Sharks’ goaltending is historically bad for Stanley Cup contender

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The San Jose Sharks have a big problem.

They are a powerhouse team in the Western Conference, and what should be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. They are loaded at forward. Their defense, when healthy, is probably among the top two or three units in the league and boasts two Norris Trophy winners. Together, those two units are as fearsome as any other team in the league.

There is only one part of this team that is going to hold them back, and it could not be in a worse place when it comes to playoff hockey.

It is goaltending.

It is always goaltending.

After Martin Jones and Aaron Dell combined to give up six goals in a blowout loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday (the seventh goal was an empty-net goal), the fourth consecutive game they have allowed at least four goals, the goaltending duo finds itself with the worst combined save percentage of any team in the NHL. Dead last. Thirty one out of 31 with less than 10 games to play.

Think of how many teams in the league have questionable or unsettled goaltending situations right now. Bad teams. Lottery teams. The Edmonton Oilers, for crying out loud. The Sharks’ goalies are below them. All of them.

Neither goalie has a save percentage over .898.

Among the 55 goalies that have appeared in at least 20 games this season, Jones and Dell rank 48th and 55th respectively in overall save percentage. They are 51st and 54th (Jones is actually the lower of two here) in even-strength save percentage. There is nothing about their performance this season that should make Sharks fans optimistic come playoff time, because if there is one position that can ultimately boost or doom a team in a best-of-seven series, it is the goalie.

The performance from their goalies this season is what makes their overall success as a team so impressive, because it is almost unheard of for a team to be this bad in net for a full season, and still be in such a good position in the standings.

Over the past 25 years there have only been 16 teams to finish in the bottom-five in save percentage and still make the playoffs in that season. That comes out to around a 12 percent chance of making the playoffs with bottom-five goaltending. Only seven of those teams finished higher than 10th in the league standings, and only one to this point has finished in the top-five (the Sharks may soon do it, too).

Only two (the 2011-12 Chicago Blackhawks and the 2014-15 New York Islanders) have made the playoffs over the past eight seasons.

Nobody else lower than 19th this season is even in a playoff position at the moment.

Let’s take a look at the aforementioned 16 teams that did end up making the playoffs, where they finished in the regular season standings, and what their postseason result ended up being.

Hide your eyes, Sharks fans, because this is not encouraging.

Ten of those teams ended up losing in the first round, and of the six teams that made it to the second round, one of them (the 2009-10 Pittsburgh Penguins) beat another of the teams (the 2009-10 Ottawa Senators) on this list.

Two teams ended up overcoming their goaltending to reach the Stanley Cup Final, both of them losing.

The 2008-09 Red Wings might actually be the best comparison to this Sharks team because the rest of the roster was so strong that it became one of the rare teams that was actually able to cover up for its issues in net.

This Sharks team is kind of similar, but probably not anywhere near as good. Keep something in mind about that Red Wings team: They were the defending the Cup champions that season and were in the middle of a two-year stretch where they were probably the most dominant team of the salary cap era. The roster was stacked.

Is this Sharks team that good? Maybe with a healthy Erik Karlsson they could get close to reaching that level, but they are probably not on that Red Wings level.

The other team made the Cup Final, the 2005-06 Oilers, was one of the teams that actually finished with the worst overall save percentage in a season and still ended up making the playoffs. But here is the thing that needs to be kept in mind about that Oilers team: They actually added a goalie, Dwayne Roloson, at the trade deadline and addressed their biggest flaw. 

It also worked.

Before Roloson arrived the Oilers were trotting out a forgettable trio of Jussi Markkanen, Mike Morrison, and Ty Conklin, who together posted a save percentage of only .880 during the regular season. That is impossibly bad, even for the 2005-06 season where goal-scoring was at its highest level since the 1980s. The league average that season .900, while no other team had a mark lower than .885.

When Roloson arrived he immediately solidified the position to close out the regular season with a .905 mark in his 19 appearances, helping the Oilers secure the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Once the playoffs started, Roloson played the best hockey of his career, leading the Oilers to the Cup Final. They also might have won that series had Roloson not been injured in Game 1, suffering an MCL sprain that sidelined him for the remainder of it. Almost immediately after he exited the game this happened to Conklin.

Markkanen ended up playing the next six games of the series, and while he played well, he never came close to matching what Roloson did before that.

Still, they had a clear weakness, they addressed it, and it worked.

The Sharks, facing a similar situation this season, did no such thing. How it plays out for them remains to be seen.

So what does this all mean for them right now?

First, they have to win the division.

