Sharks’ goaltending is historically bad for Stanley Cup contender

5 Comments

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.

Will streaky Calgary stay hot or flame out in playoffs?

2 Comments

The Calgary Flames know they’re in the playoffs. Now comes the hard part.

Despite being idle on Sunday, the Flames became the first Western Conference team to clinch a postseason berth due to the New York Islanders’ win over the Minnesota Wild. But the Flames know better than most teams that nothing is guaranteed in the playoffs. Since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2004, Calgary has won just one postseason series. A Canadian team has not won the Cup since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. The Flames won their only championship 30 years ago. Will this finally be the year that the C of Red celebrates into the summer?

Even the Flames would have to admit they’ve been inconsistent over the last month. After winning seven straight games from February 16 to 27, Calgary dropped their next four in regulation, followed by another three-game winning streak with a jaw dropping 20 total goals during that three-game stretch. Obviously, no team can afford a prolonged lull in the playoffs.

Calgary’s chances to make a run deep into spring begin between the pipes, as both David Rittich and Mike Smith have been up and down this year. While Rittich is enjoying a career season (his third in the NHL) with 25 wins, he owns just a .910 save percentage, which ranks tied for 24th in the NHL among qualified goaltenders (21 or more games played). The veteran Smith has just an .896 save percentage on the year and has dropped three consecutive starts in March. While he once brought the Phoenix Coyotes to the Western Conference Final in 2012, Smith has not been back to the postseason since. The Flames boast the fourth best offense in the NHL this season (3.56 goals per game), but when scoring inevitably dries up in the playoffs, a reliable netminder is vital in the march toward the Cup.

Calgary’s top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm is one of the best trios in the league. Gaudreau is a Hart Trophy candidate this season with a career-best 91 points, Monahan has already secured his third career 30-goal season and Lindholm has been a rousing success story in Calgary, blowing past any of his previous five seasons with Carolina. It’s also easy to forget just how good Monahan was the last time the Flames were in the playoffs. Though Calgary was quickly swept in four games by the Anaheim Ducks in 2017, Monahan scored a power play goal in all four games. He is one of eight players in League history to tally a power play goal in four consecutive postseason games.

Aside from the top line, Calgary does have depth with the likes of Matthew Tkachuk (73 points), Norris Trophy-hopeful Mark Giordano (67 points) and Mikael Backlund (44 points). They could also get a boost if James Neal returns to form. Neal is getting closer to returning from a lower body injury that has kept him out over a month. The 31-year-old signed a 5-year, $28.75 million deal this off-season, but has been a disappointment with just 15 points in 55 games. Still, Neal has shown the ability to be a big-time player throughout his career and has loads of experience, having played in the postseason each of the last eight years.

Several other statistics from this season bode well for the Flames entering the playoffs. They have a whopping plus-49 goal differential in the third period and lead the NHL with 105 goals in the third period. They are also 21-14-2 on the road and need just two road wins to set a single-season franchise record.

Despite their success away from Alberta, clinching home ice advantage would be huge for Calgary’s chances. There is little doubt that the Scotiabank Saddledome will be rocking come playoff time, but even more importantly, winning the Pacific Division would ensure that the Flames avoid playing the reigning Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights in the First Round. Giordano, however, took the diplomatic approach, saying the opponent won’t matter.

“Well…the team that gets in as the wildcard is going to be playing really well and playing really hard,” Giordano told the Calgary Sun. “I’ve never been a fan of trying to pick and choose who you want to playoffs because the league’s so tight. The team that’s usually in the wildcard is feeling good and playing well. And if you want to go all the way, you’re going to have to go through a lot of great teams.”

To this point, Calgary has proven to be great in the regular season. But they’ll need to find more consistency to end their – and Canada’s – Stanley Cup drought.

Gaudreau, Peters have Flames cruising toward playoffs

2 Comments

Bill Peters deadpanned that it was the first time he had heard the question.

What did you learn about Johnny Gaudreau that you didn’t know before you started coaching him? Midway through his first season with the Calgary Flames, Peters has his answer scripted by now.

”Just his competitiveness,” Peters said. ”Everyone fully understands his skill set and the vision, and what they don’t understand is the competitiveness. And what he’s added to his game a little bit more than what he’s had in the past now is good defensive awareness and commitment.”

A well-rounded ”Johnny Hockey” and Peters have been a perfect match for Calgary, which is atop the Pacific Division and cruising toward a return to the playoffs despite an unheralded goaltending tandem of Mike Smith and David Rittich. While Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers are floundering again, their Alberta rivals lead the Western Conference and can be considered Stanley Cup contenders in large part because of Gaudreau and what Peters has unlocked in him.

