Evander Kane Image by: Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images
The Sharks have had their offense come to life just as Martin Jones found his game, and now there might not be a team in the Pacific Division that can slow San Jose down.
Given San Jose was barely hanging onto second spot in the Pacific Division with a narrow two-point edge over the final wild-card seed in the Western Conference at the trade deadline, few would have been surprised to see Sharks stand pat. After all, this was an aging group with an increasingly thin prospect pool that had taken their shot at Stanley Cup glory only two years prior, so a regroup of sorts would have made all the sense in the world.
Sharks GM Doug Wilson, however, thought differently. He appeared to be of the mind that there was still tread left on these tires, that a close race in a seemingly wide-open division gave San Jose every reason to dip into the trade waters, so he reached in and pulled a pair of moves out of his hat. The first was seemingly inconsequential, a low-risk gamble that saw the Sharks send a sixth-round pick in 2020 draft to the Toronto Maple Leafs for veteran winger Eric Fehr, but the second was a splash as San Jose acquired one of the deadline’s biggest fish, power forward Evander Kane, from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Daniel O’Regan, a conditional first-round pick in 2019 and a 2020 fourth-round selection.
To some, the deals may have seemed ill-timed, a shot at staying in a race that San Jose had next to chance at really winning. The reasons for that, of course, was as much about the team’s standing as of the deadline as it was about who wasn’t in the lineup when the end of February rolled around. In late-January, Sharks pivot Joe Thornton suffered an ugly looking knee injury, and the loss was one that seemed to shift the feelings surrounding San Jose’s season. In losing Thornton, the Sharks were forced to live life without their top-line pivot, second-highest scorer and an integral part of their otherwise mediocre offense. San Jose had also been nothing more than average in the time since Thornton hit the shelf: 26-14-7 with him in the lineup, the Sharks proceeded to go 7-7-2 without the veteran entering the deadline and were on a three-game skid when Wilson pulled the trigger on the Kane acquisition.
Never underestimate what a couple of fresh faces can do for a team, however, because a Sharks team that once looked as though it may be as good as dead in the water now has all the signs of entering the post-season as a quiet contender to win the Pacific.
Kane, in particular, has been an instant hit in San Jose. In his first appearance in teal, Kane made his presence felt with a two-assist outing against the Edmonton Oilers and in the 11 games since has added another seven goals and 10 points, including a massive four-goal night against the Calgary Flames in mid-March. As much as anything, though, what has made Kane’s impact in San Jose clear is the amount of trust he has gained almost overnight. Since landing with the Sharks, Kane’s average ice time is 19:33, and he skates more even strength minutes than any other forward in San Jose.
That’s not to say Fehr has been a slouch, either. Obviously, his acquisition was nowhere near as heralded, but he has scored three goals and four points in a fourth-line role for San Jose. His addition has given the Sharks a certain added punch in their bottom six, and scoring from all four lines is exactly what teams need to compete come the post-season.
Others, too, have benefited from the added offense Kane and, to a lesser extent, Fehr have brought. Joe Pavelski, for instance, has notched four goals and 14 points in a dozen games since getting paired with Kane upon his arrival. Meanwhile, Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl are both 10-point players since the deadline and the Sharks have more than a dozen skaters with at least five points. It should come as no surprise, either, that San Jose has finally seen their sticks come alive. After struggling to the tune of an almost league-worst 6.7 shooting percentage at 5-on-5 entering February, the Sharks have shot at 9.4 percent at five-a-side in the month-plus since and are ripping pucks home at a 10.9 percent clip at 5-on-5 post-deadline.
One of the biggest impacts hasn’t been that of Kane or even Fehr, though. Instead, it’s the suddenly improving play of netminder Martin Jones that has helped propel the Sharks into a near-guaranteed playoff berth and into the conversation as the team to be most feared in the Pacific. As the deadline approached, Jones was a middle-of-the-pack starter at best, posting a .917 save percentage and 2.52 goals-against average across 43 games come the deadline. Since then, though, Jones’ play has been much improved: he’s turned in a .925 SP and 2.11 GAA to go along with one shutout in 11 games. It hasn’t hurt the Sharks, either, that backup Aaron Dell has been rock solid in relief.
The thing is, though, Jones’ in-season turnaround actually predates the deadline, which may have been the first sign that the campaign was starting to head in the right direction. Truth be told, there are few goaltenders in the NHL who have been better than Jones since the beginning of February and he couldn’t have picked a better time to step it up given Thornton’s injury. Consider that since Feb. 1, there are 25 netminders who’ve played 15 or more games, but only Philipp Grubauer, Pekka Rinne and John Gibson have posted a SP higher than Jones’ .929 mark and Gibson is the only netminder with a better GAA over the same span. And while Jones’ 5-on-5 SP ranks just outside the top-10 among those netminders, he’s neared on unbeatable on the penalty kill, boasting a .951 SP in nearly 60 minutes of shorthanded work over the past several weeks.
And when you fold the increased offensive production in with Jones’ improved play, you have a Sharks team that is riding a seven-game winning streak, has been second in the Western Conference to only the Nashville Predators over the past month and has the best record in the Pacific Division since the calendar flipped to 2018. Everything is seemingly moving in the right direction at the right time for the Sharks, and if it continues this way into the post-season with a Thornton return on the horizon, there isn’t going to be a team in the division, not even the upstart Vegas Golden Knights, who will want to see San Jose on the schedule when the second season begins.
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