The San Jose Sharks won their first four games of the 2021-22 season in regulation. It took them 16 games to win four games in regulation to begin the 2020-21 season. After this blistering start, they lost three straight, so the question remains, who are the real Sharks in 2021-22? The truth is probably somewhere in between the team that won four straight and lost three straight. Here are some thoughts.
Sharks’ Dominant Top Line
Every good team needs a go-to line they can rely on to drive play, get timely goals, and ice the game at the end. The Sharks haven’t had a go-to line since Joe Pavelski was on the team. This season, they do, as Timo Meier, Logan Couture, and Jonathan Dahlen lead the league in expected goals for, according to Money Puck. Meier seems to be rediscovering the form from his 2018-19 season that saw him score at a 69-point pace. Sharks fans have missed that version of him the last two seasons and hope that future star Meier still exists.
According to Evolving Hockey, the Meier-Couture-Dahlen line is generating an expected goal share of 63 percent, which is top 15 in the league. The other Shark lines are sub-45 percent, which really is not great. In the losses to the Boston Bruins, Nashville Predators, and Montreal Canadiens, this disparity was exposed.
The Sharks aren’t going to win very many games the rest of the season if the other lines don’t start pulling their own weight. It’s also possible we see a split of this line to help balance out the offense a little bit more. Though that might help bring more balance, it might also disrupt the chemistry that has been so fantastic in this top line. It will be interesting to see which way the coaching staff goes.
With seven rookies making the team out of camp, there was no doubt the Sharks were embracing the youth movement. There was speculation about just how good they could all be, and the results so far are a bit mixed. The rookies in question are Dahlen, William Eklund, Jasper Weatherby, Lane Pederson, Alexander Barabanov, and Santeri Hatakka. Hatakka has yet to appear in a game, but his time might be coming.
Barabanov was dealing with a minor injury during training camp, but before that, he also didn’t look great. Both of these factors combined with his minimal usage once he was healthy, and so far, he’s been a bit of a disappointment. Perhaps he just needs more time to get going. If he can harness even a modicum of the success he garnered in 2020-21 with seven points in his nine games with the Sharks, it will be a boon for the scoring depth sorely needed.
Eklund, Dahlen, Weatherby, and Pederson have all played significant roles in the team’s early success. Dahlen is part of one of the best lines in hockey. It isn’t just that his linemates are carrying him either. He has been creative in distributing the puck and good at getting himself into areas to score. His hockey intelligence is evident so much so that captain Couture has requested that they continue to play together.
Eklund has made some fantastically creative plays and looked like a revelation at times. There have also been times he has been pushed off the puck easily or made poor decisions that led to chances the other way. This is expected for a rookie, and the coaching staff has cut his ice time and given him more offensive zone starts to compensate. The nine-game decision point is coming where if he plays in his tenth game, it will burn a year off his entry-level contract. After the first couple of games, I would have said he’s staying the whole season, no doubt. Now I’m not so sure. It’s starting to seem more and more like he might benefit from time in the AHL.
Weatherby and Pederson have yielded opposite results. Weatherby has been useful on the power play putting his large frame in front of the goalie. He has been okay defensively at five-on-five. Pederson needs to be better. The last thing you need on your fourth line is a forward who gives up too much. So far, Pederson’s Corsi against per 60 minutes is the worst on the team. It’s not like his offense makes up for that either, as his Corsi for per 60 minutes is fourth worst. Early results are not promising, but there is still time for him to rebound.
The Sharks have had some of the league-worst goaltending the past two seasons. In 2019-20, they ranked 27th in goals allowed per game, and in 2020-21 that fell even further to 30th. For the Sharks to be competitive this season, they didn’t need great goaltending, just something closer to league average. So far, the results are mixed. Adin Hill has negative two goals saved above expected (GSAx), while James Reimer has three GSAx.
The sample size is small, so some of the numbers may be skewed. The most reassuring thing so far, though, is that the Sharks are 15th in expected goals against per 60 minutes. In 2020-21, they were 27th in that metric, which made it difficult for any goalie to be successful. If the Sharks can continue their defensive acumen, either goalie should be able to hit the mark of being league average.
The Sharks defensive corps is mostly the same as it was for most of last season, minus Nikolai Knyzhov, who is still healing from offseason surgery. The Sharks have plenty of options to round out their sixth defender, from Ryan Merkley to Brinson Pasichnuk to Hatakka. Hatakka made the team, but has yet to appear in a game. Instead, Jacob Middleton has won that job and has brought a much-needed physical element. He already has two fights, and that has given a clear message to other teams that the Sharks won’t get pushed around.
Middleton has been a steadying presence for Erik Karlsson, who has been much better to start the season with six points in seven games. Middleton isn’t asked to do much other than provide a physical presence and move the puck to teammates quickly. He’s shown he can do that, and as long as his role remains limited, he can be effective. Once Knyzhov is ready to go, I imagine Middleton goes back to the AHL or press box.
The start of the 2021-22 season has brought many Sharks fans hope, and they should remain optimistic based on many of their underlying numbers. Assuming their rookie contributors don’t completely fall off and Meier, Couture, and Dahlen continue to be fantastic, they should continue to be in the playoff hunt.
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