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 top prospect Ryan Merkley traded to Peterborough Petes of OHL

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AP

Sharks top prospect Ryan Merkley traded to Peterborough Petes of OHL

Last time we checked on Sharks top prospect Ryan Merkley, he was being overlooked for Canada's World Junior Championships roster. At the time, the skilled 18-year-old defensemen had more points to his name than all but one under-20 Canadian defenseman playing in Canada's top three major-junior leagues.

All of those points had been accrued with the Guelph Storm of the OHL, where Merkley was reassigned after making it to the final stages of Sharks training camp back in September. He won't be scoring any more points for Guelph -- he had five goals and 34 assists in 28 games -- this season, however. 

On Friday, Merkley was traded from Guelph to the Peterborough Petes (also of the OHL) in exchange for highly regarded forward Pavel Gogolev and five draft picks. In 159 career games with the Storm, Merkley totaled 167 points.

“Ryan’s been a tremendous player for the Guelph Storm for the past two and a half seasons,” Guelph general manager George Burnette said.  “We wish him well with his new opportunity in Peterborough.”

Ironically, the Storm and Petes faced each other Friday night, though none of the players involved in the trade played in the game. The haul the Storm received in exchange for Merkley speaks to how the young defenseman is viewed across the hockey landscape.

“In Ryan, we’re acquiring an elite-level defenseman that has excellent offensive abilities,” Petes general manager Michael Oke said. “We look forward to him joining our group.”

Merkley, who won't turn 19 until August, figures prominently into the Sharks' future plans, and they clearly think highly of him. He was the last junior-eligible player standing at Sharks training camp, and his production with Guelph can only make them feel better about their choice to select him with the 21st overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.

San Jose, of course, made NHL waves right before the start of the regular season when it acquired star defenseman Erik Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators. After a slow start, Karlsson has been finding his stride as of late, and -- alongside Marc-Edward Vlasic and Brent Burns -- gives the Sharks arguably the most talented defensive group in the league.

[RELATED: Wins show positive trend in Sharks' evolving defense]

Merkley figures to be at least one season away from joining the big club, but the faster he develops, the more likely he can make that fearsome threesome a foursome. Or, perhaps, make one of those veteran defensemen more expendable down the line.

How Sharks' defense is making progress, helping produce string of wins

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USATSI

How Sharks' defense is making progress, helping produce string of wins

SAN JOSE -- Remember way back in September, when the Sharks’ defense was the talk of the town?

It wasn’t that long ago they had a whole season ahead of them, and talking heads were calling them Cup contenders before a single puck had dropped -- and a lot of that hype was geared toward the Sharks' blue line. The trade for Erik Karlsson sent expectations into the stratosphere, as if it guaranteed San Jose’s blue line wouldn’t ever lose a puck battle.

With 33 games in the bag, it’s pretty safe to say that bar was set unrealistically high. But after a much-needed win over the Dallas Stars on Thursday night, it became clear: As the Sharks' collective game moves in the right direction, their D-corps is following suit and trending in a positive way. Now, it’s just a matter of building on that.

When the Sharks had trouble getting in the win column earlier this season, they struggled to defend chances in five-on-five situations and committed defensive turnovers, losing battles and having trouble helping their out goaltender. The result? Three or more goals finding the back of San Jose’s net on a regular basis. After a particularly difficult 4-1 loss to Ottawa Senators, defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic stated: “If you’re letting in six goals, we better score seven.”

To a degree, the Sharks' defense has done that, whether it’s by tightening up in their own zone or capitalizing on more offensive chances. As San Jose tries to string more wins together before the Christmas break, it has cut back on the number of goals that get by, minimizing turnovers and odd-man rushes. The Sharks now are ranked 11th in the NHL in goals against with 98 allowed, an average 2.97 goals per game -- which is an improvement over their previous 3.0-plus mark.

It doesn’t hurt that, in addition to tightening up in their own zone, the Sharks’ defense also is contributing to the offense.

Brent Burns, who's only one off the team lead with 31 points, is leading the charge with 27 assists on the season. While fans might view him as a goal scorer, Burns' abilities as a set-up guy -- especially on a few of Joe Pavelski’s big goals --- have been big for Team Teal. (It probably doesn’t hurt, either, that Pavelski and some of San Jose’s other dynamic forwards have no problem posting up at the doorstep in an attempt to redirect one of Burns’ lethal one-timers into the back of the net.)

No. 88 has helped generate offense on the back end as well, ranking fourth among NHL defensemen with 32 takeaways.

[RELATED: Sharks growing into the team they want to be]

Burns isn’t the only Norris Trophy winner who's contributing. Karlsson’s level of play has been trending upward, particularly in the Sharks' most recent stretch of games. After tallying an assist in the win over the Stars, EK65 has six assists through seven games and a plus-4 rating in the month of December.

In fact, Karlsson and linemate Brenden Dillon have joined forces to set up a couple goals over the last stretch of games. The duo set up Pavelski in back-to-back games, with the opening goal in last Saturday’s 5-3 win over the Arizona Coyotes and the first-period marker in Monday’s 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils. Dillon also led the Sharks’ physical game Monday, leading all skaters that evening with four hits.

San Jose's blue line recently has added a little punch with Radim Simek recalled from the AHL. The Czech product has found almost instant chemistry with Burns and so far has successfully used his heavy game to slow down the opposition. It doesn’t hurt that Simek also has gotten on the scoreboard, tallying three points (one goal, two assists) in six NHL games played.

All in all, it’s forward motion that looks very position for the Sharks’ blue line. While there still are aspects of its game the team no doubt wants to improve on, things are trending in the right direction.