ST. LOUIS, Mo. — A day before Valentine’s Day, Peter DeBoer was asked if this was the deepest San Jose Sharks squad that he’s coached. Without hesitation, he swiped right: “For sure.”
This was before Doug Wilson acquired yet another 50-point scorer at the Trade Deadline, Gustav Nyquist. Nyquist would give San Jose a whopping nine 50-point scorers, four more than any other NHL team.
This was the most talented Sharks roster ever, according to general consensus, more dangerous than even the early Todd McLellan juggernauts.
So why is San Jose going home early?
“We had him healthy for probably six weeks.”
Deep into the playoffs, everybody’s banged up, everybody’s got to deal with injuries.
But not everybody loses a number-one defenseman, a number-one center and their top goal scorer on the eve of an elimination game.
Erik Karlsson and Tomas Hertl did not even travel to St. Louis, while Joe Pavelski was “not close” to playing in Game 6, according to DeBoer.
But Karlsson’s persistent groin injuries will be the lasting memory of this failed campaign.
“We had him healthy for probably six weeks, dialed in. The first two months of the season, he was getting used to us,” DeBoer mused. “He got dialed in in January. I thought we were maybe the best team in the league through that stretch. But he wasn’t healthy again.”
Between losing in Ottawa on Dec. 1st to his first groin injury in Arizona on Jan. 16th, Karlsson was the highest-scoring defenseman in the league with 27 points in 19 contests. San Jose flaunted a 16-3-2 record, best in the Western Conference.
Karlsson wasn’t just dialed in offensively, he was dominating defensively too, keeping Nikita Kucherov shot-less one night, then holding Connor McDavid without a 5-on-5 shot attempt on another.
A healthy Karlsson improves every facet of your team. He made a good team great.
As DeBoer reminded us, we never saw that Karlsson again after mid-January. In much the same way, we never saw San Jose as the “best team in the league” again either.
Could the organization have handled Karlsson’s injuries with more caution?
Based on the results, there’s certainly an argument for that. Credit to Karlsson for wanting to participate in the All-Star Game and to check back in against Boston in late February, but it’s valid to wonder why he was allowed to push himself in those relatively low-leverage situations.
That said, it’s impossible to pass judgment on management without more detailed knowledge about the injury, information we’re probably not getting. Hindsight is easy.
What I can say is Karlsson, in those six weeks that he was “dialed in”, looked every bit the best defenseman in the world.
This is the conundrum for the Sharks and other franchises around the league as Karlsson heads to unrestricted free agency: On one hand, the 28-year-old is coming off his second-straight injury-limited campaign. On the other hand, at his best, he’s absolutely still a game-changing superstar.
Will anybody give Karlsson maximum years and make him the highest-paid defenseman in the game? Will Wilson?
Game of Jones
Funny enough, Martin Jones’s playoff save percentage (.898) landed around his dismal regular season figure (.896).
Well, maybe “funny” isn’t the right word, but it was a fitting end to a rollercoaster season for the much-maligned netminder.
Through the first four games of the first round, Jones was perhaps the worst goaltender in hockey. There’s no doubt that Jones rebounded to close Vegas and push Colorado over the edge. However, he went silent once again versus St. Louis.
(InGoal Magazine explains Goals Saved Above Average or GSAA here. Essentially, the stat posits how many goals that a goaltender would give up compared to a league-average netminder.)
This isn’t to lay the series at Jones’s pads. But against a healthier, locked-in Blues side, the team needed better from Jones. They didn’t get it.
Jones’s flashes this post-season and previous consistency suggest that he’s a reasonable candidate for a bounceback campaign.
That’s what the Sharks will be counting on, as Jones is signed until 2024.
Hard & heavy
This post-game DeBoer observation caused an online kerfuffle:
DeBoer: "The 2 hardest, heaviest teams are in the Final. Everybody talks about skill & speed, there's room for all these small players. There is a room for that. But I don't think it's an accident.— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) May 22, 2019
"There was no space. They're heavy, hard & organized. There wasn't any room."
Honestly, I’m not sure why.
DeBoer doesn’t have an aversion to smaller players. In his coaching career, he’s mooned over Karlsson, Pavelski and Zach Parise, all under 6-foot-0 and 200 pounds. DeBoer favorite Micheal Haley is 5-foot-10.
He’s not advocating for more hitting. In DeBoer’s San Jose tenure, the team has ranked 27th in the NHL in Hits. His New Jersey and Florida squads weren’t known for their physicality either.
When DeBoer is talking about hard and heavy, he’s talking about a style of play that’s inside, and most importantly, difficult to play against. 6-foot-0 teenager Robert Thomas, who forechecked the Sharks into oblivion last night, is a fantastic example of why there wasn’t “any room” last night.
Ferocious forechecking shift by Thomas, seemed to catch Dillon then Kane by surprise with his closing speed pic.twitter.com/lmrJZKXj2e— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) May 22, 2019
Joel Edmundson is 6-foot-4, but that’s not the only reason why he was able to box out Evander Kane here:
#STLBlues dmen have boxed out #SJSharks forwards well during this series: Doesn't look like it here, but live, Kane tried to blast through Edmundson (at dot) but ran into a brick wall. Pietrangelo covered Gambrell. Even if Vlasic's aim was more true, Binnington would've had it pic.twitter.com/8lYewGs2c2— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) May 22, 2019
DeBoer is speaking about determination, players big and small not giving an inch. Of course, size and/or speed can help with limiting space. But those are empty skills without will, which St. Louis and Boston have plenty of.
Speaking of inches:
Couture, on almost tying the game in 2nd period: "That changed the game. Great shot by Braunie. I deflected it off my own mouth. When it hit me in the face, I kind of flinched & lost sight of the puck. Next thing you know, I missed the puck. 2 shifts later, they score." pic.twitter.com/SrQNY0AFwA— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) May 22, 2019
A bounce here, a call there and we’d be talking about Game 7.
I don’t think about what the 2018-19 San Jose Sharks didn’t have on the roster. I think they had everything to win the Stanley Cup. They just didn’t have, ironically, enough luck.