The NHL schedule is a grind that stretches over six months through the heart of the dark, cold winter. There are a few very distinct phases of the schedule that every fan partakes in and looks forward to. First, the opening phase, with all of the early season excitement exploding outward. Things slow in the dog days of winter, when the schedule seemingly never ends and games are wrapped around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Then comes the All-Star break and trade deadline, the most purely chaotic part of the season, as the playoff picture shapes up and the schedule careens into deadline day.
And finally: the home stretch. There are always a collection of teams who seem like sure locks for the second season and a handful of teams who are all but eliminated. For essentially their entire existence, San Jose has rarely been left in the cold and usually are ramping up for hockey into the spring and summer.
This season is no different. San Jose sits firmly in second in the Pacific (and Western Conference, for that matter), three points back of the Calgary Flames for first. So with 16 games remaining, let’s take a look at some of the key things to watch for as the Sharks prepare for a playoff run like no other.
1) The health of Erik Karlsson
Look, I love me some Tim Heed, but he is basically the off-off-Broadway version of our beloved Karlsson. It is virtually impossible to replace the qualities and skill that Karlsson brings to the game, and it is a testament to the entire makeup of this team that they have not only treaded water, but actively swam ahead without him.
Making sure Karlsson’s groin is good to go and isn’t being held together by popsicle sticks and hair elastics is essential to San Jose going deep this year. We have all seen the elite tier the Sharks can reach when everyone is healthy, so if that means holding Karlsson back until just before the playoffs, so be it.
2) Running down Calgary for first place
Let’s not mince our words here: the Vegas Golden Knights are going to be a problem. As vocal as I have been about San Jose being a cut above Vegas, it is a scary proposition to have to play them in the first round of playoffs. This is a team who went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last year — and that was before adding Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny and, most recently, Mark Stone. Say what you will about the first two, but Stone is a bonafide top-six winger who will bury your dreams in short order come playoff time. This is all in addition to having Fleury in net, who is capable of going full Hasek for stretches, along with a good defense and supporting forward cast.
They are not a team anyone would choose to play, which means hunting down first place becomes borderline necessary. The difference in positions means either getting Vegas or whatever also-ran backs into the playoffs. Playoffs are long and sometimes decided by who is healthiest by the Conference Final. An easier first round opponent can make a huge difference in the Sharks being healthy and rested for the long haul.
3) The continued dominance of Tomas Hertl
Sports parlance has recently brought the term “the leap” to prominence. It is generally understood to mean a player going from merely good to great or great to elite.
Tomas Hertl has lept. Through his relatively short Sharks career, every fan has seen glimpses and flashes of the baby beast lurking inside Hertl. It's been a waiting game for him to unleash and use his physical gifts and skills to take over games and put the Sharks on his back.
This year, we're seeing the breakout season come to full fruition. Hertl is carrying his own line and at times you would say that line is the first line for San Jose. How many times have we seen the Sharks stuck in the mud only for Hertl to drag them to the win?
If Hertl can continue this play into the spring, San Jose will continue to be a matchup nightmare.
4) Duck, Duck, Guus
Doug Wilson and the trade deadline are like old friends that get together every year for a couple glasses of scotch to shoot the shit and reminisce. At this point, it would be weird if Wilson didn't make a deadline acquisition.
Gustav Nyquist is the 2019 model, following such luminaries as Brian Campbell, Craig Rivet and Bill Guerin. Nyquist has played three games so far in teal, mostly with Joe Thornton on the third line, but also up with Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski to spark some offense from the top line.
No matter where he's been, Nyquist has looked great, and you can see the dam ready to break for his scoring. Nyquist looks like the real deal and someone who is going to slide seamlessly throughout the top-nine and provide even more offense to an already stacked squad. Nyquist could finally be the late season addition that propels San Jose into the stratosphere.
5) Rest and Health
Kind of obvious, but the Sharks need to be relatively healthy if they have any designs on a late June parade in the Bay. It’s difficult to actively rest guys when, as previously mentioned, chasing down Calgary is of paramount importance. But finding a game here or a game there to give Thornton or Kane or Pavelski or Burns a night to give their body a break could reap huge benefits later. San Jose has one of the lowest amounts of games lost to injury this season, and keeping it that way should be in the game plan.
6) Brenden Dillon, top-four defenseman
Dillon is a certifiable top-four defenseman right now. Did I see this coming? Hell no. Am I extremely happy and excited? Hell yes.
Having Dillon be a reliable cog of the back end means the Sharks have even more versatility when it comes to Burns, Karlsson and Vlasic. Dillon can eat up more minutes and play in tougher situations without worry and will prove to be a valuable component come playoff time.
7) Timo Meier, Swiss shot machine
Meier drives play and creates all sorts of good offensive zone things at an elite level. Just like Hertl and Dillon jumping up a level, Meier has also a taken a big stride forward in his young career.
Early this season, Meier was shooting an ungodly percentage. Recently, we have seen that percentage crater back the other way. If he can continue to drive play and create shots the way he does, that shooting percent should spring back up. When Meier starts popping in goals like we’ve seen him do, San Jose will be once again be looking down the barrel at four-, five-, or six-goal games.
8) Goaltending, what’s that about?
I just made seven very good points about things to watch for; It basically means nothing if Martin Jones continues to do his best beer leaguer impression. No goaltender has back stopped a Cup champion with a sub .900 save percentage since Cam Ward did it for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. This isn't exactly a thing that should be left up to chance.
The saving grace here is two-fold. First, San Jose’s offense is a nuclear bomb wrapped up in another nuclear bomb attached to a dragon. There have been, and there will be more, games where the Sharks' offense just outruns bad goaltending.
Is this a good strategy for the playoffs? I tend to think a great offense beats a great defense and the old moniker of “defense wins championships” is a bit overrated. It’s tough to score four goals, let alone six, so if San Jose can consistently throw up video game totals, they will be hard pressed to find an offensive match.
The second saving grace is Playoff Martin Jones. There is no denying that so far, Martin Jones has reached the top tier of goaltending when he gets to the dance.
Now is this an incredibly small sample size? For sure, but if he can reach into his soul and conjure up whatever spirit inhabits his body for the playoffs and get back to even league-average goaltending, San Jose will be an absolute juggernaut.
Starting with the John Tavares false start and then the Karlsson trade, this season has felt a bit different. There has been that extra little electricity in the air and a little extra juice to the concept of what the Sharks can do this season. If they can work on some of these keys and get them ironed out by April 6, this could be the year everyone has been waiting for.