San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones was excellent last year. In his first season as a full-time NHL starter, Jones won 37 games and posted a .918 save percentage and 2.27 goals against average en route to a Western Conference championship. On Sharks off nights, San Jose was still home to a star goalie as Jones’ expected backup in 2016-17, former North Dakota Fighting Sioux standout Aaron Dell, was also great in his first full-time AHL season with the San Jose Barracuda. Dell had a .922 save percentage and 2.42 GAA, earning himself a two-year, $1.25MM contract extension this off-season. So where is the problem? Unfortunately for the Sharks, the problems abound with this duo going into the new season.
First, there is the reliability of Jones to worry about. Although he has given the Sharks no reason to worry about him, nor did his time as a backup with the Los Angeles Kings raise any red flags, Jones is swimming through dangerous waters in 2016-17. The dreaded sophomore slump has not been kind to goalies in Jones’ position. Even though he was not technically a rookie last season, it was his first year as an NHL starter. In the past, goalies who have shined bright in their first season as the number one man in net have often faltered the next season. The most recent example is Steve Mason. The former Columbus goalie, who started for the Blue Jackets right out of junior hockey, was outstanding in his first year. His .916 save percentage, 2.29 GAA, and league-leading 10 shutouts earned him the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 2008-09. In 2009-10? Mason’s GAA blew up to 3.06, while his save percentage fell to .901. Mason went 20-26-9 that season, after posting a 33-20-7 line the year before. Even worse than having just one bad sophomore slump year, Mason’s struggles in Columbus continued until he was finally traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012-13. But surely a Calder-winning goalie having the wheels fall off is just an anomaly, right? Not so much; it happened just a few seasons before Mason. This time, it was Boston Bruins rookie sensation Andrew Raycroft. After a few seasons as a backup to the less-than-stellar likes of Byron Dafoe, Steve Shields, and John Grahame, Bruins fans were ecstatic when Raycroft took the reins in 2003-04 and put up a .926 save percentage and 2.05 GAA. Then it all fell apart. Following the lockout year, Raycroft started the 2005-06 season off as a hero and ended it as a disgraced third string. He had a miserable .879 save percentage and .371 GAA, which gave the Bruins more than enough reason to hand the starting job to Tim Thomas. They took it a step further in the off-season, dealing Raycroft to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Tuukka Rask. In 2006-07, Raycroft allowed a league-high 205 goals as the Leafs net minder, and would never work as a starting goalie in the NHL again. You can of course make the argument that Martin Jones is simply a better goalie than Raycroft, but is he better than the aforementioned Rask? Probably not. (Rask is second all-time in save percentage) Even Rask encountered this problem though. After a few seasons as a backup, Rask played so well in 2009-10 that he forced a share of the starting job with the fan-favorite Thomas. Rask played in 45 games to Thomas’ 43, and in those appearances he had an impeccable .931 save percentage and 1.97 GAA, both of which led the league. Rask finished fourth in Calder voting and seventh in Vezina voting and there was a general assumption that the team was his. Entering his first year as the presumptive starter, Rask struggled. He had only a .918 save percentage and 2.67 GAA for the season, as Thomas took back the starting job early on and led the Bruins to a Stanley Cup. Yet another case study: former Penguins goalie J-S Aubin. Aubin’s numbers in his final year as a backup and first year as a starter in Pittsburgh are very comparable to Jones’ past two seasons. In Aubin’s next season, he had a gruesome .890 save percentage and 3.13 GAA.
Such a drastic collapse like Aubin’s or Raycroft’s may not happen to Martin Jones, but it could. He could also just see his stats fall to pedestrian levels like Rask or Mason. Either way, the Sharks are not prepared. If Jones’ numbers fall off, they do not have the goalie depth they need. As good as Dell was last season, he would be a 27-year-old rookie who has bounced around the ECHL and AHL for the past four years. The Sharks claim to have faith in their backup, but their actions betrayed their words when they kept the struggling Alex Stalock as the backup last season, until it reached a breaking point and they decided to trade for James Reimer. Though Dell has the experience, he has not proven himself at the NHL, nor has he dominated in the minors like he did in college. If he was to be eased into the NHL, he might gradually find success. However, if Jones hits a sophomore slump and Dell is thrust into high pressure situations, he is likely to fail.
In house, there are no solutions to the Sharks goaltending problem. If Jones struggles they need a reliable veteran backup who can handle a workload and important starts. If Jones doesn’t struggle, they could still use a reliable veteran backup. After playing in 65 regular season games and 24 playoff games in 2015-16, Jones is deserving of some more off-days this season. Dell simply may not be good enough to make all of the starts needed of him. Right now, Dell is “penciled in” as the backup, but unless the Sharks can make a big trade or savvy signing, it may as well be permanent marker. Troy Grosenick, a Union College grad who backed up Dell with the Barracuda in 2015-16, has a brutal .894 save percentage and 3.16 GAA in 28 AHL games last year and is not even a consideration at this point. Mantas Armalis, a 24-year-old Lithuanian goalie who the Sharks signed this off-season from Djurgardens of the Swedish Elite League, has upside, but is hardly ready for any NHL action this year.
That leaves the Sharks one choice to solve their goalie issues: acquisition. Whether it is signing a goalie to a short-term deal or PTO before training camp starts, or waiting for a goalie market to develop once the season begins, San Jose will have to make a move or else stand by their risky Jones-Dell tandem. Veterans available as of right now include Karri Ramo, Anders Lindback, Ray Emery, and Michael Leighton, while some younger, but riskier options like Joni Ortio and Kevin Poulin could also be had. Of all of these, Calgary castoffs Ramo and Ortio represent the best options. Although neither had a strong 2015-16 campaign, they did make a significant number of starts and are used to facing NHL, and even Western Conference, competition. Both goalies are prime candidates to soon bolt overseas though, and a signing would need to happen soon for the Sharks. If they miss out, or simply don’t trust any of the available free agents, they face a more difficult task in finding a trade. San Jose is projected to have less than $1MM in cap space at the start of the season, meaning that acquiring an expensive backup on the trading block like the Red Wings’ Jimmy Howard or either of Dallas’ disappointing tandem of Antti Niemi or Kari Lehtonen would have to involve significant salary leaving the Sharks. More affordable targets like Michael Hutchinson, J-F Berube, Mike Condon, or Curtis McElhinney could be the solution, but only if they are available at the right price. There is no easy answer for this scenario, and it may go unsolved as a result, and that is why San Jose certainly has a goalie conundrum on their hands.