Sharks at Flames Preview: Measuring the heat

A rare win streak is on the line.

The San Jose Sharks (27-27-8, seventh Pacific) were none too impressed by the heat in games against the Calgary Flames (38-16-8, first Pacific) in what has otherwise been a formidable season for the Albertan club. But it’s been over a month now that the Flames have sat at the head of the Pacific, while the Sharks’ season drags on toward the tail-end of the division.

Since the last time these two teams laced up on Dec. 7, 2021 — when the Sharks took a 5-3 win — much has changed, some quite recently. The trade deadline has come and gone, and the Flames added important pieces in Tyler Toffoli and Calle Jarnkrok in February and March. The Sharks, meanwhile, inked Tomas Hertl an eight-year extension last week, effectively ousting a concern that has harried them all season.

Then, on the morning of the deadline, Sharks made several moves, highlighted by the acquisition of goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen in a trade that dealt defenseman Jacob Middleton to the Minnesota Wild. Kahkonen is a serviceable netminder who has played 25 games this season, sporting a .910 save-percentage (SV%). With James Reimer and Adin Hill both battling recent injuries and fatigue, the newest acquisition may draw in for his first game in teal against the Flames.

San Jose also moved forwards Andrew Cogliano and Nick Merkley, though the trades only open up one forward slot that was already somewhat in flux this season, thanks to injuries and illness.

Moving forward, the two opponents have very different agendas. The Flames have shored up their ranks in preparation for a deep playoff run against the likes of the Vegas Golden Knights or Los Angeles Kings; the Colorado Avalanche and the St. Louis Blues; and possibly beyond to Eastern Conference contenders.

The Sharks, on the other hand, made it clear they were sellers at the deadline by moving the dependable Middleton in order to recoup some assets for next season. The pressure to push for the playoffs, then, has lessened a bit, as the team aims to perfect their systems and appraise the value of their long list of pending free agents ahead of the 2022 off-season, including players like Alexander Barabanov, Jaycob Megna, Jonah Gadjovich and Nicolas Meloche.

After signing Hertl to an $8.137 million average annual value contract, San Jose will have to get creative to stay under the cap while striving to sign help in key areas if they want to return to being competitive in seasons to come.

A smart strategy going into Tuesday’s game might be to use the Flames as a measuring stick. If head coach Bob Boughner is still around next season, it may be a perfect opportunity to see how his team measures up against the best in the division this year. Joe Will and Doug Wilson should also be paying attention. The Flames can roll all four lines: their center-depth, for example, has pushed Sean Monahan to the fourth-line. This is quite a feat for Calgary, since Monahan is just a few years removed from playing at the top on the first-line. The Sharks management team, then, perhaps, may place their eye over the microscope at the makeup of a successful forward corps, amongst other things.

It’s also always fun to brush up against the vexatious Matthew Tkachuk and the monolithic duo of defensemen Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson. Milan Lucic can come too. Gadjovich awaits all.

How fares Kahkonen?

The Sharks last played the Wild in December 2021 in a 5-2 loss, but that was Cam Talbot in net. So when Will, acting general manager, made the Kahkonen-for-Middleton trade, he was probably thinking about the combined .927 SV% Kahkonen posted against the Sharks over six games in the 2020-21 season.

This season, Minnesota has been slighted by their goaltending, if anything, and Kahkonen has been part of that. As mentioned before, his .910 SV% is quite average, but still an improvement over his 2020-21 average of .902. The criticism, then, seems to be pinpointed on the belief that a contending team in Minnesota should have better than just average goaltending. Nonetheless, despite similar numbers in Talbot, the Wild have obviously moved on from the prospect of a once-hopeful starter.

But for the lower-rung Sharks, could they be intercepting goalie gold at the right moment in Kahkonen’s career? After just three seasons, and only 25 games this season, fatigue is not a question. He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer.

This could work out one of two ways: the Sharks could find the right-sized plug on an injury-plagued goaltending corps for the rest of the season and on a decent rental, or they may find themselves with an abundance of starters moving forward. Decision pending, starting with a possible Kahkonen appearance against the Flames.

A power-play slumber

Earlier this month, the Sharks power play was finding success, notably after changing the setup. With Erik Karlsson back since March 10, the top unit has consisted of Brent Burns at the point, with Karlsson manning the right-side flank, which was good for a few goals, but has recently gone asleep in the month of March. Notably, the Sharks were 0-for-3 in their last game against the Arizona Coyotes.

Middleton had been part of the second power play unit, leaving a void for a possible newcomer. The pickings are slim, but a new look on the second unit might make for some healthy competition between the two units, to bounce back from around 20th/21st in the league.

Mind the wings

The Flames have four wingers in their top-nine who have already scored 40 or more points. Johnny Gaudreau, himself, has twice that number. That’s a lot of danger to defend against on the flanks. With Calgary’s high-power offense buzzing down the stretch, the Sharks will have to put on the cape for their usual shot-blocking heroics. This may be difficult to do with Middleton and Cogliano gone, to likely be replaced by more offensively-gifted players like Ryan Merkley or John Leonard.

But the effort should extend beyond that. Against the Coyotes, the Sharks did not mark key players, which almost cost them the game. Phil Kessel, despite going goalless in his previous 14 games, was able to take advantage of a lulling Sharks defense on the rush. That’s where the Sharks need to make sure they are killing plays, particularly when Gaudreau or Tkachuk are on the ice.

Bold prediction: San Jose could be having a better season, but will get a shiny star in a third win against the first-place Pacific Division team on the season. Score: 4-3.