An argument can be made that no NHL team that expects to compete for a Stanley Cup this season will rely more on older, aging players than the San Jose Sharks.
Their MVP from a season ago and number one center, Joe Thornton, is 37. Their leading goal scorer for the past three seasons, Joe Pavelski, is 32. Scoring wingers Patrick Marleau and Joel Ward are 37 and 35, respectively. Top four defenseman Paul Martin, so important to Brent Burns’ breakthrough year last season, is 35.
How much of a fear should that be in a league that seemingly keeps trending younger? There are differing opinions.
“I think that’s a legitimate concern,” said NBC NHL analyst Brian Boucher. “To ask these guys to play at a level that is extremely high is tough to ask. Whether they can stay healthy as you get older … the facts are sometimes you get beat up and you slow down a bit.”
Martin Biron, an NHL analyst for TSN, RDS and the NHL Network, was less concerned.
“The quality of players that the Sharks have, even though they’re older in their thirties or whatnot, doesn’t scare me much,” Biron said. “Now, will there be a time in January or February, especially with the guys that played in the World Cup that may feel that they’ve put a lot of miles on this year? Absolutely. But, I don’t think that these guys are going to fall behind that much. They may have to readjust a little bit, but that happens to almost everyone.”
With an aging team comes the need to infuse younger talent onto the roster, and the Sharks are attempting to do that while remaining competitive. Free agent addition Mikkel Boedker is 26 years old; rookie Timo Meier, 20, might have made the club out of training camp had he not gotten mono and could still join down the line; while 22-year-olds Tomas Hertl and Chris Tierney are improving.
Even Logan Couture, 27, may still be getting better after he was arguably the most consistent player in the Sharks’ two-month playoff run.
“I was really impressed with the growth of a couple of the young players, especially Couture,” said NBC NHL analyst Keith Jones. “I think a lot of it is going to run through him.”
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Hertl’s role has been one of the ongoing storylines for several seasons now. Should he play center, where he began last season and stayed for the first half while Couture was hurt, or should he return to the top line with Thornton and Pavelski on one of the most productive lines in the NHL?
Coach Pete DeBoer will keep him on the top line for now, and our experts agreed that is the right thing to do.
“I would leave him where he is at now, and then when it’s time for Thornton to move on, you’ve got that option to slide him into center ice then as a more mature player,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of upside potential there, but there’s no need to play him at center just yet.”
Tierney’s growth has earned him the opportunity to center the third line, and Boucher was impressed from what he saw from the former second round pick in last year’s postseason.
“Chris Tierney, I feel like this guy could be a key cog,” Boucher said. “I think he’s a good player. If you look at his track record, his last year in junior was very good. I thought he made tremendous strides, and I thought he had a good playoff last year.
“I think these young guys have to continue to develop and take on bigger roles.”
The bottom line is that the Sharks are still a team that’s built to win now. They will keep an eye on the future, of course, but after making it so far in the playoffs last season, the goal in 2016-17 is to finish the job.
“If I’m San Jose I’m not concerned about what’s happening in three or four years down the road,” Biron said. “I’m thinking that this year and next year is the time to keep pushing for results.”