Joe Pavelski is leading the charge for San Jose (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The San Jose Sharks’ off-season was a bizarre one. After missing the playoffs, the Sharks said goodbye to their coach and looked ready for a rebuild. Instead, GM Doug Wilson traded for goaltender Martin Jones and signed Paul Martin and Joel Ward. Through 21 games, Wilson’s choice to retool, not rebuild, looks like the right one.
The San Jose Sharks had every opportunity to shake things up this past off-season. Veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were viable trade candidates, goaltender Antti Niemi was on his way out of town and the club looked set to get younger. No one would have batted an eye if the Sharks began to rebuild. GM Doug Wilson went another route, though.
San Jose started to make moves as soon as they missed the post-season in 2014-15. The first to go was coach Todd McLellan. He and the Sharks mutually agreed that it was time to move on, and McLellan packed his bags and headed north to coach the Edmonton Oilers. Wilson then went out and hired former New Jersey Devils bench boss Peter DeBoer, which was followed up by the hirings of Bob Boughner and Johan Hedberg as assistants. Then the roster retooling — not rebuidling — began.
Wilson started by dealing a 2016 first-round pick and prospect Sean Kuraly to the Boston Bruins in exchange for up-and-coming netminder Martin Jones, a move that shocked some as it appeared the Sharks were set to go with Alex Stalock between the pipes. Then, when free agency opened, Wilson signed one of the biggest free agents, defenseman Paul Martin, to a four-year, $19.4-million contract. Two days later, he inked Joel Ward in to a three-year, $9.825-million deal. He also added minor pieces, such as European free agent Joonas Donskoi, and the Sharks were set to start the 2015-16 season with a different look.
But just as few would have been shocked if the Sharks blew up their roster in the off-season, it would have been equally tough to find those who expected San Jose to be successful to start the campaign. After all, the roster changed, but had it really changed that much? Well, so far Wilson appears to be a genius as the Sharks look like they could actually make some noise this season.
With one quarter of the campaign behind them, San Jose sits tied with the powerhouse Los Angeles Kings for top spot in the Pacific Division. Better yet, the Sharks are coming off of a six-game winning streak — the entirety of which came on the road, including one game without DeBoer behind the bench and a 5-3 victory in which San Jose rallied from a 3-1 deficit against the Columbus Blue Jackets with less than 15 minutes remaining in the game. Those are signs of a team clicking, and being able to pile up road victories is the mark of a talented group.
There are some small areas that are cause for concern, however. When it comes to puck possession, the Sharks are still lacking and have a sub-50 percent shot attempts for percentage. They also start more shifts in the defensive zone than they do in the attacking end. It’s also worth noting their current six-game winning streak is paired with a combined shooting percentage and save percentage (PDO) of 105.7, well over the norm of 100. That said, it doesn’t appear as though San Jose’s 13-8-0 record is indicative of them playing well over their heads.
Through 21 games the Sharks’ PDO is 101.5. That means there’s room for regression, but not enough that the Sharks appear in danger of a major fall. It’s not unexpectedly high, and at this point in the previous campaign, there were eight teams with a PDO above 101. Seven made the post-season and half remained above 101, while the other half all remained at or above the 100-mark.
What the Sharks have done exceptionally well, and what has kept them near the top of the division all season, is limit high-danger chances against — think net-front and the slot area. While doing that, DeBoer’s club has also had a knack for putting the puck in scoring areas in the opposition end. Through 21 games, the Sharks have the second highest percentage of high-danger scoring chances for at 57.5 percent, per War-On-Ice. Only the Dallas Stars, who possess the league’s second-most potent offense, have managed more chances in high-danger areas, 231, than the Sharks’ 204. The difference, though, is that Dallas has allowed 211 high-danger chances against. San Jose? A mere 151, the fourth-fewest in the entire NHL.
When the Sharks’ ability to limit chances against is paired with Jones’ play thus far this season, it’s no wonder they find themselves as one of the best clubs in the Western Conference. Of the 35 goaltenders to play at least 450 minutes this season at 5-on-5, Jones ranks fifth in SP at .941. The trade for Jones could have been deemed risky at the time, but he’s playing incredibly well in San Jose in his debut at as a No.1 netminder.
Pair that with another great showing from newly minted captain Joe Pavelski, steady-as-always play from blueliner Brent Burns, exceptional contributions from Ward and a healthy dose of scoring from Marleau and Thornton, and the Sharks have all the makings of a sleeper team in the West.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a team destined to win a Stanley Cup this season, but after missing the playoffs for the first time in the decade, it was expected that the Sharks would face some regression over the next few years. Instead, San Jose’s retooling, along with a change behind the bench, seems as though it may have breathed new life into the Sharks.
(All advanced stats via War-On-Ice)