The Sharks’ season has been down, then up, then down again, the projected Pacific Division contenders ping-ponging between playoff-caliber play and periods of downright dreadful results. And the evening following a fifth consecutive loss – the second time San Jose has lost five straight and third losing streak of three or more this season – the franchise’s brass decided it had finally seen enough. Thus, Wednesday night, the Sharks executed near wholesale changes behind the bench.
Out is longtime coach Peter DeBoer, who was in the midst of his fifth season with the franchise, and following him out the exit are assistants Steve Spott and Dave Barr, as well as goaltending coach Johan Hedberg. Retained, however, has been assistant Bob Boughner, who has been named interim coach several months after returning to the organization from a two-year stint as coach of the Florida Panthers. In addition, the Sharks have brought in veteran AHL bench boss Roy Sommer to act as associate coach, development coach Mike Ricci has been promoted into an assistant role and Evgeni Nabokov, who was working in goaltending development, takes over from Hedberg.
Given the expectations surrounding the Sharks and their current spot in the standings, several points out of both a wild-card spot and divisional post-season placement, the shuffle comes as no surprise. DeBoer has been on the hot seat for some time and San Jose’s performance had done little to pull him off the chopping block. Heading into action Thursday, the Sharks are one of only eight teams with a sub-.500 points percentage – 24th in the NHL at .485 – and possess one of the NHL’s worst goal differentials. Only the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings, two clubs expected to have top odds come the draft lottery, have a differential worse than the San Jose’s minus-25.
“We feel this team is capable of much more than we have shown thus far and that a new voice is needed,” Wilson said in a statement. “As a team and as individuals, our play has not met expectations this year and our level of consistency has not been where it needs to be. This group of individuals who will lead our team moving forward are very familiar with our players, and we think this change can provide our group with a fresh start.”
It should be clear enough at this point, though, that any success the Sharks have moving forward must be predicated upon more than a simple reset. Through the first 33 games of the season, it has become evident DeBoer’s system in San Jose had run its course. Without question, DeBoer was done no favors by the goaltending of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell, both of whom were struggling to put up backup-caliber numbers, but the argument could also be made that few netminders have been under as much duress as the Sharks’ duo. And that may an indication of exactly what Boughner must address if he’s to get San Jose back on track.
While the Sharks are one of the league’s more limiting teams in terms of shots against at 5-on-5 – only the Carolina Hurricanes, Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings allow fewer shots against per 60 minutes than San Jose’s 28.1 – quality control has been a concern. To wit, the Sharks are the only team allowing fewer than 30 shots against per hour at five-a-side that also allows upwards of 26.5 scoring chances against over the same 60-minute period. San Jose’s 27.3 scoring chances against per 60 minutes at fives are actually the fifth-most in the NHL. And the same goes for high-danger chances. At 11.7 per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, the Sharks have been incredibly porous. Only four teams allow a higher rate of high-danger chances, and not a single one of those teams allows fewer than 31.4 shots against per hour.
The issue, it would seem, is two-fold: part personnel and part system. The departure of defenseman Justin Braun in the off-season is having ill effects. Mind you, it appeared Radim Simek had provided stability. His return from injury had allowed the defensive pairs to settle in and DeBoer was able to trot out a consistent top four. But the 11-2-0 run that began upon Simek’s return culminated with his minutes diminishing to begin the current five-game skid and he’s been out of the lineup for the past two outings – and is expected to be out roughly two weeks – after undergoing a minor procedure on his knee.
But Wilson can’t provide Boughner and Co. with much in the way of reinforcements. The Sharks GM’s hands are tied as the Sharks have less than $1 million with which to work and few easily disposable or flippable contracts. That puts the onus on Boughner to use what he has at his disposal to find a solution. The addition of Sommer and Ricci to the staff and their familiarity with the organization’s youth could provide an opportunity for an AHLer, perhaps Trevor Carrick or Jeremy Roy, to get a look in the not-too-distant future.
But beyond lineup decisions, it would be worthwhile for the Sharks to discuss the adoption of a more conservative style of play that better insulates the crease. Does that come at the risk of hindering the attack? Possibly, but the Sharks’ middling offense hasn’t been able to outrun its ghastly goaltending. One could also contend, too, that San Jose has enough quick-strike and counter-attack ability to make up for what might be sacrificed by a defense-first mentality. And with no quick-fix coming in goal, it’s worth doing whatever is necessary to get Jones back on track.
It should be noted that Jones did piece together a .915 save percentage across his first three seasons with the Sharks under DeBoer. During that three-season stretch, he faced the fewest 5-on-5 shots against per 60 minutes among the 42 goaltenders with 4,000 minutes played and ranked 24th in high-danger shots against per hour (7.6). Contrast that with his current rate (9.2), which is the fifth-highest among the 44 goaltenders with at least 500 minutes played at five-a-side and there’s room for the suggestion that buckling down defensively could be the key to unlocking serviceable play from the 30-year-old keeper.
The reality, however, is there’s no blanket fix for the Sharks, no silver bullet Boughner can deploy in order to turn San Jose around in a flash. Beyond the defense, he and his staff will be tasked with breathing life into the powerless power play and drawing more out of the depth offensive players. Even still, you’ll have a difficult time finding many who believe this is a roster bereft of the talent necessary to make a playoff push, and despite the coaching change and rollercoaster ride that has been the first 30-plus games of the season, the expectation will remain that the Sharks are present when the post-season begins in April. And after DeBoer’s dismissal, it’s now up to Boughner to get them there.