Last season, the San Jose Sharks were forced to have their training camp away from home. Practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona, the team missed its home stadium. Possibly more influential, training camp lacked former captain and bearded team legend, Joe Thornton, for the first time since 2005.
The last training camp also saw numerous training camp battles involving young players expected to take on huge roles. There was John Leonard, who jumped directly from college hockey to an NHL top-six forward group, and Noah Gregor, who won the third-line center spot. Neither held these roles long-term, and each even had spells with the San Jose Barracuda in the American Hockey League (AHL).
After signing veterans such as James Reimer, Nick Bonino, and Andrew Cogliano, the Sharks are committed to having a much more competitive training camp. Despite being in the midst of a “reset,” youngsters will not be given roles, and have to force the hand of Bob Boughner to receive playing time.
However, there are still spots for young skaters to find playing time. So with that, let’s take a look at the Sharks’ likely 2021-22 training camp battles.
Barring injury or a potential Tomas Hertl trade, the Sharks should be comfortable in their depth of Hertl, Logan Couture, and Bonino. While Dylan Gambrell should be the favorite for the fourth center, Doug Wilson’s offseason moves show he lacks faith in the 25-year-old’s ability to hold that spot.
Starting with the favorite, Gambrell had an interesting season with the Sharks. After playing the majority of the 2019-20 season in the NHL, he started as a healthy scratch in 2020-21. That was before he carved himself a third-line center spot who was greatly trusted defensively and with large penalty killing minutes. He signed a one-year, $1.1-million extension this summer.
However, JFresh’s model adjusts for zone starts and opposing competition, and Gambrell’s results are far from ideal. His role as defensive ace could also be over-taken given the signings of Cogliano, Bonino, and Nieto. Gambrell had just 12 points in 49 games last year, and his rate of even strength scoring was tied with Marcus Sorensen, and under Nieto and Gregor.
I think the likeliest competitor to take down Gambrell would be newly-acquired Lane Pederson. After giving up a 2024 fourth-round pick and inking him to two-year deal, it’s clear the Sharks are high on the 24 year-old. In 2019-20 Pederson had 16 goals and 34 points in 37 AHL games, before increasing to a point-per-game pace in 2020-21. He even gained 15 games of NHL experience, and put up three points.
Also able to play center is recently-acquired Nick Merkley. Mainly a right winger, the 24-year-old put up two goals and 10 points in 27 NHL games. He’s on a one-way contract, so the club clearly believes he will make an impact immediately.
An interesting option could also be Jasper Weatherby, who recently signed his entry-level contract with the Sharks. His junior season at the University of North Dakota saw massive production improvements, resulting in 14 goals and 24 points in 29 games. Also maintaining a 57% faceoff winning percentage, he has a bit of an outside shot to make the NHL club.
Gregor, who still remains a restricted free agent, and Sasha Chmelevski also have capability to play center, but have proven more effective as wingers in AHL and NHL play. My last option would be Scott Reedy, whose scoring took off in his senior year at the University of Minnesota and improved to point-per-game pace. He added five goals and 8 points in 17 AHL games at the conclusion of last year.
With the center depth more or less set, the core of wingers will be competition to closely monitor. Assuming everyone returns, the wingers in the top six should surely be Evander Kane, Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, and Rudolfs Balcers. These wingers had better 5v5 scoring rates than their teammates besides Hertl, who led the team in the metric. While Labanc and Meier fell out of favor with the coaching staff, given their pedigree and contracts, I feel they must at least start in the top-six next season.
Then, the third line wingers alongside Bonino truly becomes difficult to select. Alexander Barabanov has an inside track, with his $1-million contract giving him an edge over his peers. He surprised with three goals and seven points in nine games at the conclusion of the 2020-21 season.
I’m less optimistic on the Russian winger, however. I felt his performance at the end of the season was largely carried by Kane and Hertl’s dominance and power play scoring. And despite his raw point totals, Barabanov’s rate of even strength scoring was under my next option.
John Leonard’s rate of 5v5 scoring was better than teammates like Couture, Donato, and Barabanov. He did this while maintaining an extremely solid defensive impact, albeit in a limited role due to the coaching staff’s hesitancy to play him. The only knock on Leonard is his inability to score goals, but given his college success at hitting the back of the net, I feel that will be curbed with time.
The biggest wildcard on the Sharks’ wing will be Jonathon Dahlen. Finally moving from Sweden after inking a one-way contract with San Jose, it will be fascinating to see how he transitions from second division Swedish hockey to the NHL. As the Allsvenskan’s leading scorer in consecutive seasons, it will be interesting to see his offensive skillset transition to North America. With Timra IK last season he finished with 26 goals and 71 points in 45 games.
