The San Jose Sharks are still swimming around in a difficult rebuild: Previewing the Pacific
Photo credit:© Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports
By Michael Liu1 year ago
When the San Jose Sharks traded for Erik Karlsson in 2018, the expectation was that they were going to contend before going through a rebuild. They skipped the contending part and stalled into a mess of aging anchors. What the Sharks are going through now is a slow rebuild, one with limited flexibility and not a lot of futures to work with. It’s gotten a bit better, but they’re definitely not past the hard part.
Here’s how San Jose will look this year, and how the Vancouver Canucks will stack up.
Quantity, not quality up front
The forwards that the Sharks can call upon are very limited in terms of ability. Of course, Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl remain their excellent selves, and Logan Couture is still the glue that holds that top line together. Outside of them however, the quality drops off quite heavily.
It’s not that the Sharks have a lack of proven NHL forwards. Rather, it’s the fact that they’re proven and middling. Luke Kunin, Oskar Lindblom, and Alexander Barabanov are decent top 9 options, while Nick Bonino, Nico Sturm, and Matt Nieto could be called fringe second-line players. But that’s not a playoff calibre lineup, in any division. All of these forwards are in tough to be really good options on the second and third lines, which is the big issue for San Jose. None of their proven options are true needle movers in the NHL.
The Sharks will be boosted by the return of Kevin Labanc after an injury-plagued season. But even then, there are questions about whether he can return to his top-6 form like before. He’s had two seasons of mediocre production, and last year he was shut down thanks to season-ending shoulder surgery. If Labanc can bounce back, then San Jose can try to address some other pressing issues. But if he can’t, Labanc could very well be on the move.
San Jose has a couple of intriguing young talents that could see themselves earning a full-time role. William Eklund probably stands at the top of that list, having played well during his short stint last season before being sent back to Sweden. The creative, playmaking winger brings a high-end talent that’s sorely needed in the Sharks lineup, and should make a strong audition to feature for them in the 2022-23 season. Others that could earn roster spots include Thomas Bordeleau and Tristan Robins.
A decimated d-corps
Once upon a time, the Sharks had possibly the most feared d-corps in the league during the mid-2010s. Now, it’s a shadow of its former self, quite literally. There are two legitimate top-4 options in Erik Karlsson and Mario Ferraro on San Jose’s roster. Karlsson, while nowhere near his Norris-winning self, still possesses a high level of hockey IQ and can be counted upon to make the right pass. What used to tie it together was that elite skating, but that’s long gone. Still, Karlsson would make a decent top-4 defenceman on any playoff team. As for Ferraro, he might not be putting up the same points as Karlsson but plays a very sound defensive game. Hard-nosed in his own end and responsible with the puck, he too should be part of the Sharks’ top pairing.
Outside of these two, there’s not much to like.
Marc-Eduoard Vlasic’s steep decline has been well publicized and the former 2014 Olympian has become a $7 million AAV anchor for the next four seasons. Radim Simek, Matt Benning, and Jaycob Megna are all fringe NHL defencemen, who should be on the bottom pairing as opposed to having any one of them slotted into the top 4. There’s Nikolai Knyzhov and Markus Nutivaara, who have both shown flashes of top 4 play but have also spent lots of time injured. Both will be coming off on the IR, and naturally, question marks surround the pair.
That being said, the Sharks have two interesting young defencemen that could establish themselves as full-time NHLers. Former first-rounder Ryan Merkley played nearly half of the 2021-22 season with San Jose and should look to cement himself into the lineup. He brings dynamic skating and good transition play that shines on the powerplay. Santeri Hatakka could also make a push for a roster spot, having featured in 6 games the past season. The young Finn established himself in the AHL as a hard-to-play-against defenceman, a rarity on a very poor Barracuda team.
Decent, but not great goaltending
The Sharks’ tandem won’t be stealing any games. It’s a duo that features NHL-calibre netminding, but nothing screams exceptional about them. Kaapo Kahkonen is projected to be the starter for San Jose and is deserving of the spot. His exit from the Wild was a little bit head-scratching considering his age and potential, but it’s the Sharks’ gain. During the 11-game stint that saw him finish with a record of 2-6-1, Kahkonen put up a respectable 2.86 GAA with a .916 SV%. It stands to reason that the 26-year-old could take another step in his development and become a good starting goalie, but it does remain to be seen. Kahkonen doesn’t get the benefit of a very good defence in front of him.
As for the backup, James Reimer should prove to be more than an adequate option. Reimer was never going to be the starting netminder that the Toronto media hyped him up to be, but he’s been able to carve out a solid NHL career for himself. The 34-year-old recorded a GAA of 2.90 and SV% of .911 through 48 appearances last season, and should see a slight reduction in the number of games that he plays. It should help Reimer battle some of his inconsistency issues that reared their head when the goalie was fatigued.
So both netminders are good, but they also wouldn’t be the ones that could make the big save, or steal a game for the Sharks. That’s unfortunate, considering that San Jose could really use a goalie that could throw the team on their back.
How the Canucks stack up
To put it simply, Vancouver is a much better team than San Jose on paper. That should also prove true on the ice. If they aren’t, then serious questions need to be asked. The Sharks are taking steps to get themselves out of the mess they’re currently in, but are a team that still needs a couple of years to even think about making the playoffs.
The Canucks’ first line is on par, if not better than what the Sharks have to offer. The rest of the forward corps should easily outclass what San Jose currently projects to have, all the way down to the fourth line. It’s a similar story with the defence, where Vancouver should match the very best that the Sharks have to offer and then have the depth to surpass them. Between the pipes, it’s not even a question.
So whereas Vancouver should be pushing for a playoff spot, the Sharks should still remain at the bottom of the Pacific. There’s promise and some moves that are trending in the right direction, but for San Jose, the 2022-23 season is one that shouldn’t be filled with expectations. Look for them to be in the high lottery picks this season.
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