The San Jose Sharks upcoming season will no doubt have plenty of twists and turns. Their success is likely to be determined by the answers to a few key questions.
Can the New Blood Make a Difference?
The Sharks have a strong, deep line-up. I’ll start at forward. The line-up that the team finished with last season was capable of rolling four lines. Still, things did get a big sketchy against better competition, especially when an injury or two hit. Two lower tier players (Dainius Zubrus and Nick Spaling) left San Jose, meaning eleven of the thirteen forwards who played in the postseason have returned.
How the new blood pans out will have a big say in the Sharks season. Newly acquired Mikkel Boedker is a speedy winger, with proven top-six talent.
Two other forwards might make their NHL debuts with San Jose this season and play important roles. Marcus Sorensen looks to be Doug Wilson’s latest Scandinavian find, following Joonas Donskoi last year and Melker Karlsson the year before. Like the other two, Sorenson comes to the NHL at an advanced age for a rookie. Sorenson is 24.
Part of the reason things worked out for Karlsson and Donskoi is the fact that they came into the league as mature players with mature games. Sorenson may offer this as well. Meanwhile, Timo Meier, the Sharks highest draft pick since Logan Couture, appears poised to make the leap to the NHL this season.
Adding Sorensen, Meier and Boedker is essentially adding an entire line. Six years ago, Sorensen was drafted in the fourth round. Both Meier (ninth overall) and Boedker (eighth overall) were very high draft picks in their own right. This is a lot of talent.
In the AHL, Barclay Goodrow has proven capable of playing in the NHL. Nikolay Goldobin has sufficient talent, though there are questions if his all-around game is ready.
To an already strong blue line with five good players returning (two are considered elite), San Jose added veteran David Schlemko. Additionally, Dylan DeMelo, effective as a rookie last season, should be improved this year. DeMelo is unlikely to play regularly unless there is an injury. Both are agile, puck-moving players, and are looking to effectively compliment Brenden Dillon on the third defensive pairing.
If the ‘new blood’ proves not only ready but can play roles where they are more than ‘just a guy’ level players, the Sharks should be able to have highly effective forward lines and defensive pairings.
Can the Old Blood Stay Strong?
The Sharks played 106 games last season, tied for most in the league along with Pittsburgh. Four Sharks played every game, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns. Joel Ward played 103 games and Paul Martin played 102. All six players were over the age of 30 last season. Martin, Thornton, Ward and Marleau will all be 36-years-old or older come playoff time for the upcoming season.
It is common for a team to struggle to put back-to-back long seasons together. Long seasons take a toll on players, which is compounded by a short offseason. In this case, the offseason was even shorter for Pavelski, Thornton, and Burns, who were each part of the World Cup of Hockey (along with four other, younger Sharks).
The player who might have the biggest challenge this year is goalie Martin Jones. The Sharks have yet to invest in a proven back-up. Last season, Jones played 89 games, while no other goalie played more than 80. I looked back at all the goalies who played in the Stanley Cup Final to find the last time a goalie played at least 90 games between the regular seasons and playoffs. It was all the way back in the 2002-03 season (Martin Brodeur). Whether the large workload impacts Jones this season is an open question, but suffice it to say, it would be wise for the Sharks not to push Jones as hard again this season. Jones’ probable back-up, Aaron Dell, has appeared in zero NHL games.
Can They Be As Fortunate?
In order to go far in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, teams often need a bit of luck. San Jose had that in a big way last season. The injury bug was almost non-existent until Tomas Hertl got dinged in the 20th game of the playoffs. The Sharks had few bad luck bounces or highly questionable calls go against them. They avoided hot goalies. Two years prior, in the infamous reverse sweep against arch-rival Los Angeles Kings, the Sharks roster was very banged up. This time, its was the arch-rival Kings who came into the postseason depleted.
After a decade of playoff appearances where San Jose often had significant breaks go against them, this was not the case last season. Whether San Jose can have that sort of good fortune again is likely to play a major role in how far this team goes.
San Jose has plenty of talent and a good bit of depth. If the younger players show signs of fulfilling their promise while the older players are able to maintain at a high level, San Jose should breeze to the playoffs. It is important for coach Peter DeBoer to manage veteran minutes along the way if he wants San Jose to have another deep playoff run.
The Sharks have enough talent to deliver another very good season. Whether they have the fortune needed to deliver a good, or even great season, can only begin to be answered once the puck drops to start the season.
A highly anticipated answer to one of the more interesting Sharks questions has happened — in an unexpected way. Many wondered if Timo Meier would make the Sharks starting lineup for opening night. Meier has been diagnosed with mononucleosis, which should sideline him for the early part of the season. As a result, it is likely he will start the season with the Sharks farm team, the San Jose Barracuda. Many expect Meier to wind up on the Sharks roster at some point this season.
In practice, there is likely a broad silver lining to Meier’s illness. Many teams juggle their roster and line combination early in the season. Meier’s early absence allows other young players a chance to get NHL experience and perhaps find their way into bigger than expected roles.
Former Shark Dan Boyle is expected to formally announce his retirement on Wednesday in San Jose. It is time. If there is one adjective which I expect to get the most use with Boyle’s announcement, it is respect. This was the subject of my column in April, regarding Boyle, after his season ended.