After 27 games, the San Jose Sharks are 11-13-3 with the second-worst winning percentage in the division, just ahead of the Anaheim Ducks. At 28 games, they will hit the halfway point so this is a good opportunity to check-in on the mid-season awards for the team. I solicited feedback from fellow Sharks writer Josh Frojelin and this is what we came up with regarding the team awards.
Sharks’ Most Valuable Player
Josh Frojelin: Logan Couture
This season Couture has established himself as the top center in San Jose. He’s tied for 10th in goal scoring in the league, and his current points-per-page rate is on pace to set a career-high. He is a key contributor to both special teams units and centers a very effective top line for the Sharks.
Victor Nuño: Couture
I have to agree with Josh here, there has been no other Sharks’ player who has been both so productive and consistent. He has really grown into the captaincy after a bit of a rocky start last season. He is the only Shark with two game-winning goals. Considering they have 11 wins on the season, with only seven coming in regulation or overtime, that is an impressive feat. He’s a plus-3 on the team, the highest of any skater and very impressive considering the rest of the team’s plus/minus looks like they are trying to win the PGA Tour.
Sharks’ Best Defensive Forward
Victor Nuño: Kevin LaBanc
The Sharks have not been a particularly good defensive team this season. They have given up the second-most goals in the division, six fewer than the Ducks, though the Sharks have given up the ninth-most in the league overall. Despite the poor overall team defense, there are several forwards who have had a positive defensive impact on the team namely Patrick Marleau, Matt Nieto, Labanc, and Marcus Sorensen.
Sorenson might be the pick if he hasn’t missed the last 10 games due to a false positive Covid test. He would have been allowed to play per NHL rules but had to sit out that long due to county rules. According to Evolving Hockey, Sorenson has the best expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60) on the team. I would suggest that expected goals against, corrected for time on ice, is about the best proxy for a defensive forward.
Impressive that 41-year-old Marleau is playing about the same time on the ice as 28-year-old Nieto and has about the same xGA/60. Both of them are above LaBanc, but in-line with how the NHL voting usually goes, it is often the best defensive forward who also scores a fair amount. With that in mind, LaBanc is clearly the most offensively capable of this bunch. In terms of points per game, LaBanc is at .67, whereas Nieto is .26, Marleau .19, and Sorenson .13. This is a big step forward for LaBanc as he has been criticized in the past for being a defensive liability. While he still is guilty of the way too frequent lazy stick work that leads to a slash or trip, in general, he has vastly improved his defensive game.
Sharks’ Best Defenseman
Victor Nuño: Brent Burns
It has been a tale of two seasons for who tops the list here. The obvious candidates are the two former Norris Trophy winners Erik Karlsson and Burns. No one else has really done enough to enter into this conversation. Early in the season, it was Burns who would dazzle us at times with game-winning goals, but also frustrate us with poor defensive play. He has cooled off significantly since Karlsson’s return from injury. He only has three points in his last eight games and eight in his last 16.
Karlsson hasn’t missed a significant amount of time this season, only four of the 27 games. However, since returning to action on February 27th, he has looked like a different player. He more often than not in a good position defensively now, something that was not the case earlier on in the season. He is also pushing the pace offensively, often starting the breakout himself, or making a nice stretch pass. In the past, those passes would miss the forwards or he wouldn’t even have the chance to make it.
As far as points go, Karlsson has the most recent mini-streak with six points in his last nine games. On the season, Burns has the higher rate at .56 points per game, while Karlsson is at .43. Burns also has the higher expected goals for per 60 minutes than Karlsson, by a wide margin. Though it seems like Karlsson is trending in the right direction, he still has the worst xGA/60 on the team as well as the worst expected goals differential and Corsi differential on the team for defenders. Yikes. All-in-all, the award goes to Burns for his mostly solid play throughout the year.
Sharks’ Rookie of the Year
Josh Frojelin: Nikolai Knyzhov
Knyzhov throughout this season has proven, after a small stint last season, that he is an NHL player. Not only that, but he has been more reliable and consistent than competitors such as Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Radim Simek for the same spot. With Simek on the third pairing he the duo was one of the best pairings in the league at controlling expected goals. Now with Karlsson, the pairing has had some growing pains but has looked solid recently.
