For the first two months of the season, the San Jose Sharks were inconsistent and struggling to stay in playoff position in a weak Pacific Division. Then, the Sharks division competitors caught fire and the Sharks were at risk of being left in the dust. But two newcomers stepped into the lineup, proved instant fits and helped the Sharks turn their season around.
This pair of Czechs, Radim Simek and Lukas Radil, have given the Sharks a critical lift.
Radil (No. 52) began his NHL career 10 games ago in the Sharks 4-0 win over Vancouver. At age 28, he’s too old to be considered an NHL rookie, but he’s excited for his chance and is making the most of it. Fortunately, he doesn’t play like a rookie. The Sharks fourth line struggled most of the season prior to the addition of Radil. He now combines with Melker Karlsson and Barclay Goodrow; the trio provides a distinct advantage for San Jose.
Radil’s first NHL point came with under six minutes left in regulation against the Arizona Coyotes. With the game tied at three, Radil went behind the net and came out the far side before putting the puck past Adin Hill for the game-winner. Against the Minnesota Wild, the two teams played a tight, scoreless game into the second period. Just past the game’s midpoint, Radil helped open the scoring. Again playing behind the net, he fed Logan Couture for the game’s first goal, and it held up at the game winner. Not bad for his first two NHL points.
Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer has left Radil out of the lineup three times since his debut, in road games against the Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars, and in a home game against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Sharks lost two of the three. Radil now has three points, and is plus-five on the season. His linemates have benefitted. Melker was having a difficult season until Radil arrived. In the ten games they’ve played together, Melker is plus-seven, including all three of his goals. He is minus-seven without Radil. Goodrow, the center on this line, is minus-four in the games without Radil, plus-five in the games with him.
Radil is big, at 6-foot-3. On a Sharks team defined by power forwards, Radil fits the mold. Last season, the Sharks fourth line took off when the similarly-sized Eric Fehr arrived. Radil plays a similarly rugged game. To be candid, he is exactly the piece the line needed.
To start the season, the Sharks made an unusual roster move, keeping eight defensemen instead of the more typical seven. The eighth defenseman was Simek. He stayed with the Sharks, but remained out of action for almost two months. Simek (No. 51) made his NHL debut in the Sharks 3-1 win in Montreal on Dec. 2; the victory snapped a four-game losing streak. Simek has now played in eight games, of which the Sharks have won seven. He is partnered with Brent Burns and has been excellent. Simek has already scored five points and is plus-eight. He played a key role in the win in Minnesota, with assists on the first two goals of the game and earned third-star honors.
Simek, like Radil, is an older player. At 26, he is also too old to be considered a rookie. Still, the newcomer has played like a savvy veteran. Simek replaced Joakim Ryan in the lineup. Ryan hadn’t done anything really wrong, but he managed to get on the wrong side of DeBoer and saw his minutes greatly curtailed. Without the trust of the head coach. Ryan’s playing time in San Jose’s lineup was on thin ice. Simek, assuming he stays healthy, has effectively ended it. Simek brings a physical presence, something DeBoer appreciates and Ryan didn’t bring.
A Sharks Opportunity
Simek’s success opens up trade possibilities involving other Sharks defensemen. An intriguing possibility is a trade which includes both of the Sharks defensemen who aren’t playing. Two years ago, Ryan and Tim Heed were the best defensive pairing in the AHL for the San Jose Barracuda. It’s not often a team can acquire a defensive pair with instant chemistry, but the Sharks can offer this to potential trade partners.
In 87 NHL games, Ryan has 16 points and is plus-15, easily the best among Sharks defensemen over the past two seasons. Heed has played less, but possesses a powerful shot. He has played 32 games, with 11 points and an even rating. Such a trade is risky, since depth matters and the Sharks longer-term needs include losing some cap hit in order to create room for re-signing Erik Karlsson. Still, it is an unusual and intriguing possibility. If cap space is the issue, Justin Braun or Brenden Dillon are more likely trade pieces, since neither Heed or Ryan offer cap relief. Yet given the ‘all-in’ nature of the season, I can see the Sharks taking the risk for the right piece.
To assign primary credit for the Sharks recent turnaround to Simek and Radil is going a bit too far, but they have played a major role. In their game against the Wild in Minnesota, each player had a two-point game and it might have been the Sharks best game of the season. This coming against a quality opponent with a stellar home ice record. The two newcomers are making a genuine difference.
• In recent articles, I’ve discussed the importance of the Sharks play behind the net. Beating the Wild in Minnesota was a tall order (the Wild were 10-5-2 at home entering the game) and behind the net play had a lot to do with it. Radil’s play there led to the game’s first goal as described above. Behind the net play also led to the third goal. Late in the second period, Tomas Hertl drew a tripping penalty on Mikko Koivu while working behind the net. The result was the lone power play of the game. The power play carried over into the third period. At the moment Koivu left the penalty box, Hertl was passing the puck to Couture, whose shot a moment later put the Sharks up 3-0. While technically not a power play goal, practically speaking, it was. All stemming from play behind the net.
• The Sharks 7-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks wasn’t a particularly good game by the victors. They made the same sorts of mistakes which better teams used to burn the Sharks. But Chicago was awful in the game, a far cry from the great Blackhawks teams of just a few seasons ago.