Pacific Division Preview: San Jose Sharks look within to fill void left by departed veterans

The Sharks’ season starts with back-to-back games against the Golden Knights.

As Year 3 of Vegas Golden Knights hockey fast approaches, we’ll take a look at the other teams in the Pacific Division ahead of the 2019-20 campaign. This series will provide an overview of each of Vegas’ division rivals, reviewing how the teams fared last season, examining organizational changes made during the offseason and exploring what their lineups might look like to start the season.

The Sharks made the playoffs for the fourth straight year and 14th time in the last 15 years after finishing the regular season with a 46-27-9 record and 101 points, good for second in the division. An extended postseason run featured plenty of drama and plenty of controversy but fell short of the ultimate goal at the hands of the St. Louis Blues.

Once again, the Sharks were one of the best offensive teams in the NHL, but several key offseason departures leave a few question marks surrounding the forward depth on the club. However, the Sharks have plenty of star power and should remain a force in the NHL.

Season in review

The Sharks were one of the best possession teams in the NHL and finished second in the league in goals (289), trailing only the Tampa Bay Lightning with an impressive 3.52 goals per game. However, they finished 11th in goals against (3.15 per game), putting the offense on the hot seat in many high-scoring games.

Trading chances is not always a recipe for success, but it certainly helps having one of the best offenses in the league. Interestingly,  the Sharks limited teams to just 28.3 shots per game, which was good for second overall in the NHL; this reflects a rocky year in net for goaltenders Martin Jones and Aaron Dell. It didn’t end up holding them back, though, as the Sharks were the only team in the bottom 10 in goals against at 5-on-5 (186) to make the playoffs.

San Jose had the sixth-best power play (23.6 percent), and the Sharks managed a league-best Corsi For percentage of 54.87 at 5-on-5.

Plus, the individual stats were impressive yet again.

For the third straight season, defenseman Brent Burns led the team in scoring with 83 points. But he wasn’t the only one with a strong campaign.

Tomas Hertl shattered his career highs with 35 goals and 39 assists for 74 points in 77 games, while Logan Couture scored a career-best 70 points. Timo Meier set new personal highs across the board with 30 goals and 36 assists for 66 points in 78 games.

Additionally, Kevin Labanc saw a 16-point uptick in production as he potted a career-high 56 points, and he also set a career high in power-play points with 20. Evander Kane tied his career high with 30 goals and came within one point of matching his career-high point total (57) in his best offensive season since 2011-12.

Jones had a rough year despite finishing tied for third in the league with 36 wins. His 2.94 goals-against average and .896 save percentage made up the worst statistical season of his career, and the .896 save percentage ranked last in the NHL among goalies who played at least 50 games.

In the first four games of the playoffs, his goals-against average was a whopping 5.33, and his save percentage dropped to .838. However, for the next 16 games, his play improved as he managed a 2.68 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.

But the Sharks’ postseason run is not a subject any Knights enthusiast wants to explore in too much detail. Couture led the way with 20 points in 20 games, and the Sharks were the beneficiaries of multiple bouts of good fortune en route to a trip to the Western Conference Final, where they were eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup-winning St. Louis Blues in six games.

That being said, there’s one thing to be said about the Sharks’ run: it certainly played a significant role in changing the NHL.

That’s because multiple rule changes were implemented for the 2019-20 season as a direct result of favorable calls awarded to the Sharks in the playoffs.

The first was the infamous five-minute major called on Cody Eakin in Game 7 (don’t worry, not even going there), and the second was the hand pass that helped the Sharks defeat the Blues in overtime of Game 3.

There was a third controversial call that benefited the Sharks (in another Game 7), but it was the other two that had the more lasting effects given the revisions made to video review and the coach’s challenge.

Clearly, the league doesn’t want a repeat of last year’s officiating.

Offseason overview

The most notable departure of the offseason was captain Joe Pavelski, who sought more term than San Jose was willing to dole out. He elected to sign a three-year deal with Dallas after 13 seasons with the Sharks.

The team also lost forwards Joonas Donskoi (Colorado) and Gustav Nyquist (Columbus) along with defensemen Justin Braun (Philadelphia) and Joakim Ryan (Los Angeles).

However, veteran Joe “Jumbo Joe” Thornton’s services were retained as he signed another one-year deal, this time for $2 million.

Joining the organization are Dalton Prout and Jonny Brodzinski.

Though there weren’t many significant additions, the Sharks signed two of the most team-friendly deals of the offseason by re-upping Meier and Labanc.

