The San Jose Sharks are a Stanley Cup threat with one potentially fatal flaw

The Sharks are a dominant puck possession team with a high-scoring top six, deep forward corps, offensively gifted blueliners and a few shutdown rearguards. If their goaltending doesn't show up, though, San Jose's Stanley Cup hopes might rest on shaky ground.
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The San Jose Sharks are Stanley Cup contenders. About that the standings don’t lie. Despite their current three-game slide, which was extended Monday with a loss at the hands of the Florida Panthers, the Sharks head into their final game before the all-star break on Tuesday just one point out of second spot in the Western Conference and six points back of the Pacific Division-leading Calgary Flames.

And what has in large part powered the Sharks’ brilliance throughout the campaign is their almost-unassailable roster, which looks every bit the Stanley Cup contender as any other club in the conference.

Defensively, San Jose GM Doug Wilson has assembled a blueline the likes of which most believed was only possible through the use of the force-trade option back in the early days of NHL video games. In Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, San Jose boasts two of the top-scoring rearguards in the NHL — they rank first and fifth, respectively — with the back end filled out by shutdown stud Marc-Edouard Vlasic, as well as Justin Braun and Brenden Dillon and a rotating cast of sixth and seventh defenders that has included Radim Simek, Tim Heed and Joakim Ryan.

Offensively, too, the Sharks are almost without flaw. The top talents such as captain Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane and veteran Joe Thornton have continued to operate at a high level and form a stellar top six that has been boosted further by the breakout play of Timo Meier. Depth scoring has also been no issue, with the likes of Joonas Donskoi, Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorensen chipping in to give San Jose the edge in the matchup game on a near nightly basis. It’s with this attack that the Sharks the third-best goal total and third-highest goals per game rate.

But for all that has gone well for San Jose throughout the season, there appears to be one issue that has persisted throughout the season. As the Sharks finish up their pre-all-star schedule, they boast some of the worst goaltending numbers in the league. San Jose has a 3.10 goals against per game rate and has allowed the ninth-most goals against in the NHL. The Sharks’ .891 save percentage at all strengths is the third-worst in the league and only marginally better than that of the Florida Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers, according to NaturalStatTrick. And it doesn’t appear the crease concern is going to right itself anytime soon.

An overview of the season the Sharks netminders are having is concerning, to say the least. Over the course of the campaign, Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have combined to play every single minute for San Jose this season, yet it’s seemed at times like the Sharks have risen to the division and conference contention almost in spite of their netminders. Of the 50 keepers with at least 15 games played this season — Dell has played 17 games, Jones has seen action in 37 — San Jose’s tandem have posted worryingly sub-standard performances. Jones’ .897 SP, for instance, is tied for 40th among the group of 50 goaltenders and only a few thousandths of a point from slipping into the bottom five. Slipping that far would allow Jones to give Dell some company, though, as San Jose’s second-stringer’s .891 SP is third-worst in the NHL among the 15-game netminders.

As one might expect, the numbers at five-a-side aren’t all that better for either goaltender. Using Dell’s 729 minutes as an ice time parameter, only five netminders who have seen at least that much action have a worse 5-on-5 SP than his .905 mark. Included in that group, though, is Jones, whose .895 SP at 5-on-5 is the worst in the league.

Often when this is the case — when a pair of keepers have played this poorly for the same club — there’s some reasoning behind it, most likely the netminders are under siege behind a porous defense. That’s hardly the case in San Jose. In fact, quite the opposite.

Entering action Tuesday, the Sharks boast the league’s top Corsi percentage (55.8), second-best shots percentage (55.3), second-best scoring chance percentage (55.2) and third-best high-danger chance percentage (55.1) at five-a-side. And no, it isn’t a case of offensive dominance skewing the numbers, as the suppression of opposition attempts, shots and chances has been excellent, as well. To wit, per 60 minutes of play at 5-on-5, the Sharks have given up the fewest attempts (51.4), fewest shots (27) and third-fewest scoring chances (24). The only blemish is their 15th-place ranking in high-danger chances against, but even that is less than one-third of a chance per game from ranking in the league’s top 10.

The Sharks’ dominance on the puck has helped lighten the workload for their netminders, too, which makes Jones’ and Dell’s numbers all the more puzzling. Among that grouping of 48 goaltenders who have played at least 729 minutes at 5-on-5, Jones has faced the second-fewest shots against per 60 minutes (26.9) and ranks 22nd in high-danger shots against per 60 minutes (8.2). Dell has likewise had some “easier” nights at 27.8 shots against per 60 minutes and 8 high-danger shots per 60 minutes.

Yet, using the goals saved above average metric, which quantifies how many shots a keeper has stopped when measured against the play of a league-average keeper, both Jones (minus-0.6) and Dell (minus-0.4) rank in the bottom six per 60 minutes at five-a-side. Their play simply hasn’t been up to snuff, and with the stretch run of the campaign and post-season on the not-too-distant horizon, it could be a concern come the post-season.

Of course, some will say any worry is for naught. After all, we’ve seen netminders with middling numbers catch fire at the right time to lead teams through the post-season in the past. Just last season Braden Holtby had a career-worst .907 SP in the regular season before he helped guide the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup on the strength of a .922 SP in the playoffs. And those same folks will note that Jones has shown in the past the ability to step up in the spotlight. He boasts a career .926 SP in 42 playoff games, the seventh-best mark of the 30 goaltenders to play at least 30 post-season contests in the post-lockout era. Maybe he’s got some of that magic once again. Then again, maybe he doesn’t.

The Sharks likely won’t do all that much to address their goaltending issue with the post-season approaching. A tight cap situation almost assures that will be the case. But if neither Jones or Dell can begin to play like a serviceable starter before the post-season begins, San Jose will be left with not much more than a roll of the dice and hope one or the other shows up when the games matter most. And if neither does, goaltending might end up being the only thing that stands between a star-studded Sharks group and the Stanley Cup.

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