Three takeaways: Roster decisions loom for healthy, deep Sharks roster

Three takeaways: Roster decisions loom for healthy, deep Sharks roster

SAN JOSE – The Sharks continued to pad their Pacific Division lead with another win over a weak Vancouver club on Thursday night at SAP Center, 3-1. They have won all three games coming out of the bye week, setting up what should be an exciting tilt on Sunday in St. Paul against the conference-leading Wild.

In the meantime, here are our three takeaways from the victory against the Canucks…

1 – Defensive structure returns

Although they were still gaining points in the standings, the Sharks were giving up more goals than usual before the bye week. In one five-game stretch from Feb. 7-15, San Jose surrendered 20 goals (two of which were in overtime). In their last three games since getting some rest, though, the Sharks have given up just three goals in two wins over the Canucks and another against Toronto.

That was a focus before facing a speedy upstart Maple Leafs team on Tuesday, according to Joe Pavelski. They were successful that night, and it continued into Thursday.

“When we played Toronto the other night, that was one of the talks, was stay patient,” said the captain. “We’re going to have to defend, we’ll get our chances. They’re a team that can fly around, and if we defend, well we’ll be alright. [That] kind of led over into tonight, and [Aaron Dell] made some saves when he had to.”

The Sharks were on their heels early in the game, eventually giving up the first goal on the power play, but settled in after that and gave up just 18 shots.

“They've got a lot of pride over there and some great players still and a lot of young guys that are trying to prove themselves,” Pete DeBoer said. “We knew it would be a tough game. I thought we fought it a little bit in the first period, but got better as the game went on."

2 – Dell steady, as usual

It’s fair to wonder if Dell was a little more nervous than usual in his first start since becoming the official backup for the rest of the season. If he was, it didn’t show. In fact, seeing so few shots made it one of those games that are “harder ones to play,” he said.

We mentioned a few times yesterday, both in this space and on television, about how Dell’s workload is about to increase. Logan Couture spoke after the game about how the team is just fine with that likelihood.

They like Dell, and they like competing for him.

“I think all the guys are [excited for him],” Couture said. “When you’re a backup goalie you’re probably the hardest working guy on the team. You’re out there every morning, you don’t take the optional [skates] off, on the back-to-backs you’re there. You’re getting on the bus early in the morning on the road. Extra drills after practice. Every backup goalie that we have, you always pull for him and you want him to do well. 

“He’s an easy-going guy. He’s an easy guy to like, as well. We’re pulling for him, he’s played great for us all year.”

3 – Roster decisions loom

Jannik Hansen has yet to arrive, and may not even be available until the Sharks host the Capitals next Thursday, as he sorts out his immigration paperwork. Joonas Donskoi is also nearing a return from his upper body injury. Those two additions mean there are going to be some tough decisions for DeBoer on who to play and who to sit.

Marcus Sorensen is making his case to stick around, with his second straight impressive performance and his first career NHL goal. Perhaps Mikkel Boedker is feeling a little more heat, too, as he’s been much more effective since he was benched for the third period against Boston in the final game before the bye week. Boedker was strong again, scoring a goal and skating on what DeBoer indicated was the Sharks’ best line of the night.

As anyone on the coaching staff would tell you, being healthy and deep is a great problem to have this time of year.

After Erik Karlsson trade, Sharks in line for new defense pairings

After Erik Karlsson trade, Sharks in line for new defense pairings

SAN JOSE -- Since Peter DeBoer took over as Sharks head coach ahead of the 2015-16 season, defenseman Brenden Dillon’s played with plenty of partners. Seven defensive pairings have played 500 minutes of five-on-five hockey together in the regular season and playoffs during that stretch, according to Corsica Hockey, and Dillon’s played for four. 

He’ll likely join a fifth this season. Dillon’s most regular partner over the last three seasons, Dylan DeMelo, is now in Ottawa after being traded to the Senators in the massive deal that brought two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson to San Jose. 

Dillon, like the rest of the defensive corps, doesn’t know who he’ll skate with to start the season. But, he said his experience playing regularly alongside many different players will prove beneficial when he does.

“I think it’ll be to my advantage for sure,” Dillon said Friday at the Sharks practice facility. “I’m definitely excited. We don’t really know what the lineups are going to kind of shake out as exactly. I think even during the regular season in past years, too, you might start out with a certain guy and finish the game having played with all five guys. … There’s so many different variables.”

Dillon skated with defensive prospect Jeremy Roy on Friday. Marc-Edouard Vlasic paired with Karlsson for the third consecutive practice. Justin Braun, Vlasic’s regular partner to the tune of nearly 3800 regular-season and playoff minutes over the last three years, skated with Burns. 

At least in the Braun and Burns’ case, that was due to availability. Burns’ most common defensive partner last season, Joakim Ryan, played in Thursday night’s preseason game against the Anaheim Ducks, and thus skated in the second session. 

Still, it’s possible Braun plays regularly with someone other than Vlasic for the first time in years. The eight-year veteran last played with someone else for more than 500, five-on-five minutes during the 2013-14 season, when he logged just under 505 such minutes with now-retired defenseman Brad Stuart. 

