For a while during the 2019 playoffs, the Sharks looked like a team of destiny: a Game 7 comeback for the ages to eliminate Vegas, a caught-on-camera offside call that helped propel them past Colorado, an undetected hand pass for a victory over St. Louis. Ultimately, they played well in the post-season, but their quest for that elusive first title again fell short.
Any carryover optimism, however, is tempered by the fact the Sharks enter this season without Joe Pavelski, their heart-and-soul ex-captain who at 35 found himself the odd man out as GM Doug Wilson struggled to fit his roster under the salary cap. Retaining elite defenseman Erik Karlsson and young power forward Timo Meier were higher priorities. Now, with Pavelski and at least four other regulars gone, San Jose again must turn to prospects in order to stay competitive.
Pavelski’s 38 goals paced the Sharks last season and his productivity will be missed. But it was offense by committee in San Jose as the team scored a franchise-record 289 goals in the regular season.
You want balance? Depth? San Jose was the only team with four 30-goal men as Tomas Hertl clicked for 35 and Evander Kane and Meier hit 30. Then there was Logan Couture’s 27 goals and 70 points, a team-leading 83 points from defenseman Brent Burns and 137 combined points from a third line of Joe Thornton, Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorensen.
There were lapses defensively, but no blueline in the league was collectively better with the puck. Karlsson took a while to adjust to his new surroundings and was later hampered by injuries, but for six weeks in December and January he displayed his complete skill set, earning an assist in 14 consecutive games as the Sharks went 16-3-2. That was enough to convince Wilson to make Karlsson the NHL’s highest-paid D-man with an eight-year, $92-million deal ($11.5 million AAV).
Marc-Edouard Vlasic struggled at times, but along with Karlsson and Burns he gives the Sharks three Olympic-level talents on the blueline. The continually improving Brenden Dillon and a healthy Radim Simek are also solid contributors. Tim Heed appears to be in line for a top-six spot after the trade of Justin Braun to Philadelphia, but competition will come from the likes of Dalton Prout, Jacob Middleton, Ryan Merkley and Mario Ferraro.
A weak spot. In the first season of Martin Jones’ six-year, $34.5-million contract, his .896 save percentage was the worst among the 19 goalies who played at least 50 NHL games. During the playoffs, he showed flashes of the talent that earned him that contract, and the Sharks have to hope he can regain his form. Jones is a lock to be the starter, but it wouldn’t be a shock if underperforming Aaron Dell is replaced as backup.
The Sharks’ power play was in the top tier last season, finishing sixth. But it won’t be easy maintaining that high ranking without Pavelski, whose 12 goals with the man advantage led the team. Look for Meier to pick up some of the slack as he likely moves into Pavelski’s role on the top unit, tipping pucks and cleaning up rebounds. Meanwhile, the penalty kill slid from second best to a middle-of-the-pack success rate.
With Pavelski gone and Thornton’s future still an unknown, the franchise braces for an era without its two Joes steering the ship. The smart money says coach Peter DeBoer will tab Couture as the next captain. The 30-year-old leads by example and is a media favorite for post-game candor.
The Sharks held development camp a week early, just before free-agent season. They liked what they saw enough to let wingers Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist move on. Now it’s up to rookie forwards such as Dylan Gambrell, Ivan Chekhovich, Joachim Blichfeld and Jonathan Dahlen to justify Wilson’s faith in his prospects.
When Florida fired coach Bob Boughner, Couture quickly went on Twitter to urge San Jose to “bring him back” – which they did. Boughner was an assistant on DeBoer’s staff for two seasons and earned much credit as the “Wookiee Whisperer,” helping Burns evolve into a Norris Trophy winner. Expect Boughner to look for ways to tighten up a defense that too often left its goalies exposed.
Following the philosophy of a mentor, legendary football coach Bill Walsh, Wilson has a track record of allowing star players to leave a year early rather than hang around a year too long. Arguably, that was the right call with Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle. Was it the right one with Pavelski? Check the April standings – or 2020 playoff results – to find out.
– David Pollak
Stanley Cup Odds: 26/1
Prediction: 3rd in Pacific
GM Doug Wilson expects there to be roster fights this fall, with a group of forwards in the running. Dylan Gambrell, Sasha Chmelevski, Ivan Chekhovich and Joachim Blichfeld are among the prominent candidates. The Sharks were so impressed by top 2019 pick Artemi Kniazev’s rookie camp that they signed him in July. He plays at a high pace with great enthusiasm. He’s slight but not afraid to mix it up. Ryan Merkley continues to be a boom-bust prospect on the blueline.
1. Ryan Merkley, D
Age 19 Team Peterborough (OHL)
Controls the puck with ease. Three productive OHL seasons topping a point per game.
Acquired 21st overall, 2018 NHL ’20-21
2. Mario Ferraro, D
Age 21 Team Massachusetts (HE)
High-energy blueliner with speed turned pro after two NCAA seasons. A natural leader.
Acquired 49th overall, 2017 NHL ’21-22
3. Jeremy Roy, D
Age 22 Team San Jose (AHL)
Intelligent two-way defenseman with great awareness. Needs to up the tempo a notch.
Acquired 31st overall, 2015 NHL ’20-21
4. Dylan Gambrell, C
Age 23 Team San Jose (AHL)
Playmaker first but can score. Was standout as rookie pro after three NCAA years at Denver.
Acquired 60th overall, 2016 NHL ’19-20
5. Sasha Chmelevski, C
Age 20 Team Ottawa (OHL)
Speed, skill and creativity. Raised the bar every season in OHL, including a monster playoff.
Acquired 185th overall, 2017 NHL ’20-21
6. Artemi Kniazev, D
Age 18 Team Chicoutimi (QMJHL)
Smooth-skating blueliner plays with pace and energy, making up for small frame. Physical, too.
Acquired 48th overall, 2019 NHL ’23-24
7. Jonathan Dahlen, LW
Age 21 Team San Jose (AHL)
Shifty winger upped the pace after a slow start in AHL. More of a finisher than a playmaker.
Acquired From Van, Feb, 2019 NHL ’20-21
8. Ivan Chekhovich, LW
Age 20 Team Baie-Comeau (QMJHL)
Sixth-last selection in 2017 exploded for 72 goals, 165 points in 131 ‘Q’ games since that late pick.
Acquired 212th overall, 2017 NHL ’21-22
9. Joachim Blichfeld, RW
Age 21 Team Portland (WHL)
Dane was second-last pick in 2016. Since then? He has 105 goals, 228 points in 187 WHL games.
Acquired 210th overall, 2016 NHL ’21-22
10. Noah Gregor, C
Age 21 Team Prince Albert (WHL)
Standout overage season in WHL, capped by 24 playoff points for league champions.
Acquired 111th overall, 2016 NHL ’22-23