Gaudreau had already tied his career high with 84 points with more than a dozen games left. The point total far and away leads the Flames and is tied for sixth in the NHL. General manager Brad Treliving thinks the 5-foot-9 winger from Carney’s Point, New Jersey, has always had that kind of offensive talent and that this season is evidence that Gaudreau’s game has matured to the point he can play against anyone.

”(It’s) his play away from the puck,” Treliving said. ”When you play against top lines, you’d better be smart without it because you can get hemmed in. So I think his play away from the puck, as crazy as it seems with all the points, I think it’s helped him obviously get the puck more and have it more.”

The notion that the best defense is having the puck is right out of the Mike Babcock school of coaching, not surprising because Peters spent three seasons as an assistant in Detroit before getting a head job in Carolina. The Hurricanes finished in the bottom 10 in the league in scoring in three of Peters’ four seasons there and never made the playoffs. His Flames are scoring at the NHL’s fourth-best rate (3.55 per game through Tuesday).

Elite offensive talent helps, though Peters also deserves some credit for how his style suits his personnel, from Gaudreau and Sean Monahan to an active defense led by Norris Trophy candidate Mark Giordano.

”He’s a real student of the modern game in terms of how you have success now,” Treliving said. ”You have to play fast, your D have to be part of your offense, your attack has to be five men not three and you have to defend fast.”

Rod Brind’Amour, who worked four seasons under Peters in Carolina before succeeding him as coach, said the 54-year-old implements a lot of structure with his teams. Gaudreau figured out fast that Peters demands 200-foot play from everyone as a prerequisite for ice time, a recipe that has worked for Calgary.

”He knows how to win,” Gaudreau said. ”It doesn’t matter if you’re top line, bottom line, if you’re not playing well you’re not going to be on the ice. He’s not going to put you over the bench there. He expects a lot out of his players and it’s been great playing for him this year.”

Gaudreau is already on his third coach in just his fifth NHL season after mixed success with Bob Hartley and Glen Gulutzan. A playoff appearance under each was fine, but Peters has already proven to be a better fit as a tactician and as a communicator who knows how to squeeze the most out of his talent.

”There’s no gray area with Bill,” Treliving said. ”He outlines very clearly how he wants our team to play as a group, how he wants individuals to play and I think that’s probably his greatest strength is he’s very clear in his communication and very strong in his beliefs. I think that structured approach I think has really helped our group.”

NHL goalies do best to prepare for unexpected, unpredictable

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — NHL goaltenders prepare for the unexpected and unpredictable, ready for pucks deflecting off sticks, bodies, feet or even a divot in the ice past all the gear designed to help defend their net.

The freaky, fluky or simply weird goals can be laughed off by goalies who know sometimes the puck just takes a funny bounce.

The goals that eat away at a goalie are those he believes he could’ve – and should’ve – stopped. Not the goal allowed by Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin where the puck bounced off a Nashville forward’s back and over the net before hitting the back of the goalie’s helmet, then off his back and into the net.

”It stings anytime you give up a goal,” Predators goalie Pekka Rinne said Tuesday. ”That kind of goal, there’s nothing really he could’ve done. It’s a freaky goal, and I feel like those things maybe happen once, twice in a season. But yeah, the ones that hurt the most as a goalie, it’s the ones that you feel like you should’ve had it.”

Stick-handling in the NHL has improved right along with players’ speed and skating thanks to offseason workouts. That also has boosted the creativity for shooters looking to do a bit more than a simple slap shot, wrister or snap shot.

”There’s a lot of talent in the league, more maybe so now than there has been in years past,” Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said. ”These young guys coming up, everybody has their own skills coaches and things like that. There’s a lot of skills. I don’t doubt there’s more highlight-reel goals.”

Goaltenders have to be ready for the next move dreamed up by the league’s stars to put the puck over the line. Scoring is up with the average number of goals scored per game increasing in each of the past four seasons, and the current average of 3.06 goals per game is on pace to be the highest since the 2005-06 season, according to Hockey-Reference.com

”Maybe it’s the skill of the players too, finding that one spot,” Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer said. ”(Evgeny) Kuznetsov in Washington, he’s so sneaky in terms of what he wants to do and doesn’t want to do. He puts the puck in spots. Maybe you get a weird bounce, hit a guy’s shin pad or something like that.”

