SAN JOSE – The San Jose Sharks were in the early stages of practice — exercising an up-tempo drill — when a sloppy entry by one forward across the blue line resulted in an easy turnover for the opposing defenseman.
Right then, Sharks coach David Quinn halted the drill. Using some choice language, Quinn raised his voice and reminded his team that poor puck management was one of the Sharks’ biggest issues last season.
“It’s not going to happen this year,” Quinn told his team Tuesday. “We have to work with a purpose.”
Fixing those types of mistakes will be crucial for the Sharks if they have any hope of improving upon their 22-44-16 record from last season. This is not a team that figures to light up the scoreboard now that Erik Karlsson and Timo Meier are no longer wearing teal, so playing smart, detailed hockey will be necessary if they want to remain competitive on a nightly basis.
“Will we win games 6-5? Probably not,” Sharks winger Mike Hoffman said. “But there are guys in here that can put the puck in the net and make plays. We have an opportunity to prove some people wrong.”
Here are five ways the Sharks can be better than expected.
TEAM SAVE PERCENTAGE
The most obvious way for the Sharks to have an improved record this season is to stop the puck a few more times. San Jose had the worst save percentage in the NHL in 2022-23, as James Reimer, Kaapo Kahkonen, Aaron Dell, and Eetu Makiniemi combined for an unsightly mark of .881, a drop from .900 the season before.
Of the 52 goalies that played in at least 25 games last season, Reimer and Kahkonen, per moneypuck.com, ranked 45th and 50th, respectively, in goals saved above expected per 60 minutes.
“I always judge a bad goal by the reaction on the bench, and we all can feel it,” Quinn said recently. “There are some that you think maybe (the goalie) could have had, and you can live with those. It’s the ones where you go, ‘he should have had that.’ When everybody on the bench feels it, that can be demoralizing, and it happens to every team.”
Quinn liked what he saw from Kahkonen and Mackenzie Blackwood in training camp. Going from .881 to .900 save percentage won’t solve all of the Sharks’ issues, far from it. But it would keep them in more games and put them closer to the league average. Of the top 16 teams in save percentage last season, 12 made the playoffs.
5-ON-5 GOALS AGAINST
Goaltending plays a role in this as well, but so does managing the puck and staying above the puck. The Sharks allowed 220 5-on-5 goals against last season, third-most In the NHL ahead of only Columbus (231) and Anaheim (225).
Limiting turnovers can go a long way in cutting down this number, and doing this will allow the Sharks to be in a proper defensive zone structure more often. Managing game situations properly and making smart, simple plays with the puck in close games can make a difference.
That theme was drilled home by the Sharks coaching staff all training camp. Will the players buy in?
“Teams around the league are just so tight. They’re not going to give you free goals,” Sharks defenseman Matt Benning said. “So if we can limit those unnecessary turnovers that lead into sustained time in our zone, which maybe leads to an icing, then that leads to a goal against, those are the sorts of things that (build) momentum.
“If we can be on the other side of those and manage the puck really well and force turnovers from other teams, that gives us momentum.”
CREATING MORE POWER PLAYS
The Sharks will use five forwards on their first power play unit, at least to start the season. It might be fun to watch at times, but how often will fans get to see it?
The Sharks were 25th in the league with a power-play percentage of 18.4 last season. Almost as big an issue was that they only had 223 power play opportunities, the third-lowest number in the NHL. In 15 games last season, the Sharks had one power play or less.
“I think moving your feet, getting to the net, and not standing around,” winger Luke Kunin said when asked how the Sharks can draw more penalties. “When you’re moving your feet, there’s maybe more chances for (defenders) to hook you and pull you down and get interference calls.
“When you’re drawing penalties, it’s usually guys moving their feet, working hard, getting off the walls, and getting in the middle of the ice.”
The Sharks might not collect a ton of points this season but at least they can leave opponents feeling like they’ve been in a tough game.
Quinn and general manager Mike Grier want a team that plays with a bit more of an edge, particularly at home, where they were a dismal 8-21-11 last season. Scrums, it seemed, were as rare as home victories.
Grier was a hard-nosed player during his 14-year career and at the very least, wants his team to show it won’t back down from a battle.
“You need a little bit of pushback, you need a little bit of jam, you need a little bit of an in-your-face kind of attitude,” Sharks defenseman Kyle Burroughs said. “Guys have been brought in who enjoy playing like that, and I think that we can push the envelope a little bit more and be a hard team to play against.
“When teams come in here or when we go on the road, we want teams to know that we’re hard to play against and maybe there’s a few ice bags on their bodies after that. That’s something that we can take pride in and that’ll help us win games down the road.”
The Sharks scored 234 goals last season and about 45 percent of that total came from four players: Karlsson, Meier, Logan Couture, and Tomas Hertl.
The Sharks do have a deeper and more offensively talented forward group, from top to bottom, than last year, and that depth needs to come through if the Sharks hope to stay competitive in most games.
“We feel really good about all three of our positions, from the goal to the d-corps to our forwards,” Quinn said. “The question is how quickly we can all gel and become a team. We’ve taken some big steps here in the first three weeks.”