After the weekend, there was lots of chatter about the San Jose Sharks’ problem at bottom-pairing defense.
Well, nobody’s talking about that right now — and that’s not a good thing.
As Radim Simek returned to plug one crack, gaping holes appeared in San Jose’s bottom-six group of forwards during their 5-4 loss to the St. Louis Blues.
We’ll focus on that here — and tomorrow, we’ll expand on one particularly excruciating San Jose Sharks’ shift and highlight what’s clicking on the power play.
We’ll also talk a little Erik Karlsson (again) here too.
Infamously, the San Jose Sharks started last season with Danil Yurtaykin, Lukas Radil, and Lean Bergmann in their top-six.
#SJSharks lines tonight:
— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) October 3, 2019
In fairness to this trio, it wasn’t their fault that they were given responsibilities beyond their grasp.
Anyway, it was the beginning of a carousel up front for the San Jose Sharks forwards last year. Let’s call it a tribute to the expansion Sharks, a year before the 30th anniversary:
Letunov & True are making NHL debuts tonight.
That means 7 rookie forwards (Bergmann, Blichfeld, Gregor, Kellman, Yurtaykin) have made NHL debuts for #SJSharks this year, tying club record from expansion year (Whitney, Courtenay, Quintin, Craigwell, Falloon, Sullivan, Odgers)
— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) February 5, 2020
But I digress: In the third period tonight, Bob Boughner began to tinker with his lines. And who could blame him? San Jose happened to be in the game against St. Louis, but it wasn’t because of their 5-on-5 play. Per Natural Stat Trick, through 40, the Blues raced out to a 19-6 Scoring Chances and 11-0 High-Danger Corsi For (High-Danger Scoring Chances) advantage at 5-on-5. Two power play markers were keeping them alive.
These backbreakers may have been the final straws for Boughner:
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) January 19, 2021
We’ll get to Karlsson later.
Keeping in the mind that a goal surrendered is often multiple mistakes compounded on one another — just one person is rarely to blame, and that includes Karlsson — Boughner bemoaned Fredrik Handemark (37) here, bad bounce or whatever.
“It’s coming off our stick. We have full control. We’re on the half-boards. We got caught flat-footed.”
Then this breakdown — no bad luck here — infuriated the San Jose Sharks’ bench boss.
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) January 19, 2021
Boughner, on Kyrou GWG, which came off bad #SJSharks line change: "You can't have all 3 guys changing at once. The LW's got to hold there. You can only do so much talking. After a while, you going to just change personnel to the guys who want to do it right."
LW there? Gregor
— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) January 19, 2021
So Boughner changed things up in the final frame: “We went to three lines to try to get some momentum going.”
Third period shift counts tell the story: Logan Couture/Tomas Hertl/Evander Kane/Timo Meier (9), Patrick Marleau (8), Kevin Labanc/Marcus Sorensen (7), Ryan Donato (6), Matt Nieto (5), John Leonard (4), Noah Gregor/Fredrik Handemark (2).
Some readers will be troubled by Marleau’s volume or Leonard’s figure, but for this reporter, the most troubling thing is Gregor’s demotion. It’s because of how much they’re counting on him.
To open the season, the San Jose Sharks were hoping that Gregor could seize the vacant third-line center role. It was an idea with plenty of upside: The speedy Gregor certainly possesses a higher offensive ceiling than Marleau, Handemark, or a Joel Kellman. But the downside?
3C is a truly highly-leverage job, much to ask of a 22-year-old sophomore with no history of NHL consistency. That, by the way, is not necessarily Gregor’s fault. Players grow at their own pace and he’s certainly not lagging in his development. Nor is it Boughner’s, who was rifling through a pile of not-so-great options.
You know where I’m going with this — I’ve written a ton about Doug Wilson sitting out this off-season’s UFA buyer’s market — so I’m not going to belabor the point.
Now I’m not calling it quits on Gregor at 3C this season, by any means, we’re just three games in. If he’s proven anything, it’s that he has NHL-caliber talent and probably ability beyond a run-of-the-mill league forward too — but these aren’t encouraging early returns.
With just five sure-fire top-nine forwards, the San Jose Sharks desperately need more legitimate options to emerge. And I’ll say it here: If they don’t figure out a stable solution at third-line center, they’re not making the playoffs.
This isn’t even broaching the possibility of Hertl and Couture getting injured.
It’ll be fascinating to see what Boughner does on Wednesday: One game is one thing, but will he actually juggle his lines? And if he does, will someone different get a look at third-line pivot?
We know it’s not going to be Handemark.
It’s a different ride this year: But is the merry-go-around up front turning again?
On Karlsson’s Skating
A note about Erik Karlsson here, since he remains topic du jour. In November, Jack Han wrote that Karlsson “is still eminently exploitable when forced to pivot.”
No, Han wasn’t talking about Karlsson last year — he was talking about 2016.
But let’s bring it back to 2021.
“Right now the numbers suggest that Karlsson is still who we think he is,” Han added, “an all-star offensive defenseman who has trouble taking on the rush and managing risk in the defensive zone.”
San Jose Hockey Now followed up with him here.
Anyway, that sounds like Karlsson taking on Kyrou’s speed, right? Indeed, Karlsson is flat-footed — that’s not his fault, that’s more on Handemark — but he probably should’ve turned completely earlier than he did and tried to keep up with Kyrou by skating forward. Instead, he got himself on a highlight reel, for all the wrong reasons.
For what it’s worth, Karlsson actually appeared very nimble with his straight-ahead speed tonight, which we’ll touch on more tomorrow.
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