Despite struggles, Sharks top power play unit unchanged

Despite struggles, Sharks top power play unit unchanged

SAN JOSE – The late stages of Monday’s 3-2 Sharks win over the Jets in Winnipeg was a good example of how much confidence the Sharks’ coaching staff has in its power play lately.

And, it ain’t much.

Ahead 2-1 with 5:32 left in the third period, Dustin Byfuglien went to the penalty box on a kneeing minor. Rather than send out his top power play unit, though, Pete DeBoer opted to play it safe. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Dylan DeMelo hopped over the boards for the start of the advantage, while Brent Burns and Paul Martin went out for the second half. Martin, in particular, is almost never on the power play, as a shutdown guy.

The conventional strategy would have been to try and put the Jets away with a power play goal. Instead, the Sharks seemed content to just let the clock wind down without any shorthanded chances against, managing only two shot attempts from Burns that were both blocked. They had to rely on some late stellar saves by Aaron Dell and an empty-net goal by Joe Pavelski to collect the two points.

Regardless, that top unit of Pavelski, Burns, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton remained together for Wednesday’s practice at Sharks Ice, and will presumably stay intact for Thursday’s matchup with the Washington Capitals as the Sharks begin a six-game homestand. The second unit was comprised of Vlasic, DeMelo, Joonas Donskoi, Tomas Hertl and Joel Ward.

That doesn’t mean DeBoer isn’t concerned with his power play, which has just two goals over the last 11 games (2-for-23), is 26-for-169 since Nov. 1 (15.3 percent), and is 23rd in the NHL this season (16.7 percent). The coach described his urgency level to start producing as “moderate.”

“We want to get it going,” DeBoer said. “I don’t believe it’s something that you just turn on the first day of the playoffs, although that can happen. You can see a team that all of a sudden one of their specialty teams heats up come playoff time. But we don’t want to take that chance. We want to get it in a good spot before that.”

The futility of the power play is especially baffling when you consider the top unit has been together for several seasons. The team finished third in the league last season at 22.5 percent, and sixth in 2014-15 (20.9 percent).

Pavelski and Couture both indicated that it’s been different aspects of their power play they’ve struggled with since early November. They aren’t having difficulty on entries anymore, which was plaguing them before. Now, it’s just about outworking the other team’s penalty killers – winning battles, and generating second chance opportunities.

“Early in the year it was an execution thing at times, entries killed a lot of it,” Pavelski said. “Now, maybe a little bit of our effort, working for each other – more so away from the puck.”

Couture said: “We’ve just got to work harder. You’re up five against four guys, you tend to relax a little bit when it should be the opposite. You should be working harder, because the penalty killers are usually guys that go out and work hard. We’ve got to outwork them.”

Earlier in the season when it wasn't working, DeBoer replaced Marleau with Ward in late December, but only for a few games. While the discussions to change up the units are ongoing among the coaching staff, they aren’t ready to throw them in a blender just yet.

“We still feel we can fix it without going to the next set of measures, whatever those are,” DeBoer said.


Top Sharks prospect Merkley soaking in lessons, warm weather in first training camp


Top Sharks prospect Merkley soaking in lessons, warm weather in first training camp

Out of his pads, Sharks prospect Ryan Merkley looked like someone who just turned 18. 

Well, that’s because he did. 

The right-shooting defenseman became old enough to buy a lottery ticket on Aug. 14, 53 days after San Jose selected him in the first round, No. 21 overall, at the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas. The Sharks list Merkley as 5-foot-11, 170 pounds on their training camp roster. Naturally, one difference between junior hockey and the pros stood out to the teenager. 

“The strength. These guys are a lot bigger, stronger, quicker,” Merkley said Monday after the Sharks’ second scrimmage of camp. “[Monday was], what, my fourth practice with these guys who have been doing it for years. The way they move and pass the puck and work the corners is pretty unreal.”

In his pads, he’s looked like a teenager at times, too. Late in Monday’s scrimmage, Sharks defenseman Brent Burns pounced on Merkley’s errant clearing attempt from the right corner of the defensive zone, and wristed a shot just under the crossbar. Merkley also got caught up the ice at times as well, ensuring an odd-man rush the other way.

But the talent was on display, too. More often than not, the defenseman jumped into the play at the right time. He learned from his mistakes, too: At one point after the aforementioned odd-man rush, Merkley hustled back to deny forward prospect Ivan Chekhovich on a breakaway, preventing the winger from getting a clean look at the net. 

Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said that’s just part of the development process. 

“It’s about him getting used to the speed, and the time, and that not ever play has to be a great play,” DeBoer said Monday. “But that’s part of being a young defenseman, and I really like what I’ve seen so far out of him.”

Merkley could get another taste of that speed on Tuesday, in the Sharks’ preseason opener at SAP Center against the Anaheim Ducks. Early preseason games don’t feature the full cadre of NHL regulars, but the vast majority of Anaheim’s traveling roster for the game played professionally at one level or another last season.

Even for a player of Merkley’s pedigree, that’s a step up. He has spent the last two seasons with the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), one of the top-three major junior leagues in Canada. He scored 67 points in 63 games last year, the third-highest total among OHL defensemen. It was also the highest mark of any under-18 blueliner by 22 points. 

