Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2017-2018, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers are insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around till the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2017-2018 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on the Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2017-18 San Jose Sharks.
Puck Drop Preview: 2017-18 San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks’ 2016-17 season was a bit of a letdown after a successful 2015 playoff run. Injury struggles and poor performances from key players contributed to an early first-round playoff exit. Despite some solid forward depth on paper, scoring came at a premium. It took the Sharks half a season before finally scoring 5 goals in a game. On defense, the season was largely a successful one. Icing one of the strongest defensive groups in team history, the team played a stingy game, not allowing many scoring chances per night.
The powerplay was a different story. After being used to success year after year the powerplay floundered. They struggled most of the season and never really found something resembling a flow. The penalty kill continued being okay, but not great. The biggest success story regarding special teams in the Bay Area was their penalty differential, something the Sharks have excelled at for several seasons now.
Summer in the Bay Area was an unusually quiet one. After their early playoff exit, the first subtraction came in June when Mirco Mueller was traded to the New Jersey Devils. Later that same month the Vegas Golden Knights picked up David Schlemko in the expansion draft. Schlemko had only spent one season in teal, but had shown off some solid puck-moving skills that quickly turned him and Brenden Dillon into one of the best third defensive pairings around the league. Among the coaches a loss was also felt, as Bob Boughner left to become head coach of the Florida Panthers.
The biggest off-season subtraction for the Sharks, not just this year, but probably in franchise history came on July 3rd. Patrick Marleau, the longest tenured Shark in their history, decided to part ways after 20 years in the city, signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs. With the departure went, not just a franchise icon, but also 27 goals and 46 points.
To replace those players, Doug Wilson stood pat. Wilson’s only signings were re-signings of restricted free agents and impending unrestricted free agents. The expectation and hope in San Jose is that young players are ready to move up and replace the talent lost. If that isn’t the case, Wilson does stand with around $8.7 million in cap space to trade for someone who can make an impact. It’s not too far-fetched to think that Wilson is closely monitoring the situations in Colorado and Brooklyn regarding Matt Duchene and John Tavares.
Projected Line Combinations
Among the forwards much looks the same. On October 4th the Sharks will play their first game since 2009 without Patrick Marleau among the forwards. His departure has hurt the Sharks on the wings, a position that already wasn’t the strongest. A legitimate argument could be made that the Sharks currently have just one genuine top six winger, in the form of Joe Pavelski. While Timo Meier certainly is expected to grow into one, whether or not he already is, remains to be seen. Expect him to receive every opportunity to succeed.
On the 4th line the new kid on the block is Daniel O’Regan. Last year the Sharks 5th round draft pick brought home the AHL Rookie of the year award, and with the open spots on the big club, O’Regan will do what he can to earn a spot. He will face some stiff competition from other Sharks though, most prominently among them, one of last year’s surprises, Kevin Labanc.
Mikkel Boedker’s spot in the lineup is secure, but where he gets placed will probably depend largely on his production. He could play himself into a top-six spot if he produces in the same range that people become accustomed to from his days in Arizona. Marleau’s departure could also open up the possibility for some power play time, something Boedker saw precious little of in his first Sharks season.
Speaking of powerplay, this year’s Sharks powerplay should be an interesting one. After playing with essentially the same quintet on the first unit since Brent Burns joined the team, Marleau’s absence forces the coaching staff to change things. Prior to last season’s odd hiccup, the Sharks power play, in the four years prior had been among the league’s best. Last year was an abnormally large struggle, but despite that the coaches, for most of the season, stuck with the traditional first unit. Now they have no choice but to try something else and the results should be worth following.
Paul Martin – Brent Burns
Brenden Dillon – Dylan DeMelo
On defense it’s mostly status quo with few changes expected. The top four is expected to be the same it’s been the last two season. Vlasic and Braun will handle shutdown duties against the oppositions top players, while Brent Burns will be relied upon to produce the vast majority of the offense from San Jose’s blue line.
The biggest change will be on the third pairing where Schlemko’s departure means a young player can expect to see a lot of NHL ice time. There are a few candidates to the position with Tim Heed and Joakim Ryan in the AHL likely to push throughout training camp to grab the number-six spot. The job, however, is DeMelo’s to lose. After spending two years as a number seven, mostly playing in relief, combing to play on 70 games in those two seasons, DeMelo will probably get his first real shot at the NHL this year. He’s shown promise in his limited time so far, so the coaching staff will likely give him every opportunity to succeed with the team this year.
In net last year’s duo is returning. Martin Jones is back for the last year of his original deal with the Sharks, before he’ll embark on part two of his Sharks tenure with the brand new, ink-still-wet, 6-year contract he signed back on July 1st. Jones, in his first two seasons, has been exactly what the Sharks wanted when they gave up a first rounder to get him: a steady, solid presence in the back end.
