So far, the 2021-22 season has been much better for the San Jose Sharks than the previous two. There have been a lot of changes for the organization in the past year and there is a great deal for which to be thankful. As of their 19th game, the Sharks are tied for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference. With American Thanksgiving on Nox 25, here are three things related to the Sharks for which fans should be grateful.
Competent NHL-Level Goaltending
The Sharks’ struggles keeping the puck out of their net have been well documented during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. Management felt that if the Sharks could at least get league average goaltending, they could be a playoff contender. Martin Jones was bought out prior to the 2021-22 season and when Josef Korenar was traded away, it was evident that there would be two new netminders for the 2021-22 season.
So far this season, the Sharks are 12th in the league in expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60), according to Evolving Hockey. Their strong team defense doesn’t quite align with the goaltending performance as they are 17th in actual goals against per 60 minutes (GA/60). Those ranks still fall within the middle third of the league and are a vast improvement from previous seasons. In 2020-21, the Sharks were 27th in xGA/60 and 31st in GA/60. The numbers were similarly bad in the 2019-20 season.
The biggest surprise in net is that veteran journeyman James Reimer has vastly outperformed Adin Hill. Reimer is in his second tour of duty with the Sharks and his previous stint was when the team reached their only Stanley Cup Final in 2015-16. Reimer and Hill have played a similar number of games and while the wins don’t tell the whole story, digging deeper, it should be Reimer’s net for the foreseeable future.
Reimer has nearly 10 more goals saved above expected than Hill and 13 more goals saved above average. In addition, delta Fenwick save percentage, which corrects the quality of protection the team offers, is diametrically opposite for the two, with Reimer again coming out on top. No matter how you look at it, Reimer has been the better goalie, but they can still get wins with Hill in net. At the very least, the combination of Hill and Reimer have the Sharks in the middle of the pack in terms of goals against per game. Sharks fans have been yearning for that bar to be reached for years and it’s something for which they can be thankful.
Rookies Who are Ready to Contribute
Due to salary cap constraints, the Sharks need to have players on their entry-level contracts contribute. In the past two seasons, this has not been the case, despite a similar need. This season the Sharks have had significant contributions from Jonathan Dahlen and Jasper Weatherby, who have been mainstays in the lineup since opening night.
Though Dahlen is currently injured, he has been a part of one of the best lines in hockey. According to Money Puck, Dahlen, Timo Meier, and Logan Couture have the 5th most expected goals for per 60 minutes. Considering how many great lines there are in the league, this is a tremendous feat. Apart from Dahlen, Jacob Middleton has been a stabilizing force next to a resurgent Erik Karlsson.
During the Sharks’ COVID outbreak, which began on Oct. 30 against the Winnipeg Jets, the young players stepped in and helped the team get three wins in six games and seven points out of a possible 12. Two of those wins were against top teams in the west in the Jets and the Calgary Flames. Ryan Merkley, Nicolas Meloche, Santeri Hatakka, Jaycob Megna, and John Leonard, among others, contributed to the depth that is needed for an NHL team to be successful. There aren’t usually so many inexperienced players in the lineup at once, but they did a fantastic job when called upon.
Two Effective Power Plays
Since Karlsson arrived in San Jose, the Sharks have tried different combinations of him and Brent Burns on the same power play, and it has not worked. The idea that you need to put all your best players on one unit follows flawed logic. Each position on the power play has a unique role. Whether it is the playmaker on the half wall, the trigger man on the faceoff, or the net-front presence, each role is different. Putting your best player in a role that doesn’t suit him can be a mistake. The Sharks saw this last season trying to make Burns the trigger man for the one-timer from the left point, something at which he does not excel.
This season, the Sharks are 18th in power-play percentage, which doesn’t sound great but is a vast improvement on their 29th rank from 2020-21. Even more than their raw percentage, the power play is generating chances. According to Evolving Hockey, the Sharks have the 7th best power play in terms of expected goals for per 60 minutes. With a little bit more luck and fewer hot goalies, the Sharks could easily be in the top five or better.
The Road Ahead
Since the Sharks are in the Pacific Division, they should contend for a playoff spot. After two seasons where there was little hope of postseason hockey, that should be a welcome feat for which to cheer. If the goaltending can continue to be average, the power play can continue to be effective, and the team can continue to get meaningful contributions from their young players, the playoffs should be within reach.
Victor Nuño is a physician in private practice in Santa Cruz and an associate professor of osteopathic manipulative medicine at Touro University in California. He is an avid hockey fan ever since the San Jose Sharks joined the NHL in 1991. He plays, watches, and consumes everything related to hockey, but especially the Sharks and AHL affiliate Barracuda. In addition, he is a father to two beautiful young girls and husband to a wonderful wife. Follow me @VictorNuno12