After 13 games, the San Jose Sharks sit at the bottom of the Honda West division for the 2020-21 season. Things have certainly not gone the way Sharks fans and management have hoped, but there are some recent signs and trends that could portend an upward swing. These signs are explored, along with a look ahead at how the Sharks might sneak into the playoffs.
The Sharks have only played one game at SAP Center in San Jose. The rest of their games have been on the road, including an NHL record 12 straight on the road. The best of teams would struggle to stay competitive on such a long road trip and the Sharks are certainly not a great team right now. With 22 home games remaining, the Sharks hope their record will swing to a winning record.
Vegas Bad Luck
In their first home game, the Sharks looked the best I’ve seen them this season for most of the game. Playing the Vegas Golden Knights usually brings out the best in the Sharks and that seemed to be the case. Unfortunately for the Sharks, they were on the losing end of a 3-1 defeat against their hated rival in the return of former coach Peter DeBoer.
While that wasn’t the result they wanted, several underlying numbers indicate they should have won that game. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Sharks had 1.52 expected goals to just 1.44 for the Golden Knights. They generated more shots and had an edge Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 50.7 to 49.3.
Early in the season, it was rookie John Leonard who looked good. More recently it is Rudolfs Balcers who was claimed off waivers from the Ottawa Senators. The Latvian born Balcers was an original draft pick of the Sharks back in 2015 and was a part of the deal that landed Erik Karlsson. He played 52 games for the Senators and put up 17 points between 2018 and 2020.
The 23-year-old Balcers has looked really good in his three games with the Sharks. Not only did he have a beautiful assist on the only goal for the Sharks against the Golden Knights, but he has brought physicality providing six hits in his three games. The Sharks hope he can continue to provide value as they are looking for their young players to take meaningful steps forward.
The Sharks second star of January, 22-year-old surprise defenseman Nikolai Knyzhov continues to improve. The young rearguard has done nothing to suggest the coaching staff should take him out of the lineup. In addition, to continue to provide solid defensive work on the third pairing, he chipped in with the first two points of his career in the back-to-back against the Los Angeles Kings on Feb, 9 and 11. Most impressively perhaps is his 57 CF% for the season, tied for the best with Radim Simek.
Goaltending Still Bad
The Sharks have continued to suffer from poor goaltending in 2020-21. Martin Jones in particular has struggled. So much so that head coach Bob Boughner specifically called him out after the blowout loss to the Kings. Jones, for his part, is currently letting in 7.46 more goals than expected, according to Evolving Hockey. Boughner also hinted that he isn’t married to continuing to trot out Jones if continues to perform expectations. Even though he let in three goals against the Golden Knights after being called out, they were all on the power play, none at even strength. That may buy Jones a little longer leash, but not that long.
Devan Dubnyk has been much better for the Sharks, even though he hasn’t been able to get a win for the team. The offseason acquisition from the Minnesota Wild has only let in 1.1 goals above expected and is actually positive in goals saved above average, a metric that compared him to other NHL goalies with similar workload.
The other option that has many fans excited is Alexei Melnichuk. The Russian had his first taste of North American hockey this season. He lost his two games for the San Jose Barracuda with a 3.52 goals-against average and a .879 save percentage. He relieved Jones in the blowout against the Kings, saving all five of the shots against after the game was out of hand. Even though Melnichuk hasn’t looked great in the AHL, with a more sound defensive structure in the NHL, he could do better. At least, I doubt he would be much worse than Jones.
The Road Ahead
After another home game against the Anaheim Ducks on Feb. 5, the Sharks will play the top three teams in the West over their next nine games. Those top three are of course the Golden Knights, St. Louis Blues, and Colorado Avalanche. If the Sharks have any hope of squeaking into that fourth playoff spot in the division, they will at least have to come away with half the available points in this stretch. If they can do that, they can build upon that against the rest of the teams and put some momentum together. At this point though, it doesn’t look great.