As his backup, Aaron Dell is back for his second NHL season after a very optimistic rookie year. While Jones continued to take up a lot of the available ice time, Dell posted some sparkling numbers in his limited duties during the season. With such a promising rookie season, Dell deserves and should see more starts the second time around.
With the Sharks well rounded defensive corps they don’t need Martin or Dell to stand on their heads on many nights. They need two solid, composed, calming presences, who can post league average or better save percentages on most nights. In Martin and Dell, that’s exactly what the Sharks have.
Players to Watch
Mikkel Boedker’s first season in California was far from what anyone had hoped for. Boedker was brought in to provide speed and some scoring. They got the first but very little of the latter. Boedker never really found any consistency and finished the season with a very mediocre 10 goals and 26 points, despite playing in all but one of the team’s games in the regular season. Boedker, himself, expressed disappointment in his play, so look for him to be motivated to make big improvements in this season. Success for Boedker would be huge for a Sharks team looking for much more from its secondary guys compared to last year.
This could be the year for Hertl, the Sharks young, talented forward. After four seasons with varying degrees of success on various lines on the team, this could be the year Hertl finally become the full-time center management was imagining when they drafted him 17th overall back in 2012. Hertl has shown how good he is when it comes to puck possession and distribution, but large stretches as a first-line winger and knee troubles have prevented him from truly shining as a center so far in his career. Last season he played just 49 games and finished with 22 points. With the right wingers and a healthy season this could be the year the hockey world truly becomes acquainted with Tomas Hertl.
Players on the Rise
2016-17 was supposed to be Timo Time. Then mononucleosis happened. Meier’s ailment took away training camp and the first part of the season, meaning the youngster who was expected to start the season in the NHL, instead had to settle for some playing time with the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda. But once he found his feet he showed the AHL what he was capable of. After some time in minors he was called up and scored on his very first NHL shot. The hot start didn’t last though, and Meier had to settle for an opening season jumping between lines and leagues before finally getting some full time duty in the playoffs.
This became Meier’s shining moment of the season. He played in five of the team’s six games and immediately made an impact with his large frame and willingness to play hard. Despite finishing with zero points in the playoffs, a case could be made that Meier was the Sharks best player in the playoffs. Expect more of playoff-Meier in 2017-18, and coupled with a bit of puck luck, this season could be a coming-out party for the young Swiss.
For Dylan DeMelo hopefully third time’s the charm. After spending two years watching more hockey from the press box than actually playing, DeMelo will do everything within his ability to make sure he’s the sixth defenseman this year instead of the seventh. In 70 games prior he’s shown potential alongside Dillon and looks like a good match. He shares several traits with Dillon’s previous partner, Schlemko and did show growth in his second stint in the NHL. If DeMelo sees himself passed over by other defensemen this year, it could be time to look for trade options for the young defender. Practising, but not playing won’t continue to be a viable option if DeMelo is to reach his full potential.
Players on the Decline
Joe Thornton turned 38 in July and is coming off knee surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL. Last season he finished with the lowest point total since his sophomore season in the league. It was a 32 point drop off from his point per game season back in 2015-16. While it’s not crazy to think Thornton will improve on last season’s 50 points, it’s also reasonble to think that the days of 80 plus points, from one of the greatest passers the game has ever seen, are over. Thornton will still see plenty of first line minutes and almost certainly play with a great scorer in Joe Pavelski, so a steady decline still seems more likely than a sudden drop off a cliff.
Ward’s first season in teal was exactly what the team had hoped: 40 plus points while playing with a hard physical edge around the net. But most also knew that that likely wasn’t what they’d be getting from him for the duration of his contract. Last year, his second in San Jose, showed signs that they might be right. Ward, who turns 37 in September, is coming off a 29 point season where the team struggled to find the right spot for him. At times he was a middle six option, while at others he was on the fourth line. He showed that he still has the skill to contribute in the league, and if the veteran wing hits 30 points this season, the fans in San Jose should be more than satisfied. Expecting more than that would be unreasonable.
This season will be an interesting one for the Sharks. The best scenario is that most of the players rebound from subpar seasons while the kids take big strides forward in the development. Worst case is more of the same. A struggling and aging Thornton. An injury-stricken Hertl. Timo Meier proving he isn’t ready just yet. Not finding a replacement for Marleau, internally or externally.
The Sharks will be a solid team once again. Timo Meier will begin the process of replacing Marleau, but won’t be an instant fix. Their biggest problem is that at least 3 other teams in the Pacific will be solid too.
In a tightly contested division the Sharks will have to settle for 4th place, meaning they’ll be fighting for one of two wild card spots. Being paired with an awfully strong Central Division means the Sharks will be the odd team out. They will have to settle for unenviable position of being good enough not to draft high, but not good enough to play for the Stanley Cup.
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