The NHL also keeps downsizing goaltenders’ pads, most recently chest protectors . Grubauer sees teams also changing how they break out on offense, attacking faster and giving goalies less time.

”Back in the days, you always used to go back and regroup and break out as a unit,” Grubauer said. ”I feel like the last couple of years, it’s always like, (snaps fingers) and up (snaps fingers) and up.”

Sometimes goalies get lucky, too.

Buffalo goalie Carter Hutton appeared to be losing his balance Sunday in the first period against Winnipeg with Adam Lowry coming in on a short-handed breakaway. Hutton put his glove down at the exact moment Lowry tried to slip the puck between the goalie’s legs for the save.

”You definitely get some fluky saves where you’re beat and a guy just hits you,” Hutton said.

The Sabres goalie also recalls being on his goal line when the puck came up, rolled over the top of the net, hit his neck and went in. He had another puck slip past him on a penalty shot in December against Florida.

”You make the initial save, and it lands on my pads sideways and just slowly rolls off,” Hutton said. ”That’s one where if it’s during a game, a D-man’s probably there to stop it or that puck lands flat on my pad and doesn’t go in. It’s unfortunate that it lands sideways and rolls off my pad. So that’s one that I would say this year that’s been fluky.”

There’s one goal so weird it’s called the Butt Goal.

Defenseman Mark Pysyk, now with Florida, got his first goal of the 2013 season right before Christmas in overtime after jamming at the puck, sending it into the air and into the pants of Coyotes goalie Mike Smith who then backed into his own net.

”I didn’t think they would call it a goal, because I didn’t think they’d see it, but they did,” Pysyk said. ”It was in his pants and he backed in. I think you could see me point at it. They counted it a little bit after, obviously, so I didn’t have a chance to celebrate normally. It was pretty funny.”

SURPRISING ISLANDERS

The New York Islanders are atop the Metropolitan Division in coach Barry Trotz’s first season despite losing John Tavares last offseason to Toronto. They just snapped a three-game streak Tuesday night with a 3-1 loss in Buffalo but are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and remain second overall in the Eastern Conference.

To Buffalo coach Phil Housley, credit Trotz using the same philosophy and structure from coaching in Nashville and winning the Stanley Cup with Washington last summer.

”I really had a pleasure to work with him for one year and learned a lot from him,” Housley said. ”You can see he’s had success wherever he’s went.”

RIVALRY SERIES

The best of women’s hockey are back at it this week with the United States and Canada playing each other in a rare three-game ”Rivalry Series” that ends Sunday in Detroit at the home of the Red Wings. The U.S. beat Canada nearly a year ago for Olympic gold and then won a fourth straight Four Nations Cup title last November. Kendall Coyne Schofield will be the U.S. captain for the series, which will be aired on NHL Network.

”That’s something we’ve been fighting for, is more chances for us to play against Canada,” U.S. forward Dani Cameranesi said. ”It’s not that often that we get to play at the highest level. We don’t really have that many chances for that, but for them all to be … on NHL Network too and for us to get coverage on that is a really big deal.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Washington Capitals visit the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night in a matchup of two of the NHL’s top 10 teams.

LEADERS (after Monday games)

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 38; Assists: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 60; Points: Kucherov, 84; Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:45; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 29; Goals-against average: Robin Lehner (N.Y. Islanders), 2.05; Save percentage: Robin Lehner, (N.Y. Islanders), .930.

Five teams that should call about Jimmy Howard

12 Comments

For the third year in a row the Detroit Red Wings are going to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs and that means with the NHL trade deadline fast approaching they should be looking to sell off all of their pending unrestricted free agents to the highest bidder.

As well as any other veterans they can get a decent haul for, especially if it cleans up what is still a very messy salary cap situation.

They have no shortage of potential players to sell this season with Gustav Nyquist, Thomas Vanek, Niklas Kronwall, and starting goalie Jimmy Howard all playing on expiring contracts.

The intriguing name here is Howard because he could, in theory, be the biggest game-changer for a contender out of this entire group.

Despite playing behind what has been one of the league’s worst teams this season, he has consistently performed at a pretty high level among the league’s goalies. Out of the 22 goalies that have appeared in at least 30 games this season his overall .916 save percentage is the sixth-best mark in the NHL, while his .930 mark at even-strength is the second best behind only Toronto Maple Leafs netminder Frederik Andersen.

That is good. That is really good.

