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No doubt about it: The San Jose Sharks aren’t where we thought they would be.
When they traded for Erik Karlsson and instantly had the deepest blue line in the league, the assumption was that they would be a juggernaut. That didn’t really come to pass straightaway. They got outscored in the first two months of the season and only went 12-9-5. Hardly the runaway freight train most had good reason to expect.
And if that colored opinions negatively, I guess I get it. Because you can have all the 55 percent Corsis you want over a two-month stretch — see also: Carolina — but if you aren’t winning, no one is going to care all that much. Frankly, the Sharks’ early struggles go above and beyond those of the Hurricanes because the Hurricanes just picked second in this past draft and will apparently never have someone who can stop the puck.
The Sharks, on the other hand, are a perennial playoff team with a good forward group and, now, elite D corps, so to get outscored over two months is going to raise some eyebrows. Many of those eyebrows might not have had occasion to look at the Sharks’ PDO over that stretch (96.8) but hey, wins are wins.
Of course, if you want to be a “wins” guy, you also have to acknowledge that the Sharks walloped the competition in December. They pulled points in 11 of their 15 games, nine of which were regulation wins, their share of shot attempts actually improved by a full percentage point, and their PDO checked in at a very repeatable 100.3. No surprise, then, that outshooting the competition by more than 100 resulted in them outscoring the competition by 13.
Karlsson in particular was a big driver of the offense, as any right-thinking person would have expected once he got his feet under him. He’s still “only” sixth on the team in scoring (3-29-32 in 39 games) and Brent Burns actually leads the team in points. But since about mid-November, he’s gone off for 3-22-25. You’ll note, then, that his first 19 games saw him go 0-7-7 and since that time he’s not only been good (60ish Corsi, etc.) but scoring a ton. Weird how that happens.
So why would this team be struggling so much if the underlyings are so good and everyone is pretty much producing at an effective rate these days? Well, you wouldn’t believe it, but the answer is goaltending. As it so often is.
In October and November, Aaron Dell and Martin Jones combined to provide .896 goaltending in all situations. The current league average is .908, so to be 12 points below that is going to lose you a lot of games you should have otherwise won.
In December, the Sharks’ team save percentage actually dropped, to .892, and yet they won a ton of games because the puck started going in the net at the other end. Their team shooting percentage improved from 8.6 to 11.6 percent. On the balance, they’ve scored about as many goals as they reasonably “should have” (140 actual versus 141.4 expected).
So the question, then, is one of expected-goal generation and prevention. In all situations this season, the Sharks are second in xG per 60, but only 17th in xG against. That basically means they’re playing high-tempo hockey (which you’d expect) but should still be outscoring their opponents by more than half a goal a game. The actual difference, though, has been more like a third of a goal.
And if you want to say that’s the difference between the Sharks living up to expectations, I guess that’s fine. If you’d prefer that they have, I don’t know, 58 points instead of 49, the math definitely doesn’t work out that goaltending has so far cost them nine points. It’s more like two.
The idea that Karlsson and Burns haven’t been able to figure it out, though, is absurd. Karlsson has a CF% of 60.7 at 5-on-5, and Burns is lagging behind at “just” 57.5 percent. Together they’ve attempted the most and second-most shots on the team by a wide margin. And if you want to say defenders shouldn’t be taking that many more shots than, say, Evander Kane or Timo Meier, I wouldn’t disagree with that (a shot from farther out is less likely to go, etc.). But the sheer volume and their combined skill level still make them exceptionally dangerous players; one also imagines they’re not going to shoot 2.2 and 4.2 percent for the rest of the season.
It’s almost like there’s learning curve even for elite talent moving to a new team. Huh, weird.
Again, this team — both as individuals, sans goaltenders, and a group — is trending up, and you’d definitely expect to see them post a lot more months like December the rest of the way than what they did in October and November.
If they can start getting saves at Jones’s or Dell’s career rates of .914, it’s probably over for the Western Conference. But maybe that’s a bigger “if” than we had reason to believe coming into the season.