San Jose Barracuda

Why Radim Simek's return can help spark Sharks' defensive turnaround

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USATSI

Why Radim Simek's return can help spark Sharks' defensive turnaround

SAN JOSE -- Right now, the Sharks need any kind of help they can get. Defenseman Radim Simek's return is a step in that direction.

Simek practiced with the Sharks on Monday, shortly after San Jose announced the end of his conditioning assignment with the Barracuda in the AHL. Coach Peter DeBoer said Simek could play Tuesday against the Chicago Blackhawks, and Simek almost certainly will play at some point on San Jose's current homestand.

One player won't change the entire complexion of the Sharks overnight, as we already saw this season when Patrick Marleau returned to San Jose. With the right kinds of corresponding alterations, however, Simek's return to the Sharks' lineup could be a key part of turning their season around.

That's not to understate Simek's importance. The Sharks did, after all, go 29-9-3 last season with the Czech blueliner in their lineup. Plus, it's encouraging that Simek made an immediate impact in his conditioning stint, setting up two goals and posting a plus-2 in a pair of AHL games.

Keep in mind, it still might take Simek a while to reacclimate to the NHL's speed. Heck, he could still feel some residual pain coming back from tearing ligaments in his left knee in March. 

But Simek's return gives the Sharks the means to rearrange some things on their blue line, and a possible spark they are in desperate need of.

Of course, the next question is where Simek will play. The Sharks tried a few different defensive pairings Monday, so it isn't set in stone that Simek will play on Brent Burns' left side again -- although it does look plausible.

This also means that someone currently playing is going to get scratched. DeBoer pretty consistently rolls out lefty-righty defensive pairs, there is a possibility that he plays four left-handed defensemen when Simek returns. Rookie lefty Mario Ferraro has been one of the Sharks' few bright spots, while right-handed defenseman Tim Heed played fewer than 10 minutes in six out of 11 games so far this season, including a season-low 3:21 on Oct. 24 against the Montreal Canadiens.

[RELATED: Sharks need to find swagger, now must 'look in the mirror]

However Simek is integrated back into the blue line, the Sharks need to play the way they did Friday night against the Winnipeg Jets. San Jose allowed a late game-winning goal, but smothered Winnipeg defensively and only allowed 19 shots on goal. The Sharks had hoped to play a similar style the following night, only to allow five goals to the Vancouver Canucks.

With four more games left on the current homestand, the Sharks need to rediscover their defensive prowess if they're going to start winning games again. While there's no guarantee it will be enough, Simek's return should help.  

What Radim Simek beginning conditioning stint in AHL means for Sharks

What Radim Simek beginning conditioning stint in AHL means for Sharks

Sharks fans no doubt are waiting with bated breath as Radim Simek gets his AHL conditioning stint underway en route to playing for a healthy game for San Jose.

Now, the Czech defenseman probably isn't hopping back on NHL ice after just one game with the Barracuda. But at the very least, Simek appears to be on the right track -- and for a Sharks team in need of a boost after a rocky start to their season, that is a very good thing. 

Simek registered a plus-one in the Barracuda's 5-0 rout of the Bakersfield Condors on Wednesday, and set up a third-period goal by Lean Bergmann in his first contest since getting injured last March. For a skater who hasn't played in a game for almost a year, the ability to shake off the rust and get on the scoresheet in a positive way obviously is a good sign.

"To be honest, he really didn't look like he missed a beat," Barracuda coach Roy Sommer told the media after Wednesday's game. "I don't think we're going to have him for long."

Of course, as encouraging as that endorsement is, how Simek's surgically-repaired knee responds to playing again is going to be a big factor. Simek said his knee still had to be checked out following the game but noted it felt good for the duration.

"I felt great tonight," Simek said to the media. "I wasn't nervous, but it was eight months without hockey. Maybe I was nervous a little bit. The first period was hard for me. But the second and third period was better."

Not only was Simek's physical play up to snuff, but his hockey smarts seem to be as sharp as ever.

"You can tell he's above all of our other guys in moving pucks and making decisions," Sommer said. "He makes his partner look good."

The next step for the 27-year-old blueliner is having that positive impact on his defensive partner on the NHL stage.

The 2019 Sharks' "Rookie of the Year" honoree made a huge impact when he was recalled from the Barracuda last season, cementing himself in the Sharks defense by being the perfect anchor for Brent Burns. San Jose then went 29-9-3 with Simek in the lineup until losing him to the ACL/MCL injury.

Needless to say, that's the kind of record the Sharks could use right now, as they sit just one point ahead of the cellar-dwelling LA Kings in the Pacific Division. They also are giving up the second-most goals in the league -- LA is giving up the most -- through the first 13 games of the season. Clearly, any shakeup to their defense will be a big boost.

How the Sharks' blue line will look after Simek returns is a bit of a mystery.

It would make sense to pencil him back in on Burns' left side since the two played together so successfully last season. Assuming the Brenden Dillon-Erik Karlsson pair doesn't get broken up, that would potentially put lefty Marc-Edouard Vlasic with Tim Heed and make rookie Mario Ferraro the odd man out -- except that Ferraro has successfully taken on a big workload in his first stint in the NHL and Heed has been glued to San Jose's bench for the better part the last few games. 

[RELATED: Sharks in dire need of turnaround]

Long story short: How San Jose's defense will look when Simek returns will have to remain a mystery for now.

At the very least, though, he's closer to making a comeback. 

Sharks prospect Noah Gregor has family connection to organization

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AP

Sharks prospect Noah Gregor has family connection to organization

SAN JOSE -- To Sharks fans, Noah Gregor might just look like another new player in a teal sweater.

But the 21-year-old rookie forward has a much closer connection to the organization than most would realize.

Sharks director of media relations Ben Guerrero revealed on Twitter on Saturday that Noah's father, Colin, once played for San Jose Barracuda coach Roy Sommer. 

Gregor did, too, at least before his Saturday call-up to the NHL. The 21-year-old has scored three points (goal, two assists) in three AHL games this season.

The Beaumont, Alberta native expects his parents to be in attendance in San Jose on Saturday evening when he is set to make his NHL debut against the Eastern Conference-leading Buffalo Sabres. 

"They're probably on a flight right now," Gregor said Saturday morning.

Gregor's family involvement in hockey doesn't stop there. His uncle is TSN 1260 (Edmonton) radio host Jason Gregor, who excitedly posted about Noah's impending NHL debut on Twitter.

Gregor's strong start to his AHL career came following a close call at training camp. Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said Saturday morning that Gregor could've made the big club out of camp, but "handled it the right way" when he got reassigned before the start of the season. 

"We try to do this on merit," DeBoer said of Gregor and the Sharks' rookies who have made their NHL debuts this season. "He was a guy who was close to staying at the beginning."

[RELATED: Marleau reflects on Sharks return in ride to SAP Center]

Although he's listed as a center, Gregor is expected to file onto the Sharks' fourth line Saturday night, skating on Dylan Gambrell's wing opposite Melker Karlsson. Gregor hasn't played very much with every player, but he seemed confident he could step into this role, even if some first-game jitters follow. 

"I'm sure there will be some nerves before the game starts," Gregor admitted. "But I'm sure once I get that first shift out of the way, I'll be fine."