2022-23 Sharks Preview: What is a real goaltender pipeline?
Gone are the days of .896 save percentages.
For the first time in many seasons, the San Jose Sharks don’t have major questions in net. There are some questions long-term, but San Jose feels like a team that should have competent goaltending for a second straight season. With the trade of Adin Hill to the Vegas Golden Knights, James Reimer and Kaapo Kahkonen are left to hold down the fort, as old friend Aaron Dell makes his return to the Bay as a break glass in case of emergency netminder.
Current Age: 26
Last season: 36 GP, 2.87 GAA*, .912 SV%, 5.2 GSAx** (with Minnesota Wild, SJS)
Contract: 2 years, $2.75 million AAV
After trading defender Jacob Middleton for Kaapo Kahkonen at last season’s trade deadline, the Sharks re-signed the netminder to a two-year contract. Kahkonen put up a strong stint in teal over 10 starts, posting a .916 save percentage and 2.86 goals against average, despite a depleted roster in front of him to end the season. The former AHL Goaltender of the Year was added to fill the long-term goaltending question, with the hopes that improving talent in front of the crease will lead to more consistent starts from the big Fin(n).
Entering the season, James Reimer is the only competition for the starting role, so this is the opportunity for Kahkonen to take the next step and prove that he can be not only a number one goaltender, but one of the top-15 in the league. To do this, Kahkonen will need to work on improving his unblocked high-danger save percentage. These are the juicy shots right in the slot where goaltenders make their money. Among goaltenders who played at least 10 games last season, Kahkonen ranked 70 out 74, with a .561 SV%. When it comes to the low- and medium-danger shots, he’s among the best in the league, but the high-danger ones are where he needs to focus in order to take his game to the next level.
While Kahkonen didn’t fit the Wild’s current timeline, as they wanted a more veteran presence in a bid to win now, while also knowing they have a potential all-star talent in Jesper Wallstedt waiting in the wings. In San Jose, Kahkonen has all the runway he needs; Reimer and Dell are on the back nine of their careers, Eetu Mäkiniemi and Strauss Mann are just getting started, and Mason Beaupit and Ben Gaudreau are years away from being NHL-ready. Kahkonen is in the perfect situation to try to prove himself as a nstarter.
While both Reimer and Kahkonen will get plenty of run this year, Kahkonen should win the starting job. This doesn’t mean he should be forced into 60 starts a season, but a 50/32 split between the pair feels right. It would allow Kahkonen to prove himself capable of handling the load, without overworking him in what will probably be another lost season. If Kahkonen can improve his high-danger save percentage, he should be well on his way to establishing himself.
Current Age: 34
Last season: 48 GP, 2.90 GAA, .911 SV%, 0.1 GSAx
Contract: 1 year, $2.25 million AAV
James Reimer was a beacon of hope for Sharks fans last season. The career journeyman played a career-high 48 games, including starting 13 straight at one point last season. He reminded Sharks fans that a goaltender is allowed to post a save percentage in the 900s despite the previous three years worth of evidence (It’s insane that Martin Jones posted a .896 SV% three years in a row. It actually boggles the mind). Reimer started the season off scorching, but he did come back to Earth as all those minutes started to wear on him. Reimer has one year left on his contract, that includes a five-time team no-trade clause.
It’s hard to fathom a repeat performance of last season from James Reimer. He was outstanding to start the season, but with injuries to Adin Hill and with no clear backup until Kahkonen’s arrival, Reimer had to bear the sins of a franchise that has been unable to draft and develop goaltenders.
Now that Kahkonen is in the fold, Reimer can slide back into a more natural role as a veteran back-up with a steady hand and calming presence, who can take over starting duties if needed due to injury. Reimer showed last season that he can be borderline elite for stretches, but it’s difficult to expect him to repeat that performance as a nearly 35-year-old coming off his busiest season. If Reimer can prove that last season wasn’t a fluke, a playoff team looking for some insurance in net would be smart to call general manager Mike Grier and make a serious offer of a low second- or high third-round draft pick for the former Red Deer Rebel.
If Reimer is playing 48 games again this year, something terrible has happened. He’s proven to be a great asset in his time in teal, but the future is Kahkonen. Reimer should be starting 30 to 35 games, helping to provide veteran leadership to the netminders in the system. If he repeats the success of last season, Sharks brass is going to look back on his contract and think it’s a steal. Reimer will most likely end his season elsewhere, especially if Mann or Makiniemi show their chops with the Barracuda this season.