Finishing ahead of the Calgary Flames would get them the top spot in the West and a likely first-round matchup against one of Dallas, Minnesota, Arizona, or maybe even Colorado or Chicago if some kind of miracle happens for the Blackhawks or Avalanche over the next couple of weeks.

Dallas would probably be the most concerning of those potential matchups simply because the Stars have one of the best goaltending situations in the league with the way Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin are playing (goaltending is important!), but you would have to like their chances against one of Minnesota or Arizona.

Assuming they get through that, they get the winner of what would be a Calgary and Vegas series. If it’s the Flames, they have their own question marks in net with David Rittich being an unknown still and Mike Smith having not worked out as they hoped he would. Vegas would be a brutal matchup in either round, not only because of the way their offense is starting to roll after the addition of Mark Stone, but because Marc-Andre Fleury, for as hit and miss as he has been at this this season, is perfectly capable of getting hot at any time and carrying his team.

The Sharks are a great team, one of the best in the league. But every team has a flaw somewhere on its roster, and the Sharks’ flaw is the one place you do not want it to be at this time of year if you have any hopes of winning the Stanley Cup.

There is still a path there for them to go far, and maybe win it it all even with that flaw, but history is not kind to their chances.

If it ends up playing out the way it did for so many teams with bad goaltending before them, there should be a lot of questions asked after the season as to why they did not address it when they had the chance.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Islanders need Varlamov to pick up where Lehner left off

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

When the Islanders needed to roll the dice on a goaltender last season, they decided to hand Robin Lehner a one-year, $1.5 million. The deal couldn’t possibly have worked out any better for them, as Lehner ended up being named one of the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy.

The 28-year-old posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage in 46 appearances with the Isles last season. It was, by far, the best year of his career. Of course, he had quite a bit of help. New head coach Barry Trotz used a defense-first system that limited the opposition’s scoring chances. That’s not to say that Lehner’s season wasn’t impressive though.

The Islanders netmider also helped his team sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unfortunately for them, they were swept in the second round by Carolina Hurricanes. In the end, Lehner finished the postseason with a 4-4 record, a 2.00 goals-against-average and a .936 save percentage.

[MORE: Summary]

As good as he was, Isles general manager Lou Lamoriello wasn’t interested in committing to his goalie long-term. Once free agency opened on July 1st, Lehner signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Isles decided to give Semyon Varlamov a four-year, $20 million contract.

Varlamov’s had his share of struggles over the last few seasons in Colorado. He ended up playing in 49 games last year, but eventually lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer. The 31-year-old had a 20-19-9 record with a 2.87 goals-against-average and a .909 save percentage last season.

“Even [before last season] when we were looking for goaltenders, he was on the radar for the organization,” Trotz said of Varlamov via NHL.com. “He’s obviously been someone that I think we have a lot of confidence in. With Robin’s [contract] situation, when that didn’t materialize, [Varlamov] was the No. 1 guy that we were going to go after.”

So committing to him for four years is definitely a risky move, but Trotz’s system could help bring out the best in him.

“It’s very hard to play against the teams he’s coaching because of his system,” Varlamov said of Trotz. “Every team playing against a Barry Trotz-coached [team] is going to have a hard time because all the teams he’s coached, they play very well defensively. They play very tight in front of the net.”

There will be plenty of pressure on Varlamov’s shoulders heading into this season. Expectations will be higher for the Islanders this year because they were one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference last season. The beauty of Trotz’s system is that he just needs his goaltender to be solid. Most of the time, he doesn’t need his goalie to steal games. Can Varlamov handle that? Can the Isles replicate the success they had last season?

Varlamov is the biggest change the Isles made to their roster this off-season. If they drop off in 2019-20, a good amount of blame will be placed on his shoulders.

The pressure is definitely on the Russian veteran to provide the team with adequate performances between the pipes.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

It’s New York Islanders Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

2018-19
48-27-7, 103 points (2nd in the Metropolitan Division, 4th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Eliminated in four games in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes.

IN:
Semyon Varlamov
Jared Coreau

OUT: 
Robin Lehner
Luca Sbisa
Dennis Seidenberg
Valtteri Filppula

RE-SIGNED: 
Tanner Fritz
Jordan Eberle
Tom Kuhnhackl
Anders Lee
Brock Nelson

2018-19 Summary

Did your team lose the captain/best player on the roster? Do you feel like you have no hope? Well if you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic, look no further than the 2018-19 Islanders. After John Tavares walked to Toronto in free agency, many predicted that the Isles would be one of the bottom-feeders in the NHL. Instead, they ended up being one of the greatest stories of the year.

