Three reasons Sharks could improve next season without Karlsson

Three reasons Sharks could improve next season without Karlsson originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

The Sharks can’t be much worse this year, right?

They were the fourth-worst team in the NHL last season. They also had the fourth-worst points percentage (.366) in franchise history, their worst since the 1995-96 campaign.

Odds are the Sharks are going to be better, if only because they’re already so close to rock bottom.

On the other hand, they just traded reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson to the Pittsburgh Penguins. So it’s easy to imagine, actually, the Sharks getting worse.

Their goaltending continues to short-circuit. Zero offensive punch from the blueline. Their many veteran forwards decline.

Those are all obvious possibilities.

So, what has to go right for the Sharks get better and rise above the depths? Can the Sharks draw inspiration from other past surprise NHL success stories?

Forwards

After a disappointing expansion campaign, not much was expected of the 2022-23 Seattle Kraken in their sophomore season. But the Kraken, paced by an NHL-leading 12 double-digit goal-scorers up front, were fourth in the league in scoring.

And while the Sharks probably won’t have anyone score 40 goals like Jared McCann did last season, they do have 11 forwards who have cleared double digits in the last two years: Tomas Hertl, Logan Couture, Mikael Granlund, Kevin Labanc, Mike Hoffman, Anthony Duclair, Luke Kunin, Alexander Barabanov, Oskar Lindblom, Nico Sturm, and Filip Zadina.

Just like Seattle with Matty Beniers, San Jose has a hotshot rookie in William Eklund waiting in the wings.

So if it all comes together? Hertl, Couture, Hoffman, and Duclair, who have reached the mark before, surpass 25 goals. Granlund, Labanc, Kunin, Barabanov, and Zadina flirt with 15 to 20? Eklund enjoys a Calder Trophy-caliber campaign?

The Sharks could, a la the Kraken, roll out four dangerous lines. Could that be enough to drag San Jose to the postseason?

Defensemen

Obviously, not without the help of a defense that’s hurting, especially offensively, with the loss of Karlsson.

Last season, after Karlsson’s 101 points, the next most-prolific Sharks defenseman was Matt Benning with 24.

Perhaps San Jose can draw inspiration from their most bitter rivals, the Vegas Golden Knights, the expansion edition.

“The thin forward group and blueline leaves the Golden Knights without the requisite depth to fight their way out of the Pacific basement,” The Hockey News wrote in their season preview. “If Vegas is shooting for a top selection in next year’s draft, though, they should be right on target.”

The Golden Knights, of course, would advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

This isn’t to pick on THN, I could’ve found the same prognosis in virtually any 2017-18 season preview.

The Golden Knights’ top-eight was comprised of cast-offs like Deryk Engelland, Brad Hunt, Luca Sbisa, Brayden McNabb, Colin Miller, and Jon Merrill.

While they also featured emerging defensemen Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore, this was not looked upon as a playoff-caliber blueline by any means.

But Vegas obviously made do, as San Jose hopes to do too with a group that includes veterans Benning, Jan Rutta, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Kyle Burroughs, Radim Simek, and Jacob MacDonald. Younger blueliners Mario Ferraro, Nikolai Knyzhov, Henry Thrun, Nikita Okhotiuk, and Leon Gawanke offer some upside.

This group appears to lack a Theodore-like offensive talent — though remember, Theodore, 22 then, was not the Theodore that we know today — but the Sharks should be solid enough defensively. Karlsson could get exploited in the defensive zone.

For Vegas, stay-at-home defenders Engelland and McNabb weren’t looked at as top-four blueliners to start 2017-18, but they pulled it off for the Western Conference winners. Benning and Rutta could be comparable?

Their trouble, of course, will be moving the puck out of the zone sans Karlsson, one of the best in league at that.

The Sharks get some offensive production and puck-moving from a Thrun, Gawanke, or Ferraro though, maybe they manage to field a competitive, all-around defense.

Goaltending

Mackenzie Blackwood, 26, and Kaapo Kahkonen, 27, should be in the primes of their career.

But Blackwood has suffered back-to-back injury-plagued campaigns, while Kahkonen endured a nightmarish season.

Good thing for them, the NHL is full of goalies who suffered a bad stretch or two, then found their games.

Just in the Pacific Division, obviously, Adin Hill fell flat with the Sharks in 2021-22, but rallied to lead Vegas to the Stanley Cup. Former lottery pick Jack Campbell looked like a bust before reviving his career in his mid-20’s with the Los Angeles Kings and Toronto Maple Leafs, leading to a five-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers. The Calgary FlamesJacob Markstrom followed a similar path, a ballyhooed goaltending prospect who didn’t become a No. 1 goalie until he was 28.

So just because Blackwood and Kahkonen were bad yesterday doesn’t mean they’ll be bad tomorrow.

They have talent — Blackwood was sixth in the Calder Trophy voting in 2019-20, and Kahkonen was once seen as the heir apparent for the Minnesota Wild. As recently as 2021-22, Kahkonen posted a .912 save percentage, which the Sharks would gladly take this season.

It wouldn’t be a stretch for both of them to turn their careers around.

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