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Sharks’ depth-scoring dilemma needs to be addressed

The lack of production from the Sharks’ depth is concerning, and may be the cause for them allowing easy games to slip away.

Nick Bonino #13 of the San Jose Sharks skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on October 22, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Sharks defeated the Maple Leafs 5-3. Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The San Jose Sharks seem to have a pretty big problem on their hands, one that may be costing them some very winnable games: their depth scoring.

Now, their top-six has been near perfection. Timo Meier and Logan Couture have been scoring at a point-per-game pace, Tomas Hertl has tallied 8 points, Jonathan Dahlen has 7 points, while Alexander Barabanov has added 4 points of his own. But the top-six can’t play all 60 minutes, because otherwise, the Sharks would be at the top of the NHL.

Newcomer Nick Bonino was acquired this summer to boost the team’s bottom-six. He’s been the club’s third-line center for the majority of the season so far and was just recently promoted to the first-line winger spot with Couture and Dahlen in replacement of William Eklund, following his re-assignment to the SHL.

The problem with Bonino isn't that he’s a bad hockey player, it’s that he hasn’t shown his offensive skill during his time with the Sharks so far. He’s been the team’s best defensive forward at even-strength, with 1.80 even-strength defensive goals above replacement, but it’s difficult to praise that when he is still scoreless through 11 games, while averaging 17:24 minutes per games, the fourth-most time-on-ice average of any Sharks forward.

The offensive potential with Bonino is there, as just last season he posted 26 points (10 goals, 16 assists) through 55 games with the Minnesota Wild, and through his career, he’s totaled 308 points (132 goals, 176 assists) over 692 games. Even with the Sharks as of late, he makes the right plays get to the net, he just can’t produce. A breakthrough has to happen at some point, right?

Watching Bonino this season, he largely goes unnoticed. While that isn’t a bad thing in the defensive zone, as it means he’s doing the right things, it’s not ideal at all in the offensive zone, where he’s just been invisible.

When I covered the Pittsburgh Penguins during their back-to-back Stanley Cups era, Bonino was key to the team’s depth scoring. His high-energy and hockey IQ helped him be a main producer for the team and I’d like to see more of that from him in San Jose. During the 2016 season, which featured a Sharks and Penguins Stanley Cup Final, Bonino had 4.30 goals above replacement, attributed to his 3.40 even-strength defensive GAR, along with his just as elite 3.50 even-strength offensive GAR. Bonino has never just been a defensive forward. He needs to dig deeper to find the offensive aspect of his game that makes him such a valuable middle-nine forward.

Another forward in the bottom-six that has been more of an anchor than help is Lane Pederson. He is also scoreless through nine games, along with -3.20 goals above replacement, the second-worst among forwards in the entire NHL, trailing only Nick Ritchie of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Simply put, there are just better options for the Sharks out there, including internal options from the Barracuda. We’ve seen Nick Merkley and John Leonard outplay Pederson already, and it looks like his days with the NHL club might be numbered.

Now, let's take a look at the Sharks’ bottom-six when everybody is healthy. The last time we saw a fully healthy team, the third line consisted of Matthew Nieto, Kevin Labanc and Bonino, while the fourth line was made up of Andrew Cogliano, Jasper Weatherby and Pederson.

That third line has just one combined even-strength point. Yeah, one.

This line ranks third out of six Sharks lines that have seen at least 20 minutes of time-on-ice, in expected goals against, with 1.20. Their combined expected goals percentage is 36.80, the second-worst of the six. There just seems like there is no incentive of keeping them together when everyone is healthy, as they haven’t been effective in creating offense.

An NHL team’s third-line is usually what makes or breaks a hockey team. You need them to not only be consistent in the defensive zone, but also chip in offensively. We saw this just last season with the Tampa Bay Lightning and their trio of Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Yanni Gourde. All three chipped in a ton offensively, and because of it, the team was able to find success outside of their top-six.

Looking at the fourth line, it’s not as bad offensively, but still not great, with just a combined five even-strength points, and just one combined point since Oct. 25. They haven’t found much offensive success as of late, either.

The possible solution to all of this could very well be, as I stated earlier, internal. The Barracuda have options: Merkley and Leonard already named but also skaters like Noah Gregor (when healthy), Joachim Blichfeld, Jayden Halbgewachs and Sasha Chmelevski. At this point, it may be a better option for the team to get those younger guys trying to pursue their NHL dreams into the line up, rather than keeping players who might be a little too comfortable in their roles.

Another option, rather than completely taking someone like Bonino or Labanc out of the line up, which I doubt would happen, the coaching staff could opt to give them reduced roles at 5-on-5, and play them to their specific strengths.

Labanc for example, has been below-replacement level at even-strength offensively, but his power play and defensive efforts are great, so perhaps a fourth-line role while getting increased special team minutes could be beneficial for him.

For Bonino, his offensive analytics aren’t good, but as mentioned earlier, he’s the team’s best defensive forward, so slotting him in on the fourth-line center role and keeping him involved on the penalty kill could help him serve his role better, and bump Weatherby into the 3C role, allowing him an expanded role he’s certainly earned.

All that’s evident at this point is that the depth isn’t holding up their end of the bargain, and the Sharks need to take action on that, as soon as possible. They’re still valuable players, but when this team struggles to score through the bottom-six, they aren’t going to be good enough to beat out teams a night-to-night basis.