Fear the Five: 5 things we learned in November
Offense is cool, defense is for nerds.
The San Jose Sharks currently sit three points out of a playoff spot and are heading towards the fourth straight season of missing the playoffs. While three points might not seem like very much, they have also played the most games in the NHL with just five regulation wins. The team ranks 13th in the Western Conference in points, despite several players having some of their best season-starts.
While the Anaheim Ducks don’t seem anywhere close to moving out of their parent’s basement known as the Pacific Division, the Sharks have planted themselves on the stairs, waiting for the chance to pounce if the opportunity strikes. The Pacific looks to be competitive for the last playoff spot, but the Ducks and Sharks have their sights on a bigger prize.
The race for 2023 draft prospect Connor Bedard might be the most intriguing for Sharks fans. The Ducks have quickly taken the lead, though the Chicago Blackhawks and surprise candidate Columbus Blue Jackets aren’t far behind. San Jose has been playing fun, yet non-winning hockey early this season, the perfect blend for a tanking team. Keep things interesting to watch, but just make sure that the other teams walk away with the points.
Here are the biggest things we learned over the month of November:
1. The Sharks are an offensive team
Yes, it’s shocking to hear it, but the Sharks are an offensive team now.
Last season, San Jose finished 30th in the NHL with 2.57 goals for per game. The overall season stats are an improvement, sitting at 2.96, but this team found another gear in November.
How is this team scoring this way? By going for quality shots over quantity. At 5-on-5, they rank 23rd in Corsi-for at 48.33 percent, meaning they take 48.33 percent of the unblocked shots and attempts at 5-on-5. Yet, they rank seventh in high danger chances for at 54.47 percent. The Sharks also rank second in scoring chances created and high-danger chances created (granted, they have played more games than most teams).
This is what you call high-quality event hockey. The Sharks create — and let up — a ton of scoring chances, hoping that stars Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, Erik Karlsson and Logan Couture are better than the players they’re facing.
Timo Meier has been a man possessed the last two seasons. With a certain power forward now playing in Edmonton, Meier has been given free rein to take any and all shots and he’s been making the most of it. Meier leads the NHL in shot attempts and shots on goal, but also in individual scoring chances with 98 via Natural Stat Trick. Meier has blended the quality with the quantity as he looks to secure the bag with his contract expiring at the end of the season. If it’s not the Sharks paying him, someone is going to give the Swiss forward a massive contract.
Another key component to the revamped offense is getting key contributors the right help. Alexander Barabanov has been a revelation on Logan Couture’s wing after spending the majority of last season with Tomas Hertl and Meier. Couture and Long Beach Native Matt Nieto have been the beneficiaries of Barabanov’s ability to transition into the offensive zone, as well as his puck protection and passing. Couture, who leads the team with 13 goals, can now focus on playing solid defensively and cleaning up in front of the net for dirty goals. He is currently on pace to have his first 40-goal season and would be the first one since Joe Pavelski in the 2013-14 season.
2. David Quinn can coach a power play
One of the biggest improvements to the offense has been the power play. After a slow start to the power play this season, the Sharks have turned the switch on. Head coach David Quinn has utilized a refreshing approach where he has picked his five best players and lets them cook on the top unit. The power play of Karlsson, Couture, Meier, Hertl and Barabanov have become orchestrated chaos. It helps to have Karlsson playing at a Norris caliber, but the freedom and creativity that he gives the group to go out and score a goal when they have a skater advantage is something we could not have Spotted in previous years.
The Sharks utilize that chemistry to maximize the advantage. Couture, Meier, Hertl and Karlsson have been playing together since 2018, and Barabanov is now on season two plus. Quinn has put the power play into Karlsson’s hands and trusts that the other players can keep up with his high-IQ decision-making. The main goal of each power play is to get Timo Meier isolated for a one-timer chance, but how they achieve it is fascinating.
