In the dying minutes of the San Jose Sharks’ last preseason victory, a comfortable 4-0 shutout over the Vegas Golden Knights, rookie Jasper Weatherby had a fairly meaningless shotblock on an opposing defenseman. Regardless, his teammates on the bench took that as an opportunity to hoot and holler at their team’s new fourth center.
Weatherby was swayed away from dawning the “C” for his college and completing his senior year with an opportunity to make an NHL roster. And surprisingly, the youngster was able to beat out more experienced players in a competitive training camp battle.
That’s just one example of several rookies who’ve impressed teammates and coaching staff on route to winning NHL jobs. Now, the team feels confident in their group, especially with injection of youth from rookies Weatherby, Santeri Hatakka, Jonathan Dahlen and William Eklund making the roster.
Carrying 14 forwards, seven defenseman, and two netminders, the Sharks‘ roster features veteran depth to support youngsters who’ve earned large roles above them. I detailed my projected opening night lineup, with information about all those on the team’s roster.
Line 1: Eklund-Hertl-Balcers
Whether this line, or Logan Couture’s line should be noted as the first line is not all that important. Tomas Hertl, given his normally high volume of even strength ice time and stellar performance last season, will be noted as the first line center. With 19 goals and 43 points in 50 games last season, he will need to continue that success heading into a contract year.
His wingers, as will be a theme on this roster, are very unproven. Rudolfs Balcers, a two-way forward, scored eight goals and 17 points in 41 games after being claimed off waivers from the Ottawa Senators. He won a top line job, competing against Alexander Barabanov throughout camp.
Then, there’s William Eklund. After scoring over a half-point per-game in the Swedish Hockey League, and being drafted seventh-overall, the newly 19 year-old will need to adjust quickly to North America. In preseason, his vision and great IQ for a youngster have been extremely promising.
Line 2: Dahlen-Couture-Meier
The other half of the team’s top-six finds the team’s captain needing to reassert himself as a quality NHL center. After a hot start to the last season, his even strength production plummeted and saw him total 17 goals and 31 points in 53 games. His slump at 2020-21’s conclusion was in part due to injury, but he still has a lot to prove this season.
Timo Meier, now 25, has seen a fall from grace since his 30-goal 2018-19 season which earned his four-year, $24-million extension. After 12 goals and 31 assists in 54 games last season, the Swiss winger will need to impose himself against opponents and dominate in a top-six role again.
Another Swedish rookie, Jonathon Dahlen, will also need to provide offense for the team. With back-to-back Allsvenskan, second division Swedish league, scoring titles under his belt, he will need to prove that scoring ability can transfer from his hometown, Timra, to San Jose.
Line 3: Nieto-Bonino-Labanc
Just signed to a two-year deal, Nick Bonino will greatly improve the team’s depth. With 10 goals and 26 points in 55 games, he will play more of a shutdown and penalty killing role. Also, his even strength scoring rate shows great promise. He will need to battle off regression, at 33 years-old, and remain a positive impact with the Sharks.
Kevin Labanc, whose also regressed since his career year in 2018-19, notched 12 goals and 28 points in 55 games. In his second year of a four-year, $19-million extension, he will need to become the offensive and power play dynamo he showed two seasons ago.
Matt Nieto, whose slotted into the third line at times during preseason, is a prototypical defensive winger. Limited by injury, he only slotted into 28 games and tallied seven points. The long beach native will be used as a penalty-killer and defensive specialist in the first of his two-year deal.
This line was used in the final preseason match as a shutdown line against the Golden Knights’ top line. Kept together in practice yesterday, I would suspect this line will be used in a largely defensive role, and take defensive zone starts away from the top two lines.
Line 4: Cogliano-Weatherby-Barabanov
Weatherby, already 23, will make his NHL debut Saturday night. In his junior season at the University of North Dakota, he scored 14 goals and 24 points in 29 games, before turning pro this summer. The 2018 sixth-round pick outdid Dylan Gambrell and Lane Pederson for the last center spot, and could play on both special teams units.
Barabanov has been limited in preseason action due to injury, and lost a top spot on the lineup to youngsters. Expected to play in his first full NHL season, the 27 year-old showed well with seven points in nine games for his first experience with the Sharks. He was outdone by Balcers, Labanc, Dahlen, and others for top-nine forward roles.
Now 34 years-old, Andrew Cogliano will enter on a one-year deal for a similar reason as Nieto. With 11 points in 54 games, he will also focus on the penalty kill. Doug Wilson made limiting Hertl, Couture, and other skilled forwards’ penalty-killing minutes a priority in free agency.
Scratched: Pederson and Gadjovich
Acquired for a fourth-round pick, Pederson narrowly missed the opening roster. Pederson has versatility to play forward and winger, and will look to build upon his 15 games of NHL experience after producing around a point-per-game in the American Hockey League (AHL) in consecutive seasons.
