Next up in our 2019-20 season postmortem series, honouring the seven eliminated teams: the San Jose Sharks (29-36-5), who were the embodiment of Murphy’s Law this season. Battling to Game 6 of the Western Conference final last year feels like a decade ago. That’s how badly the boat capsized in the Bay Area this season.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Even before all the rotten luck began to strike, the Sharks were in trouble heading into 2019-20. They were squeezed hard by the salary cap last off-season. Deciding to extend star defenceman Erik Karlsson on an eight-year, $92-million contract at an $11.5-million AAV set off a chain reaction and, considering he’s already 30, could be a pact we remember one day as crippling for the franchise. At the same time, how could we fault GM Doug Wilson in the moment? His team was two wins away from reaching the final and had paid a hefty price to acquire Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators (more on that later), so Wilson ponied up to keep one of the best blueliners of this generation.
Since the Sharks also had to squirrel away cash to re-sign star RFA right winger Timo Meier, however, other players had to go if San Jose wanted to fit Karlsson and Meier under the cap. That meant captain Joe Pavelski walking as a UFA. Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist, too. Considering Labanc took an unofficial “get me back later” pay cut on a one-year, $1-million extension, it was pretty obvious Wilson would have no chance to add any major pieces in free agency. It was subtraction only, and the subtractions were significant. The Sharks had monumental depth problems at forward going into the season. The likes of Lean Bergmann and Danil Yurtaykin cracked the opening-night lineup, and San Jose commenced its year with four straight losses.
The Sharks coughed and wheezed their way to the .500 mark with a six-game winning streak in November but only stayed north of that mark for a few weeks before sinking underwater. And that was before the catastrophic injuries struck. There was Logan Couture’s fractured ankle; Erik Karlsson’s season-ending broken thumb; and, of course, a torn ACL for Tomas Hertl. The beginning of his 2020-21 season might’ve been in peril, but the projected late start to that campaign helps his chances.
With the infirmary full, the Sharks just couldn’t stay competitive – not with goaltending as bad as theirs. Last season, among all netminders with at least 1,000 minutes played at 5-on-5, Martin Jones ranked dead last in goals saved above average per 60. This season: second last. That’s hard to do. And since backup Aaron Dell also sat near the bottom of the league, there was no one stopping pucks at even an acceptable rate for San Jose in 2019-20. Team shot-attempt data at 5-on-5 revealed San Jose actually held a possession share higher than 50 percent and ranked in the top half of the league, but the goaltending torpedoed everything. Only four teams allowed more goals than San Jose. The depleted roster also meant an anaemic offence: 27th in goals per game and 23rd in power-play efficiency. So there was no chance for San Jose to succeed this season.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Somehow, the Sharks iced the NHL’s No. 1 penalty kill in 2019-20 at 85.7 percent, the best mark of any team in the past four seasons. They still had the ability to put Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Erik Karlsson out there, after all, not to mention grinding centre Barclay Goodrow and stay-at-home blueliner Brenden Dillon, who really upped their trade value in the process. That came in handy later for Wilson.
Other than that, there really wasn’t much to grasp as a positive during this dark year, which produced San Jose’s second playoff miss in the past 16 seasons. The Sharks had no real breakout rookie. One positive to grasp would be Dell’s improvement. From December onward, he posted a .911 save percentage and ranked middle-of-the pack in 5-on-5 GSAA/60. But let it sink in for a second that “Backup goalie provides league-average play for four months” is the most positive headline we can muster for San Jose.
Hertl played his final game of the season Jan. 29, days after representing the Sharks in the All-Star Game. On top of his 18 goals and 36 points in 48 games, he won 54.8 percent of his face offs, he ranked 20th in individual scoring chances per 60 among 334 forwards who played 500 or more minutes at 5-on-5, and only Kevin Labanc scored better in Corsi relative to teammates at 5-on-5. Not bad considering Hertl also faced tough competition. His most frequent opponents were Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mattias Ekholm, Tyler Myers, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.
One condition of the first-round pick shipped out in the Karlsson trade with Ottawa was that, if San Jose made the playoffs in 2019, Ottawa would get a 2020 first-rounder instead – and it was not lottery protected. That meant San Jose had no first-round pick lined up when the 2019-20 season progressed, and the situation looked grimmer by the month as it became clear the Sharks would miss the playoffs and lose out on the lottery.
It was a mission for Wilson, then, to find another first-round pick. It didn’t appear he’d have any shot to do so, as the players worth first-rounders were players he wouldn’t want to trade. Yet he somehow turned ace penalty-killer Goodrow into a 2020 first-round pick at the deadline. The pick is the Tampa Bay Lightning’s, so it’s obviously a late first-rounder, and it still cost a 2020 third-rounder as part of the deal, but the optics were nice. The Sharks are back in the first round. In a deal with the Washington Capitals, Dillon also yielded a 2020 second-rounder and a 2021 conditional third-rounder that becomes a 2020 third-rounder if Washington wins the Stanley Cup.
The Sharks posted the league’s third worst points percentage this season, meaning Ottawa gets the No. 2 and 3 rungs on the draft-lottery-odds ladder, jumping to 25 percent combined odds at the No. 1 pick. So that stings.
Thanks to the Goodrow coup, however, San Jose will pick in Round 1. And it’s a good thing, because the draft setup looks somewhat ugly overall. The Sharks only pick seven times, which is not enough for a basement team, and own just three picks in the first four rounds: a first and two seconds.
Remember, the Sharks just missed the playoffs for only the second time in 16 years, so they haven’t been stockpiling high draft picks. They’ve picked in the first round just twice in the past four drafts, and they traded away one of those first-rounders, sending Josh Norris to Ottawa in the Erik Karlsson deal.
It should come as no surprise, then, that our Future Watch 2020 panel of active NHL scouts and team executives graded San Jose’s farm system as the league’s worst. It’s the price a team pays for being so competitive for so long. The Sharks don’t have a single player ranked among the top 100 individual prospects. The franchise has a history of developing lower-tier prospects into viable NHLers, however, and it saw progress from forwards Joachim Blichfeld, Noah Gregor and Sasha Chmelevski in the AHL this season. Gregor got into 25 NHL games this season, and Blichfeld played three. The team’s top prospect is mercurial defenceman Ryan Merkley, who posts video-game numbers in major junior but carries character concerns. The career trajectory looks similar to Tony DeAngelo’s, and the Sharks are happy with how Merkley has matured over the past year. His upside is undeniable.
A flat cap of $81.5-million, a.k.a. the best-case scenario, would give San Jose about $15 million to play with. Some of that, as much as a third, must go to Labanc in what we can assume will be a make-good extension. The Sharks will have to make a call on re-signing Joe Thornton again, too. Given how keen he was on being dealt to a contender at the 2020 deadline, it feels slightly less certain that he’ll wear teal again to start next season, but he’s expressed his desire to return to the team for his age-41 campaign. If San Jose retains him, there won’t be much money left to chase higher-end UFAs, especially since Dell is a UFA. The Sharks have to figure out their No. 2 goalie situation. Also, would they consider buying out Jones? His contract isn’t structured in a manner to make a buyout impossible.