The San Jose Sharks entered their five-game homestand with four wins and three losses. During their homestand, they had to face a great deal of adversity. Here are some takeaways from their time at home and what to expect on the upcoming five-game road trip.
These Sharks Are Resilient
Before the second game of their homestand, the Sharks were without eight regulars and their head coach due to COVID protocols and illness. The players were Erik Karlsson, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Andrew Cogliano, Jonathan Dahlen, Jake Middleton, Matt Nieto, Radim Simek, and Noah Gregor. Between these players, the Sharks were missing 3,691 games of NHL experience. You can’t replace that kind of veteran experience, but it certainly offers opportunities for younger players.
Despite missing all these regulars, they put up an exceptional performance against the Winnipeg Jets. Even though, according to Natural Stat Trick, the Sharks allowed 2.92 expected goals against, they only surrendered one goal. Much of the credit must go to James Reimer, who I will discuss more below. But limiting the Jets to that few expected goals when the defense consisted of Brent Burns, Mario Ferraro, Jaycob Megna, Nicolas Meloche, Santeri Hatakka, and Ryan Merkley is impressive.
During the rest of the homestand, the Sharks continued to be without many of their regulars, despite Dahlen, Cogliano, and Couture returning. The undermanned Sharks were able to beat the upstart Buffalo Sabres and salvaged a point against the New Jersey Devils. The game against the St. Louis Blues was certainly winnable, but the inexperience of the young Sharks showed, as they were unable to hold the lead. Obtaining five out of a possible eight points with so many regulars out is still an impressive feat and demonstrates resilience.
Sharks’ Goaltending Dichotomy
The Sharks’ new tandem of Reimer and Adin Hill have very different numbers so far this season, even though they both have three wins through 10 games. According to Evolving Hockey, Reimer has saved 3.6 goals above expected. This is in stark contrast to Adin Hill, who has let in 3.7 more goals than expected. Both goalies have similar cap hit and term, so the Sharks likely won’t favor either as the long-term solution in net. Hill is eight years younger than Reimer, so there is more room for improvement.
What is even more telling than the expected goal numbers is the delta Fenwick save percentage. Delta Fenwick is a measure of unblocked shots against and an indication of the quality protection offered to the goaltender. A goalie’s ability to outperform their delta Fenwick save percentage means they are performing well, regardless of their raw save percentage. In this metric, Reimer and Hill are again diametrically opposite, with Reimer holding the upper hand. While coming into the season, most thought Hill would gain the net as a starter, but at this point, Reimer has been the better goalie by far. I imagine Reimer gets more starts moving forward until he begins to struggle as much as Hill has so far.
The Young Sharks Are Ready
In the past two seasons, rookies have failed to run with the opportunity afforded to them. This season, the Sharks have debuted six players. Dahlen has arguably been the most effective, as he currently sits fifth in points behind Timo Meier, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, and Brent Burns. Dahlen is also a member of one of the most effective lines in hockey with Hertl and Meier, although Meier missed time on the homestand. According to MoneyPuck, the Meier-Couture-Dahlen line has the most expected goals for per 60 minutes in the NHL.
The biggest steps forward have come from the defense. Ryan Merkley has been one of the highest regarded prospects in the Sharks’ system for some time now. Though his upside is high, there are have simultaneously been serious questions about his ability to defend at the NHL level. Though his debut in the NHL was under less than ideal circumstances, Merkley played well in his first game and continued to do so the rest of the homestand. Despite early returns being positive, Merkley still has a lot of work to do to round out his game. He is not good enough offensively to cover up all his defensive warts.
In addition to Merkley, Hatakka and Artemi Kniazev both made their NHL debuts on this homestand. Both of these defenders were drafted in 2019; Hatakka in the sixth round and Kniazev in the second. Despite the lower draft position, Hatakka seems to have accelerated his development in Finland and has looked very strong in his limited NHL action. Kniazev only played one game and looked good as well. Both are great skaters and added to the mobility of the defense, which was a great improvement over Simek and Vlasic. The future is bright with these rearguards being NHL-ready.
While the early returns on Lane Pederson and Nick Merkley aren’t as positive, they were able to show improvement during the homestand. Through his nine games, Pederson has the worst Corsi against per 60 minutes of any forward on the Sharks. That means the depth forward is a defensive liability. In the past few games, his compete level has been higher, and he has made some better plays exiting the zone. Merkley has been a little better, but both have a long way to go in order to be considered reliable depth pieces.
What to Look Forward To?
The Sharks have a lot of positives they can build off of with this recent homestand. The young players seem ready to contribute. There is competition at the goaltending position, which should motivate Hill to be much better than he has been. With the gradual return of some of their more veteran players, they can hopefully improve their position in the standings. It certainly doesn’t get any easier as their upcoming trip pits them against four of the top five teams in the conference as well as the Colorado Avalanche, who have underperformed thus far.
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