The San Jose Sharks were among the NHL’s unknowns heading into this season. Two games into the season, the naysayers had plenty to support their case. But, in the nine games since, the Sharks have rebounded and quietly surged forward. At the end of October, the Sharks sit in the middle of the pack with a 6-5-0 record. But, toss out the two dysfunctional games to start the season from goalie Martin Jones, and things look considerably brighter.
The Sharks are 6-3-0 in their last nine games, and they’ve been competitive in every one. In each of the three losses, they outshot their opponent. In each of the three losses, they were within one goal late in the game. Over the nine games, they’ve given up a paltry 19 goals, and two were empty net scores. Excluding the empty net goals against, San Jose has allowed three or more goals only once in the last nine games.
Last season, the Sharks set their identity around a smothering defense and rode it to a playoff berth. While a raft of injuries derailed any real hope of playoff success, the blueprint was clear. This team wins with defense. In 2017-18, the blueprint remains the same.
When the Sharks 2017-18 schedule came out, one game stood out. Patrick Marleau’s return to San Jose. The evening did not disappoint. The 20-year member of the Sharks organization returned to town on Monday as a member of the talented Toronto Maple Leafs.
While some wondered if he’d be greeted warmly, there was really no doubt. Prior to the anthems, the Sharks offered a video tribute. As the video started, the sell out crowd rose and began applauding. While the video finished in about a minute, the fans continued to stand and applaud. All told, a three-minute standing ovation. It might have continued a good bit longer, but the public address announcer interrupted the applause by introducing the anthems singer. It was time to move on.
Marleau’s emotional return was not the only reason the Toronto game mattered. The Leafs demonstrated last season they are one of the league’s best young teams and the expectations are high for this season.
The Sharks dominated the game in front of an electric crowd, outshooting Toronto 25-3 over a lengthy span. For over half the game, the ice wasn’t merely tilted, it was essentially vertical; Toronto rarely spent time in their offensive zone. Leafs’ goalie Frederik Andersen, however, was brilliant during the onslaught and the Sharks only managed a 2-1 lead. With about six minutes left, following a bad icing call, the Sharks seemed to lose their composure. The Leafs dominated the next few minutes, but Jones held up his end and kept Toronto off the board.
When the Leafs pulled Andersen with just over two minutes left, the Sharks pounced. An icing call left the Sharks with three players from different lines to face the Leaf’s top line, including Auston Matthews, the best player on the ice for either team. However, after Chris Tierney won the clutch draw for San Jose, the Sharks battled the puck out of the zone. Moments later, Joel Ward fired a shot into the empty net, set up by a subtle touch pass from Tierney.
San Jose beat a quality team despite the opposing goalie standing on his head.
Is there room for improvement? The three highest-paid Sharks – Brent Burns, Joe Thornton, and Joe Pavelski – have just five goals between them, and Pavelski’s minus-3 is the best rating of the trio. Five Sharks skaters have less than a full NHL season’s worth of games. This team is playing well, and yes, there is considerable room for improvement.
The reality? San Jose is heading in the right direction.
In the midst of the Sharks’ solid play, rumors (courtesy of Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun) emerged about general manager Doug Wilson floating possible trade candidates. Three names in specific were mentioned – forwards Mikkel Boedker and Chris Tierney, along with defenseman Paul Martin.
Whether or not the rumors are accurate, there are some important considerations.
First, in any trade, a team wants to sell high. This is not the time of year teams get the most value in a trade. It might be the time of year when teams get the least value. Second, the Sharks are playing well. There is little reason to break up the positive chemistry. Third, the Sharks have plenty of salary cap space this season and into the future, so there is no pressing need to offload a pricey contract.
At the moment, I see no obvious reason to make a trade.
Case By Case
Trading Boedker now is selling low. I know Sharks fans (and likely management) are frustrated with Boedker, but he’ll get on a run and become a more attractive trade candidate. It happened last season, chances are it happens again this season.
With Martin, the Sharks have eight NHL quality defensemen, and most teams need eight (or more) to get through a season. The defending champion Penguins used eight defensemen in last season’s playoffs, and their best defenseman (Kris Letang) was not one of the eight. The year before, they also used eight defensemen in the playoffs. The drop-off between the Sharks eighth best defensemen and the ninth best defenseman is enormous.
Tierney is the only ‘sell-high’ candidate among those mentioned. He has been good. Among his attributes – the NHL’s second-best faceoff percentage (including the timely win against Toronto leading to the Ward goal) and superb work on the penalty kill. The success of Tomas Hertl (expected to be the third-line center this season) on Logan Couture’s wing reduces the center depth, making Tierney harder to replace.
This is an area where coach Peter DeBoer and GM Wilson need clarity. Hertl may one day return to center. But now, Melker Karlsson, Couture, and Hertl form the team’s top line and it is simply too good to break up. If Hertl is a winger, the Sharks need a third line center and Tierney is the only proven choice (unless DeBoer splits up Thornton and Pavelski).
There has been plenty of skepticism about Tierney (a one-year deal for a very modest salary speaks to this), but his play is a key element in the team’s improved results.
None of the players involved in the rumors are untouchable, but none offers a compelling case for being moved. One is a sell-low candidate. Another plays a position where depth is needed. The third is a near-perfect puzzle piece for the Sharks.
Whether trade talks result in offers which provide sufficient value is the relevant question. These are not the players who will garner San Jose the piece they need most; a top line center for the long-term who moves into the old Thornton role. Perhaps one of these players can get the Sharks an asset which helps swing a bigger deal down the road. I’m skeptical there is enough trade value here, especially at this point in the season, but it’s always smart to listen.
The rumors? They don’t add up, at least right now.
Marleau was one of three former Sharks to play in the game for Toronto. The other two found themselves tangling with the Sharks youngest player, rugged forward Timo Meier. Roman Polak and Meier engaged in some very physical play, with the big veteran getting the better of it. Early in the third period, Meier dumped Dominic Moore into the boards. Moore took exception and responded by repeatedly cross-checking Meier, drawing a penalty. It was a key play, as the Sharks scored on the power play for a 2-1 lead.
The Sharks were penalty free during the game against Toronto. While the Sharks’ penalty killing has been exceptional, there is a ‘playing with fire’ concern. The Sharks were better disciplined, but dominating puck possession for the majority of the game also played a big role.
Heading into the season, many considered Brenden Dillon the most overpaid defenseman on the team. In the first few games, he affirmed this judgment. However, Dillon has stepped up his game considerably and is getting positive results. Through 11 games, Dillon has no goals, but three even strength assists (the same totals as Brent Burns), and sits at a team-best plus-5. Importantly, he works well with Tim Heed, his new partner. Dillon and Heed are getting 17 minutes a night of ice time, a considerable amount for a third pairing.