Guelph is likely where he will return soon, as he continues to develop on and off the ice. His talent was never in question, but the talented defenseman slipped to the back-end of the first round, at least in part, due to perceived maturity issues. 

He was benched in his first OHL season following an argument with his coach, and he was suspended three games last season for a retaliatory slash in a game against the North Bay Battalion. That didn’t deter the Sharks from selecting Merkley, who was also one of the youngest draft-eligible players. 

San Jose has time to be patient. After the acquisition of two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, the Sharks aren’t hurting for depth down the right side. For now, the focus lies on ensuring Merkley soaks everything in before returning to Guelph.  

“We had [Merkley] stay with [Burns during July’s rookie camp], and he couldn’t believe it,” general manager Doug Wilson said. “[Seeing] everything he eats, how he trains. For an 18-year-old kid to see a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman and that’s what he does? You go back to junior and remember what you just learned.”

Merkley said he’s spent most of camp observing how the Sharks veterans train and practice. If he ultimately suits up Tuesday against the Ducks, he’ll get a chance to show what he’s learned in a professional game. 

The 18-year-old could get used to playing in the cities of the Pacific Division. He said he was hoping to play somewhere warm when he entered the draft, and that he’s enjoyed his time in San Jose so far.

Will that make another winter in Ontario harder to deal with?

“I could leave that behind for sure,” he said with a laugh. 

If all goes as planned, Merkley may get to spend a winter in California soon enough. 

Sharks backup goaltender Aaron Dell stands tall against camp's standout line

Sharks backup goaltender Aaron Dell stands tall against camp's standout line

SAN JOSE -- The scoreline of the Sharks’ second intrasquad scrimmage of training camp favored backup goaltender Aaron Dell’s team by a three-goal margin Monday, but he may have been the biggest reason why.

After playing in the first of half of Sunday’s scrimmage, Dell manned the crease for Group B for the entirety of the two, 25-minute halves. He saw plenty of action, with his team pinned in their own end for extended stretches in a 5-2 win over Group A. 

“It’s huge,” Dell said about getting reps this early in camp. “I don’t know when my first start will be, so I’ve got to get prepared now and get back into that kind of game rhythm so that I can see a little bit of work before I get my first start -- whenever that may be.”

In his second season as the backup, Dell appeared in 29 games with the Sharks, starting 22. He made his first start of the year in the team’s fourth of five straight home games to start the campaign. 

This season, San Jose will open at home before embarking on a five-game road trip through the Eastern Conference, including a back-to-back against the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers on Oct. 8 and 9. Dell said the nature of his position makes his preparation in camp that much more important.

“My role’s kind of a little bit unpredictable,” Dell said. “I don’t know when I’m going to have my first start, so I have to be kind of prepared the whole way through. As well, I may have to go in [for an] injury or the games where we have a slow start. I’ve gotta be prepared to play at any time.”

Dell got plenty of work Monday, in no small part because of what is arguably the standout trio of training camp so far. Wingers Joonas Donskoi and Kevin Labanc scored both goals for Group A, and they were centered by Finnish rookie Antti Suomela. 

Trailing 1-0 early in the scrimmage, Labanc gained the zone with control before dishing to prospect defenseman Jeremy Roy. After an extended stretch of possession, Labanc’s line stole the puck on the forecheck from Group B’s top trio of Timo Meier, Logan Couture, and Tomas Hertl, and Suomela set up Donskoi for a tap-in. Labanc added another on a partial breakaway late in the second half. 

“They’ve had two good scrimmages,” head coach Peter DeBoer said. “[Labanc’s] come in great shape, and is really playing well. The other two guys have some chemistry for sure.”

That line was the only one to beat Dell on Monday. The 29-year-old robbed them of a third goal, sliding over to shoulder Suomela’s wrist shot out of play after a turnover and cross-crease pass from Donskoi left his fellow Finn wide open in the slot. Dell also denied forward prospect Manuel Wiederer on a penalty shot. 

The backup is entering the first of a two-year, $3.8 million deal he signed in February. He posted a .914 save percentage in his second season with the Sharks, down from .931 the year before. In nearly 300 more minutes, his five-on-five save percentage dropped from .949 to .919, according to Corsica Hockey.

DeBoer likes what he’s seen from his backup so far in camp, and said both Dell and starter Marin Jones “looked really sharp” in Monday’s scrimmage. Ahead of Dell’s third NHL season, his head coach has noticed annual improvement in the goaltender’s approach. 

“I think every year he shows up here in a little better condition and a little better shape, a little quicker,” DeBoer said. “I think he’s learning, like everybody, what it takes to be successful every night up here. He’s put a lot of work in.”

That learning extends to Dell’s mental approach as well. The backup goaltender is well-aware he has to be ready at a moment’s notice in the regular season, and he said he has a better idea of when those moments because of his familiarity within the team. 

“I know what to expect a little bit more,” Dell said. “In the games where we have a little bit of a slow start, I know the way he works with that, so I can kind of recognize when we’re starting to have those games like that and I can sort of mentally prepare a little bit, knowing it could go either way.”