Well, we’ve reached my favorite time of year: the countdown to the Trade Deadline. Fewer than 30 days remain until the trade freeze occurs and one team that is sitting in an interesting position is the San Jose Sharks. Still seeking their first Cup, time for a champion has begun to run out in Northern California.
The major problem for the Sharks is that their key players are all on the wrong side of 30. Star defenseman Brent Burns is already 33, Joe Pavelski is 34, Joe Thornton is 39, Justin Braun is 31, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic is 31. This means that each player will continue to decline with age and inevitably become slower, which is costly in this day and age where speed is everything.
Additionally, the cap is about to become a big problem in San Jose, despite the NHL predicting a cap increase next season. Currently with a little over $1.5 million in cap space, here’s a breakdown of their UFAs and RFAs after this season:
Joe Thornton: UFA after this year (continued decline in production due to age and injury)
Erik Karlsson: UFA (likely signs for north of $11 million AAV, currently at $6.5 million AAV)
Joe Pavelski: UFA (currently at $6 million AAV, likely re-signs for more)
Logan Couture: His recent extension moves him from $6 million AAV to $8 million AAV
Timo Meier: RFA (almost a point per game player coming off of his entry level)
Kevin Labanc: RFA (30 point player so far and will likely see a pay increase)
Joonas Donskoi: UFA
Joakim Ryan: RFA
Fortunately, the NHL predicts the cap to rise to $83 million next season, so San Jose might be able to retain these players. Regardless of whether or not they keep them, there certainly won’t be any flashy additions without clearing some cap or giving up major assets that they currently don’t have.
It is inevitable that the Sharks are going to lack resources over the next few years, as San Jose already lost several young prospects and players in the Karlsson trade: Chris Tierney, Dylan DeMelo, Rudophs Balcers, and Josh Norris. San Jose also lost picks, surrendering the higher of their two 2nd round picks this season in the trade and a first round pick either this year or next year (depending on if they make the playoffs).
Then, there are uncertain conditional picks hampering future ability to draft top prospects. If Karlsson stays in San Jose, then the Sharks must give Ottawa another 2nd round pick in 2021, and if the Sharks make it to the Stanley Cup Finals, they have to give Ottawa their 1st round selection in 2021.
With barren picks over the next few years (most tied up conditionally), the Sharks should be incentivized to go all in right now. After all, the Sharks swung the Karlsson trade for one very simple reason: bring the Cup to Nor Cal. With their goal set, San Jose should give themselves the best opportunity to do so.
Their Stats This Season
Through 52 games, the Sharks have had a powerhouse offense. They currently sit 3rd in in the NHL in goals for, and have seven players with at least 42 points. Two of those players are defensemen: Brent Burns (who leads the team with 55 points) and Karlsson (who has 40 assists). This has propelled the Sharks to second in the Pacific Division, three points ahead of the Vegas Golden Knights, but six points behind the division leading Calgary Flames. It also leaves them with a thirteen point lead over the first Wild Card spot. Essentially, it would take a meltdown for San Jose to miss the playoffs this year, but they will have to battle hard to win the division or maintain second place.
The good news for Sharks fans is that their special teams are fine. Their penalty kill is above average at over 81% and their powerplay currently sits at a deadly 24%. But the Sharks trouble is their goals against, which ranks 26th in the NHL. This ranking seems strange since the Sharks boast an elite defense of Karlsson, Burns, Braun, Brendan Dillon, Radim Simek, and Vlasic (who is having an uncharacteristically below average season).
Despite the quality of their blueline, the problem lies in net. Neither Martin Jones nor Aaron Dell have above a save percentage of .895. Neither have a goals against lower than 2.98.
But when you look at their advanced stats in goaltending, the numbers get even worse. Jones has a quality start percentage of .421, while Dell’s is .357. For perspective, the league average is .53.
Jones also has had 10 Really Bad Starts (starts with a sv percentage under 85%) over 38 games, which is the highest amount of his career. His previous high of 9 (which happened twice) occurred in seasons in which he played 60 or more games. To put it in perspective, Craig Anderson of Ottawa currently has 5 Really Bad Starts, while Brian Elliott of the Flyers and Cam Talbot of the Oilers each have 8. Jones also has more Really Bad Starts than the tandem of the Detroit Red Wings (6).
