The San Jose Sharks were amongst the three teams to play their first regular season game of the 2021-22 season on Saturday, Oct. 16. There must have been some anticipation watching the rest of the league get going and then be one of the last teams to start. It didn’t start off great for the Sharks, but they showed some resilience and maybe signs that this season won’t be as challenging as the last two. Here are my takeaways from the season opener.
Sharks are Closer to Average in Net
Adin Hill won his first game for the Sharks in his first start. It started off shaky where a puck handling mishap led to the second goal. Down by two goals, he stayed sharp. He tracked the puck well and looked very calm in net. He never gave up on a play and made some key saves to keep the Sharks in it and allow them to comeback.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Sharks were expected to give up 1.08 goals in the game, so it was disappointing that Hill gave up three. On the other hand, the first goal was a deflection that caught him going the wrong way and the third goal was a shot that went wide and went right to Jansen Harkins who scored. Overall, Hill looked like he could be at least about average, which is all the Sharks really need to push for a playoff spot in the Pacific Division.
Sharks’ Special Teams are Special Again
The first goal of the season was a shorthanded goal by new addition Andrew Cogliano. The Sharks scored five shorthanded goals in 2021-22 according to StatMuse. Beyond just scoring the goal, having the threat of scoring while shorthanded puts some concern into the opponents on the power play and may lower their efficiency. The Sharks were 14th in penalty-kill efficiency in 2020-21. Hopefully, with the addition of players like Nick Bonino and Cogliano, that rank can go up even further. Cogliano’s speed will always be something for opponents to worry about when he is killing penalties.
The power play was one of the biggest struggles for the Sharks in 2020-21 where they ranked 29th in the league. The power play has been reconfigured into two even groups with Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns split up. The Sharks were running Burns with Jonathan Dahlen, Bonino, Logan Couture, and Timo Meier on one unit with Karlsson, William Eklund, Tomas Hertl, Kevin LaBanc, and Jasper Weatherby on the other.
The Sharks haven’t had a truly great net-front presence on the power play since Joe Pavelski left the team. Bonino and Weatherby have been given that role now and they looked great in it. Both were effective at taking away the vision of the goalie and retrieving pucks to keep zone time alive. The Sharks converted on two power-play goals out of five chances and looked good on all their opportunities. Their two goals were very different, which should give Sharks fans more hope that this trend can continue. The team needs to give penalty killers different looks in order to keep opponents guessing.
The Sharks’ Kids are Alright
The Sharks had five rookies in their lineup against the Jets — Weatherby, Eklund, Dahlen, Jacob Middleton, and Lane Pederson. Weatherby and Eklund made their NHL debut, while the others are under the 25 total NHL games to qualify for the moniker. All of these players made an impact on this game and it could foreshadow an important piece of their success in 2021-22.
Unlike previous seasons where young players were given the opportunity to succeed and didn’t take it, this group seems ready and unafraid of the moment. Middleton didn’t like a hit by Adam Lowry on Rudolfs Balcers and answered the bell. Logan Stanley, who stands at 6-foot-7, stepped in for Lowry and Middleton more than held his own. It took the Sharks until Game 20 to register their first fighting major in 2020-21 — they won’t have to wait that long this season. Other teams will note they cannot take cheap shots like that either.
Dahlen had a pretty decent night, though he didn’t show up on the scoreboard. He had some nice zone entries and several nifty passes to keep plays alive. He had a wide open net on the power play after an excellent feed from Couture, but Connor Hellebuyck’s pad came out of nowhere to save it. Pederson provided some nice skill on the fourth line, but wasn’t as noticeable. Weatherby had a beautiful snipe on the power play that tied the game at two. He also got an assist on Hertl’s power-play goal. Beyond that, he helped give the power play some good looks and provided strong two way play.
In the much-anticipated debut of the Sharks’ seventh-overall pick from 2021, Eklund did not disappoint. He did start a bit slow and looked a little nervous on his first few shifts, but then he settled down into the game. He has been given the role of entering the zone on the power play and he did so effectively most of the time. On Hertl’s goal, he created the chance by shooting for a rebound that was easily pushed past Hellebuyck by Hertl.
Eklund is a power play whisperer. He is so smart and patient with the puck that he allows seams to open and for opportunities to present themselves. He is already a prominent feature on the man advantage, which could translate to strong even-strength production as well. In addition to scoring, he had some really good passing and most importantly, avoided any big hits. There were at least five situations I counted that a Jets player lined him up for a big hit and missed either entirely or mostly. The most noticeable was former Shark Brenden Dillon who lined up Eklund by the benches and instead rammed himself into the boards.
A Strong Start, Now What?
Beyond just the score, the Sharks looked strong in this game. They came back from a two-goal deficit and scored four unanswered goals to take the lead. I don’t remember the last time they demonstrated that kind of resilience — probably 2018-19 and fans know what happened that season. It will be a difficult test now as the Sharks head out on the road for five straight against Eastern Conference opponents. Let’s see if they can keep up their strong start.
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