Victor Nuño: Knyzhov
No question here it is Knyzhov. He wasn’t even supposed to make the team. His play has been so solid that other defenders who were hoping to get significant playing time like Fredrik Claesson, Christian Jaros, Nicolas Meloche, Brinson Pasichnuk, and Nick DeSimone have had little to none. Even Jacob Middleton who was expected to be the next best, relatively ready option, has only played in one game this season.
In my opinion, Knyzhov has been the Sharks’ best defender, in his role. If we treat this award as the NHL seems to with the Norris Trophy, Knyzhov would never get serious consideration as he only has two points in 27 games. Despite this, he has the best xGA/60 and Corsi against per 60 minutes on the team. He has certainly earned his ice time and cemented his role on the Sharks blue line for the foreseeable future. No other rookie has come close to having the impact that Knyzhov has had.
Sharks’ Best Goaltender
Victor Nuño: Devan Dubnyk
I really wanted to be flip and put Alexei Melnichuk here for saving all five shots he faced in his one relief stint of Martin Jones, but I didn’t. The truth is neither Jones or Dubnyk really deserve this award as both have been awful. In 856 minutes, Jones has a .884 save percentage (SV%) and a 3.64 goals-against average (GAA). While he has eight wins to Dubnyk’s three, that doesn’t really tell the whole story.
Sure, Dubnyk has a .904 SV% and a 3.12 GAA, which on the surface looks decent. Digging deeper, we see that at all strengths both goalies have negative goals saved above expected (GSAx), goals saved above average (GSAA), and delta Fenwick save percentage (dFSV%). GSAx being negative means they are giving up more goals than expected by those metrics. GSAA being negative means according to league averages, they are below what other goalies would do given a similar workload. dFSV% corrects for the protection offered them by their team, both of whom are doing terribly, even considering the poor defense in front of them.
Dubnyk has saved four more goals than Jones per GSAx and nine more per GSAA. However, it is Jones that outperforms Dubnyk at even strength, while Dubnyk is riding very unsustainable numbers on the penalty kill. Neither goalie is giving the Sharks a great chance to win when they start in general, though Dubnyk has certainly done that more often than Jones. Dubnyk is getting slightly more goal support at three goals per 60 minutes, while Jones is slightly under that at 2.45 goals per 60 minutes of support. It seems like at this point the Sharks are considering trading Dubnyk to a contender, which he might endorse by waiving his no-trade clause.
Sharks’ Best Addition
Victor Nuño: Ryan Donato
The Sharks didn’t make any large signings in the offseason with the additions of Dubnyk and Donato likely being their biggest. They also signed Nieto, Kurtis Gabriel, Claeson, and Fredrik Handemark, as well as claimed Rudolfs Balcers off waivers. They have seen prospects Sasha Chmelevski, Joachim Blichfeld, and John Leonard, either make their NHL debut or get more playing time.
Of all these players, this award clearly has to go to Donato. Over the course of the season, he has been one of the most consistent forwards on the team. Though he doesn’t get the most ice time, he tends to make the most of it. He is not a defensive liability and at times has matched up favorably against the other teams’ best lines.
Even though Donato’s point pace looks to be similar to his second full season in the league, he has two fewer goals than expected. His shooting percentage is five-point lower than his career average and his combined on-ice shooting and save percentage (SPSV% or PDO) is at 975 when it should be at 1000. If his luck regresses to the mean, he will have a much better point pace.
Sharks’ Biggest Disappointment
Victor Nuño: Coaching Staff
This was really hard because, in order to be disappointed in someone, you have to have somewhat high expectations. I did not have high expectations of anyone on this team as I expected them to be near the bottom of the standings so I don’t think any player really fits this bill. I did have some expectations that Bob Boughner and his new coaching staff could make the Sharks a better defensive club.
He did not. The Sharks are the second worse team in terms of goals against per game, just ahead of the Ottawa Senators. At least the Senators have a rich prospect pool and should be good in a couple of years. I don’t share the same optimism for the Sharks. It’s not like the Sharks are sacrificing defense for offense as they sit just 20th in the league in goals for per game.
It is hard to find bright spots in this otherwise woeful season, but there are some. Overall, the Sharks have failed to reach many of their own mid-season expectations. As reiterated by management recently, they are not interested in a true rebuild, which I think they need, but rather a reset. If they continue down this path, they might have some individuals worthy of team awards, but their record will not come close to playoff territory.
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