The San Jose Sharks had a plan when they let Joe Pavelski walk in the summer of 2019.
Erik Karlsson, re-signed to an eight-year, $92 million dollar contract, would provide Norris-caliber play side by side with stalwarts Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
Logan Couture and Evander Kane, also locked into long-term contracts, would lead the Sharks both on and off the ice. Couture was named captain that fall.
Martin Jones, also locked into a long-term contract, who struggled throughout the Sharks’ 2018-19 Western Conference Final campaign, would find his game once again.
Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier, and Kevin Labanc were the young guns who would help carry the offensive load as the Sharks transitioned out of the Pavelski, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Marleau era.
Doug Wilson and Sharks management, as they had done for most of the previous decade and a half, would support their stars through savvy trades, a usually underrated farm system, and under-the-radar free agent signings, from the NHL to Europe.
Well…that didn’t work out.
It’s been a disastrous almost four years since the summer of 2019.
The Sharks have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons, and are well on their way to their fourth, 8-16-5 after a 6-5 OT loss against the Vancouver Canucks last night.
Burns is in Carolina, dealt there this past off-season for two quarters on the dollar, so he could chase a Stanley Cup.
Karlsson has re-discovered a Norris-caliber game, and to a lesser degree, Vlasic has found some relevancy again, but this was after years in the woods for both defensemen.
Couture appears to have lost a half-step but is still a high-level forward.
Kane, well, do you have an hour to recap that debacle? Jones was bought out after the 2020-21 season. Wilson stepped down because of health issues last April. The Sharks haven’t been able to unearth enough depth players to overcome all these other shortcomings.
Pavelski, of course, has gone on to great success with the Dallas Stars. He reached another Stanley Cup Final in 2020, and has posted 76 goals and 191 points since he left the Sharks. If Pavelski had put up the same numbers in San Jose, he’d be second in goals (Meier, 82) and tops in points in this time span.
Anyway, this isn’t another article bemoaning the Sharks letting Pavelski walk. Considering San Jose’s cap space and Pavelski’s age then, it made sense to not commit three years to the 34-year-old. Speaking of Wilson’s similar high-priced expenditures at roughly the same time, two-time Norris Trophy winner Karlsson was much younger and a higher-impact player, while Kane was much younger.
It’s revisionist history, frankly, to excoriate Wilson and the Sharks for letting Pavelski walk. It was a move to be expected, but a lot of unexpected things have happened since then.
And even if Pavelski had come back, was he going to stop shots for Jones, prevent Kane from being a knucklehead, keep Karlsson healthy, or scout European free agents for Wilson?
But anyway, this just-concluded 1-3-0 San Jose Sharks road trip and the loss to the Canucks has me thinking a lot about the past three years. We saw, actually, a lot of good hockey from the Sharks, but very little winning hockey. That’s been a theme of this road trip, that I’ve written about twice.
What I wrote about up top has probably been written ad nauseam in the last three years. But written less about?
The Sharks haven’t had a winning environment since Pavelski left – also written much about, coincidental or not – but what effect has the lack of winning had on Hertl, Meier, and Labanc?
It’s fitting that they’re all on the same line right now.
And in a vacuum, they’ve been one of the better lines in hockey since they were put together on Nov. 3.
There are 25 lines that have played over 150 5-on-5 minutes together this year: Per Evolving Hockey, Meier-Hertl-Labanc is 10th among this group with a 60.0 Goals For %, fourth with a 56.6 Shots For %, and 10th with a 55.8 Expected Goals %.
To the eye, they’ve had a lot of chemistry. And Labanc, while seen by some as a passenger on this line, most certainly has not been. You see a little bit of Labanc at his best here:
Hertl scores on the redirect 🙌 pic.twitter.com/V2WX8LKCbL
— Sharks on NBCS (@NBCSSharks) November 30, 2022
Labanc (62) is an underrated forechecker when he’s on his game, separating Mike Matheson (8) from the puck. Obviously, he can make some high-end passes, as we see on the shot-pass to Hertl (48).
Against the Buffalo Sabres, we saw Labanc’s shot:
Labanc goes upstairs for the Sharks' second goal 👏 pic.twitter.com/2flmJz6Eya
— Sharks on NBCS (@NBCSSharks) December 5, 2022
Labanc has five goals and nine assists in his last 17 games with Hertl and Meier.
If you told Wilson three years ago that the Sharks’ top line would be Meier-Hertl-Labanc, you might have brought a smile to his face.
