NHL

Why the San Jose Sharks should swim away with the Pacific Division

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Last spring the San Jose Sharks finished just two wins shy of winning their first ever Stanley Cup. Sharks critics will tell you it was a surprise run to the final and that veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are too old to repeat that type of success this season. San Jose’s two most well-known players both turned 37 since last season ended.

However, the truth of the matter is that Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson significantly improved the Sharks roster this summer. San Jose’s two biggest weaknesses exposed by the Penguins last June were a lack of speed at forward and a third defense duo that couldn’t move the puck. Both of these problem areas have been drastically improved. Wilson signed speedy free-agent forward Mikkel Boedker and puck-moving defenseman David Schlemko to four-year contracts. Boedker, 26, is a two-time 50-point scorer for the Coyotes and Schlemko, 29, has long been an underrated puck-moving defenseman who will quarterback the second power-play unit. San Jose’s worst regular skater in the 2016 playoffs, defenseman Roman Polak, is no longer with the team and that’s a really good thing.

Despite finishing third in the Pacific last season, these Sharks are poised to win the division this year. If they play the way they can, it shouldn’t even be a close race. Up and down the lineup they are better than the other playoff contenders in the division. The following are three simple reasons why San Jose will be the class of the Pacific in 2016-17.

Goaltending

The Sharks have the best goaltender in the division with Martin Jones. As a first-year starter for San Jose, Jones delivered a .918 save percentage last season. That mark equalled that of Jones’ former teammate, Jonathan Quick. However, it was Jones who shined in the playoffs, while Quick flopped for Los Angeles. The two-time Stanley Cup winner, over-hyped by national media for his playoff prowess, has now been lit up by the Sharks in each of the past two series against them. Jones is trending in the right direction while Quick is treading water for a team that is leaking oil.

Last season’s division winners, the Anaheim Ducks, are finally putting their faith in highly touted youngster John Gibson between the pipes. Gibson sported a .920 regular season save percentage last year as a platoon netminder, but he lost the starting job in the postseason after just two games. Jones has proven he can carry the load as a starter, Gibson has not. Advantage Jones and the Sharks.

During the offseason the Calgary Flames significantly upgraded their goaltending by trading for St. Louis Blues veteran Brian Elliott. Last season Elliott led the entire NHL with a .930 save percentage for the Blues. A long-time journeyman, Elliott never got a fair shake in St. Louis, always being doubted and platooned. While he certainly isn’t likely to repeat his .930 mark, it is safe to expect that he is better than his .914 career mark. Expectations should be around .920, but again Jones got the better of Elliott head-to-head in last year’s Western Conference final. Elliott was even temporarily benched for two games in favor of the Blues’ 1B option Jake Allen.

Ranking the division by goaltending:

  1. Sharks
  2. Flames
  3. Kings
  4. Ducks
  5. Canucks
  6. Oilers
  7. Coyotes

Forwards/Offense

The Sharks finished fourth in the NHL last season in goals-per game at 2.89. The Flames were the second-highest-scoring team in the division last year, ninth overall with a 2.79 mark. Calgary’s problem is a lack of depth scoring behind young stars Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Their power play was also bottom-third in the league. San Jose’s depth and power play will likely remain significantly better this season. Team Teal still boasts an elite top-unit power play of Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Marleau and Logan Couture. Their projected new-look second unit featuring familiar faces Tomas Hertl, Joonas Donskoi and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, along with those aforementioned newcomers Boedker and Schlemko, makes for a much improved group on paper.

Los Angeles finished 14th in the league in scoring last season and it is hard to see them improving upon that ranking. They lost left wing Milan Lucic to free agency during the offseason and star winger Marian Gaborik is currently out with a broken foot and not expected back until the middle of November. The Kings also took the captaincy away from long-time captain Dustin Brown and gave it to Anze Kopitar. San Jose fans know how a captaincy change can cause unwanted distractions and Brown was not happy about losing that role for L.A. There is far too many question marks with the Kings to think they will improve offensively.

The Ducks couldn’t buy a goal until mid-November last season. Therefore, perhaps their 17th overall mark in scoring from last year is a bit misleading. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf showed during the World Cup that they are still elite forwards and guys like Rickard Rakell, Jakub Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano are solid contributors up front. However, this offseason the Ducks re-hired head coach Randy Carlyle after firing him in favor of Bruce Boudreau back in November 2011. Carlyle was infamous for stagnating his team’s offense in favor of toughness and grit. Bringing him back is a baffling move. The Ducks are literally going backwards.

If Connor McDavid can remain healthy this season, the Edmonton Oilers will feature a scary offensive attack. They could potentially run McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl as their top-three centers, which would be extremely hard for teams to match up against. Edmonton finished 26th in scoring last year, but that should drastically improve this season. Still, their depth won’t be as strong as the Sharks who can roll out three really strong lines.

Ranking the division by offense:

  1. Sharks
  2. Ducks
  3. Oilers
  4. Flames
  5. Kings
  6. Coyotes
  7. Canucks

Defense

The Sharks only ranked 11th in goals allowed last season, behind the Ducks and the Kings, who finished first and fourth respectively. While the Kings and Ducks will still be solid teams defensively, the Sharks and the Flames will be the class of the division on the blue line this season. San Jose has the luxury of playing a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman on each of their top two pairs with Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns. Their second-half surge last season ought to be a season-long surge at both ends of the ice. Burns and the Sharks got off to a slow start last year, but look for them to get off to a hot start in the second season under head coach Pete DeBoer.

Despite finishing dead last last season in goals allowed, Calgary has been led by their defense the last few seasons. Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton is a solid top-3. With Elliott added between the pipes, they will be far, far more stingy. San Jose though has two game changers on their blue line and better depth with Schlemko added to the third pair.

Los Angeles still features elite defensemen Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin on their blue line, and Anaheim is powered by Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson. The problem with these two perennial Pacific powers is the depth behind them. When Anaheim got off to the miserable scoring start last season, they got some tremendous goaltending at the other end from Gibson and Frederik Andersen. I don’t buy the Ducks repeating that impressive goals-against mark two years in a row. Kevin Bieksa is a shell of his former self, and both Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen can be beat in their own zone. Last year aside, the Ducks typically aren’t a tough team to score against. Los Angeles will still be very stingy as always, but in large part because they will have to be with their lack of scoring.

Edmonton will still have issues defensively, as will the bottom feeders in this division, the Coyotes and the Canucks. When we look at blue lines in terms of star power and depth, the Sharks stand alone in my eyes with this division.

Ranking the division by blue line:

  1. Sharks
  2. Flames
  3. Kings
  4. Ducks
  5. Coyotes
  6. Oilers
  7. Canucks

Predicted Division Standings

  1. Sharks
  2. Flames
  3. Kings
  4. Ducks
  5. Oilers
  6. Coyotes
  7. Canucks
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coredump
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coredump

Well, good start, anyway.  Hopefully there is cause for optimism.

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