The Sharks had a quiet off-season, avoiding any major signings and choosing instead to attack a new year with largely the same roster. The aging squad is going to have to fight for every point in a tough Pacific Division.
The Hockey News is rolling out its 2017-18 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds, until the start of the season. Today, the San Jose Sharks.
Stanley Cup odds: 29-1
Key additions: Radek Simek, D; Brandon Bollig, LW; Antoine Bibeau, G
Key departures: Patrick Marleau, LW; David Schlemko, D; Mirco Mueller, D
Who can pick up the slack this year?
As the Sharks’ core continues to age out of its prime, new pups are needed to fill the void. Losing David Schlemko in the off-season puts pressure on Dylan DeMelo or Czech free agent Radim Simek to step up on the blueline and it will be a challenge for both. Simek in particular is a wild card, as he has never played in North America before. His upside would be similar to Toronto’s Nikita Zaitsev (who was good, not great last year), while the low side is a full season in the AHL.
Up front, it’s time for Timo Meier, Danny O’Regan and Kevin Labanc to put their stamp on an NHL campaign. All three youngsters have different ways of putting points on the board and the internal competition for a spot in the top-six will be very healthy for the organization. Meier, the top-10 pick from 2015, showed himself to be an excellent possession player last year while playing in nearly half of San Jose’s games, but his shooting percentage was abysmal. If he can find the range early, he certainly has the pedigree to hang with the big boys on a scoring line.
It’s extremely rare an NHL team goes an entire off-season without making a roster addition, either through a trade or signing a UFA. So the fact it was such a quiet summer in San Jose must mean the Sharks figure they’re close again and poised to reach the Stanley Cup final like they did in 2016. General manager Doug Wilson lost players to free agency (Patrick Marleau), expansion (David Schlemko) and trade (Mirco Mueller), with draft picks coming back. But the only fresh faces coming in are prospects who were already in the system – unless you count UFA signee Brandon Bollig, but he spent all of 2016-17 in the AHL. So all the same old Sharks have to do is go out and execute on another 98- or 99-point season under third-year coach Peter DeBoer.
The Sharks play a tight system under DeBoer. Goalie Martin Jones doesn’t have to steal games. He just has to be solid behind a deep blueline that’s led by Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns. The cast of forwards plays equally well at home or on the road, regardless of line matching. That’s why their best case is more of the same. It has been steady and successful.
The window of opportunity is still open for the Sharks, but for how much longer? The roster is due for a major transformation in the next few years. Joe Thornton is 38, Joe Pavelski is 33, and the average age of San Jose’s top four blueliners is north of 32. The next two seasons are make-or-break in San Jose. There haven’t been a lot of warning flags when the Sharks take to the ice because they play a smart, structured game. But as the roster ages, you have to wonder when the defense will be exposed. Burns is signed until he’s 40, Marc-Edouard Vlasic is signed until he’s 39, Paul Martin until he’s 38 and Justin Braun until he’s 33. What if San Jose’s blueline all of a sudden turns old?
There’s not a lot of goal-scoring pedigree on the Sharks. Pavelski and Logan Couture are capable of 30-plus, but beyond that San Jose has a bunch of Punch and Judy shooters. For all the potential they’ve showed over the years, Mikkel Boedker, Tomas Hertl, Joonas Donskoi and Melker Karlsson have combined for one 20-goal campaign in 17 total NHL seasons. What if none of them can replace what Marleau provided?
THN’s PREDICTION: 4th in Pacific. The Division is speeding up, while the Sharks are slowing down. This team still has enough talent to make the post-season, but may end up watching at home because of stronger Central Division teams nabbing both wild card slots.
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