Competition for Sharks roster spots heating up

Competition for Sharks roster spots heating up

MONTREAL – The competition for playing time among the Sharks' forward group has gotten a whole lot more interesting in recent days.

On Wednesday, it was forward Joonas Donskoi that was a healthy scratch against the Senators. The 24-year-old forward has just two goals and eight points in 29 games.

On Friday against Montreal, it will be Joel Ward’s turn. Ward, like Donskoi, has just two goals in 30 games, along with seven assists. 

Scratching a 36-year-old veteran as universally well liked as Ward was obviously not pleasant for DeBoer – “those aren’t easy conversations,” he said – but the coach has been frantically seeking more offense from his team, which is 21st in the NHL with 2.43 goals-per game. The Sharks have failed to score more than two goals in regulation in 10 of their last 15 games (although they are 9-5-1 over that span).

DeBoer has given some of his struggling forwards some rope, but now that it’s the middle of December, he’s running out of patience.

“We’re 30 games in,” DeBoer said after Friday’s morning skate at Bell Centre. “We were good last year. We had a great season, but we weren’t good enough. It’s clear the mandate here is to take another step this year. 

“Guys build up equity on what they did last year to a certain point, and then…we have to see some results. We’ve got a lot of depth here, and a lot of young guys knocking on the door. That’s the message.”
Younger players are challenging the established guys for lineup spots, which is a luxury the Sharks haven’t had in years. Kevin Labanc has made an impact, with four goals and two assists in 17 games, while Timo Meier, whose upside is even higher than Labanc’s, will make his NHL debut against the Canadiens Friday night.

“From a coaching point of view, that’s what you want. You want competition,” DeBoer said. 

“We’ve got young guys that have come in and basically knocked down the door. They’re not coming in just hoping to survive. Labanc came in, and he’s made it so you can’t take him out of the lineup. Timo Meier is up here now, and I’m anticipating he’s going to try and do the same thing. Guys lose their positions when young guys come in and do that. It puts everybody on notice.”

All eyes will be on Meier against the Canadiens, as the 20-year-old will start on a line with Donskoi and Chris Tierney. The ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft, he has an opportunity to do the same thing that Labanc has done in recent weeks, and that's prove he belongs.

In his two seasons as the Sharks’ head coach, DeBoer hasn’t made it easy for a young player to crack the lineup. Guys like Tierney and Dylan DeMelo, and even Tomas Hertl, had to earn their places with weeks of consistent play. Others like Mirco Mueller, Nikolay Goldobin and Barclay Goodrow, showed the coach that they weren’t yet ready to play at the NHL level last season, and they were quickly reassigned.

Meier has been tearing it up recently in the AHL, and that’s why he’s here. 

“I think that’s what we’ve been trying to preach, is the process of getting to the NHL the right way,” DeBoer said. 

“Labanc did it. [Meier] did it. They came and had good training camps. Timo got sick [in training camp], unfortunately, but started down there and every week got better. The last couple weeks he’s been a dominant player down there. He deserved the call, and you get rewarded for that.”

Even if it leads to some of those unpleasant conversations in the coach's office.

Paul Martin rewarding Peter DeBoer's faith in NHL return


Paul Martin rewarding Peter DeBoer's faith in NHL return

When Sharks defenseman Paul Martin confirmed reports in January that he was willing to go elsewhere for more playing time, his head coach was insistent that the team would need the veteran blueliner. 

"I really believe we need eight NHL defenseman here," DeBoer told reporters in January (via The Mercury News). "If it happens that he isn't here, then that'll be disappointing for us. I'm not hoping that's where this goes. I'm hoping this goes to a place where he can maybe go down, play some games and keep himself ready, because I know we're going to need eight defensemen."

That's pretty much exactly what's happened.

After clearing waivers in January and playing with the AHL's San Jose Barracuda, Martin was called up ahead of the Sharks' four-game road trip at the end of February. He did not play until last Saturday in Vancouver, when an upper-body injury to rookie defenseman Joakim Ryan, whose play pushed Martin down the depth chart in the first place, created an opening alongside Brent Burns. 

Martin's now played three straight games with Burns, his defensive partner for the vast majority of the previous two seasons. It's the first time Martin's played in three consecutive NHL games all season, and although he hasn't played much (11:53 in average time-on-ice), he's acquitted himself nicely in a sheltered role.

