The San Jose Sharks are one-third of the way through the 2018-19 season, and things haven’t gone as well as expected. The Sharks hold a middle of the league record, tettering between a playoff spot and not, usually depending on the results of the most recent game.
Many Sharks fans will recall a confrontational exchange between local sports curmudgeon Ray Ratto and former Sharks television analyst Drew Remenda. It happened in 2012 with an angry Remenda defending the Sharks against Ratto’s frustrated criticism, “if you’re a Cup contender, win the game.”
For a Sharks team expected to be a Stanley Cup contender, the problem has been winning the game. Far too often, they haven’t been all that competitive. On the first four games of the recently finished road trip, they trailed each opponent by at least two goals headed into the third period. These weren’t games where a single unfortunate bounce decided the outcome between two teams playing at a high level.
Sure, they pulled it together for a 3-1 win in the fifth and final game of the road trip against the Montreal Canadiens. And importantly, they added a 5-1 home ice win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday. After the four consecutive losses, the Sharks needed to turn the corner and with wins in the past two games, there’s hope.
Sharks Feeling the Heat
Our prior two articles covered some uncomfortable topics for the San Jose Sharks. While coming from different angles, both spoke to a team which isn’t living up to expectations.
On the Sharks five-game road trip, one could sense the heat increasing under the seat of head coach Peter DeBoer, game by game. It is one thing to have a single poor showing, it is another for a highly talented team to be non-competitive on a frequent basis.
The Sharks, Is It Early or Late?
The late Yogi Berra is reported to have said “its getting late early,” and this describes at least few major aspects of the Sharks season. The team’s play has been subpar, especially during 5-on-5 play, where they rank among the leagues poorer teams. One doesn’t expect players like Marc-Edouard Vlasic to sit at minus-11. The only time Vlasic finished a season with a negative rating was in 2008, when he had just turned 21. And yet, this is where he sits at the moment. Logan Couture, leads the Sharks in even strength points, but his minus-9 rating is also a problem. Goalie Martin Jones is off to a poor start, backup Aaron Dell has fared only modestly better.
If the current state of the team is murky, the last two games have the team pointed in the right direction. For the Sharks to turn their season around, they need to do four basic things. The goaltending needs to be better, opponents odd man rushes need to be much less frequent, the power play needs to be a bigger part of the scoring and the Sharks need to run more of their offense from behind the net. In the two recent wins, Martin Jones played his best hockey of the season and the opponent’s odd man rushes were reduced, though too many still occurred. The team had a power play goal in each contest (the game winner in each) while behind the net play led to three scores.
The Evolving Erik Karlsson Dilemma
The quality of the Sharks play is critical to a major part of both this season and the Sharks future. Sharks general manager Doug Wilson gave up a ton of the team’s youth to get Erik Karlsson, arguably the league’s best defenseman over the past few seasons. But for the trade to work out, Karlsson needs to remain a member of the Sharks for the long term. The Sharks have had an excellent track record of retaining players they traded to get and wished to retain (Brent Burns, Joe Thornton, Martin Jones and Dan Boyle among them). With this history, re-signing Karlsson seemed a good bet when they acquired him on September 13. But little has gone as expected since then and there is reason for anxiety.
To start, last season was a rough one for Karlsson on the ice, but even more difficult off of it. The Karlsson family had the sort of year in 2018 which could throw anyone for a loop. Karlsson’s arrival in San Jose had a ‘fresh start’ vibe to it. On the professional side, the expectation was the Sharks would perform well on the ice, giving Karlsson reason to stick with a good team. On the personal side, the quality of the community would fit well with the Karlsson and his wife.
The Karlsson Timeline
On July 1, 2019, Karlsson becomes a free agent if he doesn’t re-sign with the Sharks prior to then. But the practical deadline is well before June. Indeed, its well before the end of the season. The NHL trade deadline is February 25, 2019, and the Sharks need to know where they stand in the weeks leading up to the deadline. Failing to retain Karlsson will be a blow to the organization, but failing to retain him while getting nothing could prove devastating to the team for years to come. Karlsson might not want to re-sign prior to February 25 for one very practical reason. He is eligible to ink a seven-year deal with the Sharks up to the trade deadline. After the trade deadline, he can ink an eight-year deal.
Between now and when Sharks general manager Doug Wilson needs to make a call on Karlsson, it’d helpful if the team gave Karlsson good reason to stay. But the modest start and they level of dysfunction on the recent road trip weren’t encouraging. Perhaps more critically, he genuinely seems to love Ottawa and the community there (his wife is native to the area). San Jose is a long way from Ottawa, physically and culturally. When you leave someplace you love, the next stop is bound to suffer by comparison.
Since Karlsson can get a large payday from many different teams in the offseason, he’ll need to feel good about both the Sharks and the San Jose area. The upcoming contract is the most important of Karlsson’s NHL career, and he’ll make sure he’s not just getting the money he wants, but is also the environment he wants. San Jose is a good environment for most, but is it a fit for the Karlssons? That is a tougher question.
Hope for the Sharks
There is a sense of urgency in Sharks Territory. A team meeting was held with Wilson before the game against the Canadiens. Before the game against the Hurricanes, head coach Peter DeBoer gave his entire coaching staff new assignments.
From a growing concern about re-signing Erik Karlsson to a team inconsistent with its game, it is getting late for this Sharks team, just past one-third of the way into the season. The next two games are on the road, back-to-back contests against the Dallas Stars and Arizona Coyotes. The Sharks have a slightly better record than Arizona, slight worse than Dallas. A lot is riding on these games.
While two-thirds of the regular season remains, the urgency around the Sharks feels a lot more like its late in the season. There are a variety of ways the Sharks can execute a turnaround, but the bottom line is they need to do what Ratto stated all those years ago and “win the game.” The last two wins give this team hope, something which has been in short supply recently. For the team, a lot depends on turning this hope into reality.