Karlsson is playing the half-wall with Couture playing the point. Karlsson’s ability to read the play and find the right pass is what makes everything work. Couture is covering for Karlsson, so that Karlsson can get the defense to collapse on him and move the puck to Couture for a quick pass to Meier. The hope is that the defense can’t rotate quickly enough and Meier is able to shoot the one-timer or get a head of steam and crash the net with Hertl and Barabanov ready to pounce.
The power play is predicated on Karlsson being able to make the right read and have everyone else react to it. After going through some growing pains to start the season, there is no reason to believe that — while Karlsson is healthy — the power play should slow down.
3. Goaltending isn’t going to be a savior this season
Last season, the Sharks were a plucky bunch, thanks in part to the goaltending tandem of James Reimer and Adin Hill. The 2020-21 season of Martin Jones (-18.9 goals saved above expected), Devan Dubnyk (-14.1 GSAx), Josef Korenar (-4.7 GSAx) and Alexei Melnichuk (-4.0 GSAx) did not leave the front office with a lot of confidence. The team got league-average to good goaltending for the first part of the season. As the season dragged on, Reimer and Hill became more average to bad/injured (let us never forget Adin Hill returning to shutout out the LA Kings and then dipping out again) and the lack of talent across the roster couldn’t keep the team in games.
This season, regression has hit the goaltenders like a ton of bricks. Kaapo Kahkonen posted a 5.2 GSAx last season between the Sharks and Minnesota Wild, but this year has been a tough start for the Finnish netminder. While Kahkonen did get his first shutout in teal against the Montreal Canadiens, it’s a lot to expect him to dig out of the hole that was created in the first 10 games. The defense hasn’t been doing Kahkonen many favors, his struggles with high-danger chances have been his biggest issue. He has seen improvement in recent games, but the Sharks' inability to limit the number of high-danger chances they give up (ninth worst in the NHL) is a dangerous game for both parties involved. Expect a lot of high-scoring contests for the rest of the season.
4. Erik Karlsson, three-time Norris winner?
Erik Karlsson had a November to remember. He put up a casual 21 points including 5 goals and 16 assists, vaulting himself as one of the favorites to win the James Norris Trophy via Draft Kings and was named the third star of the week on Nov. 7. His potential resurgence has been what many #EK65Propagandist have been clinging to and waiting for during the dark times while Karlsson dealt with groin, thumb and forearm injuries. Now that Karlsson has a clear path of playing time and is as healthy, the hive is in full force. While the Sharks have only won eight games this season, Karlsson has been electric and made them fun to watch again. If you aren’t going to win games, might as well look cool as hell and score a ton of points while doing it.
Karlsson does have a long way to go to become the first three time Norris winner since Nicklas Lidstrom (the greatest defenseman to ever play), but he is off to a great start. Karlsson will have to make up for his lack of defense compared to other candidates, such as Adam Fox and Cale Makar, but if he can continue to juice his offensive numbers and the renaissance narrative continues, crazier things have happened.
The Sharks have hit a “soft” portion of their schedule to start December, so Karlsson will need to keep racking up points as the team looks to hang around the playoff race and Karlsson in the Norris race.
5. Don’t expect the kids anytime soon
Many of us (myself included) penciled in William Eklund in the opening night roster and had Thomas Bordeleau as a darkhorse to make the team out of camp. Mike Grier and David Quinn have made it very clear that they wanted to take their time with the prospects and learn from the sins of the past by rushing them into NHL action too soon. While Bordeleau, Eklund and Tristen Robins are having fine starts to their AHL seasons, it’s clear that the Sharks are going to take their time with them.
This was evident when Jeffrey Viel was the first forward called up for action on the recent road trip. Viel has played in 46 career NHL games and has notched 3 goals and 2 assists in that time, but he is a fourth-line player known for his penchant to drop the gloves when needed. The Sharks want Bordeleau, Eklund and Robins to step in and play quality minutes in the NHL, instead of five minutes a night or sitting in a press box.
While fans are clamoring for the inevitable call up, they are going to have to wait until the season is further out of reach and veteran players start to get traded off to contenders for assets. The kids will be here eventually, but until then, don’t hold your breathe waiting.