As the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs approach, NHL teams will start getting mathematically eliminated from contention. PHT’s “What Went Wrong” series aims to analyze why each team missed the playoffs. The “What Went Wrong” series continues with the 2020-21 San Jose Sharks.
Heading into the 2020-21 season, the Sharks hoped that a disastrous 2019-20 season was an isolated incident. Among others, Erik Karlsson was hoping for a rebound.
There can be a fine line between hoping and wishful thinking, though.
Heading into 2020-21, few expected much from the Sharks. The bad news about the West Division was that it was top-heavy with the mighty Avalanche and Golden Knights. On paper, there were opportunities to wiggle into the West Division top four. At this stage, the Sharks would’ve probably been delighted to make the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, even if they were virtually guaranteed to get squashed.
Instead, the Sharks ended up in the cellar once again. At least this time they still have their first-round pick, so they don’t need to wince at both the standings and the NHL Draft Lottery odds, right?
What went wrong before the Sharks’ 2020-21 season
If Sharks fans are movie audiences, then last season was a film that promised family fun in the trailers, only to shock as a gnarly, gore-filled horror movie. By 2020-21, Sharks fans essentially watched a sequel. No, this was still not the movie they wanted to watch. But at least much of the shock was subdued, and the lows weren’t quite as extreme.
In 2020-21, the Sharks continued to pay for the sins of the past. Considering how poorly Devan Dubnyk performed behind a stout Wild defense, it was strange that San Jose pursued him. Even so, the cost was mostly marginal, and the team’s greater mistakes extend to the past.
That said, it was difficult to see what Bob Boughner accomplished as interim head coach to convince the team to establish him as the full-time answer. Nothing that happened this season inspired overwhelming confidence in Boughner, either.
What went wrong during the Sharks’ 2020-21 season
Is there another NHL team that pays so much, but receives so little from its defense?
The trio of Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic carries a combined $26.5 million cap hit. To put things mildly, the Sharks aren’t getting their money’s worth in the present, and the future doesn’t look great.
Burns’ $8M AAV runs through 2024-25, and he’s already 36. Vlasic, 34, is on the books through 2025-26. Karlsson is 30, and his $11.5M albatross doesn’t expire until after 2026-27.
All three defensemen have either no-trade or no-movement clauses. Just terrifying stuff, and you wonder how much room a new GM would have to work with if the Sharks decided to move along from Doug Wilson.
(As scary as the Sharks’ defensive spending already looks in 2020-21, those are far from the only bad contracts on the books.)
When it comes to allowing goals, the Sharks maintained their unpleasant chicken-and-the-egg debate. Their defense was indeed porous, getting crushed by sheer volume and also by high-danger chances.
But goalies like Dubnyk and Martin Jones rarely helped matters. During the 2020-21 season, the Sharks didn’t roll out a single goalie whose save percentage even reached the back-up level mark of 90-percent.
For all of their warts, you’d think that Burns and Karlsson could at least baby-bird a power play to an average level. (Even with good-but-not-100-point forwards.) Instead, the Sharks only converted on 14.38-percent of their power-play opportunities.
What went right
For all that went wrong, the Sharks managed to linger somewhat credibly in the West Division playoff picture for a decent chunk of 2020-21.
Is that damning with faint praise? Maybe; the West Division’s fourth place race looked like a contest not to fall the entire way to the finish line until the Blues got their acts together. But for a dismal Sharks team structured to win now, a mirage is better than no illusion of hope whatsoever.
Speaking of hope: again … at least they have their first-rounder this time. Sure, they don’t have their 2021 second-rounder, but thanks to some creativity at the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline, the Sharks have some extra stock later in the draft.
Also, Evander Kane and Tomas Hertl enjoyed pretty heartening seasons.
Follow the Push for the Playoffs to keep track of the Sharks’ 2021 NHL Draft Lottery odds. Maybe Doug Wilson can bribe the Seattle Kraken to take a bad contract or two off the books? Either way, it’s not an easy mess to clean up.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.