Review: In the entirety of NHL history, a defenseman has reached the 100-point milestone just 15 times. Erik Karlsson accomplished that feat in 2022-23, but despite recording 25 goals and 76 assists with San Jose, the Sharks finished near the bottom of the league with a 22-44-16 record. How did a team featuring one of the all-time greatest individual performances out of a defenseman do that bad? For starters, despite having an elite offensive blueliner, the Sharks’ overall defense was terrible, finishing 25th in 5-on-5 expected goals against (191.27). Some teams can mask a poor defense with good goaltending, but not the 2022-23 Sharks. James Reimer and Kaapo Kahkonen were a truly horrendous netminding duo, combining for a 3.64 GAA and an .886 save percentage. San Jose also had just four forwards breach the 40-point milestone and none reach 70 points, so even with Karlsson’s offensive efforts, the Sharks ranked 25th in goals per game (2.84). Without any help, Karlsson’s efforts ultimately just served to lower the Sharks’ chances of getting elite prospect Connor Bedard in the lottery and keeping them out of the top-three in the 2023 NHL Draft.
What’s Changed? The Sharks clearly need to rebuild and to that end, they dealt Karlsson to Pittsburgh over the summer, receiving a package that primarily included draft picks, but also resulted in San Jose getting veteran forwards Mikael Granlund and Mike Hoffman as well as defenseman Jan Rutta. The Sharks also acquired goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood from New Jersey to replace Reimer, who left as a free agent, and they accepted Anthony Duclair from Florida, who the Panthers moved mostly for cap purposes, but should get a chance to re-establish himself as a top-six forward in San Jose.
What would success look like? Another terrible campaign is probably in their best interests. The Sharks have failed to make the playoffs for the past four years, but they’ve been slow to fully commit to a rebuild, which has arguably only served to extend their period of pain. Even the 2023-24 squad is likely to be in that awkward position of being both bad and full of veterans. At least if they struggle, that’d position them to get another high draft pick and keep their focus squarely on the future. The veterans may be moved for further picks at the trade deadline.
What could go wrong? Things can’t get much worse in San Jose. Arguably, the worst-case scenario would actually be if the veteran cast of Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Hoffman, Granlund and Duclair – the youngest of which is Duclair at 28 – do just enough to keep the Sharks out of the top-five in the next draft.
Top Breakout Candidate: Sharks fans looking for some reason to watch the 2023-24 campaign should pay attention to William Eklund. Taken with the seventh overall pick in the 2021 draft, Eklund has high-end potential and is coming off an encouraging campaign in which he recorded 41 points in 54 AHL contests along with two goals and three points in eight games with the Sharks. He has a chance to make the Sharks out of training camp and serve in a top-six capacity.
A power forward with soft hands, 29-year-old Hertl topped 60 points last season for the third time in his career. He is not especially fast but is excellent at using his size to protect the puck and extend plays in the offensive zone. Hertl is strong on faceoffs, winning more than 53.0% for his career and has been an effective play driver for the Sharks even if the supporting cast is suspect. Hertl could use some better goaltending behind him. He had a Corsi percentage of 52.5% and an expected goals percentage of 52.7% and yet the Sharks were outscored 68-53 with him on the ice in those situations. Hertl does not look for his own shot often enough. He had a nine-game stretch from March 4 through March 20 during which he recorded 35 shots on goal, putting four into the net, but that pace of shot generation was atypical and did not last. He followed up that stretch with 20 shots on goal in his next 11 games. Hertl started the season slowly, with four points (1 G, 3 A) in the first 10 games, but followed that up with 31 points (12 G, 19 A) over his next 25 games. Even with a shaky supporting cast, Hertl can be expected to contribute 25 goals and 65 points for the Sharks.
The 34-year-old who has logged 927 regular-season games for the Sharks just put up 67 points (27 G, 40 A), tying the second highest single-season point total of his career. In November, he had an eight-game stretch during which he produced 11 points (7 G, 4 A). Couture can generate some offensive production, but he has a track record of mediocre possession numbers, and 2016-2017 was the last time that the Sharks outscored the opposition during 5-on-5 play with Couture on the ice. Oddly enough, he has become worse in the faceoff circle, which is unusual. Most players take some time to get accustomed to taking faceoffs in the league and get better as time goes on. In his first five seasons, Couture won 51.7% of his draws. Since then, he has won 46.6% and he took 1,349 faceoffs last season, easily the most of his career. Couture is at the age when age-related decline could start to have an impact, but 25 goals and 55-60 points should be within range for him because he is still going to play a major role in San Jose.
