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Quick Thoughts: Sharks Better Without Karlsson? Of Course Not



Credit: NBCS Bay Area

It’s kind of crazy that I need to say this, but the San Jose Sharks aren’t better without Erik Karlsson.

Sure, you can point at the Sharks’ 3-2 triumph over the Anaheim Ducks. A quarter of the way into this shortened season, that’s only their second regulation victory of the year. And it was achieved without Karlsson, out with a day-to-day lower-body injury.

Sure, you can point at a 1-for-2 power play that ran smoothly, culminating in John Leonard’s first NHL goal. With Karlsson, the San Jose Sharks had been mired in a 2-for-34 PP slump.

Sure, you can point at a perfect penalty kill – albeit, it was just one kill – after Karlsson was on the ice in the last two games for four of the San Jose penalty kill’s last six goals against.

On the first point, despite the result, San Jose did not have a great 5-on-5 game. Per Natural Stat Trick, Anaheim had a 12-7 High-Danger Chances edge. They needed Martin Jones to bail them out in the first period. And to the eye, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Nikolai Knyzhov – who to their credit, each soaked up 20-plus minutes – don’t belong in a playoff-caliber top-four. Knyzhov still has a lot to work on in terms of decision-making and completing the easy pass; Vlasic’s feet and motor just aren’t what they used to be.

Meanwhile, Fredrik Claesson and Nicolas Meloche need to be heavily sheltered and offer little puck-moving deception or upside. Basically, between these bottom-four defensemen, you’re going to be defending most of the night. And yes, I’m aware that Claesson and Meloche, in particular, had decent-enough underlying stats, but I doubt they will hold up against stronger competition and in high-leverage situations. Claesson and Meloche, by the way, led the Sharks in Offensive Zone Faceoff % at 5-on-5 – meaning Boughner indeed did protect them by giving them a significant amount of OZ starts.

I touched on all this in my Game Notes.

Karlsson is struggling, at least relative to the lofty expectations that his contract engenders, but the Sharks don’t have the depth to withstand his long-term loss or Simek’s. Karlsson, for all his flaws, is still an excellent puck-mover – that matters for breaking the puck out of your zone, unless you plan on defending all night – and with his stick and feet, he still makes his share of good defensive plays.

Don’t miss the forest for the trees with Karlsson. When we say he’s struggling, we’re talking relative to a multiple Norris Trophy-winning, highest-paid defenseman in the league standard – there’s a long way from that to a mediocre San Jose Sharks team being better without him.

As for special teams, I’ve been arguing for a while that Karlsson and Brent Burns should be split up on the power play.

An Argument for Splitting Burns & Karlsson on Sharks’ Power Play

So I don’t chalk up yesterday’s PP performance – and to their credit, the Brent Burns-led first unit did a nice job hanging onto the puck – to the power play being better without Karlsson. I do think Burns should lead his own unit, and Karlsson should lead his own – the puck-dominant blueliners are better without each other on the man advantage.

Digging deeper into this, look at how the San Jose Sharks power play functioned last year with Karlsson and Burns together, Karlsson and Burns apart, and neither. The 5-on-4 Per 60 numbers, per Natural Stat Trick, are striking:

Player 1Player 2TOICF/60SF/60SCF/60HDCF/60GF/60xGF/60
Erik Karlsson w/Brent Burns73.15100.8957.4245.9318.054.16.5
Erik Karlssonw/o Brent Burns82.5120.7362.556429.0988.31
Brent Burnsw/o Erik Karlsson103.4333333110.2259.7559.1722.626.387.75
w/o Erik Karlssonw/o Brent Burns34.9833333372.0337.7339.4524.011.724.32

According to these numbers, the best San Jose power play unit last season featured Karlsson as the undisputed quarterback – they generated the most Shot Attempts, Shots, Scoring Chances, High-Danger Chances, Goals, and Expected Goals of any configuration. Compare these figures to the Sharks’ 5-on-4 attack without Karlsson or Burns – in every category except for High-Danger Chances, it’s a sad lot.

It’s not to say that Karlsson or Burns were completely responsible for the PP’s on-ice numbers – Karlsson and Burns are more likely to get better San Jose forwards to work with too.

But it’s a simple illustration: Long-term, the power play isn’t likely to be better without Karlsson.

Finally, the penalty kill: There are a lot of questions as to why Karlsson was even on the ice for those three PP goals against versus Vegas.

As I wrote in my Game Notes after the 3-1 loss, those goals weren’t necessarily on Karlsson.

Yes, Karlsson has been on the ice for a team-worst seven goals against at 4-on-5. Just trailing him, Mario Ferraro has been on the ice for six goals against – should we pull Ferraro from the PK?

Yes, Karlsson doesn’t offer much physical presence on the PK. But he’s good at other important facets of the PK – getting to 50-50 pucks in the corner, limiting time and space with his feet and stick to hurry opposition passes.

Karlsson was an indispensable part of a league-best PK last year, what changed?

With or Without Karlsson

I don’t think these stats are particularly meaningful, but I was curious how the San Jose Sharks have performed with or without Karlsson over the years:

w/ Karlsson (Points %)w/o Karlsson
2018-1930-16-7 (.632)16-11-2 (.586)
2019-2025-27-4 (.482)4-9-1 (.321)
2020-215-7-1 (.423)1-0-0 (1.000)
TOTAL60-50-12 (.541)21-20-3 (.511)

Jones Strikes Back

Credit to Martin Jones – after a public lashing from Bob Boughner in the wake of Thursday’s 6-2 loss to Los Angeles – the unflappable netminder bounced back with a competent performance against Vegas and difference-making work last night.

“Jonesie made some great saves,” Bob Boughner said. “That’s what we need, great goaltending like that every night, give ourselves a chance.”

But we’ve seen this movie before: Jones struggles, he bounces back. There’s no doubt that he’s tough-minded. But the San Jose Sharks need a more consistent keeper – they need an end to the rollercoaster that they’ve experienced between the pipes for the last three years.

Devan Dubnyk is no guarantee – he may have had a worst year than Jones last year – but based on his overall body of work, I’d like to see him get the ball for a few games. I have no issue with Jones as a very expensive back-up – at the moment, San Jose doesn’t really have another option because of a fat contract that pays him until 2024 anyway – and I think he’s likely still a better netminder than prospects Alexei Melnichuk or Josef Korenar.

As I’ve said many times, these Sharks are a group with little margin for error. And while Jones can still play, he doesn’t offer the consistent ability to make up for these margins. Honestly, I don’t know if Dubnyk does either – but even slightly more consistent goaltending could provide a world of difference for a San Jose squad still struggling to find its way.

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