Puck Daddy Bag of Mail: What is the Sharks' ceiling?

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The <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/teams/san/" data-ylk="slk:San Jose Sharks">San Jose Sharks</a> aren’t a super team, but they are plenty interesting.
The San Jose Sharks aren’t a super team, but they are plenty interesting.

“Playoff chances” are in the air, as more teams try to shove their way into the conversation, and other drop out. For the former group, a lot of fans are naturally going to wonder just what their favorite teams’ chances of not-crashing and burning really are — newsflash: they’re not good!

For the other group, it’s already time to look ahead to the offseason, with draft prospects, NHL free agents, and college signees all providing something a little more optimistic to look forward to than the last 20 games of another miserable season.

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So let’s just get to it:

Nick asks: “Do you see the Sharks as anything more than a second-round out?”

The Pacific is really interesting, I have to say.

Vegas is for-sure going to win it unless they collapse completely — one win in the last five games, just sayin’!!! — but the competition for the second spot should be interesting. All three California teams are right there, separated by three points but San Jose (79 points) and LA (77) both have a game in hand on the Ducks (80).

So let’s take the Sharks, who I think are pretty good on the whole. Not great or anything, but that descriptor applies to every team in the Pacific. It is therefore conceivable that they literally have any playoff result happen to them and it wouldn’t be a surprise? They lose in the first round? Sure, that’s plausible. They beat two other Pacific teams and get to the Conference Final? That’s also very much in the realm of possibility.

The only way I would be shocked to see them even get to the second round is if they finish in the bottom Wild Card spot and have to play Nashville, which increasingly looks like the best team in the league these days. They just have to hope they can either finish second or third in their division, or Dallas/Minnesota finishes below them in the standings.

I have a lot of time for this Sharks team, but the West is so weird this season that I’m not making any predictions on them.

Andy asks: “Are the Devils actually good or is Taylor Hall singlehandedly going to lead this team to disappoint me?”

The Taylor Hall-for-MVP argument kinda hinges on him being the only reason they make the playoffs. He has 74 points in 62 games. The Devils have 195 goals in 67. That means he’s been in on 38 percent of their goals this season. It’s remarkable.

Then you look up his relative underlying numbers, and it’s even crazier: Plus-3.6 in Corsi percentage, plus-3.4 in shots, plus-14 goals, plus-4.1 in chances, plus-3.8 in high-danger chances.

And this isn’t an Erik Karlsson-in-his-prime situation where they go from the ’07-’08 Red Wings when he’s on to the ’13-’14 Sabres when he’s off. They’re just fine but not great (51.5 percent of attempts) with him and bad-but-not-embarrassing (48 percent) when he’s off.

It’s basically the same thing as what Nathan MacKinnon is doing in Colorado right now.

But I mean, if you think this team isn’t gonna lose pretty quickly in the playoffs, I don’t know what to tell you. They have a negative goal difference this year despite being seventh in the East. I dunno, man.

Anderson asks: “What’s ‘wrong’ with Braden Holtby?”

Honestly, not that much.

Certainly he isn’t playing to the level you’d expect of him, but the numbers don’t really suggest that it’s his fault, at least not too much. I think a big consequence of the Capitals losing Nate Schmidt, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Karl Alzner this summer is that their defense is understandably not as good as it was last season.

The possession numbers certainly aren’t up to snuff, and that actually seems to be a consequence of both defensive and offensive difficulties — they give up more attempts per 60 and also take fewer.

Now to be sure, his 5-on-5 save percentage is down, but the number of high-danger chances he faces per 60 minutes has grown about 20 percent versus the average he’d seen the previous four seasons, and medium-danger chances are up 22 percent. His save percentage on those shots on goal is down in both cases (and sharply on high-dangers) but I’m not enough of a goaltending expert to tell you if that’s On Him.

Let’s put it this way: His actual save percentage at 5-on-5 is .917 versus an expected number of .919. Not a huge difference, but not great either. The previous four seasons it was .932 versus .926, so he was excelling.