An Achilles injury limited Duclair to just 20 games last season and he managed just two goals, but he contributed 11 points (4 G, 7 A) in 20 playoff games and scored a career high 31 goals and 58 points the year before, so there is reason to be hopeful for a rebound in his production in a full season in 2023-2024. When he is on his game, Duclair uses his speed to get out ahead of the play and will cut hard to the net, where he is very comfortable finishing with a deke. While Duclair’s offensive game continues to soar, his play away from the puck has suffered, so that is an area of focus for the 2023-2024 season. Duclair played just 20 games last season and somehow had a 17-game goal-scoring drought, scoring in his second and 20th games of the season. The Sharks are Duclair’s seventh NHL team, but they also offer a quality opportunity for a bounce-back season and if he could contribute 45 points, that would be a relatively strong bounce-back performance.
A six-time 20-goal scorer, the 33-year-old winger nevertheless scored just 14 goals for Montreal last season, his lowest total since 2013-2014. Hoffman’s shooting percentage dropped in his two seasons with the Canadiens, to 9.6%, after scoring on 12.0% of his shots before that, so there is a chance that he could get a boost in his finishing rate. Even in a modestly productive season, Hoffman had a 14-game stretch during which he tallied 13 points (2 G, 11 A) and that occurred while he scored on just 5.3% of his shots. One thing to watch with Hoffman is how much ice time he gets in San Jose. He is entering the final season of his contract, and if he scores, there might be teams interested in acquiring him before the trade deadline, so the Sharks will have some incentive to put Hoffman in a position to succeed. Of course, success is a relative term at this stage of Hoffman’s career. If he finishes the season with 15 goals and 35 points, that will have to be considered a success.
Although he is a veteran with four 50-point seasons to his credit, Granlund is coming off a miserable season which he finished by scoring five points (1 G, 4 A) in 21 games with the Penguins after he was acquired from Nashville at the trade deadline. He started the season much better, contributing 10 points (1 G, 9 A) in 11 games for the Predators. The 31-year-old playmaker can play center and wing though with the Sharks’ influx of wingers this offseason, Granlund may be needed more in the middle of the ice. His shot generation, which was never his strong suit in the first place, has collapsed to less than 1.50 shots per game in the past three seasons and that really needs to change if he is going to have a positive impact. The move to San Jose will give Granlund a chance at a fresh start, albeit with a team that is likely to be fighting an uphill battle most nights. A 45-point season should still be well within his grasp, with the expectation that he can earn quality ice time on a team that lacks proven forwards.
The 29-year-old winger has played just three NHL seasons, and barely saw the ice when he played with Toronto in his first season, but Barabanov did record a career high 47 points (15 G, 32 A) in 68 games last season. He may have been the beneficiary of San Jose’s limited depth on the wings, as he ended up playing more than 18 minutes per game, but Barbaranov does not generate a lot of shots and his lofty percentages suggest that he does not have a lot of room to expect an increase in his production. He finished last season strong, tallying 19 points (9 G, 10 A) in his last 23 games, but that production came on just 38 shots on goal, which is not enough to expect those numbers to be sustainable. He should be able to go for 40 points again this season, but if newcomers eat into his ice time, his point totals could dip, too.
Coming off an injury-shortened 2021-2022 season, Labanc contributed 33 points (15 G, 18 A) but he found himself on the doghouse, too, despite providing solid defensive play. From January 11 through March 11, a span of 16 games Labanc had one assist and averaged just 11:04 of ice time per game. His ice time and production picked up after that but with the Sharks acquiring a lot of new wingers in the offseason, Labanc is going to be facing a challenge for ice time in 2023-2024, which seems weird for the returning player who led Sharks regulars in Corsi percentage and expected goals percentage last season. At his best, Labanc is a strong passer with a heavy shot, one that he should try to utilize more frequently. Labanc accrued 56 points during the 2018-2019 campaign, but it feels like he is a long way from that now. A more reasonable expectation for this season is in the 35-point range but there is probably more upside for Labanc if he gets traded to a team that could use his skill in their top six.
The Red Wings had enough after Zadina managed just seven points (3 G, 4 A) in 30 games, but that frustration had been building for quite some time. He compiled 68 points in 190 games with the Red Wings, scoring 12 of his 28 goals on the power play, so the sixth pick in the 2018 Draft was given chances to produce and the numbers just weren’t there. Can he resurrect his career in San Jose? For Zadina, it’s worth a try and for the Sharks, they might as well buy low on him and see if he can recapture any of the form that made him such a highly touted prospect. Zadina’s most productive season in Detroit saw him produce a modest 24 points (10 G, 14 A) in 74 games in 2021-2022 and exceeding that might be the most reasonable target for his first season in San Jose. There is a world in which he secures a regular spot on a scoring line and possibly doubles that point total, but there is also a world in which the influx of wingers to San Jose leaves Zadina on the lineup bubble and then the point total could collapse.
