The San Jose Sharks looked completely out of sync in their first two games. Before the third game, stalwart defenseman Paul Martin went on injured reserve.
In sports, coaches often say injuries open a door for someone else to step up. Martin’s injury opened the door for Joakim Ryan to make his NHL debut. The southpaw was assigned to partner with Brent Burns. Ryan was not the only player given the chance to draw into the line-up – he wasn’t even the only Ryan. Forward Ryan Carpenter took a roster spot as Joel Ward was left watching from the press box. Meanwhile, defenseman Dylan DeMelo sat while Tim Heed entered the line-up.
After the changes, it’s safe to say the Sharks were much improved this week, though they only split their two games. They won over Buffalo, 3-2, with a solid performance. The following game they outplayed and often dominated the New York Islanders, but fell 3-1.
Joakim Ryan, in his first two NHL games, is exactly what San Jose is looking for. He’s been an excellent partner for Burns. Against Buffalo, a case can be made that Ryan was the best Sharks defenseman. Against the Isles, Burns looked like Burns for the first time this season. Having a complementary and effective partner helped Burns break out of an early-season funk.
San Jose will need younger players to step up and Joakim Ryan is the first to make the case for a starting job.
Heed was paired with Brenden Dillon, but this has been a less effective pairing. DeMelo appears the better partner for Dillon, though Dillon’s play is making a case for him becoming the odd man out. If Burns and Ryan work out and Marc-Edouard Vlasic continues to pair with Justin Braun, it leaves only one pairing. This means four players, Martin, Dillon, Heed and DeMelo, are competing for two starting spots.
The third new starter, Ryan Carpenter, has been solid in both games, though holding his own more than making significant contributions.
Related: San Jose Sharks Troubling Slow Start
The Big Improvement
Against the Isles, both of the Sharks top two lines had their best games. The top line, which has been unchanged all season, finally had a game where they looked like a top line. They dominated possession and were often dangerous. After the game, Joe Thornton said this was the game he finally knocked of the rust. The eyeballs agreed.
Sharks coach Peter DeBoer juggled his second line often in the first four games. In the third period of the fourth game, he put together a grouping which was both dominant and almost continuously dangerous. The second line started the game against the Isles with Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, and Mikkel Boedker. Boedker continues to disappoint and was replaced with Melker Karlsson for the game’s final period. Adding Karlsson provided a jolt of energy – this trio had the best period played by any Sharks line all season.
In the Stanley Cup Final against Pittsburgh in 2016, Karlsson was moved to Couture’s line, and, from that point on, it was the best line for the Sharks in the series. Alas, DeBoer has kept them apart (for the most part) since then. If he needed a reminder why they should be together again, the period against the Isles was it. Karlsson is a high chemistry player, he seems to make those around him better. He can make Chris Tierney and Jannik Hansen better playing in a fourth line role, but making Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl better is a much bigger benefit.
Plugged In Power Play
The revamped second power play unit looked good, including a sweet goal with all five players contributing against Buffalo. Vlasic started the sequence by moving nicely along the blue line opening up a passing lane to Boedker. Boedker quickly sent the puck cross-ice between defenders and onto the tape of Kevin Labanc’s stick. Labanc sent the puck toward the far post, where Hertl had established position. Hertl tipped the puck home. The fifth member of the unit, Joonas Donskoi, battled for position in the high slot area. By attracting the attention of the defense, Donskoi’s effort opened up the passing lanes.
Against the Isles, the Sharks earned only one power play (an oddity given how much they dominated possession). The top unit began the power play on the bench because several of its players had just finished skating a lengthy shift. The second unit took only 12 seconds to cash in, with Labanc garnering his third goal of the season and second on the power play.
Work To Do
If the top two lines are producing, San Jose is on their way. Dominating play and being dangerous is a big step in the right direction. Still, the Sharks need to find ways to score more goals; dominating play without scoring won’t win enough games. Thus far, the top players have barely touched the scoresheet. Thornton, Burns, Couture and Joe Pavelski have just one point apiece.
The lack of a quick strike offense is the missing link for the Sharks. Many teams get a major portion of their scoring from breakaways, odd-man rushes, and chances which come before the defense gets settled. The Sharks have had precious few of these.
A few players need to step up, notably Dillon, and the two Danish forwards, Boedker and Jannik Hansen. There is a fire under all these players. Defenseman Dillon is not certain to keep his role upon the return of Martin. On the forward lines, Barclay Goodrow could enter the line-up replacing one of the Danes. In the AHL last season, Goodrow and Carpenter showed excellent chemistry. If Carpenter stays in the line-up, and he should, Goodrow can provide instant value.
Related: San Jose Sharks: A Brief History
The Sharks are 1-3-0, despite playing all four games at home against teams who failed to make the playoffs last season. The missed opportunity to bank points against lesser teams on home ice may come back to bite the Sharks at some point, but the team met the immediate need: play hockey capable of winning games.
The Sharks needed help and they got from all directions. The older core improved greatly, while younger players stepped into major roles and looked strong. On top of this, a bit of line juggling came up with a new combination for a potentially formidable second line. With 78 games left, the Sharks look capable of making another good run.
The Sharks, as they have through the DeBoer era, continue to roll four lines. In both games this past week, every Sharks skater played double-digit even strength minutes.
In anticipation of the Islanders game, several media outlets commented on the possibility of John Tavares coming to San Jose. This included The Hockey Writers. The “job interview” went well. Tavares played against a good team in a good venue with in front of an enthusiastic crowd. All things missing in his current job.