His five-on-five possession numbers (52.78 percent corsi-for; 53.33 percent fenwick-for) are the second-best marks among Sharks defensemen over the last three games. Burns, too, has posted better possession numbers with Martin (47.62 percent corsi-for; 50 percent fenwick-for) during the last three contests than without his longtime partner (43.40 percent corsi-for; 41.67 percent fenwick-for). 

The Sharks have also outscored (3-0) and outchanced (17-16) opponents with Martin on the ice, neither of which was the case in Martin's first three appearances earlier this season. The former is owed to a decent amount of puck luck, as the Sharks have converted on 17.65 percent of their shots with him on the ice, but the latter is an extension of his solid underlying numbers. 

Martin's played the least amount of total minutes among Sharks defensemen since coming back, even as Marc-Edouard Vlasic missed time in two of the last three games, and has barely been used in special teams. His days of averaging 20-or-more minutes a night are likely behind him, but the 37-year-old has played well in a limited role. 

Considering Martin's NHL days appeared to be behind him as recently as last month, his play has been a pleasant surprise. With the exception of his head coach, that is. 

Couture scores in OT, helps Sharks make up ground on Golden Knights

Couture scores in OT, helps Sharks make up ground on Golden Knights


SAN JOSE -- Seconds after almost costing the San Jose Sharks a game with a turnover, Logan Couture ended it with his backhand.

Couture scored 39 seconds into overtime after getting bailed out by goalie Martin Jones and the San Jose Sharks won their season-high sixth straight game, 2-1 over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night.

"I was able to make a move on their guy," Couture said. "(Marc-Edouard Vlasic) did a good job of driving their backchecker back and I was able to go far side."

Couture's goal came at the end of an opening shift of the overtime that started with him losing the puck in his own zone, giving Jonathan Marchessault a chance alone in front. Jones got enough of the shot to stop it, and then Vlasic sent the puck ahead to Couture for the winning goal that moved San Jose within seven points of first-place Vegas with eight games remaining in the regular season.

Brent Burns also scored and Jones made 24 saves to help the Sharks open a four-point lead over third-place Los Angeles in the Pacific Division with a game in hand as the Sharks close in on home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

"For us to get a win tonight was important," captain Joe Pavelski said. "Plus, just plant that seed. If we stay hot, you never know, we might be able to catch them and get home ice. We took care of business tonight and we'll try to keep playing well."

Tomas Tatar scored the lone goal for the Golden Knights, who were kept in the game by a sterling performance by goalie Malcolm Subban. He stopped 42 shots but it wasn't enough for Vegas to come up with the win, although he helped earn a point that gave the expansion team 100 this season.

"It's impressive," forward James Neal said. "It's a great season for our guys. Guys came together real quick. A great job so far but we're not done yet."

The Golden Knights struck first on a pretty passing play early in the first period that ended when Marchessault found Tatar cutting through the slot ahead of Justin Braun. Tatar skated past Jones and backhanded the puck into the open net.

Vegas has been dominant when getting off to a lead, posting an NHL-best 31-5-1 record when scoring first heading into this game. But the Sharks carried the play in the second period, outshooting the Golden Knights 18-4 and getting the equalizer on a blast by Burns from the point after another strong shift by San Jose's fourth line.

"We want to be playing really good hockey this time of year and heading into the playoffs. I think that's the goal," coach Peter DeBoer said. "Whether we would have won tonight or lost, I like how we played for most of the game, so that's what I'm concentrating on."

Vegas managed to keep it tied despite the lopsided shot totals, killing off a four-minute penalty to Colin Miller and another late power play that started late in the second.

That penalty carried over until the third period and the Sharks got 25 seconds of a two-man advantage after Brayden McNabb was called for throwing his stick but still couldn't get anything past Subban.

The Golden Knights squandered a power-play chance later in the period when Miller was called for cross checking with the man advantage. That nearly led to a power-play goal for San Jose but Subban appeared to get a piece of a shot from in close to Joe Pavelski to keep the game tied at 1.

"He's the main reason we got the point," coach Gerard Gallant said. "He looked comfortable."

NOTES: Vegas G Marc-Andre Fleury didn't make the trip to San Jose with an undisclosed injury but is expected to join the team for Saturday's game in Colorado. ... Burns became the 15th player to play 500 career games with the Sharks.

Golden Knights: Visit Colorado on Saturday.

Sharks: Host Calgary on Saturday.