Five reasons why the Sharks have stumbled out of the gate

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Thursday, October 18, 2018

Logan Couture was solemn, yet surly. After another defeat for the San Jose Sharks, he was asked what his biggest concern was about his team.

"That we're losing."

Care to elaborate?

"I think when you lose games, you're not doing many things correct. We're not scoring enough. We're not creating enough Grade A looks. The power play hasn't been good. There are a lot of reasons," he said. "We're not good enough."

Couture spoke with the kind of intensity expected in the midst of a playoff race or in the postseason. This was six games into the regular season. But Couture is someone for whom failure isn't an option; heck, isn't not even a considerable outcome. And his Sharks are a team that has perhaps greater expectations placed on it than any time in recent franchise history, including after a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016. Winning the Erik Karlsson sweepstakes will do that for a franchise.

It's just six games, five of them on the road. It's just a 2-3-1 record. But the Sharks know there's a ways to go before they're satisfied.

"This team has the players to get the job done. We have the system. It's disappointing," captain Joe Pavelskisaid.

Here are five reasons why the Sharks haven't yet hit their stride:

The power play

The Sharks' power play was middle of the pack last season at 20.6 percent, but they didn't have Evander Kane until the trade deadline and have since added the point expertise of Karlsson to the unit. Yet the Sharks' power play has sputtered so far, though admittedly it's not the disaster their rivals the Los Angeles Kings have managed in six games (0-for-Kovalchuk, uh, we mean 0-for-21).

The Sharks are 2-for-21 for a 9.5 percent conversion rate, one of five teams under 10 percent in a league where the average conversion rate is a stunning 21.2 percent so far.

There's a difference of opinion on how close the Sharks are to breaking out of this funk -- and it's among San Jose players.

"It could be a little bit cleaner," Pavelski said. "The execution can be a little bit better. We're making some plays, we're having some looks. Either we're not shooting it, or we're shooting too quick. It's close. It does feel close."

Is it close?

"We're six games in. We have one goal on the power play. I don't think it's close," Couture said.

(Well, two goals. But point taken.)

Of course, there's a major piece missing from the Sharks' power play, and in turn from the Sharks as a whole.

Missing Jumbo

In the past two seasons, Joe Thornton has averaged 0.29 points on the power play, right behind Brent Burns (0.31) for best on the team. Last season, 18 of Thornton's 36 points were scored on the man advantage, where he was second in average ice time (3:35) in 47 games.

His bum knee sidelined him after two regular-season games, but he's working his way back, and has skated this week. What has he been up to? "Watched the games, played some Risk on my computer, go to hockey games with my kid. There's always stuff to be busy with," he told NBC Sports Bay Area.

His impact on this team is still palpable at age 39 -- even if he doesn't look a day over 38 now that the epic beard has been shorn. Getting him back is essential.

The goaltending

This is not the start that Martin Jones wanted. In four games, he has an .880 save percentage overall and .882 at even strength. Aaron Dell, the backup who has been slowly threatening to shed that label for the last year? He has a .938 even-strength save percentage in two starts, going 1-0-1.

"I think this is a league where your guy has to be as spectacular or better than the [other team's] guy, or you're going to have a hard time winning. We've been on the wrong side of that a few nights," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said of his goaltending. "We're not scoring enough, but we're also not getting enough saves."

Observers around the NHL wonder if there isn't a goalie controversy brewing in San Jose at some point. Jones has played 64 games since 2017, with a .913 save percentage and a minus-7.57 goals save above average at 5-on-5. Dell has played 31 games, with a .918 save percentage and a plus-3.69 goals saved above average. But Jones is the guy singed at $5.75 million annually through 2024, and Dell isn't.

Jones sounded an optimistic tone after a loss to the Devils on Sunday. "They were winning more battles. They were quicker to pucks. We'll learn from it," he said. "We did some good stuff. We played some good hockey."

All of those penalties

Last season's Sharks were one of the NHL's most disciplined teams, averaging 7:40 in penalty minutes per game, the sixth fewest in the NHL. They took only 235 minor penalties, the third fewest in 2017-18.

This season? They're just a bunch of hooligans. The Sharks are ninth in average penalty minutes (9:39) and eighth in minor penalties. It has led to disjointed games and a reliance on their penalty kill (which is performing its job at a respectable 78.6 percent rate).

The nadir of this lack of discipline was Sunday's game against the Devils, when they took seven minor penalties, including a double-minor for high-sticking from Karlsson.

"I'm disappointed in the penalties," DeBoer said. "You're not going to win at home or on the road taking eight minutes in high-sticking and four minutes for shooting pucks over the glass. Our effort was there but we beat ourselves on the penalties."

The effort

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the start is that, analytically, it has been pretty good. The Sharks' 38.5 shots per game is second in the NHL. Their 27 shots surrendered is sixth best in the NHL. They're currently the best possession team in at 5-on-5 (Corsi for percentage of 61.4), while their goals per 60 minutes (2.47) and goals against (2.25) are around the middle of the pack.

And so San Jose's issues this season would seem correctable, rather than systemic.

"They should be," Couture said. "We have to play smarter. And harder. There are a lot of guys that haven't played well this season, or their best."

He didn't name those "guys," and neither would his coach. In fact, DeBoer scoffed at the idea that it was time to pull struggling players aside for some extra scrutiny.

"We're not 0-6. You guys can press the panic button. We're not panicking yet. We could have won every game we played," he said. "Everyone's gotta look in the mirror a bit more and get on the other side of this."