After a dominant season in the AHL with the Utica Comets, Jonah Gadjovich was placed on waivers after missing the Vancouver Canucks opening lineup. Sniping 15 goals but only three assists in 19 AHL games, the 2017 second-round pick will hope to showcase his physicality and goal-scoring at the NHL-level.
Pairing 1: Ferraro-Burns
The minutes eating pair for the Sharks includes grizzled and bearded veteran Brent Burns. At 36 years old, the 6-foot-5 offensive defenseman has fallen from elite status as he’s aged. Splitting power play time with Erik Karlsson, Burns will attempt to be a force offensively and defensively. He had seven goals and 29 points in a healthy 56 games last year.
To contrast the veteran, third-year fan-favorite defenseman Mario Ferraro will also continue in a large role. After emerging as a top-four defenseman last year, the 23 year-old will hope to continue his progression as part of the team’s young core built over the last five drafts.
Pairing 2: Vlasic-Karlsson
Well… having two veterans in the back half of their careers in the team’s top-four defense group is not ideal. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, with five years remaining on his contract, will hopefully maintain an ability to play adequate third-pairing minutes in 2021-22 when Nikolai Knyzhov returns later this season.
Two-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman, Karlsson, has yet to show he can emulate that level of play the last two seasons. His defensive game clearly has its woes, and his offensive production took a massive hit with only 22 points in 52 games. Last season was the first time since his rookie year his scoring rate was under 0.5 points per-game.
Pairing 3: Middleton-Simek
Jacob Middleton, now 25 years old, has 14 games of NHL experience including one game of action last season. He will likely remain a healthy scratch defenseman or a San Jose Barracuda enforcer for the majority of the season when the team becomes healthy or the Sharks decide to give younger players a chance.
Radim Simek, with three years remaining at $2.25-million AAV, could lose his spot in the lineup with a fully healthy roster. After he played exceptionally alongside Burns in 2018-19 prior to tearing his ACL and MCL, he’s never recreated that form. He averaged a career low 14:13 in ice time last season, sixth among San Jose defenseman in 2020-21.
Injured/Scratched: Knyzhov and Middleton
23-year-old Nikolai Knyzhov went from an undrafted NHL-hopeful, to AHL second-or-third pairing defenseman, to second pair in the NHL over the course of three seasons. Once healthy, I expect Knyzhov to return to Karlsson on the second pairing, as a large, reliable, and smooth-skating defensive oriented player.
Santeri Hatakka, expected to debut early in the season, is a 2019 sixth-round selection. After showing well in the World Junior Championships and top Finnish hockey league (SM-Liiga) over the last two seasons, he’s emerged as a two-way option for the Sharks moving forward.
1A: Adin Hill
While not by a sizable margin, I have Adin Hill as the starting goalie for the 2021-22 Sharks. Before a minor wrist injury, the 25-year-old was supposed to start the final two preseason games as a tune-up for opening night.
He still started the ultimate preseason game, shutting out the Vegas Golden Knights. Last season, in relief of injured Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta, he slotted into 19 games and sported a .913 save-percentage (SV%). He will look to continue his success in increased NHL action.
1B: James Reimer
Never a defiant starter in his 11-year NHL career, James Reimer will bring veteran presence and stability to a Sharks’ goaltending room that’s lacked consistency the last three seasons. Last season with the Carolina Hurricanes he held a .906 SV% through 22 games.
Improvements From Last Year’s Roster
While gaining Eklund with the seventh overall pick was massive for the organization now, and for possibly a decade, it cannot be overlooked that the Sharks were still the seventh-worst NHL team in 2020-21. Adding talent to the team was integral for the Sharks to even think about postseason hopes.
They addressed the majority of their needs. An effective third-line center and competent netminding were clearly missing from last year’s roster, and the team now believes it has both. Now, there’s been the addition of rookies outplaying veterans for large NHL roles, especially on the team’s forward core.
However, the team will be relying on young defenseman heavily. The Sharks have to hope the progression Ferraro, Knyzhov, and Hatakka can result in a net positive against the regression of aging Burns, Karlsson, and Vlasic. The team did not address its aging and lackluster blueline in free agency, and have to hope for rebound seasons from veterans and large steps taken from rookies.
With youngsters like Eklund and Dahlen making the team’s top-six, the forward core will have scoring potential throughout the lineup; something they lacked last season. The Sharks are still underdogs to make the postseason, but their young talent and improved goaltending will make the team much more interesting in 2021-22.
Josh Frojelin is a young writer from the Bay Area. Josh grew up as a Sharks fan, being introduced to hockey by his father. He is now attached to his phone, waiting to hear the latest in hockey news. In addition to writing, Josh loves theatre, and his corgi Rocky.