SAN JOSE –- The message is a subtle one, but it couldn’t be clearer.
Despite 55 players still on the training camp roster, there are just five defenseman occupying stalls in the main, newly renovated NHL dressing room at Sharks Ice. Along the far wall, the nameplates of Paul Martin, Brenden Dillon, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun appear over each individual space, with their gear hanging below.
Next to Braun, though, there is an unoccupied locker with no nameplate. Eventually, that will be filled by whoever plays well enough in camp to lock down that final active place among the Sharks’ defense corps.
The competition is on.
“Absolutely. There’s a real good group of candidates,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “The five guys that are in here are obviously guys that we know are going to be here. Same with the forward group, there are some jobs that are available there for the guys that want to step up and grab them.”
The three top candidates are 20-year-old Mirco Mueller, who completed an up-and-down rookie year last season; Matt Tennyson, 25, who has 31 games of NHL experience but has yet to lock down a full-time spot; and Dylan DeMelo, 22, a former sixth round pick in 2011 that was recalled from Worcester last season but has yet to make his NHL debut.
At first glance, DeMelo seemingly has the inside track for the job, as he’s been paired with Dillon for the first two practices. DeBoer said not to jump to any conclusions over that, but admitted that DeMelo is among a group that is being closely monitored.
“He’s obviously one of the guys challenging for that spot,” DeBoer said. “We’ve got Tennyson and Mueller, and there’s a handful of other guys there too that are knocking on the door, so I wouldn’t read anything into the pairings.”
DeMelo said: “It’s a great opportunity for me and every day I’m just trying to show the coaching staff what I can do. It’s a clean slate for a lot of guys, and Pete’s made that very clear from the beginning. He says it’s a ‘show me’ camp.”
Whoever does make the final cut, chances are it will be with Dillon as a partner. The Sharks will need Vlasic and Braun to have a rebound year as the team’s top shutdown pair, while Martin was brought in specifically to skate with Burns.
Dillon has experience playing either side, although as a lefty, it would be preferable to have him skating with a right-handed shot. DeMelo and Tennyson qualify, while Mueller is left-handed.
Dillon’s early review on the Dillon-Dylan defense pair was positive.
“He’s a smart player, passes the puck well, moves it well, skates well. So far, I think we’ve been fairly comfortable with each other,” Dillon said. “If that’s the case going forward, I’m really happy with that. There’s five spots [filled] here, and whoever fits into that sixth spot we’ll be happy to have him.”
Mueller, who wasn’t eligible to play in the AHL last season, could very well find himself on the Barracuda roster come early October. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the young former first round pick would certainly benefit from playing 20 minutes a night in all kinds of situations while honing his skills under coach Roy Sommer.
Mueller, who said he now checks in at 207 pounds after he was listed at 195 last season, was asked if he would be disappointed not to make the Sharks’ opening night roster.
“Obviously it would be disappointing, but at the same time it wouldn’t be the end of the world,” he said. “I’m obviously going to do my best every day on the ice and off the ice to make the team again.”
Whoever makes the final cut, he’ll have to help improve the Sharks’ overall team defense after the club finished 24th in the NHL with a 2.76 goals-against average last season.
“We want to be harder to play against as a team,” Dillon said.