of Pavelski and Donskoi. The Sharks attempted to address that this offseason by trading for Ryan Donato and bringing back Patrick Marleau. I don’t think Marleau has much left in the tank, but Donato is a smart addition that could give the bottom of their lineup a little more scoring punch.
• They also still have what should be an outstanding top-three on defense with Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
That trio is going to be one of the deciding factors in whether or not the Sharks are able to bounce back, because they have to be better than they were a year ago. Especially when it comes to the former two.
While their offensive production was still elite for defenders, their overall performance took a big step backwards during 5-on-5 play. Their possession numbers dropped, while they were only 50-50 players in terms of expected goals and scoring chances instead of having a sizable edge like they normally do. In other words, they were productive. They did not dominate. A large part of the Sharks’ success is based on those two dominating and controlling the pace of the game. They have to get back to that level.
The question is whether or not either one is capable of doing that.
Injuries have taken their toll on Karlsson during his brief time in San Jose, while Burns is going to turn 36 during the 2020-21 season. At some point he is going to hit a wall and begin slowing down. Was last year the beginning of that? It is a big question. But not as big as this question.
Without this, nothing else on this team matters.
In a goaltender-heavy market the Sharks’ solution to this massive problem was to acquire Devan Dubnyk from the Wild, a 34-year-old goalie coming off the worst season of his career and whose .890 save percentage was the second-worst in the league — worse than either of the Sharks’ goalies (Jones was at .896 for the second year in a row).
That seems, shall we say, not ideal.
But for as dubious as that seems, I am not quite ready to write off Dubnyk. During his entire Minnesota tenure he was one of the league’s best goalies until this past season. He also had a difficult year off the ice (he missed time due to a personal family matter).
It is entirely possible that he could bounce back, and if he does it would be a massive swing in the Sharks’ favor. Even league-average goaltending would be a potential game-changer for this team. Even a .905 team save percentage would have shaved 20 goals off of their total on the same number of shots from this past season.
Given the age of their core players, as well as their massive contracts, there is question the San Jose Sharks are running out of time to win with this group. But it is not out of the question for them to still be competitive this season.
There are just a lot of “ifs” at play here. Goaltending. Karlsson and Burns returning to elite form. The top players staying healthy. Depth forwards like Kevin Labanc and Ryan Donato making a big impact.
If all of those things go right, yeah, they absolutely can be a playoff team again.
The problem is when you have that many “ifs” with a team there is a good chance that some of them are going to go wrong. The Sharks can not afford that.