By Hal Estep
The struggling San Jose Sharks were 4-10-1 just under two weeks ago, coming off of a five-game losing streak.
Now, the Sharks are on a five-game winning streak. The streak coincides with the return of the Sharks’ most crucial piece. No, it isn’t Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau. It’s not Brent Burns or Logan Couture. It’s San Jose’s hidden gem: Radim Simek.
The 27-year-old Czech defenseman is in his second season and has gained quite a following with Sharks fans. Undrafted in 2011, Simek played with HC Bílí Tygři Liberec in the Czech Extraliga until 2017, when San Jose signed him to a one-year deal. Simek went on to make his NHL debut on Dec. 8, 2018. Since that night, Simek has shown that he is more than just a depth player.
In the 41 games that Radim Simek played during the 2018-19 NHL season, the Sharks compiled a 29-9-3 record. Despite debuting at the age of 26, Simek showed that he could be a fixture in the Sharks’ lineup. Coach Peter Deboer had been searching for the perfect defensive partner for offensive dynamo Brent Burns since Paul Martin’s play dropped off following San Jose’s Stanley Cup defeat in 2016.
Deboer found that perfect partner in Radim Simek. Burns’ tendency to sell out on offensive plays and to pinch in the offensive zone often led to odd-man rushes heading the other way. Most of the time, his partner would be hung out to dry. Radim Simek adapted incredibly well to his role alongside Burns, and the Sharks benefited immensely from the new pairing.
This continued until March 12, 2019, when Radim Simek was injured and subsequently had surgery on his ACL and MCL in his right knee. However, Simek’s importance was immediately highlighted after his injury. The Sharks went on a seven-game losing streak. Post-injury, the Sharks went 3-8-1. The Sharks allowed 2.93 goals per game with Simek in the lineup. After his injury, they allowed 3.91 goals per game in the regular season.
While the Sharks made it to the Western Conference Finals, his absence was still noticed. The Sharks primarily played five defensemen; Marc Eduoard Vlasic, Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, Justin Braun and Brendan Dillon played the vast majority of minutes, with Joakim Ryan coming in sporadically. The talent in the defensive core is undeniable, but five defensemen eating up minutes isn’t sustainable. Fatigue set in and the Sharks were ousted by the eventual Stanley Cup-winning St. Louis Blues.
The Sharks gave up 3.3 goals per game in the postseason. After an eventful off-season, which included the re-signing of Erik Karlsson and loss of captain Joe Pavelski, Sharks fans were ready for another contending season. Instead, they began the season 4-10-1. Fans and rivals alike believed that the window had finally closed for the Sharks, after saying the window was closing for the last decade.
Then, it happened. Radim Simek finally returned to the Sharks lineup after almost eight months out of action. The Sharks have been rolling since his return on Nov. 5. Many will say that this is exaggerating Simek’s effect on the Sharks, that there’s no way that an undrafted defenseman with 13 career points could have this much of an impact alone. Or, they’ll say that this is only a temporary boost for a bad Sharks team that will regress back to the mean soon.
They’d be wrong though, because Simek’s return has brought the same effects as his debut. The Sharks before Simek’s return gave up a whopping 3.73 goals per game. In the five games since Simek came back, they’ve given up 2.8 goals per game. It’s a small sample size, but Simek has now shown in two different seasons that his presence and play can prevent almost an entire goal per game. A temporary boost was bringing back Patrick Marleau earlier this season. An absolute game changer is the return of Radim Simek.
Edited by Emma Moloney | firstname.lastname@example.org