Jets at Sharks Preview: Here’s to new beginnings

Don’t worry, I will spare you any West Side Story references.

587 days.

That’s how long it’s been since the San Jose Sharks have had a full-capacity crowd at SAP Center for a game that counts.

That very long year and a half was shaky. Even when the NHL returned last January, save for the Dallas Stars, Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers, it was very eerie watching a whole season without fans in the stands. Admittedly, it was the most tuned out I’d ever been with the Sharks.

But the fans are safely back now. And things feel normal. And finally, after those 587 long days, we can truly get back to the passion that unites us all— San Jose Sharks hockey.

The Sharks begin their season at home against an opponent that they haven’t seen in an even longer period of time, the Winnipeg Jets. It’s been precisely 610 days since the last time the Sharks and Jets played each other; the last meeting coming on Feb. 14, 2020, where the Sharks beat the Jets 3-2 at the then-named Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg.

The Jets have already played once this season, but it wasn’t exactly a very inspiring performance, falling 4-1 to the Anaheim Ducks. Their power play, which finished seventh in the league last year at 23 percent, was surprisingly ineffective at getting any kind of pressure off against a Ducks penalty kill that finished 16th in the league at 79.9 percent last year, going 0/5 on the power play.

As provided by Natural Stat Trick, the Jets’ power play heat map illustrates their woes on Wednesday night:

The Jets will be getting some reinforcements, though, in the form of one Mark Scheifele. Scheifele will be making his regular-season debut after crushing Montreal Canadiens forward Jake Evans with a dirty hit after an empty net goal in Game 1 of the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Based on the Jets’ practice yesterday, Scheifele was skating with Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler on the Jets’ first line, but it remains to be seen if these are the lines Paul Maurice will roll with on Saturday night.

Meanwhile, for the Sharks, tonight marks the beginning of a new era of sorts. After two losing seasons, general manager Doug Wilson knew the time had come for a reset. After five seasons in teal, goaltender Martin Jones was bought out, and the Sharks traded for Adin Hill to take the reins in goal, while bringing back James Reimer as a tandem/back up. The Sharks also shored up their forward depth, signing Andrew Cogliano and Nick Bonino to one-year contracts. But arguably the biggest addition for the Sharks came in the draft, when they picked Swedish forward William Eklund with the seventh overall pick.

How much of an impact will William Eklund have?

Eklund looked very good in the preseason, mainly playing on a line with Tomas Hertl and Rudolfs Balcers, recording six points. It appears that Eklund will start the regular season on that same line. After the Sharks’ final preseason game against Vegas, Bob Boughner gave his thoughts on Eklund’s performance quite candidly:

Now, of course, the NHL preseason and the NHL regular season is a different breed, but given the chemistry he’s already built up with Hertl and Balcers, there’s no reason to think Eklund can’t have around the same success in the regular season. Personally, I can see him in the 40-50 point range this season.

What can we expect out of Adin Hill?

Per Sharks head coach Bob Boughner, Adin Hill will get the call in goal for the Sharks.

Hill played in 19 games for the Coyotes last season, with a goals against average (GAA) of 2.74 and a save percentage (SV%) of .913. He also had a goals saved above average (GSAA) of 0.31 according to Natural Stat Trick, which is just about pedestrian.

Hill has only played in 49 career NHL games, so it’s certainly a leap of faith to ask Hill to become the number one guy in San Jose, which is perhaps the reason why they signed James Reimer. After a strong preseason, though, including a shutout over the Vegas Golden Knights in the final game of the preseason, Hill seems up to the task.

What’s up with Nikolai Knzyhov?

After a surprisingly strong rookie season, Nikolai Knyzhov was expected to be an integral part of the Sharks’ defense going into the 2021-22 season. But according to Sheng Peng of San Jose Hockey Now, Knyzhov’s lower-body injury that saw him inactive for all of the preseason is a long-term injury, per Bob Boughner. Knyzhov wasn’t going to play in the season opener, but now the “long-term” designation may throw a wrench into the Sharks’ defensive plans. It may be a while before Knyzhov returns to the fold.

Bold Prediction: Feeding off the energy of the full-capacity SAP Center, the Sharks get out to a hot start and don’t look back. A Shark will score his first career NHL goal, but it won’t be by who you’re thinking — Jonathan Dahlen will be the man to do it. The Sharks take Game 1 by a score of 5-3.

It’s good to be home.