Sharks

Recapping the past few weeks of the Sharks offseason

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AP

Recapping the past few weeks of the Sharks offseason

Hockey fans in the Bay Area know by now that Joe Thornton is returning to the San Jose Sharks and Patrick Marleau is not. That was the headline news coming out of free agency shortly after the calendar flipped to July.

Of course, the dog days of the NHL offseason kick in after that, without much news between 4th of July weekend and the start of training camp in September. General managers, front office staffs and, most importantly, hockey writers all squeeze in some significant vacation time during that period.

Still, there are always items of interest that pop up from time to time, so let’s briefly recap the notable announcements the Sharks have made over that span and what they mean.

July 3: Sharks name Rob Zettler assistant coach

What it means: The Sharks were in need of a replacement for Bob Boughner, who left Pete DeBoer’s staff to join the Florida Panthers as their new head coach. Zettler, a former Sharks defenseman as well as an assistant coach under Ron Wilson, will oversee the defense and penalty kill, as Boughner did.

Zettler, of course, will work with Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns. Burns and Boughner had a special relationship, and Boughner told me at the NHL draft in Chicago how thrilled he was for Burns taking home the award as the league's top defenseman. Coaching Burns can be no easy task at times, so Zettler will likely have his hands full right away.

July 4: Sharks sign Brandon Bollig

What it means: From the NHL team’s perspective, probably not much, as Bollig is not expected to make the Sharks roster. Instead, he’ll bring some muscle to the AHL Barracuda. 

Still, don’t be shocked if he makes a handful of appearances in the big club’s lineup. Now that Michael Haley has moved on to Florida, Bollig could be an asset in a physical or nasty regular season matchup against a division rival like Los Angeles, Anaheim or Edmonton.

July 13: Sharks re-sign Chris Tierney to one-year deal

What it means: It was odd that the Sharks, according to a source, didn’t want to negotiate with Tierney after qualifying him as a free agent. The former second round pick got just a modest raise, and will be a restricted free agent again next summer.

The message, therefore, is clear: Tierney had better come to camp in tip-top shape, and ready to prove that he is deserving of a bigger role and a multi-year contract. If he struggles from the outset, he could end up getting pushed out of the lineup by someone like Ryan Carpenter.

July 18: Sharks re-sign Marcus Sorensen to two-year deal

What it means: Sorensen is in a great position to make the opening night roster, and should have some confidence from the way he performed in the first round against Edmonton. Training camp will dictate whether that happens, but I would surmise at this point he’s penciled into the opening night lineup. 

Is Sorensen ready to take the next step, or will be go backwards like Joonas Donskoi did last season?

July 19: Sharks to host prospect showcase

What it means: For the die-hards and us beat reporters, this sounds like a pretty cool event. The Sharks will host a three-team round robin tournament with prospects from the Avalanche, Coyotes and Ducks from Sept. 9-12, at Solar4America Ice at San Jose (a.k.a. Sharks Ice).

Yes, that means we’re exactly one month away from hockey. Rosters and information on how to attend will be announced closer to the event.

July 26: Sharks name Dave Barr assistant coach

What it means: This announcement was a bit of a surprise, as the Sharks brought in another body to serve on their coaching staff in the 56-year-old Barr. A former assistant with DeBoer in New Jersey, Barr will serve as the “eye-in-the-sky” for the club. Previously it was Johan Hedberg who did that, so I imagine Hedberg will now move behind the bench.

Barr, who has spent the last nine seasons coaching in the NHL with New Jersey, Buffalo, Minnesota, Colorado and most recently Florida, could also bring a different perspective to the power play. The Sharks finished 25th in the league on the power play last season, a number they will surely have to improve this season.

August 7 – Sharks re-sign Barclay Goodrow to two-year deal

What it means: Goodrow is a nice piece to keep in the system, as he’s a big body that has some skill. Whether his game can translate to the NHL full-time remains to be seen, but Goodrow nearly made the team out of camp last season before having a strong year with the Barracuda. 

Although he’s probably behind guys like Sorensen, Carpenter and Timo Meier on the depth chart, Goodrow will be a player to watch in training camp. He could push for a spot on the fourth line.

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.