As the San Jose Sharks get ready to kick off their 2021-22 NHL campaign, many questions still surround the team and their chances to once again play post-season hockey. Not too long ago, this was a team regularly making deep runs in the playoffs and contending for the Stanley Cup. However, the Sharks have failed to qualify for the playoffs in two consecutive seasons for the first time since the 1996 and 1997 seasons. After what some may call two underperforming seasons, we take a look at the expectations of this year’s team and what kind of damage they can do in a wide-open Pacific Division.
Last year’s season was abnormal in many ways due to COVID-19 regulations and restrictions. The schedule of play was all-new as the number of games was lowered substantially and new conferences were formed. Last year’s schedules also saw teams only play within their division throughout the entire regular season. The Sharks did not see much success under these changes placing seventh out of eight in the West Division with the record of 21-28-7, well outside of a playoff spot. The team’s rough start can be attributed to the fact that they did not play their home opener until 12 games into the season. With things getting back to normal in the upcoming season, what needs to go right for this team to grab the third and final playoff spot in the division?
The answer to that would be a whole lot. Although I think we can expect a much more competitive team than last year, this team isn’t just yet ready to make the jump to the postseason. That, however, does not mean that they don’t have a chance. The Pacific Division is generally thought of to be the weakest in the NHL. With Vegas being the clear-cut favorites, the other two playoff spots are wide open, not to mention the wildcards. But like I said, for the Sharks to put themselves in a position to make the playoffs come late season a lot has to go right. Competing teams in the Pacific see things the same way and have made moves this offseason to ensure that they occupy those spots come the end of the season. For example, the LA Kings and the Vancouver Canucks have been very active this offseason, adding players like Phillip Danault and Conor Garland. But the Sharks have made improvements of their own, most notably in goal bringing in young Adin Hill and veteran James Reimer. If these two can strengthen up the goalie position then that would fill in a gaping hole that has been in the roster for a while now.
Last season, Adin Hill went 9-9-1 with 2.74 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage. The numbers are pretty impressive considering the level of talent on last year’s Arizona Coyotes team. If he can perform like that for the Sharks and continue to develop they could see a lot more tally’s in the win column this season. Outside of the net, questions still surround the high-paid defensemen Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, as well as their ability to contribute at a high level from the blue line. In the past few seasons, these former Norris trophy winners have had trouble finding the elite offensive game that makes them great. If the Sharks have a shot at the postseason, we’re going to have to see a kind of resurgence season from Burns and Karlsson.
Another question mark that has to be addressed coming into the 2021-22 season is the off-ice situation of forward Evander Kane, and how it will affect the team on the ice. Kane was the team-leading scorer last season with 49 points in 56 games. His offseason has been riddled with controversy after allegations of him gambling on Sharks games surfaced. This was investigated by the NHL and found to be false, however, Kane did admit to gambling the night before a playoff game in Las Vegas. Allegations about Kane mistreating his ex-wife have also come forward as well as him not following NHL Covid-19 protocol. These allegations are still being investigated by the NHL. It is unclear whether last year’s leading point-getter for the Sharks will begin the 2021-22 season with the team or not. If not, they could seriously miss his offensive production.
Other offseason acquisitions to look out for include rookie preseason sensation William Eklund, who was taken in this year’s draft at 7th, which many believe to be the steal of the draft. Eklund has proven himself in the preseason with 5 assists so far and could surprise many by making the opening night roster. The Sharks also improved their squad this offseason by bringing in veteran center Nick Bonino, who is likely to center the third line. Bonino’s leadership could prove to be important down the line for this Sharks team and he could better third-line players this season like Kevin Labanc.
Current big-name Shark forwards as of right now are looking to have bounce-back seasons. Among these players are Tomas Hertl, captain Logan Couture, Timo Meier, and Kevin Labanc. Not too long ago, the Sharks were a team with four 30+ goal scorers. Three of these players still play in San Jose, being Meier, Kane, and Hertl. And we all know how big of a contributor Logan Couture can be down the stretch and especially into the offseason. If these players can recapture some of that level of play and bring that intensity and production to the Sharks, then I see no reason why this team can’t make it to the postseason.
However, as it stands, I think this year does not see the Sharks return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Although, I think the team will make drastic improvements, especially in net, and they will be far more competitive than last year. To me, there are just too many question marks coming into the season. Will the goaltending improve substantially? Can the big names perform and stay healthy? How much production can you expect from your young core? The way I see it this team makes a jump forward from last season but does not yet make their return to the playoffs. I think they come in around 6th in the Pacific, with the Flames and Ducks finishing just below them.