The San Jose Sharks 2018-19 season begins with training camp. While the first full practice session is slated for Sept. 14, the preseason is already swinging into motion. On Sept. 8, a rookie tournament featuring players from six NHL franchises, including San Jose, began in Las Vegas.
In other words, the annual ramp up to the start of the NHL season is now underway.
For the Sharks, though, a largely predictable preseason awaits. While there are always a few surprises early on, such as players not participating since they are not fully recovered from injuries which weren’t reported, this camp is about as predictable as any in recent history.
The roster, for example, is essentially set. At most, competition exists for one, perhaps two spots on the team’s fourth line. The seven defenseman are locked in, as are the two goalies. If continuity is a goal, the Sharks have plenty of it. Only one everyday player has departed from last season’s squad, forward Mikkel Boedker. Only one everyday player has been added since, Evander Kane. He joined the Sharks at the trade deadline last season.
Beyond the subtraction of Boedker and the addition of Kane, the roster reflects very modest changes from the roster the Sharks used on opening night last season. Out are Paul Martin, Jannik Hansen and Joel Ward. In are other roster players who were either in the press box that evening or began the season with the AHL affiliate San Jose Barracuda. These include Barclay Goodrow, Marcus Sorensen and Joakim Ryan.
Indeed the Sharks can field a strong game-day lineup, exclusively made up of players returning from last season.
Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Evander Kane
Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Joonas Donskoi
Chris Tierney, Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc
Barclay Goodrow, Melker Karlsson, Marcus Sorensen
Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun
Brent Burns, Joakim Ryan
Brenden Dillon, Dylan DeMelo
With the exception of Kane, every player played in at least 40 games for the Sharks last season (regular season and playoffs).
Even the backups have a good deal of familiarity. Aaron Dell returns and will back up Jones. Tim Heed is the seventh defenseman, though perhaps he’ll be given a chance to unseat DeMelo as an every day player. Heed played 29 games for the Sharks last season.
San Jose’s Roster Spot Competition
While the 12 aforementioned forwards are largely locked into roster spots, a few roles are less set and there is competition for playing time on the fourth line. Players such as Labanc, Sorensen, Goodrow and Karlsson will have to fend off playing time challenges from a trio of young forwards.
Antti Suomela, fresh off an outstanding season in Finland, is expected to contend for the center role on the fourth line. So is Dylan Gambrell, who appeared briefly with the Sharks after finishing his NCAA career with the University of Denver. Left wing Rudolfs Balcers played last season with the Barracuda, and is the most likely player to make the leap from the AHL squad.
Suomela fits a familiar pattern. In recent years, the Sharks have plucked players from Scandinavia who have evolved into roster players. Karlsson and Donskoi have earned full-time starter status. Sorensen has a good chance at garnering an every day role this season, while Heed is looking for a more regular opportunity. In each case, the players arrived with a mature game, typically joining the Sharks at about age 24.
The transition from the larger ice sheet used in Europe and to the rules of North American game may result in Suomela, age 24, starting the season with the Barracuda. Both Karlsson and Sorensen went a similar route, playing with the AHL affiliate and learning the North American game, before being promoted to the Sharks.
Gambrell, the Sharks second round pick in 2016, played the past three seasons with the highly respected University of Denver program. He won a national championship while there, and averaged over a point per game in each season. After his NCAA career ended, he joined the Sharks. He played the team’s final three regular season games, centering the fourth line, filling in for the injured Eric Fehr, who returned for the playoffs.
Gambrell’s appearances could be best called non-descript, which isn’t the worst thing one can say about a player making his professional debut at the NHL level. Gambrell, who just turned 22, can use his sliver of NHL experience to better understand the areas he needs to improve in order to secure a roster spot.
Finally, the 21-year-old Balcers was the leading scorer for the San Jose Barracuda last season, after playing with Kamloops in the WHL the season before. A fifth round draft pick from Latvia, Balcers has shown enough to put him contention for a Sharks roster spot. Getting a chance to play a leading role in an AHL playoff series was a big plus for the youngster. He’s shown plenty of creativity on the ice — whether his all-around game is good enough and whether he can handle the more physical game played in the NHL are among the questions for him.
Each of these players has the potential for a Sharks roster spot. However, if it means they are on the roster but not playing on game days, they won’t improve. Each player needs to play to improve, and they’ll get major minutes with the Barracuda. This is a growth season for each player. Ultimately, I expect all three to see NHL action at some point in the season. But I expect each to see more action with the Barracuda where they’ll play every game and see ice time up to 20 minutes a night.
While many aspects of the Sharks preseason are going to be predictable, there are plenty of important decisions which will need to be made over the next month. While they may ultimately follow a predictable path, this might be a good time to prepare for changes in the way the roster is used. Some important shake-ups can aid the Sharks chances. We’ll cover these in upcoming articles as we approach the start of the regular season.
While there is much interest in Sharks very talented top draft pick Ryan Merkley, there is essentially zero chance the young defenseman gets a shot at the NHL roster anytime soon. He is simply too young and physically immature to compete with the men who play in the league. His day will come, but it is not now and probably isn’t right around the corner, either. Merkley will still be just 20 when the 2020-2021 season ends, three full seasons from now. Patience is required here. Expect it to take a few years before he is ready for an NHL role.