At the end of the second period of their matchup with the Washington Capitals on Sunday the San Jose Sharks must have felt tantalizingly close to their first win of 2023-24.
San Jose held a 1-0 lead and had played Washington close all night, owning an incredible slight 2.10-1.89 expected goals edge at 5v5.
That may not sound like much, but in the context of the Sharks season it was an incredible outcome. Unfortunately for San Jose, the team promptly coughed up its lead in the third and lost 3-1 to drop its record to 0-8-1.
No one expected the Sharks to be a strong team entering this season, but a week ago it was reasonable to wonder if a tough schedule had exaggerated their weakness. Since last Monday the team has lost four games by a cumulative score of 15-2.
It's time to begin contemplating if we're looking at a historically inept team here.
Of course, if we simply go by what the team is on pace for, we're talking about a 9-point season, which would clearly be the worst of all time.
By goal differential San Jose is heading towards a -227 total — a number that somehow isn't the worst the NHL has seen. That distinction belongs to the 1974-74 Washington Capitals, whose goal differential (-265) was 69 inferior to the next-worst number on record, the 1993-94 Senators at -196.
Those Capitals scored at an unimpressive clip (2.26 goals/game) but what made them remarkable was the fact they allowed 5.54 goals per contest — a number even these Sharks don't seem capable of getting near.
So, at the very least that Washington team will have a pretty good claim to worst team of all time, and the Sharks' only road to that kind of distinction would be getting below their win total of eight. That seems like a stretch even with nine games already used up.
This squad has a bit of a floor when it comes to goals allowed because their goaltending has been solid this season, producing a team save percentage of .907 — a notch above NHL average (.906).
San Jose's duo of Mackenzie Blackwood and Kaapo Kähkönen might fall off that pace a bit, but each is an NHL-calibre goaltender and their cumulative career save percentage sits at .903.
That baseline level of competence could put a floor on this team above double-digit wins. That's not saying much, but it is hard to hit a historic low with goaltending that hovers around league average.
Interestingly both Blackwood and Kähkönen had career-worst seasons in 2022-23, and if both simultaneously revert to that form the picture will change, but based on their track records and early-season results that seems unlikely.
That means when we're talking about whether these Sharks go down in infamy, what we're really talking about is this offense, which has produced one goal per game so far and managed multiple goals just once. Of course, an enormous reason for that is that the team has a total shooting percentage of 4.1%, which is the type of number you might see from a stay-at-home defenseman.
For a little context, in seasons with at least 80 games there have been just three teams who have managed fewer than two goals per game: the 2013-14 and 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres, plus the 1997-98 Tampa Bay Lightning. Those three teams all had shooting percentages between 7.0 and 7.7%, which represents a reasonable floor in the modern game. All those squads played in slightly more defensive eras than these Sharks, making it more than fair to assume San Jose can shoot within this range.
Let's say San Jose managed to post a shooting percentage in the middle of this range at 7.4%.
If they'd done that to this point, they'd have 16 goals, 0.77 per goal more than they've managed already. Even so 1.77 goals per game would be the worst offence the NHL had ever seen since moving to a 70-game schedule.
Expected goals are a little more generous, saying the Sharks should have 21.67 by now. If they'd lived up to that number their 2.41 goals/game would be unimpressive but far from outlandish. A team this devoid of top-end talent — particularly with Logan Couture out indefinitely — seems likely to undershoot that, though.
Splitting the difference between what expected goals thinks and what they'd accomplish with a brutal, but not unprecedented shooting percentage — you're looking at 2.09 goals per game. Still pathetic, but not historic.
The 2023-24 Sharks are undoubtedly an awful hockey team. Nobody has scored fewer goals or taken fewer shots and only one team (the Minnesota Wild) has dug the puck out of their own net more. This team is in for a bumpy ride.
But San Jose's goaltending appears to offer some floor, and its shooting luck will turn to an extent. The bar for being the worst team of all time, over even the worst offense, is high (or low depending on how you want to conceptualize it).
The Sharks are more likely to be a doormat enjoyed by opposing fanbases all season than a group of legendary losers remembered for years to come.