With training camps right around the corner, NHL teams will soon be making initial preparations for the season. How many young guys will earn roster spots? For a veteran-laden squad like the Sharks, most roster spots are already spoken for. The biggest job up for grabs is the final spot on the third defense pair.
With defensemen Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brent Burns, Justin Braun, Paul Martin and Brenden Dillon all guaranteed spots in the lineup, that leaves just the sixth spot on defense up in the air. While it is possible a newcomer like Joakim Ryan or Patrick McNally push for the job (or AHL veteran Dylan Demelo), it will likely come down to 2013 first-round pick Mirco Mueller and Jr. Shark product Matt Tennyson.
Typically speaking the Sharks prefer to balance their defense pairs with a left-handed and right-handed shot on each pair. Therefore, since the spot available in the lineup is next to the left-handed Brenden Dillon, that might give the right-handed Tennyson the edge.
Dillon and Tennyson played together for a significant stretch last season and looked far better than the brief amount of games we saw of Dillon with Mueller. While the latter duo had a couple decent games defensively, they lacked the offensive ability to breakout. That is where Tennyson helps on the third pair, as he is a natural puck mover with offensive instincts far superior to either Dillon or Mueller.
The 25-year-old Tennyson scored eight points last season in 27 NHL games and was surprisingly sent back down to the AHL last season while he was one of the better Sharks defensemen. Mueller struggled throughout the year finishing with just four points in 39 games. In terms of team goals for per 60 minutes, Mueller was actually a bit better than Tennyson but the latter is clearly the better puck mover. A slightly better Corsi and GF/60 for Mueller were likely influenced playing frequently next to Burns. On the flip side playing with Burns also hurt Mueller’s defensive numbers.
Tennyson for Present, Mueller for Future
Sooner or later Mueller, will be the better player. That might be in six months, 12 months, or 18 months, but it is hard to figure out with young defenseman how much time they need to develop their game. Mueller was hardly put in a good situation last year starting the season next to a forward turning back into a defenseman. Being frequently scratched from the lineup also didn’t help Mueller’s development and at his age he couldn’t be sent down to the AHL, so it was far from an ideal situation.
As a 20-year old this year Mueller can start the year in the American league and play big minutes for the San Jose Barracuda. Given the fact most defensemen take longer to develop than forwards, it would seem wise to let Mueller start the year in the minors for at least the first couple months of the season. A year ago, we saw just what a stint in the AHL could do for another young player. Center Chris Tierney started the year in the NHL but then went down to the Worcester Sharks for a couple months of development. Tierney came back up in the second half of the season and was one of the Sharks best players.
While Tennyson is probably never going to be an NHL regular, he has proven more than capable of filling in on the third pair and on the second power play. Mueller will eventually get his NHL ice time this season since his entry level deal had already been started but for the first part of the season Tennyson would be the smarter choice for the sixth defense spot. Mueller has only played a handful of AHL contests, having him get at least 30 or so games in down there during the fall portion of the schedule should do wonders for his confidence.