The Islanders’ top point-getter last season was sophomore forward Mathew Barzal, who picked up 62 points in 82 contests. They had four players hit the 50-point mark (Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee). They also had just three players surpass the 20-goal mark (Lee, Nelson and Casey Cizikas). Despite those limited offensive numbers, the Islanders found a way to finish second in the Metropolitan Division which, again, no one expected.

How did they do it? Structure, structure and more structure.

Bringing in Barry Trotz as head coach proved to be a wise move for a team without an offensive superstar. Trotz’s defensive-minded approach ended up giving the Isles an identity. They weren’t very fun to watch, but they found a way to get the job done on most nights.

They also found a way to sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.

Now, the question is whether or not they can do it all over again.

“We know other teams will take us maybe more serious than they did last year,” Lamoriello said, per NHL.com. “But that’s where we have to grow and that’s where our character that I have tremendous confidence in comes through, plus the coaching staff that we have.

“This is the first time that a lot of our players have ever gone through the playoffs, first time they experienced success, and then the lack of success in the second round and how it’s approached. You learn by experience. You never know what experience is until you acquire it.”

The Islanders brought back three core players in Eberle, Lee and Nelson. The biggest change will occur between the pipes, as they let Vezina Trophy nominee Robin Lehner hit free agency. Lehner had the best year of his career, as he posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage. Despite those awesome numbers, the organization wasn’t ready to commit to Lehner long term. Clearly, they felt that Trotz’s system helped the veteran netminder succeed (it probably did).

In fairness to the team, no other squad was willing to give Lehner a long-term deal, so he ended signing a one-year, $5 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.

With him no longer in the picture, Lamoriello had to sign a new starting goaltender. In the end, they settled on former Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov (he inked a four-year, $20 million deal). The 31-year-old has struggled over the last couple of seasons, but playing in Trotz’s system could help revitalize his career like it did for Lehner.

Whether or not he fits in as well as Lehner did remains to be seen.

This whole group proved a lot of people wrong last year. Can they do it again?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Top 20 defensemen; Canucks believe in Benning

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• NHL.com breaks down the Top 20 defensemen in the NHL right now. (NHL.com)

• The Hockey News projects ahead to who the Canucks will protect come the 2021 expansion draft. (The Hockey News)

• The fact that the Canucks are extending Jim Benning shows that they believe in his plan. (Sportsnet)

• How can every team’s jersey be improved? (Puck Prose)

• Can Evan Bouchard crack the Oilers’ defense this year? (Edmonton Journal)

Charlie McAvoy continued developing during a big 2018-19 season. (Stanley Cup Chowder)

• How much can the Predators expect from Dante Fabbro? (Predlines)

• Here’s a list of forwards the Vegas Golden Knights could opt to sign late in the summer. (SinBin.Vegas)

• What would the Penguins front office look like without Bill Guerin? (Pensburgh)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Hughes has potential to take Devils to next level

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Given all the changes in New Jersey this offseason, there’s no shortage of x-factors heading into the 2019-20 campaign.

One could argue, for instance, that P.K. Subban‘s arrival on the blue line is the biggest change of the offseason. I would disagree and a team that gave up as many goals as the Devils did could use a boost on the backend to take the pressure off their goaltending situation, which is suspect at best heading into the season.

But, in this scribe’s opinion, it’s the arrival of Jack Hughes who has the potential to make the biggest difference.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

The Devils need offense, plain and simple. Getting by on a leading point-producer who had just 50 points isn’t going to cut it in the NHL these days.

And while a healthy Taylor Hall will make a big difference as well, we know how big the gap can be between himself and the rest of the scoring on the team (see: 2017-18 season.)

With the potential for a breakout season for Nico Hischier — and one not limited by injuries — the addition of P.K. Subban to the power play and Nikita Gusev and Hughes to the forward contingent, the Devils should be miles ahead of their 25th-ranking in goals-for from last season.

And the expectation is Hughes will play a big role in that. He could start the season as the team’s second-line center and depending on usage, could easily hit the 20-goal mark, if not more.

“Jack’s play will determine to us what he can handle and how much,” coach John Hynes told NHL.com. “We’re not going to put pressure on him and we’re not going to put limits on him right away. We continue to put young players in situations they can handle while also challenging them in the right ways where they can have success but also see how they respond outside their comfort zone.”

Hughes does everything so well. His vision, speed and knack for scoring are all welcome additions to the Devils who sorely need more in each of those areas.

The key will be to find him the right linemates in training camp and let some chemistry develop. If it does, an 80-point season may take shape providing he’s healthy.

And, perhaps, a Calder Trophy for his efforts.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck