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.