February 4, 2019 | 8:50pm ET
By Anthony Di Marco, The Fourth Period
IT’S NOW OR NEVER FOR SAN JOSE
Erik Karlsson, defenceman
MONTREAL, QC -- If you hadn’t already got the memo, here’s a quick reminder: the San Jose Sharks are all in this year. That much has been evident when General Manager Doug Wilson swung for the fences by acquiring superstar defenceman Erik Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators days before training camp.
Fifty-three games in and 67 points later, the Sharks are on pace to finish near the top of their division and seem poised to make noise in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
For the team’s sake, this is as good as news as possible; because this season may very well be the last kick at the can for this group of players in San Jose.
It is no secret Wilson has mortgaged part of his team’s future for short-term success. The Sharks do not own a first-round pick in this or next year’s draft, as they were traded away to Buffalo and Ottawa in respective trades. The Sharks parted ways with prospect forward Rudolph Balcers and the rights to defenceman Josh Norris, both of whom were considered top prospects inside the San Jose system, in the deal to acquire Karlsson, emptying out an already rather thin prospect cupboard. Aside from 2018 first-round pick Ryan Merkley, who has split time between the Guelph Storm and Peterborough Petes of the OHL this season, there is no “blue chip” prospect coming up the pipeline for the Sharks.
So yes, the Sharks went all in on this year, and for good reason.
After bringing in Karlsson, the argument could’ve been made that the Sharks boasted the best defensive group in the entire NHL. Karlsson joined fellow Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns and Olympic and World Cup Gold Medalist Marc-Edouard Vlasic to form arguably the best top-three group of rearguards on any team since the days of Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Francois Beauchemin in Anaheim. The group took some time to mesh together but have since righted the ship.
Karlsson took off after a rough start, riding a 14-game point streak over the month of December; he has three goals and 40 assists on the year in 47 games. Burns, who along with Karlsson was named to the Pacific Division All-Star team, is leading the league in points amongst defenceman, currently at 57 in 53 games. Vlasic’s season has been up and down (-14 on the year), but has seemed to have turned the corner after coming back from injury. If all three play to their potential, along with Brendan Dillon, Justin Braun and Joakim Ryan, the sky is the limit for this defensive group.
In goal, Martin Jones has had his share of struggles. Jones started the year off brutally, and has yet to find consistency in his game. While he has gone through some good stretches this season, including an eight-game win streak in late early January in which he carried a .918 save percentage, but has struggled to give his team this level of play on a consistent basis. The Sharks have sustained the ability to pile up the wins in spite of Jones’ inconsistency, but will need him to sure things up between the pipes if they want to make noise come the post season.
Offense amongst the team’s forwards has been done by committee all season long. While not one single forward has reached the 50-point plateau, five have already eclipsed 40 points; with Logan Couture leading the way with 48. A lot of this has to do with the everlasting health issues surrounding Joe Thornton.
Thornton, 39, has missed nine games due to injuries this season, and it has affected his game even when healthy. Thornton has 26 points on the year, eight of which have come on the man advantage. “Jumbo Joe” is currently skating on the team’s third-line in between Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorensen and has tallied two goals and four assists over his last seven games, so perhaps things are beginning to turn around.
With less than three weeks to go before the NHL Trade Deadline, expect Wilson to be very active. With the team’s defence as strong as any in the NHL and no goaltending option seeming to be better than the one it currently has, no major additions are on the horizon for those two respective positions. If, and more likely when, Wilson adds, he will be looking for a top-six forward.
San Jose could use the bolster at any of the three forward positions, as their current forward group boasts a lot of versatility. While the Sharks will surely be keeping tabs on the likes of Artemi Panarin, Wayne Simmonds and Matt Duchene over the next few weeks, the team’s lack of assets will likely prove tough to acquire any of the big names on the market. As per our TFP’s Top 30 Trade Watch List, the Sharks have expressed interest in Ottawa’s Ryan Dzingel and Carolina’s Michael Ferland.
With Joonas Donskoi currently playing at second line right-wing, the addition of a right wing would push him down to the third line; a move that gives the Sharks a dangerous third trio with he and Thornton. Ditto should the team add a top-six left wing, as it could push Timo Meier or Evander Kane down the depth chart.
An addition down the middle, perhaps Kevin Hayes, would give Head Coach Pete Deboer more options up front. Tomas Hertl, who is currently playing centre on the club’s second line, has had long standing chemistry with Thornton. The addition of another centreman would allow for Hertl to move back to the wing and potentially have a reunion with Thornton.
Wilson will likely not stop at just one addition, as any team looking to contend for a Cup will look to bolster its depth. A depth, veteran defenceman (like New York’s Adam McQuaid) will be on Wilson’s “to-do” list, as will a fourth line, checking forward to sure up the team’s bottom-six.
The Sharks have set themselves up nicely for a run at the Stanley Cup this spring. All the major pieces have been put in place, and with just enough tinkering, the stars could align over the West Coast. But with Karlsson, Thornton and team-Captain Joe Pavelski heading towards Unrestricted Free Agency this summer, time is running out for this group to get the job done.
There doesn’t appear to be any help coming up the pipeline in a shallow prospect pool, so it is now or never in San Jose. The Sharks have been one of the top teams in the NHL over the last decade, but with no Cup to show for it and an aging core group of players, this season could be very well be the final curtain call.