Acquired from the Devils as part of the Timo Meier trade, Zetterlund had a miserable start to his San Jose career, managing zero goals and three assists in 22 games for the Sharks, but doesn’t tell the whole story. Zetterlund had an expected goals percentage of 37.8% and San Jose was outscored 16-7 during 5-on-5 play with Zetterlund on the ice. At the start of the season, Zetterlund had an instant impact for New Jersey, scoring 13 points (5 G, 8 A) in his first 20 games for the Devils, but he could not keep that pace, following it up with zero goals and five assists in his next 20 games. Zetterlund is a sturdy winger who can battle down low to create scoring chances, but it remains to be seen if he has the ability to score enough to stay in the top half of the lineup. With so many players competing for spots on the wing in San Jose, Zetterlund has a wide range of outcomes, which could mean playing in the top six, or falling out of the lineup entirely. Given the uncertainty, expecting 25-30 points seems about right.
A reliable checking center, Sturm landed a bigger role in San Jose last season, playing a career high 14:44 per game and finishing the season with career highs of 14 goals and 26 points. Sturm has good size and won 55.8% of his faceoffs last season, so there is a role for him to fill. That role may not be appreciated as much on a team that is likely to be in a lottery position at season’s end. Even if he tends to play in more of a defensive role, Sturm is not shy about crashing the net to score greasy goals. He scored five goals during an eight-game stretch in October, which may have set unrealistic expectations, because he could obviously not continue that pace. With a secure spot in the Sharks lineup, Sturm could be expected to produce 25 to 30 points from his primarily defensive role.
While he has never produced more than 17 points in an NHL season, Ferraro has played more than 21 minutes per game for each of the past three seasons and has put up more than 120 hits and 120 blocked shots in each of the past two. He is a strong skater whose defensive impact has declined, so he could use a rebound season to get back on track. While Ferraro’s peripheral stats are strong, he could be in the mix for more of an offensive role, mostly because someone has to take on the minutes that used to belong to Erik Karlsson. Although Ferraro’s career high is 17 points, he has been sharing a blueline with the likes of Karlsson and Brent Burns, both of whom are no longer in San Jose. Without any proven options ready to step into a bigger role on the Sharks blueline, Ferraro could take advantage of the opportunity and might have a chance to produce 25 to 30 points. It says something about the state of the Sharks defense that the blueliner who might have the greatest impact had a 24-game stretch last season during which he recorded a single assist.
The 29-year-old blueliner played a career high 19:40 per game for the Sharks last season, finishing with a career best 24 points (1 G, 23 A). While those are not eye-popping numbers by any means, Benning is a proven commodity on the Sharks blueline and that will give him a chance to play a significant role in 2023-2024. Benning plays a heady game, thriving on smooth skating and good decision making with the puck, but has not been given a big role in his NHL career. Looking at the competition for playing time in San Jose, Benning is as good a bet as any to handle a more significant role. During a 10-game stretch in November and December last season, when he was playing nearly 21 minutes per game, Benning accumulated nine assists, so that small sample does suggest there could be some offensive potential if he gets consistent minutes. While that might be the case, expecting anything more than 25 points could be considered optimistic.
A 28-year-old who has played a total of 95 games, Burroughs showed enough potential in Vancouver last season to land a three-year contract with San Jose. He is not big, but plays an aggressive game, putting up 165 hits in 48 games for the Canucks. He is also not afraid to drop the gloves, when necessary. On San Jose’s rebuilding blueline, there will be a chance for Burroughs to earn a bigger role than he has ever had before in the NHL. He was effective enough in his limited role with Vancouver and if he continues to play with that edge to his game, that could give him him the inside track to a top-four role with the Sharks. Although Burroughs has just 11 points in 95 career games, he is poised to get what is, for him, an unprecedented opportunity on San Jose’s rebuilding blueline. It might not result in even 20 points, but Burroughs could also deliver 250 hits and 125 blocked shots over the course of a full season.
The San Jose Sharks just haven’t been able to figure out what to do in net lately. The Pacific Division team doggedly refused to move on from a floundering Martin Jones for almost too long, then went through a quick succession of short-term band-aids in James Reimer, Adin Hill, and Kaapo Kahkonen before trading for MacKenzie Blackwood this off-season. The hope, almost certainly, is that Blackwood will be able to reset his game and his mindset after struggling to produce in New Jersey amidst a rash of injuries.
There’s a potential for success there. Blackwood was far from what a playoff-bound New Jersey needed last year – he struggled with even more injuries, and prospect Akira Schmid proved he was more than ready to take over as an NHL regular to tandem with Vitek Vanecek. But his game style, which utilizes his bigger frame to take up space in the net and doesn’t require a lot of aggressive challenging or puck-handling, could be a better fit for San Jose than either Adin Hill or Kaapo Kahkonen’s more movement-reliant game play styles. And since Hill didn’t shine for San Jose (and Kahkonen will be back this season but didn’t do much to inspire confidence last year) it’s worth considering that moving in the other direction stylistically could work out in the team’s favor. Add in the fact that Blackwood performed much closer to his expected output last year than Kahkonen – he was near the middle of the pack across the league in terms of expected goals numbers, while Kahkonen was nearly at the bottom of the league altogether – and there’s reason to hope that this change in scenery will be exactly what Blackwood needs. Now, he just needs to prove he can stay healthy.
Projected starts: 40-45