The San Jose Sharks’ recent stretch of games has been rough. After losing four consecutive games (from ‘Rare call burns San Jose Sharks in loss to St. Louis Blues,’ Santa Cruz Sentinel, March 20, 2021), three of which saw the team blow a lead, it’s clear the Sharks are not a team with playoff aspirations. Even general manager Doug Wilson recently referred to this season as a “reset,” all but signifying the team is looking toward next season.
Well, with that, it’s worth assessing the group of talent that will be on the club in 2021-22, including the coaching staff, who were locked into three-year deals ahead of the season. The most important of which is Bob Boughner, the head coach, who is in his first full season of coaching.
In his first season behind the bench without the “interim” tag, Boughner and his staff — John Madden, Rocky Thompson, and Evgeni Nabokov — have made choices that do not fall in line with the team’s vision of focusing toward developing talent for the 2021-22 season.
Not Playing the Highest Upside Players
The Sharks have a fair amount of high-upside, skilled, young forwards in the organization. However, the coaching staff and management have determined these players are better suited for the AHL. Management seems to value Stefan Noesen, Marcus Sorensen, Fredrik Handemark, Antti Suomela, and Kurtis Gabriel over these young players. Patrick Marleau is a special circumstance, who is close to breaking the all-time record for NHL games played.
However, the young players on the San Jose Barracuda, such as Sasha Chmelevski, Joachim Blichfeld, Alex True, and especially Noah Gregor, have done enough to earn themselves more NHL game time. Gregor, who started the season in the NHL, had three even-strength goals in 15 games before joining the AHL where he has five points through six games. Gregor ranks just behind Logan Couture and Evander Kane in goals for/60 — which measures how a player’s scoring rate would rank if all skaters played 60 minutes — among forwards who have played at least 10 games. If he was given more games and ice time, he’d produce.
This season alone, Gregor has as many goals as Handemark and Gabriel have in their combined 55 career NHL games. When True, Chmelevski and Blichfeld have played their two NHL games this season, they were given few minutes, but looked nowhere out of place. Yet, despite the very small sample size and decent results, these players were sent down to the AHL.
It’s as if management and the coaching staff are not on the same page. If Wilson is already setting his sights toward next season, why is Boughner using skaters who are in or past their primes, will not be in the lineup next season, and provide less talent than the younger players?
If Boughner is intent on icing a lineup that gives the Sharks their best chance to win, I think the young players would provide a better chance than the veteran skaters. Gabriel has been given lineup chances against the Vegas Golden Knights, and other physical teams, as Boughner thinks his physicality will restrict the impact of Ryan Reaves, who averages under 10 minutes of ice time a game. To me, this makes little sense. If the Sharks are trying to beat the best team in the division, the club should plan to score goals on the hottest goalie in the league, Marc-Andre Fleury, and not waste roster spots trying to fight a fourth liner.
Most recently, the Sharks were outclassed by Vegas in the third period when Couture and Tomas Hertl missed time at the end of the game. When the Sharks needed scoring, they had little to no upside in the bottom part of their lineup to tie the game, and subsequently lost. What if, instead of playing Gabriel, who is slotted into the lineup to defend his teammates, and Handemark, the team opted for Gregor, Blichfeld or True? Then San Jose might have scored the goal they needed.
The aforementioned older players, such as Gabriel and Suomella,. have contracts that expire after this season, probably have no value to be traded at the deadline, and block roster spots for NHL-ready youngsters. If the Sharks are committed to developing young talent to help the handsomely paid core that Wilson wants to build around, they need to play the young, skilled, and capable talent.
Boughner Plays Favorites and Constant Lineup Changes
To put it bluntly, the Sharks change their lineup nearly every game. With a shortened training camp and no preseason, it has taken a while for players to build chemistry with linemates or defensive partners. All this has been aided by Boughner’s adamancy to change the lineup between games and often between periods.
Obviously, the season is short and every game counts. So, it makes sense the Sharks’ coaching staff may need to make large decisions on somewhat smaller sample size than ordinary. However, the moves at times feel like they shake up the lineup for the sake of shaking it up.
In the most recent game against the St. Louis Blues, the Sharks elected to play John Leonard on the second line. I would argue this was the correct decision, because the rookie is the best Sharks’ second best forward in relative expected goals percentage (xGoals%) — a model that indicates how well a team performs with a player on vs. off the ice — behind Kevin Labanc. Yet, after one period of play, Leonard was demoted to the fourth line for Marleau, who is the second-worst forward ahead of Sorensen this season in relative xGoals%. In the game, Leonard was the second-best Sharks forward in controlling scoring chances, although that could be due to a small sample size, and Marleau was last in the category. This lineup change had little warrant, yet situations like this happen nearly every game.
Currently, I feel there are two Sharks on the NHL roster that are severely underused by the team, Leonard and Ryan Donato. The latter is ninth among forwards in Goals/60 among those playing at least 10 games. Despite being in the top nine, Donato finds himself fluctuating between the third and fourth line, in favor of giving more minutes to Rudolfs Balcers, Sorensen, and Marleau, who are all behind him in that metric. Leonard at one point this season was sent down to the Barracuda after the Sharks lost 7-3 to the Colorado Avalanche, in favor of playing older forwards in his place. To me, this move seemed to be blaming a younger player after the team as a whole performed poorly.
However, players like Matt Nieto, Marleau, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic see promotions in the lineup at times without warrant. Nieto this season has been fine as a penalty killer, but at even strength he’s the third-worst forward in relative xGoals%. Despite the team controlling scoring chances better without them, Marleau and Nieto have recently seen promotion to the second line recently.
Vlasic, in his third season of an eight-year, $56 million extension, currently plays sheltered minutes on the third pairing. However, at multiple points this season, he saw himself in the top-four defenseman group. This season, the blueliner has struggled, making numerous coverage errors that have led directly to goals against, and has yet to add much offensively. However, at one point during Vlasic’s rough season, Boughner elected to promote him up the lineup, unprompted, in the name of challenging the veteran to perform better. It seems that Nieto and Marleau’s promotions are done in a similar vein.
There’s hypocrisy in Boughner’s approach this way. Veterans are to be promoted up the lineup in the name of challenging them to perform better, when their best playing days are behind them and they currently struggle. But young players who perform adequately, if not very well, are not given large roles or see demotion.
When the coaching staff makes these lineup changes constantly, one would expect them to be in the name of promoting talent that is exceeding their current role. However, these moves are done for little to no reason, and often see promotion of players who did not earn looks in elevated roles.
What I Want to See More of from the Coaches
For as much as I critique the staff and Boughner, one thing they have done is get the most out of their top-five forwards of Couture, Labanc, Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl, and Timo Meier. Most of these players had down seasons last year and have improved, especially Couture and Kane who have had large career resurgences.
The top line of Couture centering Labanc and Kane works wonderfully. While they have struggled recently against top competition in Vegas and the Blues, this season has been a huge positive for the forwards overall. In a normal season, Couture would be on pace for 37 goals, Kane for 34, and Labanc for 26 in an 82-game schedule. The three of these would be career highs for the respective players. The top line threatens to score on both the rush, or setting up dangerous chances via effective forechecking.
Hertl, Meier, and a revolving door of wingers make up the second line. Despite the inconsistent third forward, recently the duo has been able to perform well. Both forwards missed time with Hertl being placed on the COVID-19 list, and Meier with injury. Since both returned on March 12, Meier has five points and Hertl has seven points, in six games.
And, the team has nicely developed young left-handed defensemen Mario Ferraro and Nikolai Knyzhov. After limited minutes to begin his career in 2019-20, this season has seen Ferraro transform into a legitimate top-pairing defenseman, at just 22 years old. Also, Knyzhov, after initially missing the team’s lineup to begin the season, has blossomed into an adequate partner for Erik Karlsson on the second pairing. An undrafted player, the 23-year-old has looked reliable at even strength against quality competition after staying with the Barracuda for most the 2019-20 season.
I would doubt that Boughner and his staff are on the hot seat. After Wilson’s comments playing down the importance of this season, with the team transitioning, I cannot see why Wilson would expect more from the team and see a firing to be fit.
Regardless, the Sharks are 11-14-4, just past the midseason mark. The staff is hesitant to play the players that will make up the future of this roster, such as Gregor and Chmelevski, and moving forward I believe it is a necessary step for these young players to be elevated to NHL action full time. Otherwise, continued success from players such as Kane and Couture is imperative, as they are locked down to long-term contracts, and must perform in the next few seasons if the Sharks are to contend next season. Overall, the coaching staff has gotten a lot from its core pieces, and needs to focus on developing the young support for that core.