This has to improve if the Sharks have any hopes of reaching the Finals. After all, goaltending is incredibly important in the postseason. While Keith Kinkaid, Roberto Luongo, and Jake Allen each have more Really Bad Starts than Jones, none of the aforementioned goalies’ teams are in playoff position, unlike Jones.
Additionally, Jones’ goals saved above average is also -13.72, meaning that a league average goalie would have prevented almost 14 more goals than Jones this year. Dell isn’t much better either, as he is averaging -7.20 over 14 starts in that category.
What this means is that that Sharks need to upgrade in goaltending. When you look at the last few Cup champions, each has had a great goalie tandem:
2018: Braden Holtby and Phillip Grubauer
2017: Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury
2016: Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury
2015: Corey Crawford and Scott Darling
2014: Jonathan Quick and Martin Jones
The Sharks need to take a page from this system and upgrade the net. The importance of backup goaltending was especially showcased through the last three Stanley Cup champions, who each had major goalie changes at some point during the postseason.
Right now, I’m not sure the Sharks have that. Jones has shown he is a capable starting goaltender over the last few years, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that he isn’t among the league’s best. Dell has also shown that he is a decent backup, but his GSAA has decreased mightily over his 3 year NHL career (from 9.13 to 1.02 to -7.20).
The Sharks should look no further than the 2018 Capitals for a blueprint. There, previously undisputed starter Braden Holtby struggled during the regular season, prompting the team to turn to Grubauer. Then, the Caps turned to Holtby in the first round after Grubauer struggled. Holtby went on to help carry them to a championship.
In the alternative, the Sharks could look to the 2016 Penguins. After an injury to Fleury, the Pens put Murray in the crease for the rest of the playoffs who guided them to a championship. The moral of both of these stories is that you need two goalies.
Jones, however, can be part of the solution and should not be moved. But the Sharks need to find their own Grubauer or their own Matt Murray. At best, a newly acquired goalie should be able to take them through the playoffs. At worst, he should be able to push Jones to be number one guy again. Ideally, this acquisition nets them a playoff veteran who is having a good year and who is a UFA.
Using retained salary, the Sharks can make most UFA goalie trades work with the their leftover amount of cap space. One option is Sergei Bobrovsky.
Is Bobrovsky on the market in Columbus? Maybe. But, I don’t think he’s the answer, even if he is available. Statistically, Bobrovsky has never been a good playoff goaltender. Over his 17 playoff games, he has gone 5-14, compiling a .891 sv percentage, 3.49 gaa, and .214 quality start percentage. He’s also never won a playoff series.
While I recognize he is a great goaltender otherwise, it is risky to bet big on those numbers during (potentially) the Sharks’ only year with Karlsson. There’s also no certainty that Bobrovsky is available and even if he is, the price on him is likely sky high. I’m not sure a team lacking resources like San Jose can easily pry him away even if they wanted him.
Their second option makes more sense statistically: Jimmy Howard from the Detroit Red Wings.
Right now, the Wings are 29th/31 in goals against. Despite that, Howard owns a .916 sv percentage (league average is currently .908), a GAA of 2.76, a .636 quality start percentage, a 8.39 GSAA, and only 2 Really Bad Starts across 38 games. He’s also 6th in the NHL in goalie point shares.
In his playoff career, Howard has compiled a .918 sv percentage, 2.58 GAA, .596 quality start percentage, and only 2 Really Bad Starts across 48 games. Is he a hall of famer? No, but he’s a stable, playoff tested veteran who is in the midst of a pretty good year. Howard is also in the top half of goaltenders in shots against with 1068, showing he can withstand a barrage of shots. It seems to be a large enough sample size to show he can be the answer. The fact that he plays for an awful defensive team that is one of the worst in allowing goals makes his numbers even more remarkable.
Howard projects to be a capable goaltender who could help San Jose down the stretch. Currently, his price tag is reportedly a single 1st round pick, but Sharks GM Doug Wilson has always been a good trade negotiator and could probably acquire at a Howard much cheaper cost.
With the cap changing, extensions kicking in, Meier’s expiring entry-level contract, Karlsson potentially walking, and the continued decrease of Thornton’s production, there is no reason to walk into the playoffs with two sub-90% goaltenders. In trading for Karlsson, the Sharks have displayed their willingness to go all in and moving for a guy like Howard is exactly what they need to take that next step in finishing the job.
Sometimes all it takes is that one guy and right now, Howard looks like a fantastic fit.
*stats from hockey-reference.com
*cap information from capfriendly.com