Current Age: 33
Last season: 12 GP, 4.03 GAA, .893 SV%, -4.4 GSAx (with Buffalo Sabres)
Contract: 1 year, $775,000 AAV
The Sharks couldn’t let it go and brought back their favorite Frozen-adjacent goaltender, Aaron Dell. After bouncing around several spots, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, New Jersey Devils, Binghamton Devils, Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Americans over the past two seasons, Dell is back to be the third-string backstop in his old haunt. He signed a one-year deal worth $775,000 and will probably spend most of his season in the AHL with the San Jose Barracuda.
While the Dell signing was puzzling at the time, especially with the number of netminders on the roster, it actually makes sense in the terms of development. Dell actually has several potential roles within the organization. If disaster strikes Kahkonen and/or Reimer, Dell can jump up for a few games and play without destroying the confidence of a more inexperience goaltender. He can also serve as a veteran leader for Mann and Makiniemi, an example of growing within the Sharks organization.
At this point, there is very little that Aaron Dell hasn’t done or faced in his hockey career, so having someone that the young players can lean on is huge. Dell also has been coached by goaltending coach Evgeni Nabokov previously and can be an extension to the coaching staff, especially for John McCarthy’s brand-new AHL staff. If the 33-year-old is considering a future coaching career, this could be the first step in the process.
Dell will most likely see the majority of his time in Tech CU Arena this year. He can easily be an emergency recall in case of injury, which would not make him subject to waivers, and in cases where he would be waivers-eligible, his age and declining performance make him low-risk to get lost in a claim. Because Makiniemi is returning from his injury last season, Dell should see some games with the Barracuda, but the hope is that the youth can take the mantle by season’s end.
Current Age: 24
Last season: 22 GP, 2.19 GAA, .914 SV% (with Skelleftea AIK, SHL)
Contract: 1 year, $842,500 AAV
The former University of Michigan captain left the program after his junior season, feeling he was retaliated against by former Coach, Mel Pearson. Mann went undrafted despite his gaudy numbers playing behind one of the best NCAA teams in the country. Instead, he started his career in Sweden and signed with the Skelleftea AIK in the top-tier men’s league, continuing to post outstanding numbers while getting acquainted with professional hockey on a larger ice surface. Mann was also selected to represent the United States at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games under head coach David Quinn. Mann signed a one-year deal with the Sharks this spring.
San Jose has tried to overhaul the goaltending system and have done so in short order. Although he only stands at 6-foot-0 and 175 pounds, Mann has already shown that he can compete at every level. He was easily the best goaltender at development camp and the Rookie Tournament. Mann will have a ways to go toward becoming an NHL starter, but he has risen to every challenge he’s met so far.
Mann will be in competition to be the Barracuda’s starting netminder and should eventually win the job. The former Big 10 Goaltender of the Year makes up for his lack of size by using his quickness and intelligence to read plays as they are happening. While he isn’t the most athletic player, he’s able to make tough saves when he is out of position.
The Barracuda have had a revolving door of goaltender over the past few seasons, so it would do a lot if Mann can stick and anchor a much-improved ‘Cuda. His SHL experience shows that he can play at the professional level and his leadership and personality should make him a favorite in the room. If Mann has a great season, he could potentially see a few NHL games at the end of the year, but it’s better to not rush him. Allow him to develop and start to push for that job next off-season.
Current Age: 23
Last season: 14 GP, 2.06 GAA, .922 SV% (with Chicago Wolves, AHL)
Contract: 1 year, $867,500 AAV
The former Carolina Hurricanes netminder was drafted in the fourth round of the 2017 NHL Draft, making the jump from the Finnish Liiga to the AHL’s Chicago Wolves last season. Makiniemi played in 14 games before his season was cut short due to a lower-body injury. The 23-year-old was traded to the Sharks as part of the package that sent defender Brent Burns to Raleigh.
Big Mac needs to continue to rehab his injury, but if he can return bounce back, the Barracuda might have found a one-two punch in net. His ability to remain composed while everything breaks down in front of him have had drawn comparisons to Boston Bruins legend (and controversial netminder) Tuukka Raska. While it’s unlikely for Makiniemi to be playing NHL games this season, he could be a potential goaltender of the future, battle for a back-up job behind Kahkonen and Finnish the goaltending overhaul.
The severity of Makiniemi’s injury is unknown, but the team showed their hand in not rushing him back — the newbie saw no action in development camp, the rookie tournament, or preseason. When he is ready to go, expect a light workload to start the season until he works back up to full strength. Makiniemi will spend the entire season with the ‘Cuda, competing with Dell for the back-up job once healthy — and not a day sooner!
*Goals Against Average
**Goals Saved Above Expected