SAN JOSE – The offseason is a time for NHL players to unwind and forget about hockey for a little bit. For the Sharks, as successful as their 2015-16 season was, it ended on a sour note in a six-game Stanley Cup Final defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins. After nine straight months of hockey, downtime was necessary.
Joel Ward headed back to his hometown of Toronto for the summer, which isn’t exactly the best place to not think about hockey. But not even Ward could have been prepared for what he saw one day while out for a stroll down one of Toronto’s busy thoroughfares.
“I was walking down the street with my girlfriend to go get a burger or something. I just happened to sneak a peek at a bar downtown and it was [Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley’s Stanley Cup party],” Ward said. “I had to go chug a beer when I got home.”
Ward and his teammates had a short summer, and are now aiming to finish the job with a championship. They are in prime position to do it, too, returning virtually their entire roster and upgrading both the forward and defense positions with offseason adds Mikkel Boedker and David Schlemko.
San Jose was exposed as being a bit too slow against the Penguins, and Boedker’s biggest asset is his speed. Schlemko is much more mobile than the departed Roman Polak on the back end, too.
Joe Thornton said: “Mikkel flies up and down the wing. He creates a lot of space. David in the back moves pucks real well and he skates real well. We’re going to have a little bit faster team this year, for sure.”
The message from management is clear – the Sharks are still going for it.
“We had an unbelievable year, but we’re not satisfied,” Logan Couture said. “We want to get back there and we want to win it. We believe in this room that we’re capable of doing that this year. Adding pieces like that only helps us.”
The Sharks will also be more used to their head coach from the outset, as Pete DeBoer enters his second season in charge. Last year under its new coaching staff, the team was inconsistent through Christmastime with an 18-18-2 record through its first 38 games. The Sharks only really took in the second half.
Paul Martin said: “It’s a lot easier when you know what to expect and the way [DeBoer] likes to run practices and what he expects out of you day in and day out.”
It’s an advantage for DeBoer, too.
“Compared to starting last year right from scratch, we’re starting almost where we left off last year and we can build on that. That’s nice,” DeBoer said on the first day of camp. “The tough part is you don’t get to start where you ended last year. You have to start right at the bottom of the mountain again and start climbing.”
Perhaps the biggest concern headed into the season is that the Sharks will again be counting on some aging players in important roles. Despite suggestions early in camp that there were some prospects primed to break through to the NHL full time, none of them ended up making the opening night roster. Former ninth overall pick Timo Meier could get to the Sharks at some point, but an illness has him sidelined for several more weeks.
Still, the Sharks have done an admirable job injecting some youth into their lineup. Boedker should be entering his prime at 26. Couture is still just 27, and played the best hockey of his life in last year’s playoffs. Joonas Donskoi, 24, came out of nowhere to establish himself as a top six forward last season, and both Tomas Hertl, 22, and Chris Tierney, 22, made major strides in their game last season.
Thornton, Ward, Martin and Patrick Marleau are all at least 35, and captain Joe Pavelski is 32, but general manager Doug Wilson is confident they can all continue to play at a high level while the youth surrounding them should continue to improve.
“We’ve got some older guys, certainly, but they play young. They love the game,” Wilson said. “I don’t think we’re an old team, I don’t think we’re a young team. I think we’ve got a group of players that are very experienced, and I think they respect each other.
“Like any hockey team that has success, you’re a sum of all your parts.”