Sharks

Analysis: Sharks lack of offseason change is perplexing

Analysis: Sharks lack of offseason change is perplexing

Here’s a prediction.

When the Sharks hold their media day in about two weeks on Sep. 15, also the first on-ice day of training camp, general manager Doug Wilson and head coach Pete DeBoer will both proclaim that the team is still in win-now mode and considers itself a Stanley Cup contender. There isn’t any rebuilding here, or, to borrow commonly used phrase by Wilson, a “reset/refresh” for a team that reached the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

And that’s what makes this offseason so perplexing. 

The Sharks lost a major offensive piece in Patrick Marleau, and to this point have made no notable trades or free agent acquisitions to try and bolster their roster, which continues to get older and seems to have some holes up front. Sure, they have a strong defense core led by Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and goalie Martin Jones is about as steady as they come, but they lack weapons at forward.

An offense that finished 10th out of 14 in the Western Conference in goals-per game has, on paper, only gotten worse since the team’s first round playoff exit in April.

We wrote here back in early July, after Marleau had signed with Toronto, that Wilson had made all the right moves to that point. Signing Vlasic and Jones to long-term extensions was a home run. Getting Joe Thornton to commit for another year was vital. Letting Marleau walk, rather than extending him a third year, was also the correct decision.

But after that, Wilson seems to have lost his phone in the sofa cushions. There was no big splash in free agency (the free agent market wasn’t overly stocked, but there were some players that might have helped). A big trade, perhaps one in which the Sharks could have surrendered some of their defensive depth for a scoring forward, never materialized.

One high-ranking member of another team recently told me that he “kept waiting for the other shoe to drop” when it came to the Sharks’ roster. That makes two of us.

To be fair, there is still time between now and the season opener against Philadelphia on Oct. 4. There’s even more time until the 2018 trade deadline, when contending teams frequently attempt to put the finishing touches on their roster in the hopes of a long playoff run. It’s easy to forget this time of year just how long the NHL season really is.

And what the Sharks do have is salary cap flexibility, something that they rarely enjoy. Barring any major moves before opening night, the team should have approximately $6.5 - $7 million in cap space. That could come in handy if they get off to a poor start and need to shake things up, or are seeking assets for a playoff push.

The message when camp begins, though, will be simple – the Sharks are counting on their younger players to step up and score goals. That includes Timo Meier, who I recently tabbed as the team’s biggest X-factor this season, and has a higher ceiling than any forward currently in the organization. Others like Kevin Labanc, Marcus Sorensen, Barclay Goodrow and Danny O'Regan will get a chance to impress in camp, too.

But the underperforming Sharks from a season ago will also have to be better. Mikkel Boedker, Joonas Donskoi and Tomas Hertl, in particular, were supposed to be the younger, improving players that gave the Sharks a deeper offensive attack than the season before. None of them met expectations in 2016-17 – in fact, they all regressed. Boedker and Donskoi were each healthy scratched for games in the first round against Edmonton, capping off poor campaigns for each, while Hertl dealt with yet another knee surgery.

It’s clear that the Sharks are banking on those players rebounding, with some added jam from the prospects. If they get both, they could still be a contending team. 

That’s quite a risk, though, and don’t be surprised if you see some preseason prognosticators leaving the Sharks out of the playoffs – like this recent offering from The Hockey News – as the Sharks compete in what should be a very difficult Pacific Division.

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.