After a lengthy homestand, the San Jose Sharks (3-8-3, eighth Pacific) start a road trip against the slumping St. Louis Blues (3-8-0, eighth Central). The Blues have lost eight games in a row after starting the season 3-0-0. The Sharks have lost four straight, but could easily have won four in a row if the team had been able to finish against the Tampa Bay Lightning and score a couple more shootout goals. While on paper, tomorrow’s match-up is a battle of the basement dwellers, it might be a big identity game for both squads trying to define their game early in the season.
The 2021-22 Blues finished the season with a 49-22-11 record and 109 points, ranked third in the Central Division. At the Trade Deadline, general manager Doug Armstrong acquired defenders Nick Leddy and Luke Witkowski from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for forward Oskar Sundqvist, defender Jake Walman and a 2023 second-round draft pick.
In the first round of playoffs, St. Louis defeated the Minnesota Wild in six games before going on to lose in the second round to the eventual Stanley Cup winning Colorado Avalanche.
This off-season, Blues fans started to understand the price of being in cup contention for so long. Several key agents left, including goaltender Ville Husso and forward David Perron, both of whom signed with the Red Wings. Husso was the starting netminder to end last season and started six games in the postseason, while Perron scored 27 goals and 30 assists in 67 games.
Ageless wonder and former Sharks netminder Thomas Greiss signed a one-year, $1.25 million contract to back up Jordan Binnington. The team also brought in several veteran forwards, including Josh Leivo and Noel Acciari, to low-level deals.
Armstrong’s biggest moves of the summer included locking up two key pieces of the team’s future — Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas were signed to identical eight-year, $65 million contracts, featuring no-trade clauses that kick in on the third year of the deal. Both contract extensions will start next season.
This season hasn’t been kind to the Blues so far. St. Louis ranks dead last in goals-for (23), with a -20 scoring differential, just 11 games into the season. Despite having a sneaky good offensive over the last few seasons (including finishing third in goals-for behind the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs last season), the Blues have yet to find that scoring touch this year. Vladimir Tarasenko leads scoring with four goals on the season.
As for injuries, both teams are relatively healthy. Blues defender Scott Perunovich underwent shoulder surgery prior to the season and will most likely be done for the season. Defender Marco Scandella is out for at least six months after hip surgery prior to the season. Center Logan Brown is on IR with an upper-body injury.
Mario Ferraro left Saturday’s game after a puck to the chin, but is expected to play on Thursday. Defender Nikolai Knyzhov has started skating again, recovering from an off-season Achilles tear, but is not expected back until later in the season. Markus Nutivaara remains on IR.
A streak will end
The Sharks have known nothing but heartbreak the last four games, with a last-minute loss to the Lightning and three shootout losses in a row to the Anaheim Ducks, Florida Panthers and Ducks again. San Jose has been threading the needle of playing fun and exciting hockey, but still adding to the loss column at the end of the day.
The Blues are on another level of bad, notching eight straight losses with an average score of 4.75-1.5. St. Louis is getting blown out in most games, but to the team’s credit, those losses have come against decent teams, including the Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, and Boston Bruins. Losing 7-4 to the Montreal Canadiens however, is a sure sign that there is trouble.
San Jose will be facing one of the worst teams at generating offense in the league right now. Last season, the power play covered up a below-average team at 5-on-5. This season, the power play hasn’t been up to par and the penalty kill has been borderline atrocious, making the poor even-strength issues more glaring.
Kahkonen vs. Binnington
“Fan favorite” Jordan Binnington has already thrown one of his many tantrums on the ice this year, thanks to his bad start, where he is posting a .886 save percentage (SV%) and 3.37 goals against average (GAA). His -3.4 goals saved above expected (GSAx) ranks 60th out of 70 NHL goaltenders.
In particular, Binnington is having trouble with high danger saves. He should be saving nearly two-thirds of high-danger shots against, with an expected high-danger save percentage (HDSV%) of .633. His actual HDSV% is .526, just over half. If Binnington can be a little more clutch in the high-danger chances, this could help the Blues work through the offensive issues, shifting focus from the defensive side of things.
Kaapo Kahkonen has had a very up-and-down start to the season, currently sitting with a .878 SV%, 3.62 GAA and sporting the 66th-best GSAx (-6.2) in five games played. The Finnish netminder has been struggling with medium- and high-danger saves. The Sharks’ offense has started to show signs of life lately and a string of solid games from Kahkonen would be huge for his confidence, as rumors of James Reimer on the trade market start to build.
A Karlsson encore
How can Erik Karlsson repeat his performance? After being named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week (he was robbed of First Star, if we are being honest), what more can Karlsson do for this team? King Karl just needs to continue the resurgence that we’ve seen this week and San Jose will have plenty of opportunities to win this game.
The power play has started to turn the corner in the last few weeks and Karlsson’s quarterbacking has a lot to do with it — five of his nine assists this year have come on the skater-advantage. St. Louis’ penalty kill ranked fifth last season and is currently operating at a 70.8 percent clip, dropping to 28th in the league. Karlsson should be able to work his magic on the power play if given a chance. However, the Blues are currently taking the fewest penalty minutes per game in the league, so any opportunity the Sharks get will need to be taken seriously.
Bold Prediction: Both goaltender play well in a low-event hockey game. Erik Karlsson adds two points and Timo Meier hands the Blues a ninth-straight loss. 3-2 Sharks, in a shootout.