Sharks at Oilers Preview: Sharks on a roll?

With the stress and changes from the trade deadline over, the Sharks can now get to work.

In their last game, the San Jose Sharks bested the Pacific Division-leading Calgary Flames despite (quite frankly) all odds. It wasn’t the most expert of wins, or the most cleanly played game, but with the stress and changes from the NHL Trade Deadline now over, the team can get to work.

And by getting to work, I don’t mean gunning for a playoff spot. San Jose sits second-to last in the division and 22nd in the league, while the Edmonton Oilers are firmly in third place of the Pacific and therefore, a playoff position. Tomorrow’s tilt is another rung on the ladder to ensure that the fourth-place Vegas Golden Knights don’t catch up to Edmonton (they’re within three points) and knock them out of the running.

San Jose’s priorities are different. How do the new trade deadline additions look so far? Where’s the confidence and cohesion? What’s still missing, and who might be added in the off-season to account for that? It’s all about gathering more information in this last quarter, and measuring how well the team performs, as is, against the league’s top teams.

Regardless of their differences, a big factor for both teams is injuries. After a grueling season wreaking havoc on their bodies, players always seem to fall like flies in the final stretch of the regular season.

The Sharks’ injured reserve keeps growing. Kevin Labanc (remember him?) may still come back this season, but Nikolai Knyzhov definitely will not. Mario Ferraro is doing well in rehab (and maybe getting some new teeth), but the fate of Jonathan Dahlen’s face is still up in the air. And, of course, Radim Simek, Matt Nieto and Adin Hill are also day-to-day. The Oilers don’t seem to be missing as many faces, but they are without two top players: Oscar Klefbom and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who are both out due to shoulder injuries.

Special teams have been a difference-maker for the Sharks (both good and bad) in the last month or so of games, and last night may be an indication that without Andrew Cogliano or Matt Nieto, the power play and penalty kill have taken a punch to the gut.

The good news is that the penalty kill still looks reasonably successful, which will be important in the face of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and an Oilers’ power play that’s nearly four percent higher than league average. It all balances out, of course; the Sharks’ penalty kill is over six percent higher than league average. Edmonton’s kill is three-ish percent lower than league average, and San Jose’s power play is just slightly less than two percent below league average.

What this means is that the Sharks could find an edge when it comes to capitalizing upon special teams, if they’re able to both get things together on the power play, and put in the effort to make something of their opportunities.

Speaking of special teams, how about those penalty kill units?

I mentioned earlier that without Andrew Cogliano and Matt Nieto, two of the team’s top penalty-killers, as well as without Jacob Middleton and younger players filling those holes, things are looking a little funky. The penalty kill units looked like this against the Flames:

1st Unit: Logan Couture, Rudolfs Balcers, Jaycob Megna, Brent Burns
2nd Unit: Nick Bonino, Scott Reedy, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Erik Karlsson

Balcers and Reedy are the odd ones out, and it’s likely that we’ll see other players rotate in and out of those spots over the next month or so, as the coaching staff try out different combinations to see which of the younger players are ready to step into that defensive role.

The once reliably strong penalty kill might be a little off for a while, as will the second power play unit. This is how the skater-advantage looked in Calgary:

1st Unit: Tomas Hertl, Couture, Timo Meier, Karlsson, Burns
2nd Unit: John Leonard, Nick Bonino, Reedy, Alexander Barabanov, Ryan Merkley

The top unit makes total sense. The second unit is going to be a reflection of who is in the line-up and will continue to fluctuate.

How did the Sharks respond without Cogliano and Middleton?

The trade deadline is always hard, and while the absences of Ferraro and Nieto are felt deeply, injuries are but temporary. The absences of Andrew Cogliano and Jake Middleton are more keenly felt on the ice.

Overall, the Sharks’ game play left a lot to be desired in the first game after the deadline, despite the win. There were two goals-against in the first 10 minutes, San Jose struggled to break the puck out with anything other than a dump-in and it was turnover after turnover in their own zone.

Needless to say, puck management and positioning suffered, as did overall quality of communication, cohesion and defensive coverage. The communication and chemistry can be forgiven with the line-up in flux, which can lead to individualized play and is somewhat unavoidable. It’s important that young players with some NHL experience like John Leonard or Sasha Chmelevski, who was called up for the first time this season, make it into the line-up for at least a little bit this year.

When it comes to defense, Ferraro, Simek and Knyzhov’s injuries mean that filling Middleton’s role becomes more of a creative process. Erik Karlsson was paired with the recently recalled Ryan Merkley last game in what was purely an ‘experiment,’ per Boughner. I think the less said about that pairing, the better.

What’s next?

When it comes to looking down this last stretch of games, the front office is gathering information. They’re looking at line combinations, goaltending and special teams, all to prepare for the off-season and next year. Acting general manger Joe Will has expressed that the team needs more information when it comes to what sort of deal they’d like to negotiate with Alexander Barabanov (the team’s only pending unrestricted free agent), so they’ll be watching him like a hawk too.

The number of young and inexperienced players on the roster — Leonard, Merkley, Chmelevski, etc. — and now the extended goaltending pool, plus an injury list that should deplete itself come next season ... management has a lot to think about when it comes to ensuring the team gets back into playoffs next year.

Bold Prediction: After a surprising win over the Flames, I predict that the Sharks will go on a roll through Alberta and take a hard-fought, overtime win from the Oilers.