Sometimes it’s the hope that gets you, and entering this season, the San Jose Sharks had hope. Hope that Martin Jones’ play through the first two rounds of the post-season would carry over to this season. Hope that his abysmal performance last season, which he was able to somewhat mask with his 36 wins, was a one-off and that he’d have a return to form. Or, at the very least, hope that Aaron Dell would have himself a breakout season and unseat Jones from the starting role and provide the Sharks with capable, if not high-caliber, goaltending. And while that hope isn’t completely dead and buried, it’s probably safe to say that it has one foot planted firmly in its grave.
Tuesday night in Boston, the Sharks had yet another outing play out as many of those through the first month of the campaign have. Entering with a chance to get on track, to get rolling, the Bruins scored early on the power play and scored often through the first two frames of the contest. By the time the game ended, somewhat mercifully for San Jose, the Sharks had been handed a 5-1 defeat.
That it was another loss is bad enough for San Jose, who have now fallen to 4-8-1 to start the season and, with November on the horizon, sit a scant one point ahead of the Pacific Division-rival Los Angeles Kings, who were projected to finish with some of the best odds for the first-overall pick in next June’s draft. But it’s the way in which the Sharks lost that is almost more concerning. The defeat marked the ninth time in 13 games this season San Jose has surrendered four or more goals. Don’t both checking, either. That’s the most four-or-more goals-against games of any team in the NHL, which leaves us wondering how much longer the Sharks can really continue to try to rely on a goaltending duo that simply hasn’t gotten the job done.
To be sure, Jones and Dell aren’t the sole problems in San Jose. Truth be told, there’s an argument that the play of the two netminders is somewhat symptomatic of a porous Sharks defense – we’re talking team defense, not just the blueline – that has been among the league’s worst at suppressing genuine opportunities against. While San Jose is middling in terms of attempts against and shots against per 60 minutes of play at 5-on-5, ranking 20th in the league in both categories, the Sharks’ inability to prevent scoring chances and high-danger chances has been among the league’s worst. Only the New York Rangers and New York Islanders have allowed more scoring chances against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than San Jose’s 29.8, and the Blueshirts are the only team whose high-danger chances against per 60 minutes rate at five-a-side is worse than the Sharks’ 12.8 mark.
But at a certain point one has to stop making excuses for the way Jones and Dell have played for the better part of the past two seasons. Last season, Jones posted an ugly .896 save percentage and bloated 2.94 goals-against average. Dell was slightly worse with an .886 SP and 3.17 GAA. This season, though still early, the numbers have continued along that trajectory. Jones’ .890 SP and 3.57 GAA are laughable for the starting goaltender of a supposed contender, and while Dell’s .891 SP is marginally better than his mark last season, his GAA has inflated to 3.53 through his five appearances.
It’s not just the base statistics that are unsightly for the duo, though. The underlying numbers are equally as disappointing and concerning. As a team, the Sharks have the third-worst 5-on-5 SP, their .878 mark only slightly better than the combined .871 SP posted by Florida Panthers netminders and .869 SP registered by Los Angeles Kings goaltenders. And that bears out when you dig deeper into the play of Jones and Dell.
All told, there are 49 goaltenders who have played at least 180 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, including Jones and Dell. For his effort, Jones has turned in an .883 SP at five-a-side, which ranks 42nd, while Dell has managed an .867 SP, the third-worst rate among qualifying netminders. Further, per 60 minutes of play at 5-on-5, Jones ranks 44th with a minus-1.06 goals-saved above average and Dell dead-last with a minus-1.54 GSAA. So, while true they’ve been peppered with quality chances – Dell ranks sixth and Jones seventh in expected goals against per 60 minutes – neither has done all that much to stand tall when called upon, and at some point, particularly if the team defense is going to continue to struggle and San Jose has any designs on contending this season, the Sharks are going to need a goaltender who can stand in and produce results.
Of course, there’s no snap-of-the-fingers solution in San Jose. There’s no blue-chipper in the system who’s ready to take the crease and no clear-cut free agent option on the open market. Not only that, but there’s little financial wiggle room for the Sharks to bring someone in without it being a dollar-for-dollar deal, limiting the trade options. It doesn’t help, either, that Jones is locked in for four seasons beyond the current campaign, and even ignoring his three-team no-trade clause, his declining stock is going to make him next to impossible to move given his $5.75-million cap hit.
But someway, somehow, the Sharks need to find a solution to their goaltending problem, even if it’s just a cheap stopgap who gets results. This is a team too talented, with too many weapons, to spend the entire season digging out from under poor goaltending and battling from behind. It’s a contender-in-waiting that needs the confidence of a keeper who can get the job done. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be abundantly so now that neither Jones or Dell is that netminder for this team. That means it’s up to GM Doug Wilson to find someone who can be.