I know it’s early, but how in the world are the San Jose Sharks 4-0? There is nothing about this team that jumps off the page when you look at their roster. In fact, their roster looks filled to the brim with huge, unfulfilling contracts attached to players way past their prime, unproven youngsters, and an aging captain fresh off the worst statistical season of his career and a lower-body injury that kept him out of the lineup the final three games of the regular season.
After an offseason filled with strange social media graphics, investigations into Kane’s gambling and domestic abuse allegations, and mediocre to subpar free agent acquisitions (I mean, come on, Nick Bonino is 33 and Andrew Cogliano is 34), it was reasonable to assume the Sharks’ season would be a miserable failure. Yet, through the first eleven days of the regular season, the Sharks are one of just six undefeated teams in the league. However, if you’ve watched any of San Jose’s games this season, they haven’t been just winning by the hairs of their chinny-chin-chins. They’ve legitimately outplayed their opponents (three of whom were in the playoffs last season: Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montreal). So, what changed?
Well, for one, new netminder Adin Hill has been playing out of his mind. As of the morning of October 23, the Sharks are fifth in goals saved above expected.
The only lead netminders that Hill falls behind are Sergei Bobrovsky (FLA), Elvis Merzlikins (CBJ), Braden Holtby (DAL), and Vitek Vanecek (WSH). Those are three pretty solid names and one promising young star — not bad company. Hill had been a pretty solid goaltender in the desert, posting three consecutive seasons with at least a .900 save percentage and less than a 3.0 GAA. Through three games started with the Sharks though, Hill is on-pace to post career-highs in GAA (2.0), save percentage (.922), and Goalie Point Shares (on pace for 10.25). His 6'6 frame really came in clutch against the Maple Leafs on Friday as he needed every inch for some of those saves. Admittedly, Hill has struggled in high-danger save situations, posting just a .706 save percentage in those situations, the lowest of his career, which could become a big problem if the Sharks continue to give up so many scoring chances. As of yesterday, the Sharks are near the bottom of the league in scoring chance percentage — only 42.9 percent of scoring chances in games they’ve played have been in their favor. That’s a knock on their defense, which has been very slow in the defensive end. However, they’ve also seen resurgences from some of their blue-line veterans on the offensive end.
After years of being considered one of the league’s top defenses, the Sharks have fallen off in that department in recent years. Marc-Édouard Vlasic isn’t the same elite pace-setting defender and penalty killer that he once was. Erik Karlsson hasn’t lived up to that massive contract he signed prior to the 2019 season. Meanwhile, Brent Burns… okay, I still like Burns, but I’m skeptical of him. He is 36 after all.
So far in 2021 though, each of those guys — thought to be way past their primes — has turned back the clock. The fact that none of the three plays on the same line has seemingly surged new life into each of their defensive veterans. Pairing them up with younger, faster players seems to allow each of them to focus more on their offensive strengths.
Burns is taking fewer shots than he has in recent years, he’s becoming a much better facilitator on the blue line who’s willing to rotate into the zone. Vlasic seems much more comfortable with the puck on his tape and while he can’t keep up with top forwards like he used to, he’s seemed much more effective in the attacking zone trusting his defensive partner to stop potential breaks. However, the biggest change of play is coming from Karlsson.
Karlsson is looking vintage on the offensive end. I’m talking 2015-17 Karlsson. He’s seemingly returned to being a serious power-play threat. In fact, every single one of his assists on the season has come on the power play. His ability to work with space and use the open ice effectively has been astounding. When he has the space to either tee up a shot or work to find open passing lanes, he has been deadly. He’s been a big reason why the Sharks have been so effective on the power play (33.3 percent).
I need to see more from the Sharks to think that they can keep this pace up. However, this start to the season has me watching them with a much closer eye. I just watched the San Francisco Giants blow everyone away after starting the season hot. Nobody, including myself, thought they could keep it up, but they did. So, I don’t know what they’re putting in the water over there in the Bay Area, but I’m not calling the Sharks frauds just yet.
Clearly, they have their issues. Defense is one, and time of possession is another. Lack of possession combined with poor defense doesn’t seem like a winning combo. Surely, as more opposing teams get more film on them and understand San Jose’s defensive and neutral zone tactics, teams will start being able to take advantage of the Sharks’ underwhelming defense even further, especially if Hill doesn’t keep playing at his current level. This team could end up being involved in a lot of high-scoring affairs.
I want to believe in the Sharks, and they have some reason to think they can be even better on offense than they have been, what with William Eklund and Tomáš Hertl getting off to slow starts, but there are clear problems they need to solve before I’m ready to think of them as playoff contenders.
Let’s see how they handle the final two games of their current road trip. They match up well with Boston on paper, but Nashville could be a huge problem given that they’ve been on of the best teams in the league at both producing high-quality scoring chances (62.5 percent high danger scoring chance percentage) and converting on those chances (20 percent — second in the NHL (PHI - 21.7 percent). The Sharks have a chance to send a message to the rest of the league, and I look forward to seeing if they can head back to California still undefeated.