But there’s a flipside to this line’s scoring success.
There’s Hertl giving the puck away with less than three minutes left in a tied game in Toronto. There’s Labanc’s team-worst -7 Minor Penalty Differential, many offensive zone penalties. There’s Meier’s team-worst 2.82 Giveaways Per 60 at 5-on-5.
And yes, I know all of these players handle the puck a lot and are paid to create offense, so mistakes will happen.
But there’s also a time when you’re out of balance, you’re seeking offense too much, and according to head coach David Quinn, that’s a reckoning perhaps three-plus years in the making for Hertl and company.
“Bad habits are hard to break,” Quinn offered after the San Jose Sharks’ 6-5 OT loss to the Vancouver Canucks.
And where did these bad habits develop?
Think back to the summer of 2019, after the Sharks made the Western Conference Finals. Hertl was 25, Labanc was 23, and Meier was 22.
You’re tasked to continue the Sharks’ winning tradition – up to that summer, San Jose had missed the playoffs just once in the past 15 years.
But then, everything around you goes wrong. Your superstars aren’t as super anymore. You can’t trust your goaltending. Your support players are young – from 2019-22, 29 San Jose Sharks made their NHL debuts – and they’re not ready for the NHL. You’re now asked to take on a starring role that maybe you’re not ready for.
And of course, your intentions are good, and you want nothing more than to live up to your contract and keep the Sharks’ winning ways going.
This is how Quinn diagnosed it: “Our problems are our guys are trying to do too much because they want to win.”
I’ve written about recent Hertl and Meier gaffes. Labanc got benched last night in the second period, I presume for this effort that led to a turnover and a Scott Harrington penalty. That’s Labanc trying to force a pass through Andrei Kuzmenko (96):
“We’re in the situation that we’re in because we have forced offense for way too long,” Quinn asserted. “That’s why we have the record we have. There’s no other reason why. We have tried to squeeze offense out of situations that don’t require it. Until we stop doing that, we’re going to lose hockey games.”
I’m not sure about “no other reason why” – over the last three weeks, Kaapo Kahkonen, James Reimer, and Aaron Dell have provided mostly substandard goaltending – but it’s a big reason why, for sure.
Underscoring Quinn’s thesis, per SPORTLOGiQ, the Sharks are second-to-last in the NHL in Rush Chances Allowed Per Game.
“A lot of our rush chances [against] have come from possession in the offensive zone,” he said about San Jose’s puck management two weeks ago. “It’s having total control of the puck in the O-zone, all of a sudden, there’s an odd-man rush.”
So how can the San Jose Sharks turn their fortunes around? By turning everything upside down.
“We’ve got to alter the way we think from an offensive perspective,” Quinn said. “Every situation when a puck is on your stick doesn’t mean it’s an offensive opportunity.”
Quinn added, about the Hertl line: “All those guys are going to contribute offensively without necessarily trying to force it. To me, that’s where teams really make a step from a winning and losing standpoint, when the top players understand that every situation is a different situation. It’s not all about offense.”
It’s been one step up, two steps back for this line and the rest of the San Jose Sharks though.
Make no mistake, even though I’ve written mostly about Hertl, Meier, and Labanc here, it’s a team-wide malady, not just the skill players.
For every example of winning hockey, like Meier playing north-south here instead of trying a 50-50 east-west pass to trailing Labanc…
There’s Luke Kunin gifting the Sabres an outnumbered attack.
— NHL Česko (@NHLcz) December 5, 2022
“Sometimes you push for that offense, that little bit more. Sometimes you just gotta live for another day, instead of trying to reach for the puck,” Labanc acknowledged. “Just start backchecking now, stop trying to force the offense. Just wait for the offense to come to you.”
Labanc was actually speaking specifically about his lopsided penalty differential this season, but he may as well have been addressing San Jose’s puck management and decision-making.
Quinn recalled a meeting with captain Logan Couture in October, before the Sharks were about to get served by the New York Islanders 5-2: “It’s not a systematic thing. It’s the decision-making.
“That’s a mindset, I’ve talked to guys that have been here a while, and they all have said to me, and I’ll never forget sitting in my hotel room in Long Island after our awful practice before the Islanders game, Cooch said it’s gonna take some time.
“There’s a lot of things that we got to change, and it’s just gonna take time.”
The Sharks are 8-16-5, so it’s probably taking more time than Quinn was hoping for.
“We’re an evolving hockey team,” he said. “But we have to evolve a lot quicker than we are.”
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