After a lackluster start to the season, the San Jose Sharks have pieced together a six-game win streak. These six games coincide perfectly with Radim Simek’s return to the Sharks’ blue line. Simek, sidelined last March with a torn ACL and MCL, got back to speed quickly and has looked confident to start his season.
Only one year ago, Simek was largely unknown to the hockey world. Undrafted at the NHL level, Simek played five seasons in the Czech Republic’s highest league, the Czech Extraliga, before signing with the Sharks as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2017-18 season. Simek, after a successful year playing for the Sharks’ American Hockey League affiliate, the San Jose Barracuda, was re-signed by the Sharks to a two-year extension. He made his NHL debut midway through the 2018-19 season, quickly given significant minutes while primarily pairing with former Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns.
Simek’s 12 career NHL points through 47 games may not be particularly impressive, but his impact on the Sharks’ record is gaining some attention.
|Sharks with Simek||Sharks without Simek|
The difference is staggering. In both seasons, Simek joining the roster has transformed the team’s record. A 35-9-3 record represents a 127-point pace – good for the Presidents’ Trophy in any post-lockout season that doesn’t include the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning.
In contrast, a 21-28-7 record, a 71-point pace, would have the Sharks competing for a lottery pick. Of course, it’s unlikely an undrafted NHL defenseman with 12 NHL career points is the difference between a 1st place team, and a team missing the off season. However, with how stark the difference in the Sharks’ performance is, it seems equally unlikely that Simek’s presence is not contributing to the Sharks’ success in a notable way.
Evaluating Simek’s Defensive Ability
While Simek doesn’t provide a lot of offense, the Sharks don’t necessarily need more scoring. From the start of the 2017-18 season to time of writing, the Sharks are fifth in goals scored during the regular season. Plus, a team with Burns and Erik Karlsson isn’t exactly lacking in defensive scoring.
Through Simek’s 46 career games, he has posted a Corsi for 54.39% during 5v5 ice time, suggesting that the Sharks control the play exceptionally well with him on the ice. For reference, out of the 232 defensemen who have played at least 400 minutes of 5v5 ice time since his debut season, his Corsi ranks 17th. He has also been highly effective at limiting high-danger chances and has a remarkably low expected goals against rate per 60.
|Corsi for %||54.36||92.6|
While a 46-game sample size is relatively small, Simek’s underlying numbers suggest he’s an extremely capable shutdown defenseman, just the piece the Sharks may have needed to partner alongside the offensively-minded Burns.
Simek Provides Improved Blue Line Options
One advantage that Simek potentially provides the Sharks is the ability for head coach Pete DeBoer to utilize his defensive pairings more flexibly. Historically, Burns has had approximately 65% of his shifts start in the offensive zone (during 5v5 play) – extremely high for a top-pairing defenseman. Burns’ defensive play has been frequently criticized, most notably by rival Drew Doughty last season. Through six games with Simek this season, Burns’ offensive starts have dropped to 51.9%. DeBoer appears to be more comfortable with starting Burns in his own end while playing alongside Simek, which could create more opportunities for advantageous matchups, as well as ensure that the most rested defenseman are taking the ice.
While a six-game win streak is worth celebrating, the Sharks’ 10-10-1 record still leaves them tied for sixth in a competitive Pacific Division – a spot they certainly didn’t expect to be in at the start of the season. The importance of holding a playoff spot at American Thanksgiving is well documented – historically only a few teams that are not in a playoff spot by the holiday end up in the postseason.
While the Sharks still have issues to resolve, Simek being back in the lineup may be just the piece the Sharks needed to challenge for a playoff spot.
All stats from Natural Stat Trick