Sharks

Joonas Donskoi lends helping hand to Sharks rookie Antti Suomela

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USATSI

Joonas Donskoi lends helping hand to Sharks rookie Antti Suomela

SAN JOSE -- When Sharks winger Joonas Donskoi first tried to make the team in 2015, he didn’t know it would be so hard to get a cell phone. 

“I was trying to get a phone plan, and they said I had no history in the [United States], so I had to pay a deposit for pretty much anything I do,” Donskoi recalled Tuesday at the Sharks practice facility. 

To that point, the forward had only played professionally in his home country of Finland. But after spending parts of six years playing for Karpat in Liiga, the country's top league, Donskoi signed with San Jose in May 2015, with the hopes of cracking the NHL. He made the team out of camp, and hasn’t spent a minute in the minors, despite initially struggling learning a new language and acclimating to a new country.

Still, Donskoi said, having a familiar face would’ve helped. 

“Oh for sure. I had my biggest problems maybe off the ice, and my language was not that perfect,” Donskoi said. “A lot of things were new for me, and it was really hard at the beginning.” 

Now, Donskoi has an opportunity to pass on what he learned. Fellow Finnish forward Antti Suomela is trying to make the same transition Donskoi made three years ago, and make the Sharks’ opening night roster in his first NHL training camp. 

Suomela, a center, signed a one-year, entry-level deal with San Jose on June 6. He led SM-liiga in scoring last season with 60 points (21 goals, 39 assists), and won a European Champions Hockey League title with JYP. 

The 24-year-old likely would have competed for the team’s fourth-line center spot, but center Chris Tierney’s inclusion in the Erik Karlsson trade created an opening down the middle of the team’s third line as well. That’s where Suomela has spent much of camp, skating with Kevin Labanc on one wing, and Donskoi on the other in most practices, as well as two preseason games. 

Donskoi didn’t meet Suomela before he signed with San Jose, but spoke with him when he was thinking about joining the Sharks. Since Suomela’s been in camp, Donskoi’s tried to help his adjustment on the ice and off of it. The rookie is still learning the language, but Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said Donskoi’s helped bridge any gaps.

“It’s nice that Joonas is there to kind of interpret for him when he doesn’t understand what’s going on,” DeBoer said, “but to also help him on the ice. I think when you have a familiar guy that plays the same way you do, it makes the transition easier.” 

Suomela’s played in all three of San Jose’s preseason games, but did not travel with the team Tuesday for their game in Calgary against the Flames. He scored three points in his second game, but did not have a shot on goal in his third on Saturday. 

The rookie found nice chemistry with Labanc and Donskoi in the first two games, as the Sharks attempted two-thirds of the five-on-five shots -- and nearly 78 percent of the scoring chances -- with the trio on the ice, according to Natural Stat Trick. Without Labanc and Donskoi on Saturday, San Jose was out-attempted 9-6 and out-chanced 3-1. 

“I think he’s done a good job,” DeBoer said. “I thought his first game, he was feeling things out. I thought the second game was fantastic. I thought the third game was okay. He’ll get another game here, and it’s gonna be an important one.”

Thursday figures to be the closest approximation to the Sharks’ opening night lineup. DeBoer said the plan is for Karlsson to play against the Flames that night at SAP Center for his first  game of the preseason, barring some last-minute looks at other players competing for spots. Where Suomela is penciled in, and his performance thereafter, should provide insight into his bid to stay in the NHL after camp. 

In the meantime, Donskoi will continue to help his countryman acclimate to life in San Jose. So far, he's made sure to keep his linemate in his sights outside of practice, too.

“I’ve just been going with him everywhere he goes,” Donskoi said with a laugh. “His English is probably not the best yet, so I’m just trying to help him as much as I can.” 

Everywhere, one imagines, will surely include a trip to buy a cell phone.

Doug Wilson's job is safe despite Sharks' disappointing season, owner says

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AP

Doug Wilson's job is safe despite Sharks' disappointing season, owner says

This season hasn't gone as the Sharks had planned.

After starting out 15-16-2, the Sharks elected to fire head coach Peter DeBoer, much to the shock of players and staff. They promoted Bob Boughner to interim head coach. While the change appeared to initially spark the Sharks, their play has since tapered off since as they enter the All-Star break at 21-25-4 after three straight blowout losses.

With the losses mounting, some have wondered if general manager Doug Wilson's job could be in jeopardy. That is not the case. 

"While we are all very disappointed in the team's performance thus far this season, Doug has a long history of leading our team to success," majority owner Hasso Plattner said in a statement Thursday while announcing changes to the Sharks' business operations. "The last time we failed to meet our winning standards in the 2014-15 season, we were able to quickly rebound and re-establish a winning culture for the next several years. I am supportive of Doug's plan to get our team back on track."

