The San Jose Sharks’ 2014-15 season was not defined early in the year, but by a February collapse and problems winning at home. It is difficult to determine the course of a season in the first month, but there are certain things that are likely to show up early with longer term repercussions.
The Sharks have undergone major changes since they lost in Game 7 in the 2014 playoffs. The coaching staff is completely new. The goalie and the player that scored the Sharks’ lone goal that night are both gone. In fact, eight of the 19 players the Sharks put on the ice that night are gone, while a ninth is playing a different position. With all the changes in the past 18 months, it means there is a lot for Sharks fans to absorb early this season.
Given the new coaches, new players and a new goalie, there is a reason to give this team time to meld. With a road-heavy schedule to start the season, there is even more reason to be cautious about looking at the win/loss record. But there are things that should show up early, and we look at them here. Today we’ll cover half the list; we’ll cover the other half tomorrow.
10. The San Jose Barracuda
The Sharks’ top minor league team has been located back east for a very long time. The Cleveland Barons and, more recently, the Worcester Sharks were a long way away, creating logistical issues for call-ups and making scouting more difficult. That all changes, as the Sharks’ minor league team is not merely a lot closer, but actually in the same facilities. The proximity advantage of the San Jose Barracuda could be apparent, even in October, when the Sharks are on the road a good bit.
9. Depth at the Forwards
Sharks fans have, for years, lamented the contributions from their lower lines. There is a real chance for the Sharks to show considerable improvement and that effectiveness should be evident early in the year.
Joel Ward is the only new forward addition locked into a role, though it is possible one of the prospects breaks through early in the year and secures a spot. The absence of (the suspended) Raffi Torres opens the prospect doors a good bit wider. It appears that Joonas Donskoi will be the first to go through that door and attempt to secure a long-term roster spot. Matt Nieto and Barclay Goodrow are perhaps the most vulnerable should any of the other Sharks prospects, such as Timo Meier or Nikolay Goldobin, show themselves ready for their NHL debuts.
Based on their preseason use, it appears that both Ward and Donskoi will fill spots on the top two lines. This moves talented players to the lower lines. Importantly, the players likely to fill the lower lines are all returning players, suggesting that positive results should come quickly.
8. Chemistry Between Defense and Goalie
Last year, there seemed to be absolutely no chemistry between the goalies and the defensemen. Brent Burns, Brenden Dillon and Mirco Mueller were particularly problematic. But each has more experience. Keep an eye on rebounds in front of the net. If the defense and goalie are in synch, the defense will be in the right spot to clear the crease when a rebound is given up by the goalie. Last season, it was ugly. With two new pairings on defense and new goalie Martin Jones, there will be some adjustment. Given the very experienced veterans that make up the top two defensive pairs, this should be ripe for a relatively speedy clean-up.
7. Effectiveness of Third D-Pair
If long-time veterans will handle the top two defensive pairs, it will be younger players that form the Sharks’ third defensive pair. Brenden Dillon (age 24) has over 200 NHL games played to his credit. Dillon is locked in as one of the pair, though he was a minus-11 last year and left the team shorthanded much too often. Last year, he struggled as an every-night player. He will be paired with one of two players, Matt Tennyson (25) or Dylan DeMelo (22). Tennyson played respectably in limited time in San Jose last season, though he seemed to be in someone’s doghouse. It will be interesting to see if he escaped it. If not, expect him to get moved at some point. DeMelo may well start ahead of Tennyson. If the third pair struggles, it may signal an early roster return for young Mirco Mueller, who’ll start the season in the AHL. Mueller has 39 NHL games under his belt, Tennyson has 31 and DeMelo has none. October represents a chance to take a job, or conversely, lose one. How the third pair performs may determine the outcome of several games.
6. Signs of Bounceback
The most obvious player to keep an eye on early in the year is Burns. Last season, Burns was a force on offense and a liability on defense. He has a new partner in Paul Martin, who had success with the challenges posed by a defenseman who doesn’t play much defense in Pittsburgh. At 34, Martin has been there and done that. This is one partnership that probably does not need a lengthy learning curve. The early results matter.
The top defensive pair consists of Justin Braun and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Vlasic is not a question mark, but Braun is; he regressed last season. Braun has talent, but he’ll need to make the most of it and that improvement should be clear early in the season. If that happens, the top pairing should be on the ice around 25 minutes a night, which would reduce the potential liability from the third D pair.
We will cover items 1-5 tomorrow. In between, enjoy the season opener. Hockey is back!