The San Jose Sharks enter the 2016-17 with the expectation they will be among the best teams in hockey. Unlike last year, where the team had many changes to start the season, this season reeks of continuity.
Last season, the Sharks had changes in the defense, forwards, goalie and coaching staff. This season, only three roster spots have changed from the end of last season, and one of the three is the backup goalie, not an everyday player. The coaching staff and starting goalie are unchanged, along with 11 of the 12 forward spots and five of six defense spots.
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What should Sharks fans look for in the first month of the season? Here are the things to keep an eye on.
Integrating the New
There might not be a lot new, but it does need to integrate. In the offseason, the Sharks added a pair of veterans, forward Mikkel Boedker and defenseman David Schlemko. Schlemko should be an almost seamless fit, the sort of complementary-style player which Brenden Dillon requires on the third defensive pairing. I’d be surprised if Schlemko’s impact is anything other than solid from the start of the season. It will be worth watching how Schlemko gets used on special teams.
Boedker is a different sort of player to integrate. He played for Sharks coach Peter DeBoer in the minors, but this is a different scenario for Boedker. Up until the trade deadline last season, Boedker had played all seven of his NHL seasons in Arizona. In all his seasons except his rookie year, Boedker’s coach has been Dave Tippett. Tippett, who has spent years doing more with less, runs a very different style than DeBoer. For the first time in his career, Boedker will spend most of his nights on the more talented team.
Boedker was traded to Colorado for the final weeks of the 2015-16 regular season to help Colorado’s playoff push. Though Boedker did chip in a dozen points in 18 games, he finished a minus-5 in Colorado, suggesting he didn’t adjust particularly well.
The transition for Boedker is one of the keys to look for early in the Sharks season. He is likely to be on the second line, getting 17 minutes or so per night. How well he adjusts to the Sharks playing style and his new linemates is one of the bigger things to watch.
A Quick Start
The Sharks sent seven players to the World Cup of Hockey, which means the Sharks have seven players who should be in better form than most NHL players at the start of the season. Some might wonder if these players missing out on training camp could hurt, but only the aforementioned Boedker is new to San Jose. Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton will again play on the same line, as they have for several years now. Marc-Edouard Vlasic returns to his longtime d-partner Justin Braun. Brent Burns returns to the same defensive partner he had last season, Paul Martin. Joonas Donskoi and Logan Couture are likely to be on the same line this year, as they were for portions of last season. For the World Cup participants, other than Boedker, they start the season in very familiar territory.
The continuity, along with several players being a bit further along, should give the Sharks a chance for a fast start to the season. Given the potential for things to go wrong over the course of a long season (their opening night rival, Los Angeles, has two key players out for Game 1), banking a bunch of points early on is a very good idea. While the Sharks have perhaps the best roster in their division, they still must be intense at the start of the season. Their rivals have plenty of reason to be hungry and the Sharks will be a bigger target than ever before.
Dividing the Minutes
A fast start to the season should help this team considerably. San Jose had a very long 2015-16 season and a very short offseason, especially for the World Cup players. It will be interesting to see how Peter DeBoer handles the minutes for certain older veterans, especially Joe Thornton. Both the coach and Doug Wilson, the general manager, have acknowledged this situation. As good as players like Thornton and Pavelski are, it will be tempting to give them bigger minutes in the early going. It is a temptation Sharks coaches should resist.
Last season, the top line of Pavelski, Thornton and Tomas Hertl was exceptional. It was especially good compared to the rest of the team’s forwards. While the three top line forwards were all plus-16 or better, only Melker Karlsson (plus-5) and Logan Couture (plus-2) were positive among the rest of the Sharks every day forwards. Five were minus-8 or worse (Nieto, Wingels, Ward, Tierney, Marleau). How the lines other than the top line fare will be an interesting storyline early on.
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The Sharks can expect to roll with the same excellent top unit power play as they’ve used the past couple seasons. More interesting will be the penalty kill. Two players the Sharks moved on from were Roman Polak and Dainius Zubrus. Both were very good on the penalty kill. Penalty killing is often one of the last things to round into shape, but given the continuity across the roster, it would be a very encouraging sign if the penalty kill came out sharp.
Center Chris Tierney is likely to carry greater responsibility, and is expected to start the season centering the third line. Tierney, still just 22, has had ups and downs in his first two seasons. In each season, he has had long stretches where he struggled, but also stretches where he performed very well. Last regular season was not a good one for Tierney, who finished minus-16 with just seven goals in 79 games. Yet in the postseason, he found his game and was plus-8 (tied for best among Sharks forwards), scoring five goals in just 24 games. Tierney will be one of the Sharks most interesting stories early in the season.
Returning back to Hertl, the youngster was tapped for the World Cup, but pulled out to aid his recovery from a knee injury suffered in the Stanley Cup Final. Hertl professes to be ready for the season, but his history with the knee has been mixed ever since Dustin Brown injured it back in 2013. Hertl relies on power and explosiveness. It will be worth watching to see if he has that in his game to start the season.
Lastly, the Sharks rode Martin Jones last season because they had unreliable back-up goaltending until James Reimer arrived near the trade deadline. This season, the back-up job is Aaron Dell’s job to claim. While the first month of the season is unlikely to be a make or break month for Dell, the Sharks will get at least an initial read on Dell, poised to make his NHL debut at age 27.
For most NHL teams, the early season is an opportunity to see how younger players perform at the NHL level. Expect Peter DeBoer to do this as well. DeBoer has perhaps 15 NHL quality forwards and not all can play in the NHL at once. He’ll want to see some younger forwards currently tagged to the Sharks AHL franchise, the Barracuda, experience the NHL game. Marcus Sorenson, Ryan Carpenter and Kevin Labanc are among the players who may get a taste of the NHL in the first few weeks (Carpenter played in one game last season). Barclay Goodrow, with a bit more NHL experience, may also see some early games, as could Nikolay Goldobin.
Veterans Tommy Wingels and Matt Nieto are among the Sharks trying to hang onto their roster spots. For opening night, they’re still on the roster. But both are vulnerable and expect at least one, if not both, to watch a few games from the press box as healthy scratches. A player once expected to make his NHL debut in the season’s first month, Timo Meier, is out with mononucleosis. He’ll almost certainly be in the NHL this season, but probably not until November at the earliest.
From a playing style standpoint, some expect the Sharks to incorporate a bit of the Penguins aggressive defensive style. I’m skeptical Peter DeBoer will make this adjustment early on, but when the Sharks visit Pittsburgh on October 20, it will be interesting to see what adjustment DeBoer and the Sharks attempt. The Sharks should not place excess emphasis on this game. Instead, the team will be best served by focusing on handling the more physical style of play needed to get through the Western Conference. It is important for San Jose to be the best they can be, and not try to mimic the team which beat them in last year’s Cup Final.
ZEKE is a native of the DC area where he witnessed the birth of the Capitals franchise. After graduating from Cornell University, which had seen hockey glory before he arrived, he moved west to San Jose. There he witnessed the birth of the Sharks franchise. His wait to witness a Championship from any of these teams finally ended in 2018.