The Sharks have to exit the All-Star break on fire if they want to make a run at a postseason berth. If they limp out of the gate, it will be time for them to focus on the future and how to quickly rebuild the team for a playoff return next season.

[RELATED: Key storylines to focus on during remainder of Sharks season]

Whatever happens, the ship still is Wilson's to guide.

Sharks storylines, developments to watch through remainder of season

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AP

Sharks storylines, developments to watch through remainder of season

Heading into the All-Star break last season, the St. Louis Blues were a .500 team (22-22-5). In the 33 regular-season games that followed, they caught fire and carried that momentum to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

This season, the Sharks enter the All-Star break four games below .500 with 32 games left to claw their way back into playoff positioning and hopefully do the same. As the Blues proved, it's not out of the realm of possibility, but if we're being realistic, it remains a longshot.

Whether the Sharks qualify for the postseason for the 20th time in the last 22 years or end up in dead last, there are a few potential developments to keep an eye on throughout the remainder of the season that will have an impact on the team both in the present and well into the future.

Even if the playoffs are out of the question, these three storylines will be front and center for San Jose:

Trade candidates

For the Sharks to have any shot of making it back to the postseason, they'll need to emerge from the All-Star break the same way the Blues did: by putting together a lengthy winning streak. St. Louis won 10 in a row coming out of the break last season, and San Jose might require something similar. But if the Sharks don't catch fire coming out of the break, it will be time to face facts before long.

If and when the playoffs become obviously out of reach, it will be time for general manager Doug Wilson to make some magic happen. The season can't be a complete loss, and he'll surely work the phones in an effort to expedite a partial rebuild. Considering the Sharks don't have their first-round draft pick as a result of signing Erik Karlsson to a contract extension, they need to recoup assets wherever they can get them.

Defenseman Brenden Dillon is the obvious name to keep an eye on, and the most likely San Jose player to be traded for two reasons. First, his physical style comes in higher demand the closer you get to the postseason. Second, he actually would bring back a decent-sized haul. Other players like Melker Karlsson certainly could be had, but the question will be if it is worth San Jose's while to do so, since he won't bring back anywhere near as large of a return as Dillon would.

As soon as it becomes obvious the current season is headed nowhere, the Sharks need to shift their focus to the future.

Boughner's audition

It hasn't been the easiest season to be an NHL head coach. Seven bench bosses already have been fired, including former Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer. 

DeBoer, of course, has since been re-hired by the rival Vegas Golden Knights. His former top assistant, Bob Boughner, was promoted to Sharks interim head coach upon DeBoer's dismissal from San Jose. And, frankly, the coaching change appeared to provide the Sharks with the jolt they needed -- initially, at least -- as the team was far more competitive following the switch.

But three blowout losses leading into the All-Star break have sapped all of that momentum out of the Sharks, and Boughner hasn't shied away from calling out his players for unsatisfactory performances in those contests. While he definitely has the respect of the locker room, if San Jose continues its lackluster play coming out of the break, it might lead to questions as to whether or not Boughner is the right fit for the organization moving forward.

The other side of the lots-of-coaches-have-been-fired coin is that many of those established coaches now are unemployed -- but are unlikely to be for long. Most, if not all, will be hired to fill head coaching vacancies in the offseason, and Wilson wouldn't be doing his due diligence if he didn't consider all potential options. A strong finish for the Sharks this season likely would be a boon to Boughner's chances of having the interim tag removed from his title. But if it goes the other way, San Jose might have to make its second coaching change in a span of six months.

[RELATED: What has gone right for Sharks in disappointing season]

Balancing act

At what point does the current season become about the future? That might be the most important question facing the Sharks throughout the remainder of the 2019-20 campaign. They've dug themselves a considerable hole, and while they still can dig themselves out of it, they need to be prudent in how they go about determining which players to give opportunities to.

The Sharks' ideal scenario, obviously, is making it back to the playoffs. But if San Jose encounters any sort of extended losing streak, that should probably signal Boughner and Wilson that it's time to see what the Sharks have in their system. Instead of giving ice time to known quantities, San Jose would be better off finding out which of its prospects are the real deal, and which aren't.

Maxim Letunov, Joachim Blichfeld, Alexander True, Jayden Halbgewachs, Noah Gregor, Sasha Chmelevski, Dylan Gambrell, Lean Bergmann and Danil Yurtaikin are all 23 years old or younger. Some of them already have made their NHL debuts, while others still are awaiting their opportunity. If and when the decision is made to focus on the future, the Sharks should throw as many of their fringe prospects against the wall as they're comfortable with, and see who sticks.

If San Jose does enter a rebuilding phase, chances are you'll be seeing plenty of those guys moving forward.