And I’m sure I don’t have to tell any Caps fans this, but their PK is a lot worse (again, likely owing to the depleted D corps) and Holtby has actually been a lot better to make up for the difference. So, it’s something else to consider for sure.

That’s not to totally defend him or anything, but even as he’s gotten a little worse at 5-on-5, his circumstances have gotten a lot more difficult.

Casey asks: “How far can Pittsburgh realistically go without Murray at 100 percent?”

I think we all know the answer to this question. Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith both have higher save percentages than Murray this season (fun quirk, right?) but Murray struggled early and has been a lot better since the calendar flipped to 2018, albeit in limited minutes due to his concussion.

Murray hasn’t played since Feb. 24, and since then, Jarry and DeSmith have stopped a combined 137 of 157. That’s an .872 combined save percentage. Even if you say that’s a blip, it’s probably what happens when two so-so backups (at best) are thrust into sharing something resembling a starter’s role.

Even if they’re significantly better down the stretch and get back to, like, .900, that’s not good enough to win playoff games, full stop.

Jed asks: “What happened to the Crosby vs. Toews arguments?”

Crosby won two Cups and continued to score at an absurd pace while Toews saw his team stop winning a lot and he also stopped being able to score.

The argument was always absurd on its face, galaxy-brain thinking before the term existed. They tried to do it with Claude Giroux and Drew Doughty, too.

Only the Connor McDavid argument makes sense at this point, because McDavid is better than Crosby. So people are now trying to galaxy-brain their way into think it’s still Crosby here (even though it isn’t) because Peter Chiarelli traded away pretty much all of McDavid’s help.

Ryan asks: “Could you argue that the Knights success this season has hindered their future plans a bit? They were supposed to suck for a bit and acquire mountains of assets and now…Tomas Tatar?”

I could and have argued that, yes.

A lot of guys are having absurd career seasons (what a coincidence, most of them are in contract years) and if they’re pushing in three assets to acquire Tomas Tatar that seems like an overpay. Not that Tatar is necessarily bad or anything, but the best scoring pace of his career was 56 points, and that was also four years ago. He’s 27 now. He’s not gonna get better.

This should be especially worrying because they don’t have any sort of deep prospect pool right now, and probably won’t for a few years. That comes with the acknowledgement that they seem to have done very well for themselves at this past draft, but they just don’t have the bodies.

And hey, this isn’t some uncommon thing. Teams always see one year of outsized results and think that’s how hockey works for them, only to learn to their horror and disappointment that it wasn’t.

MDS asks: “If all NHL players became UFAs at end of season, and assuming Karlsson, Hedman, Subban, et. al. signed elsewhere, who would you pursue first if you were a GM: Gostisbehere, Provorov, Seth Jones, Ekblad, Klingberg, McAvoy, or Werenski?”

I think I would say I prefer Werenski and McAvoy to anyone else in this group, even before taking their ages into consideration.

Columbus didn’t really take off until Werenski came into the league, and then all of a sudden wow, they made everything look a lot easier than they had the year before. That’s not the case for McAvoy but man, look at this kid play hockey. He’s the prototypical No. 1 defenseman.

That said, I like pretty much all of these guys a ton (not so much Ekblad) so you can’t go wrong with any of them. McAvoy and Werenski just seem to have higher ceilings for me.

Laura asks: “Who’s your pick for most underrated, undrafted NCAA player?”

He’s been getting a little more attention lately, but Princeton’s Ryan Kuffner is second in the nation in goals (28) and shoots the puck a ton. It’s his second straight point-a-game season, and my man plays for Princeton. Not exactly an offensive powerhouse, y’know?

Kuffner will be 22 in June, which is a bit on the old side for prospects, but Jimmy Vesey was 24 when he came out of college and the NHL went nuts for him. Kuffner will finish with a better goals-per-game at 21 with less help than Vesey’s age-24 number. And NHL GMs will like that he’s 6-foot-1 as well.

As always, take these things with a grain of salt; the ECAC isn’t exactly a tough conference for higher-end guys to score in, but it’s hard to ignore 47 goals in his last 65 NCAA games at ages 20 and 21.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless noted otherwise.

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