With how he finished last season, I would not completely write-off Chmelevski from the NHL roster. Once moved to winger alongside Alex True, the 22 year-old concluded his AHL time four goals and nine points in four games, before a second NHL call-up. however, that was in part from some powerplay scoring boosting these totals. I still expect the Huntington Beach native to begin 2021-22 in the AHL, however.
Other names to keep an eye on that could jump to the third line if they have impressive camps would be Gregor, Cogliano, Nick Merkley, and Joachim Blichfeld.
Thankfully, and finally, the Sharks’ battle for starting goalie will see two capable goalies competing. Adin Hill was acquired for Josef Korenar and a second-round pick, and James Reimer was signed to a two-year deal with a limited no-trade clause. There is no clear cut starter, as neither held that type of role last season.
After giving up a large sum to be acquired, and also signing a two-year deal, I currently have Hill as the starter. A 2015 third-round pick, Hill greatly impressed in 2019-20 in the AHL and NHL. In 20 games with the Tucson Roadrunners he maintained a .918 save-percentage (SV%). He held that same SV% in 13 NHL games for the Arizona Coyotes.
Last season, Hill faced a long string of starts in relief of injured Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta, and in 18 games held a .913 SV%. Penalty kill SV% is one of the least repeatable statistics in the NHL, so that could be a point of concern. However, high danger SV% is often quite repeatable across goalies’ careers, and Hill already succeeds in that metric. At 25 years-old, he’s likely penciled in as the future of San Jose goaltending, and I expect him to win the starting job for the Sharks.
Bouncing around four teams within the last seven seasons, Reimer has mainly been seen as a 1B goaltender in the NHL. He’s not quite talented enough to demand a starting role, but consistent enough to warrant playing time. The netminder even played under Boughner for two seasons for the Florida Panthers in 2017-18 and 2018-19.
In his most recent season, Reimer was outdone by both Petr Mrazek and Alex Nedeljkovic on the Carolina Hurricanes. He had an about league-average season, posting a .906 SV% in 22 games. At 33 years-old, his age will be slight concern for the duration of his contract, but I would not worry about regression just yet. Still, I would presently see him as the backup.
What About Eklund?
I, intentionally, did not mention William Eklund through all the above sections. The Sharks’ seventh-overall pick produced just over a half-point per-game in the Swedish Hockey League last season. The Swedish forward will return to North America soon, as he’s expected to play in the “Rookie Faceoff” between six west coast teams on September 17-20.
A week later, Sharks’ preseason will begin with a double-header against the Anaheim Ducks and Vegas Golden Knights. There’s yet to be an official training camp date announcement, but will take place sometime between the rookie tournament and preseason. Eklund will attend training camp, and even willing to start in the AHL if he just misses the NHL roster.
So, where would Eklund even slot into the Sharks’ lineup? If Kane is not part of the Sharks’ opening night roster, having the team’s most hyped prospect in several years in his spot would not be the worst thing. If he particularly impresses at training camp, I could see him possibly jumping Labanc or Balcers for a spot alongside Hertl or Couture.
However, the 5-foot-9 forward should either be in the top six of the Sharks, or playing large minutes and developing elsewhere. The club cannot afford to burn a year off Eklund’s entry-level contract where he is not a large NHL contributor. Playing him in limited minutes could also stunt his development.
If Eklund could bounce a top-six forward from the top of the lineup, he should absolutely be given his NHL debut. If not, allowing him to develop in the SHL or AHL for a season would greatly help. Currently, I am under the impression Eklund will not start in the NHL for 2021-22.
Not Any Defensive Battles
If we’re looking at the future of the Sharks, seeing prospects Ryan Merkley or Artemi Kniazev make the opening night roster would be incredibly exciting. However, seeing either make the NHL team out of training camp is a little difficult.
San Jose has Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Radim Simek locked up to at least three more years of service. Mario Ferraro and Nikolai Knyzhov have a year remaining at rookie salary, after slotting into the top-four defense group in 2020-21.
Last season, the Sharks’ bottom-pair usually consisted of Vlasic and Simek. Given the bad outlook of healthy scratching a player with five-years and $7-million in Vlasic, I think the only player that could possibly be removed from the defense group to be Simek.
And, since Wilson signed and traded for numerous depth pieces and veterans, he wants to contend for a playoff spot this season. That likely means an older roster, and little chance for Kniazev or Merkley to debut until later in the season.
Who do you think wins these training camp battles? Let me know in the comments!
Josh is a young writer from the Bay Area, who now studies journalism at San Diego State University. In addition to covering the Sharks and Gulls for THW, Josh is a crossover scout at FCHockey and covers his school’s hockey team at TheDailyAztec. When not obsessing over hockey, Josh loves blasting music with friends, theatre, and playing with his dog. Follow Josh on Twitter for his latest takes on the Sharks, Gulls, and NHL Draft!