The Detroit Free Press reported on Monday that because the Red Wings don’t have a young goalie ready anywhere in the system they might have an interest in attempting to re-sign Howard, or trading him and then attempting to re-sign him in the offseason as a free agent. The latter sounds like a decent strategy but rarely, if ever, works out that way. There’s also this unpleasant reality: Howard is turning 35 in a few weeks, is probably nearing the end of his career, and the Red Wings on their current trajectory as a rebuilding team probably will not be in a position to contend with him on his next contract.

A trade and turning the page over to a new chapter in net is probably the most sensible strategy, even if it means going outside the organization. It is not like the duo of Howard and Jonathan Bernier for another season is going to be the difference between making and missing the playoffs a year from now.

There are a handful of teams around the NHL that should be interested in trying to complete such a move.

Let’s look at them.

1. San Jose Sharks

This is the obvious no-brainer team.

The Sharks are as complete as any team in the NHL at forward and defense but still have a black hole that risks sabotaging their entire season in net. The duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell has produced the second-worst save percentage in the NHL this season and going into the playoffs with that is a huge risk.

Joe Thornton doesn’t have much hockey left in the NHL. Erik Karlsson can be an unrestricted free agent after this season. The window is wide open right now for this team to try and win it all, something they could absolutely do as long as their goaltending doesn’t ruin them.

“Hoping” that Jones returns to his normal form shouldn’t be the strategy this season.

There is no long-term commitment with Howard beyond this season and gives them a chance to strike when everything is right there in front of them.

[Related: PHT Power Rankings: Sharks are one player away]

2. Calgary Flames

Like the Sharks the Flames are a team that has the look of a potential champion … as long as the goaltending holds up.

The Mike Smith experience has not gone well this season and has resulted in David Rittich, a 26-year-old with just a little more than 50 NHL games on his resume, starting to get the bulk of the playing time. To be fair, Rittich has played well and been a huge factor in the Flames’ rise to the top of the Western Conference standings. But given how small of a sample size we are dealing with here are the Flames 100 percent confident going into the postseason with him as “the guy?”

If nothing else Howard would be a good insurance plan in case Rittich falters, because I don’t know how much I would trust Smith to save the day if that happens given the way he has played this season.

3. Carolina Hurricanes

This is a real long shot and it would go against everything the Hurricanes have done in recent years where they have always kept the big picture in mind when constructing their roster.

Howard, as a pending free agent, probably doesn’t fit in the big picture outlook so it’s probably not going to happen.

But it never hurts to check it out. Or suggest it.

This is a team with a new owner that wants to win right now, a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009, and a team that has crawled back into contention and is right there in the Eastern Conference race. They are in it. They are very much in it and can get even closer with a win against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night. They have a lot of good pieces that could get them closer this season, especially after adding Nino Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild. The one thing they are lacking is still consistency in net. Curtis McElhinney has been really good this season when he has played, and that has definitely helped. Howard, especially with the way he has played this season, would only help even more. Given how good the Hurricanes are at keeping pucks away from their goalies (fewest shots allowed per game in the NHL this season, once again one of the league’s best teams in that area) a goalie like Howard could be a significant addition if they decided to go in that direction.

I still don’t think they will, but it is an intriguing thought.

[Related: Niederreiter leading ‘Canes playoff surge]

4. Columbus Blue Jackets

Yes, the Columbus Blue Jackets already have one free-agent-to-be goalie on their roster, and there remains the possibility that they move him before the trade deadline. The Athletic‘s Aaron Portzline pointed out earlier this week that if they do it would most likely require another move to fill that vacant spot in net and Howard was a name that he mentioned as a possibility to keep in mind.

It does not do anything to solve the goaltending problem after this season, but the Blue Jackets are still a potential playoff team this season and there is one very important thing to keep in mind — Howard has been significantly better than Sergei Bobrovsky this season.

It would require a lot of moving parts, it would not fix anything after this season, but it might actually help them this season.

5. Colorado Avalanche

There are a lot of reasons the Colorado Avalanche have faded from their fast start.

They have zero depth after their top-three at forward. Their defense is not great. They are also getting lousy goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and Philipp Grubauer. The first two problems are going to take some time to fix, and there is not one trade that can remedy that this season.

There is one trade that can help fix it the latter problem, especially with additional draft picks to trade this season. Normally I wouldn’t want to see a team with Colorado’s record go all in as being a buyer, but because of the West playoff field being what it is they are still very much in it. With decent goaltending and the three forwards they have at the top of the lineup they could be a headache for somebody in the first round if everything clicks at the same time. A goalie like Howard might help them get there.

Related: What is eating the Colorado Avalanche?

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.