Sharks

Analysis: Are Sharks better or worse since the season ended?

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USATSI

Analysis: Are Sharks better or worse since the season ended?

SAN JOSE – As we wrote last week, in his effort to set up the Sharks for long-term success, Doug Wilson has made some admirable moves recently. Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns, defensive stalwart Marc-Edouard Vlasic and franchise goalie Martin Jones will all be in San Jose for the foreseeable future with their respective contract extensions, and represent three pieces that a team can build around. 

The general manager also avoided the mistake of offering Patrick Marleau a third season, leaving the club valuable salary cap space that could be better utilized than for a declining forward that would have been 40 years old in 2019-20.

The more immediate concern, though, is this: Are the Sharks a better team now than they were when they shook hands with the Edmonton Oilers following a first round defeat in April?

Right now, there’s not much reason to believe that they are.

Even with Marleau’s departure, the Sharks will rely on some aging veterans. Joe Thornton, returning on a one-year, $8 million contract, just turned 38, while Joe Pavelski turned 33 on Tuesday. 

We’ve written here before that there’s reason to believe Thornton can be better than his seven-goal, 50-point season in 2016-17. The future Hall of Famer recently said that he’s been focusing on his legs this offseason, which surely means that he identified that as a problem area last season through what was a difficult schedule. As long as his knee is fully repaired – and he, his agent and Wilson have all emphatically stated he’ll be ready for the start of camp – Thornton could rebound from his lowest statistical output since 1998-99.

And, a better Thornton would mean a better Pavelski, too, as the captain saw his goal output drop from 38 in 2015-16 to 29 last season. Assuming those two stay on the same line, the Sharks will need more from both. The guess here is they'll get it.

The defense isn’t getting any younger, either, as each of the Sharks’ top four defenders is now over the age of 30 including Paul Martin (36), Burns (32), Vlasic (30) and Justin Braun (30). But Vlasic, Braun and Burns are each in the prime of their career, while Martin -- maybe the most underrated Sharks player last season -- was arguably better in 2016-17 than he was in his first year with the Sharks.

The defensive corps is one of the best in the NHL top to bottom, even with the departure of David Schlemko, who could best be described as a serviceable third pairing defenseman. He should be easy to replace, most likely with Dylan DeMelo. That group, along with the steady Jones, could be enough to keep the Sharks in the postseason.

Whether they are anything more than just a playoff bubble team, though, will depend on if they have the horses to generate enough offense, even if Thornton and Pavelski rebound. And that’s where the tremendous uncertainty lies with the current roster.

The left wing spot on the top line is a good place to start. After trying virtually everyone there last season, and even adding Jannik Hansen at the trade deadline with the thought of putting him there, coach Pete DeBoer never seemed to find the right kind of player to complement Thornton and Pavelski. Who is penciled in there now? That’s anyone’s guess.

A group of forwards that didn’t produce as expected last season, as has been well documented, remains. Mikkel Boedker was a bust culminating in his getting scratched in the playoffs, Joel Ward scored 11 fewer goals than the previous season, Joonas Donskoi disappointed with just 17 points in 61 games, Chris Tierney has yet to show he can score more than 20-or-so points in a full season, and the jury remains out as to whether Tomas Hertl should be a full-time center or is better off on the wing.

Marleau’s departure leaves a 27-goal void that won’t likely be filled by a single player. They’ll need more from most of the players mentioned above.

But the Sharks also need at least one, and probably several of their young players to step up and show they are NHL-caliber. Unlike this time last offseason there seems to be a real opportunity for guys like Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorensen to jump in and prove they can play at a consistent level in the best league in the world. Perhaps other prospects with lower ceilings like Barclay Goodrow, Danny O’Regan or Rourke Chartier will surprise in camp.

Now is the time, though, the Sharks need to get more from their younger players than they've gotten in recent years thanks to some unfruitful drafts. There were some flashes last season, such as Labanc’s midseason success and Meier and Sorensen playing well in the playoffs against Edmonton, but none of the players in the system look like a sure thing. There's still a huge leap that has to be made from putting up points in the AHL, as all of those players can, and becoming an NHL regular.

If Wilson is betting on some of these prospects to emerge as legitimate scoring forwards for the Sharks, it’s a tremendous risk, especially in a division that’s getting younger, faster and better. Right now, it looks like that is a risk he’s willing to take.

