A Necessary Switch for the San Jose Sharks

Sometimes, life is simple. You play the guy who is playing better and in the first quarter of this NHL season, the better goalie for the San Jose Sharks is Aaron Dell.

Dell is nominally the backup. He re-signed with the Sharks on a two-year deal worth $1.9 million per season. Dell’s deal is one-third the annual amount being paid to starter Martin Jones and one-third the duration. But neither salary or term matter at this moment. Three factors do. First, Dell is playing better right now. His shutout against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night, a 4-0 Sharks win, was perhaps the best game by either netminder all season. Importantly, it came against the team that handed him his worst (statistical) outing just eight days ago. A goalie has to be able to bounce back from a rough game, and Dell did that.

The second reason is that the season-long results also point to Dell. His save percentage is .920, markedly better than Jones’ .894 figure. Third, the Sharks seem more confident in front of Dell and play better as a team. All three factors have merit, they all point to a change in the lead netminder.

Is Martin Jones the Problem?

There are some who suggest that Jones is the victim, not the problem. They cast blame on the Sharks’ defense, especially their propensity to give up breakaways and odd-man rushes. These charges have merit. The Sharks’ defense may be good once it gets set up, but it has also allowed opponents far too many opportunities in transition. The result has been far too many quick-strike scores against the Sharks. Still, two things can be true concurrently. Jones can struggle and the team’s transition defense can be a problem. This is what is occurring. Not all the issues are on Jones, but enough are.

Martin Jones  (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

A change in netminder will give Dell an opportunity to string multiple games together. It represents an opportunity for him to play a new role. The last time it happened, really the only time it happened, was in January 2018. During this period, Dell took the net for an injured Jones.

In six games over 13 days, Dell was strong in the first four games (surrendering two or fewer goals in each) before faltering in the final two. This can guide the weeks ahead. Start Dell four games in a row and before he falters a bit, give Jones the start in the fifth game.

Changing to Aaron Dell, Permanent or Temporary?

The longer-term starter remains Jones. A slump is no reason to give up on him. He’s been good for three seasons, and he’s been very good each season come playoff time. But for now, there is little reason to play him when his game is missing in action.

How long should this change last? The simple answer is as long as it works. Barring any obvious reason for another change, I’d give Dell the lead role for roughly the next quarter of the season, or about 20 games, and then reassess.

Aaron Dell - Sharks
Aaron Dell  (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This isn’t the first major lineup change made by Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer this season. He finally seems to have settled on breaking up the Joes, Thornton and Pavelski, to the benefit of both. Thornton has found a home centering the third line with wingers Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorensen. While this grouping is working for Labanc, Sorensen has been electric with Thornton.

Running the Sharks’ second line with Evander Kane and Joonas Donskoi, Pavelski has turned on the burners. He leads the Sharks with 13 goals, good for fourth in the league. Pavelski is a terrific forward. But the Sharks are best served with him at center instead of on the wing and it is no surprise we’re seeing this play out.

DeBoer has also changed defensive partners for Erik Karlsson, from Marc-Edouard Vlasic to Brenden Dillon, something we considered prior to the season. This has allowed Vlasic to reunite with Justin Braun. While the longer term prognosis for this change is less certain, the fact DeBoer made it shows he is willing to move his top players.

DeBoer Has No Real Choice

As we discussed last week, even excellent goalies can have down seasons and Jones appears to be having one. There is no reason to panic. Teams employ quality backup netminders for a reason and the Sharks can get full value from their wise decision to retain Dell.

Jones played 190 regular season games in the prior three seasons, third among NHL netminders. He’s also played 40 playoff games, pushing his total to 230 games. This is the most among NHL goalies. The most heavily worked goalie in the league over an extended period is struggling; this probably shouldn’t be a shock.

Then there is this point: When we delved into ‘goalie use’ figures, we noted the Stanley Cup-winning goalie has played under 60 regular season games in each of the last six seasons. This is another reason for Jones to take the backup role, at least for now. The playoffs in April are a long way off and there is plenty of time for Jones to find his game or for Dell to lock his game in place and cement the role as the playoff starter. DeBoer and the Sharks can be on the right side of the ‘goalie use’ statistic for Stanley Cup winners.

Peter DeBoer - Sharks
Peter DeBoer  (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

At this moment, DeBoer really has no choice about the goalie change. The team is capable of pulling away in the Pacific Division. The Sharks are in first place now, albeit with the worst first place record among division leaders. The Pacific pack is not far behind, but the team has created a tiny bit of separation between themselves and everyone but the Calgary Flames (another team where the backup goalie has outplayed the starter). A solid run now will put the Sharks in great shape for the rest of the season.

Making a change shouldn’t be hard for the coach. DeBoer has made a major move at forward and on defense already this season. It’s time for him to make the one major move he can make with the goaltender position. NHL coaches often emphasize this point: playing time is earned: the better one plays, the more opportunity they get. Right now, the merit-based choice is clear. Aaron Dell, this is your time.