As the calendar seems to crawl towards the NHL season, the flip to September can certainly be celebrated. No, it isn’t October yet, but September signifies that training camp is just mere weeks away. And for Sharks fans, this means we can put a nightmare summer in the rear view and look forward to the on ice product.
With that in mind, let’s delve into the five biggest game-play story lines, (the silly captaincy debate won’t be included) as we inch toward the start of the season.
1. Where Will Joe Pavelski Play?
Last year the Sharks opened the regular season on fire with Pavelski as the third line center. I certainly don’t need to rehash how much more successful the Sharks have been when “The Big Pavelski” centers his own line. For some reason though the Sharks seemingly prefer him on Joe Thornton’s wing. A line of Tomas Hertl, Thornton, and Pavelski would be a dominant possession line but it would leave the bottom six dearth of talent.
2. Will They Overload the Top Pair?
With Brent Burns moving back to defense after a year and change at forward, the question remains how they will use him. Popular sentiment has the Sharks pairing Burns with Marc-Edouard Vlasic. This was thought to be the future top pair when San Jose acquired Burns as a defenseman at the 2011 NHL Draft. The issue here though is the same as above. Does overloading hurt the depth? Perhaps the Sharks would be better off with Burns, Vlasic, and Justin Braun (their three best defenders) each on different pairs. If the past is any indication, the Sharks will try Vlasic and Burns together, at least to start.
3. Who Mans the Crease Opening Night?
With Antti Niemi struggling last season and rookie Alex Stalock playing lights out (in a short sample size) yours truly was calling for more starts for the freshman goaltender. Doing so made some of my frequent readers believe I was “anti-Niemi” (pardon the pun). That simply isn’t the case. With Niemi playing the first five games of the Kings series, I thought it was a mistake to throw a cold rookie into Game 6. My best guess is Niemi will get the opening night nod in Los Angeles as a sign of respect to the veteran. After that though, these two will split time until one starts to separate himself from the other.
4. Can Tyler Kennedy Bounce Back?
Tyler Kennedy had a horrendous first season with the Sharks. There is no getting around that. That said, scratching him the entire playoffs in favor of Mike Brown was a significant mistake. Brown reverted back to being a liability after getting under the skin of the Kings early in the series. The Sharks struggled to score as the series progressed and Kennedy could have helped provide depth scoring. A big reason the Sharks acquired the speedy winger was because of his penchant for scoring big playoff goals for Pittsburgh. Prior to last season Kennedy had played his entire career with the Penguins and with the increased travel and new surroundings in San Jose, he deserves a mulligan. If he gets to play with a talented center this year (like he did in Pittsburgh with Jordan Staal) he can definitely bounce back and score 10-15 goals.
5. Power Play Without Dan Boyle?
For the majority of the past four seasons, the Sharks featured a top power-play unit of Thornton, Pavelski, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, and Dan Boyle. With the Sharks having parted ways with Boyle, it is almost a lock that Burns take his place on the top unit. There is a chance though that the Sharks look to mix up their units. Perhaps this means they put Hertl on the top unit and drop Couture to the second. However, both players are terrific offensive weapons who can each take face-offs. Therefore swapping these two doesn’t change much. Considering Couture has tons more experience with the top unit, methinks they will start with the following:
PP 1: Thornton, Marleau, Couture, Pavelski, Burns
PP2: Hertl, Matt Nieto, Tommy Wingels, Matt Irwin, Jason Demers
Even with Boyle gone and Raffi Torres injured, the Sharks can still feature a star-studded top unit and a respectable second unit. Is it October yet? Let’s drop the puck already!