There’s one phrase that perfectly encapsulates Martin Jones’ 2018-19 season: roller coaster.
In a way, Jones was the living embodiment of the this year’s San Jose Sharks. He had all the components of a champion, routinely under-performed during the regular season, but caught fire in the playoffs, only to have it snuffed out in brutal fashion.
No other Sharks player, not even Erik “Balls of Steel” Karlsson, had a more polarizing campaign than the 29-year-old netminder from North Vancouver. He played in front of arguably the best blueline in the NHL and posted a shocking save percentage of .898; only Jonathan Quick (.888) and Keith Kinkaid (.891) posted worse numbers as NHL starters. His puck stopping abilities (and at points, lack thereof) divided the fanbase on whether Doug Wilson needed to pursue the likes of Jimmy Howard and/or Ryan Miller at the trade deadline for some proven stability in net.
But after he and the Sharks fell into a 3-1 series hole in the opening round against the Golden Knights, during which he let in 13 goals and was pulled twice, he suddenly turned it all around.
If not for Jones’ Herculean 58-save performance in Game 6 against Vegas, there’s a good chance this player review gets published in early May instead of June. And while his raw numbers don’t reflect it (another .898 in save percentage), Jones was one of the brightest spots for the Sharks in the later rounds against the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues.
But even his best work in the postseason can’t outweigh the concerning amount of lackluster games he turned in during the regular season, and it’s easy to spot what part of his game disappeared that made 2018-19 such a nightmare: his confidence.
If you’ve paid close attention to Jones’ playing style over the years, you’ve probably gathered what he looks like when he’s in the zone. Under goaltending coach Johan Hedberg, Jones has developed a very structured game, playing just below the edge of the crease and utilizing his quick reaction time to stay one step ahead of the play.
But this season, Jones seemed to lose that systematic edge and took a much more aggressive approach to challenging shooters. On most nights, he tended to play farther out of his crease and would often get caught swimming in no man’s land on chances in the slot or rebounds, forcing him to rely on desperation saves a lot more often than in years past.
The same can’t be said for odd-man rushes. A big mistake Jones made with regularity this year was backing into his crease too quickly during 2-on-1 situations, giving the puck carrier a lot more time and space to shoot. Just out of the handful of games I went to this season, I can count at least six different occasions where Jones was beaten cleanly on an odd-man rush (usually on the far side when the shooter was skating in from Jones’ left).
Career Summary (via HockeyViz)
There’s nothing scarier than a goalie’s numbers trending down when they’re on the north side of 30 (keeping in mind that goalies generally peak at a later age than skaters).
His uncharacteristically poor numbers should pick up at least slightly next season, but if this isn’t an outlying year and becomes the new norm, the Sharks will be in some serious trouble.
Shots Map (via Charting Hockey)
A great way to grasp what’s gone wrong for a goalie is to look at the kinds of shots he’s facing. And thanks to analytics expert Sean Tierney’s goalie shot maps, we can see exactly that.
Now this might look like a jumble of shapes to anyone who skipped statistics class in high school (putting my own hand up here), but I’ll try to simplify it as best I can.
Every dot on this map represents a shot on goal, with a unique shape for every shot type and larger symbols if the puck went in. Without having to go too in-depth we can actually gather a lot of information out of this picture.
For example, when it comes to the shots from above the faceoff circles, Jones clearly has a strong and a weak side. The bottom right portion of the map, which represents shots to Jones’ glove side, has a lack of pucks that hit the back of the net, while the bottom left, or the blocker side, has plenty to spare.
One thing Jones did have going for him was in the deflection department, with only 16 tipped shots or deflected pucks getting behind him. Where he really struggled was on simple wrist shots, which were beating him from all over the board, and slap shots from the right side of the ice.
Let’s be honest, this is the only one highlight that deserved to be here. It’s not every day a guy sets a franchise record for stops in a single game.
What comes next?
When it comes to Jones’ future with the Sharks everyone, including his detractors, needs to hope he’s able to rediscover his form. Because simply put, he isn’t going anywhere for a long time.
This was just season one on the six-year deal Jones signed on Canada Day in 2017, and with the deal’s $5.75 million cap hit and modified no trade clause, San Jose has no choice but to let their bet ride. Let this be a lesson to you future general managers of the world; don’t sign a middle-aged goaltender to a massive extension based on only two seasons of work.
Of course, there are some potential fixes that could make remainder of Jones’ deal fly by, and that starts with embracing the future of NHL goaltending; the 1A/1B strategy.
In all four of his seasons with the Sharks, Jones has started at least 60 games in each of them, including back-to-back 65-game campaigns in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Add his 60 playoff starts to the equation, and that means Jones has started an average of 78 games per year throughout his Sharks tenure. Ask Cam Talbot or this year’s Toronto Raptors and they’ll tell you; in this day in age, load management matters more than ever.
Hockey has changed a lot in the past quarter century. The increased speed and intensity of the game has made it next to impossible for a goaltender to play 60+ games every season and get consistently excellent results. The way the sport is going, teams need to embrace the idea of having a top tier goaltender’s workload cut to around 50 games, with a more than capable backup taking on the remaining 32.
For San Jose, that “capable backup” might be the reason Jones gets ran into the ground each season. Aaron Dell doesn’t have the confidence of coach Pete DeBoer, and if the Sharks want to see what a more rested Martin Jones can do, shopping for a good number two netminder during free agency might be in the team’s best interest. Some potential UFA options include Cam Talbot, Mike Smith or Curtis McElhinney; guys who’ve struggled over long stretches of play, but could prove to be a reliable starter for a game every week or so.
But the biggest improvement for Jones might be something that only he can do for himself. As strange as it might sound to anyone who hasn’t played net, when a goaltender is at their very best, they’re not thinking about it; they’re simply reacting to the play and making the save selection that comes most naturally to them in the moment.
The second a goaltender turns his or her brain back on, they start to second guess themselves and their save choices. Next thing they know, they’re flat on their stomach with the puck in the net behind them.
For Jones to find success again, he needs to regain the confidence in his hockey IQ that carried him in his first couple seasons. That might involve a change at the rink, such as a new goaltending coach, or something as simple as starting his morning routine with some meditative yoga. Either way, he needs to find a solution that allows him to focus solely on the play in front of him, while letting his instincts work their magic when the puck comes his way.
If Martin Jones can find that confidence again, the Sharks might be on a different type of coaster come next season; one that ends in a gift shop selling “2020 Stanley Cup Champions” merchandise.