Maybe, just maybe, Doug Wilson’s plan is coming together?
During the off-season, I was just as critical as anybody of Wilson’s inactivity in a buyer’s UFA market. I thought it was a no-brainer for the San Jose Sharks to sign a veteran top-nine forward or two, especially at the fall’s bargain prices. Instead, San Jose opted to stand mostly pat with their youngsters, inking just penalty-killing specialist Matt Nieto, 41-year-old Patrick Marleau, and enforcer Kurtis Gabriel.
I might be proven right yet, but I have to admit, this isn’t the 2019-20 Sharks. Last year, a parade of young forwards — Dylan Gambrell, Noah Gregor, Lean Bergmann, Joachim Blichfeld, Joel Kellman, Maxim Letunov, Antti Suomela, Alexander True, and Danil Yurtaykin – failed to establish themselves in the line-up, even on a shallow San Jose roster, combining for just 13 goals in a 70-game season.
The kids are better this season, whether it’s fresh talent or another year of seasoning. Goals aren’t the be-all, end-all measure, but Rudolfs Balcers, Ryan Donato, Gambrell, Gregor, and John Leonard have already combined for nine goals in 16 games. Balcers, Gregor, and Leonard all scored during this two-game set with St. Louis.
Before tonight’s 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Blues, the actually goalless Gambrell was San Jose’s fifth-most used forward, behind only Logan Couture, Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl, and Kevin Labanc. Balcers, Donato, Gregor, and Leonard have all flashed legitimate top-nine offensive potential.
Now don’t plan the parade – Donato, Gregor, and Leonard still have a lot to add to their repertoire, evidenced by their combined eight shifts in the final frame, compared to, for example, Hertl’s 13 – but the potential of this season’s young forwards is, to put it kindly, more obvious than last year’s.
Question is, can the kids learn fast enough on the job to help the San Jose Sharks make the playoffs?
They may also need to withstand the absence of Gambrell, who’s emerged, despite just two assists in 13 games, as a rock-solid 3C, at least defensively. Gambrell went into concussion protocol after this Kyle Clifford hit:
Gambrell left game after this hard Clifford hit in the 2nd period pic.twitter.com/BEyJI2Gap0
— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) February 21, 2021
“I don’t think he felt himself after. Better to be safe than sorry,” Bob Boughner shared. “Just watched the hit before I came in here, looked like a pretty clean hit. Got squeezed off, his head hit the glass. Hopefully, it’s nothing serious and we can have him back. He was playing great.”
Another Part of the Plan
Another part of Doug Wilson’s plan? A healthy Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl forming a solid one-two punch up the middle. Hertl has been inconsistent, but his game appears to be trending upward.
One sign of that? Tonight was just the second time this season – on Feb. 9, Couture and Timo Meier each scored – that the top-two lines both scored a goal at 5-on-5: Couture and Kane combined for three, while Balcers got one (off a primary Hertl assist).
“Your big dogs have to be your big guys, and they were tonight,” Boughner said.
Now if the San Jose Sharks could just get Erik Karlsson going…
Up 4-1, the San Jose Sharks surrendered three straight goals in 10:04. It was déjà vu for San Jose, insofar as giving up goals in bunches.
This was the 13th time this season that San Jose has allowed two unanswered goals in under five minutes or three-or-more straight goals in under 10 minutes. This is in just 16 games and not counting any empty netters:
- 2 goals against in 3:26 @ Arizona on Jan. 14
- 2 goals against in 2:10, 2 goals against in 3:43 @ Arizona on Jan. 16
- 2 goals against in 1:33, 2 goals against in 4:43 @ St. Louis on Jan. 18
- 5 goals against in 9:33, 2 goals against in 1:31 @ Colorado on Jan. 26
- 3 goals against in 8:59 @ Colorado on Jan. 28
- 3 goals against in 8:19 @ Anaheim on Feb. 5
- 3 goals against in 9:55, 3 goals against in 2:05 @ Los Angeles on Feb. 11
- 2 goals against in 4:20 @ St. Louis on Feb. 18
- 2 goals against in 3:11 @ St. Louis on Feb. 20
On the other hand, the Sharks have done this just five times to their opponents this year:
- 2 goals for in 4:08 @ Arizona on Jan. 14
- 2 goals for in 2:40 @ St. Louis on Jan. 18
- 3 goals for in 9:24 @ Minnesota on Jan. 24
- 3 goals for in 7:25 @ Anaheim on Feb. 5
- 2 goals for in 2:46 @ St. Louis on Feb. 20
But credit to San Jose, not only did they win the period and the game, their process was strong too. Per Natural Stat Trick, they asserted a 6-2 Scoring Chances, 3-0 High-Danger edge at 5-on-5 in the final frame.
“That was a character period. Easy to get rattled when you give up a three-goal lead,” Boughner pointed out. “We just kept coming.”
What was Boughner’s message to his group between periods?
“Deal with the adversity,” Boughner said, also referring to a couple non-calls from the officials. “We had to find a way to win a period. It didn’t matter what it looked like.”
The Sharks may not be a Cup contender – but there’s some evidence, like the upgraded forward corps, that this is a better team:
The Sharks are now 6-1-2 in one-goal games this season. They were 12-8-5 in that department in 70 games last season.
— Curtis Pashelka (@CurtisPashelka) February 21, 2021
“Everybody in the room believed we were going to find a way to win,” Couture said of the locker room’s mood after blowing a three-goal lead. “Nobody got down on each other.”
That doesn’t sound very impressive, but that also sounds better than last year’s fractured group. For a squad still trying to find its footing, tonight was another step in the right direction.
And we’ve talked so much about the young forwards, let’s not forget the young defensemen. Mario Ferraro and Nikolai Knyzhov, in particular, have been more-than-pleasant surprises.
“For us, it’s fun to watch some of our younger players get thrown into situations where they’ve never been. They may not be comfortable,” Couture said. ‘Whether it’s Knyzy or Mario playing massive minutes on the back-end or [Meloche] and [Claesson] helping us out.
“They’re such good players at a young age. They want to learn; they want to get better.”
Slowly, painfully, Wilson’s plan may be coming together. Up front, on the back-end. And Devan Dubnyk earned his first win as a Shark to boot.
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