Meier signed a four-year, $24 million deal, while Labanc bet on himself with a one-year, $1 million contract. He is set to take on a larger role with the team this year and will look to match or exceed his 2018-19 production in time for a well-earned pay day next summer.

The largest transaction of the summer, however, was the monster contract awarded to defenseman Erik Karlsson, which necessitated several of the team’s other moves.

Despite injury concerns, Karlsson was rewarded with both term and monetary value in his eight-year, $92 million extension; the deal carries an $11.5 million cap hit through 2026-27.

On a much smaller scale, the Sharks re-signed defenseman Tim Heed and forward Dylan Gambrell to one-year extensions. Mario Ferraro, Lean Bergmann and Danil Yurtaikin were signed to entry-level deals; all three are expected to make the club out of camp.

Last but certainly not least, Couture was named the 10th captain in franchise history.

Lineup preview

With Pavelski out of the picture, Couture will officially take over first-line center duties and will be flanked by Meier and Labanc. Hertl will remain with Kane on the second line, and it looks like Brodzinski or Gambrell will join them to start the season.

Marcus Sorensen will once again skate with Thornton, and Yurtaikin will complete the trio; he’ll add a dynamic element to the middle six, and his speed and skill should give San Jose three solid scoring lines. With Antti Suomela getting sent down to the AHL, the fourth line likely will be Bergmann with Barclay Goodrow and Melker Karlsson.

The blue line features some of the most dynamic defensemen in the game, and the top three of Karlsson, Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic is an elite and enviable bunch. Brenden Dillon should round out the top four, with Heed skating on the third pair.

With Radim Simek out for tomorrow’s season opener, Ferraro will play with Heed; however, Ferraro has had a great showing throughout camp/preseason and may have made the team either way.

Kane will not be in tomorrow night’s lineup after sustaining a three-game suspension for violating the NHL’s “Physical Abuse of Officials” policy the other night against Vegas.

Lukas Radil could enter the lineup, or Brodzinski and Gambrell could both make the cut to start the season.

However, once Kane returns, here’s one possibility for what the Sharks’ lineup could look like:

Meier — Couture — Labanc
Kane — Hertl — Brodzinski
Sorensen — Thornton — Yurtaikin
Bergmann — Goodrow — M. Karlsson

Vlasic — Burns
Dillon — E. Karlsson
Ferraro — Heed


Quick hits

2018-19 record: 46-27-9-101
Position in standings: Division-2, Conference-2, League-6
Pacific Division record: 17-8-4
Record against Vegas: 2-1-0
Playoff result: Eliminated by St. Louis in Conference Final (4-2 STL)
Power play (NHL rank): 23.6 percent (6)
Penalty kill (NHL rank): 80.8 percent (15)
Goals for (NHL rank): 289 (2)
Goals against (NHL rank): 258 (11)
Leading scorers: Burns (16-67—83), Hertl (35-39—74), Couture (27-43—70)
Top Corsi For % (min. 35 GP): E. Karlsson (59.22), Radil (57.68), Dillon (57.28)
Goals above replacement: E. Karlsson (18.5), Hertl (13.4), Burns (13.3)
Season opener: Oct. 2 @ Vegas

Looking ahead to 2019-20

The Sharks are set to be one of the top teams in the division once again this season.

While the Sharks have been a dominant regular-season squad for many years, the stigma surrounding their lack of postseason success remains in place since they have yet to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup. The team has come close with trips to the Cup and Western Conference Final in the last four years, but the all-illusive trophy has remained out of reach.

Expectations are perhaps a tad lower than usual given the losses of Pavelski, Donskoi and Nyquist, though there’s plenty of talent throughout the roster, especially if the younger players continue to improve. A bounce-back year from Jones certainly would go a long way.

The Sharks’ first test of the season will be an intense home-and-home series against Vegas. Tomorrow night’s season opener should have a playoff atmosphere, especially following the madness from Sunday’s preseason tilt, which featured multiple ejections and more than 100 penalty minutes.

It will be interesting to see what unfolds given some of the antics.

But once the dust settles, the Sharks should continue to be one of the league’s top offensive teams, especially on the power play.

It would be extremely surprising for the Sharks to miss the playoffs; it’s more just a matter of where in the standings they’ll finish. Assuming all goes well for both Vegas and San Jose, a third playoff series between these clubs could very well be in store.

That will be one to watch.

Golden Knights vs. Sharks schedule

Oct. 2 vs. San Jose
Oct. 4 @ San Jose
Nov. 21 vs. San Jose
Dec. 22 @ San Jose

Statistics courtesy of Evolving-Hockey, and Natural Stat Trick.