Braun said there won’t be a big learning curve if he plays with someone other than Vlasic, since he’s played spot minutes with just about everyone else (other than Karlsson). He said he’d hope to play a couple preseason games with a new partner, but that practice may be an ideal time to learn their tendencies and develop chemistry. 

“You can learn anywhere,” Braun said. “There’s drills set up where there’s a lot of forechecking. You might chip [the puck], and he’s not there, and you kind of talk about it after. That might be the best place since they’re not scoring goals on you where it counts.”

It may be awhile before Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer provides a glimpse into his potential pairings. Karlsson will not play in Saturday’s preseason game against the Vegas Golden Knights at SAP Center, and the Sharks will not cut camp down to one group of up to 26 players (five forward lines, four defensive pairs, and three goaltenders) until Tuesday or Wednesday. 

After Saturday, San Jose will play three more preseason games before hosting Anaheim in the regular-season opener Oct. 3. Who Karlsson, and the rest of the defense, play with then is still yet to be determined, according to DeBoer. 

“We’ll see,” DeBoer said when asked if he envisioned Karlsson and Vlasic as a long-term possibility. “We’ve had a couple practices, but honestly I’ve got a bunch of different things rolling around in my head. The nice thing about getting [Karlsson] now is that it’s not a trade deadline where you’ve basically got six weeks to figure it out.”

DeBoer added that he hopes his pairings that open the season will stick together stick throughout the year, but knows that nature of a long season will require changes. As Braun and Dillon both noted, that can happen during the ebb and flow of an individual game, too.

No matter who plays with whom, Dillon said he’s confident any new-look pairings will be able to become comfortable. 

“I think that’s just going to come with time,” Dillon said. “But, for us as a group, I think we can all cover for each other if we’re struggling a bit. At the same time, I think when we’re all going well, it’s going to be a tough group to beat.”

While Erik Karlsson tries to fit in, Sharks just want him to be himself

While Erik Karlsson tries to fit in, Sharks just want him to be himself

SAN JOSE -- At his introductory press conference Wednesday afternoon, new Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson drew an interesting parallel when he was asked about trying to fit into a new team, after being the leading man for so long. 

The Swede mentioned playing for his national team at best-on-best tournaments; first at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, and then at the World Cup of Hockey two years later. 

“It was something that I always enjoyed,” Karlsson told reporters, “And I think that it challenged me to do things in a different way sometimes … I’m looking forward to that here as well.”

It’s not necessarily an outlandish comparison. The salary-capped Sharks aren’t as good as a Swedish national team that, if its latest World Cup iteration played in the NHL, would have been about $28 million over the current upper limit. But, Karlsson’s move from the 67-point Ottawa Senators to the 100-point Sharks in last week’s blockbuster trade represents a significant upgrade in the talent surrounding him.

The two-time Norris Trophy winner joins a defense corps featuring another Norris recipient (Brent Burns) and a shutdown defenseman with international pedigree of his own (Marc-Edouard Vlasic), on a team led by a Hart Trophy winner (Joe Thornton), the NHL’s sixth-leading scorer since 2013-14 (Joe Pavelski), and the fourth-best player by Corsica Hockey’s wins above replacement (WAR) model last season (Logan Couture). 

“We’re a good hockey team,” Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said. “We still have a lot of work ahead of us. There’s a lot of good teams in the West, but I think [the Karlsson trade] puts us in position to have the ingredients to go compete with all the top teams.” 

Karlsson, then, just might be the active ingredient for a franchise still looking for its first Stanley Cup. He has two Norris Trophies to his name, four first-team All-Star appearances, and more points than any other defenseman since he entered the league. He led the Senators to within a double-overtime goal of the Stanley Cup Final just over a year ago, and scored more points than all but five defenders in a “down” year last season. 

If anything, Karlsson may have undersold his role on the Swedish national team when making the comparison. 

At the Sochi Olympics, Karlsson tied for the tournament lead with eight points, winning a silver medal. The Swedes weren’t as successful at the World Cup two years ago, but Karlsson still tied for the team lead in scoring. He also led his team in ice time in three out of four games, edging out the likes of Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman and Arizona’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson. 

The former ultimately won the Norris Trophy last season, while the latter will have the third-highest salary cap hit ($8.25 million) of any defenseman next season, when his eight-year contract extension kicks in.

In other words? “He’s one of the best players on the planet,” according to Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer, and not just because of his offensive ability. 

“We can use him in every situation,” DeBoer said Wednesday of his newest defenseman, adding that Karlsson was one of “very few players in the world that you could use in the last minute of games when you’re up to shut down the other team’s best players, or use to create offense when you’re behind.”

Karlsson sounded very aware of the situation he’s joining in San Jose. He knows he’s coming to a team that’s “been together for a long time that has good chemistry,” and he said it’s on him to find a way to fit in by doing whatever is asked of him. 

DeBoer indicated he will simply ask the four-time, first-team All-Star to be himself. 

“I don’t think there’s any adjustment,” DeBoer said. “We play up-tempo. We play aggressive. We play the way he plays.

“He’s gonna fit right in.”