Sharks win second straight, beat Devils to start road trip

Sharks win second straight, beat Devils to start road trip

BOX SCORE

NEWARK, N.J. — Martin Jones made 28 saves for his first shutout of the season and 16th overall in the San Jose Sharks' 3-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Friday night.

Melker Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi scored and Justin Braun had two assists to help the Sharks open a five-game East Coast trip.

Keith Kinkaid, the top goalie for New Jersey with Cory Schneider on injured reserve, stopped 30 shots as the Devils' three-game winning streak came to an end.

The Devils couldn't muster a strong push in the later stages against the rested Sharks. It was New Jersey's second game two nights following a 5-4 overtime victory in Ottawa. And it showed against the Sharks, who played a solid road game, pressed their advantage and solidly supported Jones.

Karlsson scored the lone goal of the opening period at 14:11 on a close-in shot following a slick behind-the-net setup pass from Tomas Hertl.

The shots were 13 for each team in the evenly played period. The Devils came close on several occasions as former Shark Mirco Mueller and Blake Coleman both hit the crossbar and Jones robbed Drew Stafford on a dead-on drive from the slot.

Pavelski and Donskoi got second-period goals as the Sharks steadily tightened their grip on the game.

Pavelski tipped in Braun's point shot at 5:49. Joe Thornton got the second assist, his 1,395th point, to pass Luc Robitaille for 21st on the career list.

Donskoi backhanded a rebound shot with 1:10 left in the period in which the Sharks outshot the Devils 11-6.

The remaining drama centered on Jones' shutout bid.

NOTES: The Devils placed Schneider on injured reserve Friday with a lower-body injury and recalled Scott Wedgewood from Binghamton of the American Hockey League to serve as Kinkaid's backup. ... Mueller, a healthy scratch in three of the previous four games, returned for the Devils to face the Sharks, the team that drafted him in the first round, for the first time. He was dealt to New Jersey over the summer.

UP NEXT

Sharks: At the New York Islanders on Saturday night.

Devils: Host Ottawa on Friday night.

As Joakim Ryan returns home, Sharks reunite with a former top prospect

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AP

As Joakim Ryan returns home, Sharks reunite with a former top prospect

When Joakim Ryan suits up in his first NHL road game against the New Jersey Devils Friday night, he’ll do so in a familiar place.

Ryan, a New Jersey-born Swede, played for the Devils’ youth program and nearby Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) in high school. In fact, he’s already played at the Prudential Center, skating in the state championship game with CBA in 2009.

He’s not the only one due for something of a homecoming, as the Sharks may see a familiar face line up on the opposing blueline.

This is the Sharks’ first matchup against New Jersey since trading 2013 first round pick Mirco Mueller ahead of June’s Expansion Draft. Mueller was once considered the future on the San Jose blueline, a smooth-skating defenseman with size to boot.

The Swiss defender never fulfilled his potential, in part because his development was rushed from the start. He made the NHL roster as a rookie in 2014-15, almost by default. Other than Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the only defensemen ahead of him on left side of the depth chart were a far past-his-prime Scott Hannan and regular scratch Matt Irwin. Such was the nature of the Sharks’ “step back” that year.

Mueller finally got regular playing time, albeit in the minors, during his second professional season. By then, he was pushed down the organizational depth chart by the team’s acquisitions of Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak, and the development of Dylan DeMelo. David Schlemko’s signing last summer kept Mueller there for most of 2016-17, but it was Ryan and Tim Heed that ensured Mueller’s NHL future would lie elsewhere. The Swedes surpassed him, and emerged as perhaps the AHL’s best defensive pair in the process.

It’s fitting, then, that Ryan and Heed will be in the lineup tonight, and Mueller may not, as the fresh start he needed hasn’t quite panned out. He’s averaging a career-high 18:44 in ice time, but has been scratched in three of New Jersey’s seven games, including Thursday night’s overtime win in Ottawa.

So Ryan comes home to New Jersey under much happier circumstances than Mueller will reunite with the Sharks. One prodigal son returns, and the other is simply trying to save face.

It’s still early in his Devils tenure, of course, and Mueller may yet emerge as a regular on the New Jersey blueline. His Sharks reunion, though, will serve as a reminder of what once was, what could have been, and what is now San Jose’s future on defense.