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What to Expect When You’re Expecting Nothing
Looking forward to the upcoming season
10/8/21 - By Ryan Hall
Well, here we are the cusp of another NHL campaign. Can anyone even remember the last ‘normal’ season? For those who may need a refresher, when we last saw the league in a semblance of normal it was March of 2020. The Toronto Maple Leafs had just lost a game to a Zamboni driver. Marc-Andre Fleury looked like a lifer in Las Vegas. And the San Jose Sharks were putrid.

Some things never change!

Fast forward 18 months, 2 playoffs, 1 shortened ‘Divisional season’. The question is: what to expect from this years’ squad?

The honest answer is that this is a crapshoot of a season due to the numerous incalculable variables. Will a home training camp be a factor? Is a fully healthy roster capable of playing to their ability? Have age and playoff miles eroded the skills of Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, and Logan Couture? And of course, what exactly does GM Doug Wilson foresee as his 3–5-year plan for the club?

Everyone has their own answers to these questions. Every fan may want the same ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup winner, but the pathways to get there make for passionate debate. Personally, I see the next two drafts as having Superstar caliber talent at the top of the class, the type of dynamic offensive players that the Sharks haven’t had since Teemu Selanne donned the teal. I’d say go all in on draft capital and hope to grab one. Maybe you disagree. That’s what makes being a fan so fun.

However, the point of this Season Preview isn’t to discuss what the Sharks should do. Rather, it’s my take on what I see actually happening. So, buckle up, because we’re not going where you might anticipate.

I think the 2021-2022 San Jose Sharks are a playoff team.

Yes, you read that right.

Most of this belief stems from two simple facts: 1) The Pacific Division is not very deep. 2) Goaltending changes everything.

Let’s start with the Pacific Division as a whole. Even the most biased fan would have to admit that only Vegas is a legitimate Cup contender, with Edmonton a step below, but near playoff lock as well. That leaves 6 teams to fight over 1-2 spots.

While Seattle is getting some of the residual Expansion Team overvaluation that Las Vegas generated, a quick look at their roster shows that this isn’t a good team. Meanwhile, Calgary is facing a last chance scenario for Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, but question marks on their backend. Anaheim isn’t ready to contend yet. That means the final Pacific playoff spot should boil down to a race between San Jose, Vancouver, and Los Angeles.

And the case can be made that the Sharks are better than both of them.

In the case of the Canucks, the roster is solid if unspectacular. They’ll go as far as goaltending and defense can take them, with offense being a serious concern. Conversely, the Kings are assembling a potentially deadly offensive attack but are still anchored at the back by Drew Doughty and the tandem of Jonathan Quick/Cal Peterson. Additionally, the recent serious injury to Quintin Byfield shows how quickly holes can appear in a young roster.

Which leaves San Jose as perhaps the most legit of the three clubs.

Obviously, the roster isn’t going to make anyone recall the 1970’s Montreal Canadiens. However, there is enough talent and experience to make a serious run at the post-season. If the Top 6 forwards and Top 4 defensemen play up to their skill levels, they’re better and deeper than either LA or Vancouver. It’s extremely unlikely that Tomas Hertl, Couture, Karlsson, Burns, and Timo Meier have forgotten how to play hockey at the NHL level. Players of that caliber don’t usually fall off cliffs, and even if Father Time remains undefeated, simply having those five play up to their skill level will result in several more wins.

Next, bringing in Nick Bonino and Andrew Cogliano provides Bottom 6 depth and extra leadership into the locker room. For the past two seasons the biggest knock on the Sharks was that they lacked the depth to compete night in and night out. A rotating chorus of players would get their chances, and while many of them brought heart, the lacked the essential skill to hold up against the best competition in the world. The end result is that San Jose would bleed possession and zone time, leading to defeat. Having capable veterans who can play tough minutes, while assisting in the development of youngsters, will pay off.

On the back end, for the first time in a while there appears to be enough depth for everyone to play in their proper spot. Mario Ferraro looks the part of a top pairing defenseman, which allows Burns and Karlsson to slot appropriately. The club also appears to understand that Marc-Eduard Vlasic is no longer a player that can be leaned on, but his placement on the 3rd pairing – and against lesser competition – should allow him to still be effective.

Lastly, while the exact roster composition is still undecided, the injection of youthful high-end talent from William Eklund, or the long anticipated debut of Ryan Merkley, can only help. For proof, think back to how infectious Hertl and his energy was during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons.

The elephant in the room is, of course, Evander Kane, who currently is on a leave of absence from the team. At the time of this writing a report on a potential COVID-19 vaccine scandal was just breaking, making it ever more likely that Mr. Kane will not be part of the Sharks this season. While his on-ice talent is undeniable, this appears to be a situation where addition by subtraction may apply.

Despite all of this, it would be for naught if the Sharks hadn’t improved their goaltending. While a good goaltender can cover a multitude of mistakes, a bad goalie can create the appearance of several new ones. It’s hard to say whether Martin Jones and Devan Dubnyk were the victims of bad defensive play, or the cause? Did the team play differently knowing they couldn’t count on a save and would have to outscore their opponents to win? Did that lead to bad habits which only exacerbated the situation?

Right now, we don’t know the answers to these questions. However, we do know that the tandem of Adin Hill and James Reimer will be an upgrade. It may only be to league average, but it’s been calculated that even such a minor improvement would have generated an extra 5-7 points on the standings last season. Over the course of a full campaign, that should be enough to move the Sharks back into the playoffs.

So, book it! The 2021-22 San Jose Sharks will be a playoff team.

Or they won’t.

That’s the best I can give you in a season where most of us are expecting nothing.


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