The San Jose Sharks are off to a mediocre start by their standards. San Jose is just 9-8 through the first 17 games and a number of their loyal fans are expressing quite a bit of concern. After a strong offseason saw key players in Joel Ward, Paul Martin and Martin Jones added to the club, there was a lot of optimism going into the season. Those upbeat vibes continued through San Jose’s 4-0 start. Since then though there has been quite a bit of panic about this team primarily because of their poor special teams play and lack of positive results (5-8 record last 13 games). However, there are five key reasons why Sharks fans shouldn’t be overly worried. There is actually a lot to like about San Jose.
Beating Teams They’re Supposed to Beat
All Sharks fans know how bad last year was when it came to giving away points to inferior opponents. San Jose lost both games against Columbus, Florida and Buffalo last year. They also dropped games against Carolina, Edmonton and Phoenix. Even accounting for the occasional loss to a bad team being normal, the Sharks should have picked up 10 more points than they did against these teams. Those 10 points would have put them in the playoffs.
This year has been a much different story, thus far the Sharks are 4-1 against the teams they are supposed to beat, 5-1 if you want to include the new and improved Sabres. When the Sharks have been in a real need for two points against teams that aren’t as good, they have gotten the job done thus far this year.
Playing Toe-to-Toe With Top Teams
While the Sharks haven’t yet put together a record that screams playoff team, the fact of the matter is they haven’t been thoroughly dominated by any opponent. In particular against Anaheim, Nashville and Dallas, three of the top teams in the league (Anaheim more reputation than record), the Sharks played well enough to win all four of the games. Their record against these teams is just 1-3 this season but it could very easily be 3-1 and that record would have been well deserved.
Furthermore, they just beat a red-hot Sabres team despite playing the second of back-to-backs while Buffalo was rested. The Sabres were also 8-8 going into the game which is why I don’t include them as a squad San Jose is supposed to beat. Buffalo had a three-game winning streak going into the Sharks game on Saturday and had won five-of-their-last-six. Jack Eichel came in hot with six points in his last six games but outside one scoring chance late in the game, Eichel wasn’t very noticeable versus San Jose. The Sharks did a good job defensively and actually had a far better overall game than the night before when they should have been fresher against Detroit.
Solid Even Strength Play
This is another area where the Sharks were simply dreadful last season. Team Teal was severely out-played by their opponents while skating five aside in 2014-15. Last year the Sharks were minus-8 as a team in terms of five aside goal differential (165 goals for, 178 goals against).
This year however, without star center Logan Couture for most of the season, the Sharks are plus-2 with 30 goals for at even strength and 28 goals against through 17 games. If you extrapolate that pace for 82 games, and the Sharks will finish about plus-10 at even strength, for an 18 goal turnaround.
Now not sure why the numbers are slightly different, the 30 and 28 numbers were from NHL.com and 30 out of 58 comes to 51.7 goals-for percentage. Stats.hockeyanalysis.com has the Sharks even better though at 53.6 goals-for percentage, good enough for ninth best in the league. Comparatively speaking the Sharks were a putrid 24th in league last year in this metric, 46.9 percent.
6-3 Road Record
While home-ice advantage in the NHL playoffs isn’t what it used to be, road games during the regular season are still significantly tougher, particularly for a Western Conference team like San Jose. The Sharks are annually amongst the miles leaders in travel and are often playing games after long flights against rested teams. Getting off to a strong road start is a big plus for this team.
Despite a down year at home last season, the Sharks are historically a dominant team on home ice. If the Sharks can get through this first half of the year with a strong road record, it should set them up for a solid finish. In a few weeks they should get Logan Couture back healthy and the second half of the season is a home dominant schedule where the Sharks ought to be able to do some serious damage.
Martin Jones Settling in Nicely
First year starting netminder Martin Jones cooled off after his historic start to the season but that was inevitable. Not even Carey Price maintains a .980 save percentage over the course of a season. However, Jones’ current .923 is just .001 lower than the .924 that Antti Niemi had for the Sharks the year he was nominated for the Vezina. It’s still a small sample size, but the .923 is also Jones’ career percentage. The past two games Jones has upped his percentage (it had fallen to .918) while playing back-to-back nights. Jones allowed just three goals on 59 shots, or a .949 save percentage in the two victories. The .923 mark is also good for eighth best in the league among goalies who have appeared in at least 10 games.
Keep Calm and the Sharks Will Chomp on
Despite many critics (including many of their own fans), the Sharks have been playing decent hockey thus far this season while missing an elite No. 2 center. Their struggling special teams are bound to bounce back, particularly the power play that has been one of the league’s best in recent years. The penalty kill should also improve considering the fact Martin and Ward, two of the new guys brought in this offseason are excellent short-handed players. Couture is also a key figure on the penalty kill as well. They have missed him dearly on both special teams units. With Jones stopping the pucks at his current rate, a solid top-four defense in front of him and a deep set of forwards when Couture returns from injury, the Sharks should return to being a juggernaut in the near future.