SAN JOSE – It was late February when Sharks center Joe Thornton was asked if he had ever been on a Sharks team that had the ability to roll four lines and six defenseman as effectively as the 2015-16 version.
“No. It’s real impressive,” Thornton said that night after a 6-2 spanking of Montreal. “Any night it can be another line doing the damage … We’ve got a real deep team, and it’s an exciting team to watch right now.”
A trip to the Stanley Cup Final three months later validated that assessment from the future Hall of Famer, who has been with the club for 11 seasons. Now, though, the Sharks may be even deeper than before in what has been an under-the-radar yet strong offseason for the club.
It starts with swift left wing Mikkel Boedker, who will be entering what should be the prime years of his career at 26 years old, and who posted 51 points in 80 games with Arizona and Colorado last season. The four-year, $16 million deal is a team-friendly one, too.
In the subsequent conference call announcing that move on July 1, Sharks coach Pete DeBoer overtly suggested that Boedker has never had a chance to play with the kind of centermen he’ll skate with in San Jose. He spent most of his 62 games in Arizona last season, for example, with Antoine Vermette – a nice player, but not the caliber of a Thornton or Logan Couture.
You can count on Boedker starting the season in the Sharks’ top six, most likely on the left side of the Couture line. It’s an instant and significant upgrade over the streaky Patrick Marleau, Tommy Wingels, Matt Nieto or Melker Karlsson, all of whom saw time in the spot that Boedker is expected to take.
DeBoer will have plenty of options to fill out his forward group from there, too. He could try Tomas Hertl at center again on the third line, and if Hertl is ready for it – he did some nice things there last season, but wasn’t producing enough offense – the Sharks could have a three-line attack like no other in the Western Conference.
Timo Meier could be ready to make the leap to the NHL, perhaps on the Thornton line, where Hertl thrived as a rookie three years ago. Meier is a big body that plays a physical game, has great hands, and can get to the front of the net, all attributes that the Sharks are probably seeking to fill that slot if it’s open.
That would leave Marleau – who isn’t a fit for the Thornton line – on the third line. He may or may not be happy about that, but Marleau is in a contract year as a pending unrestricted free agent with an uncertain future in San Jose (at best). Some of his best seasons have come when he’s playing for his next deal, and at 37 years old, he’ll have to earn it after two seasons in which he's declined.
On defense, free agent addition David Schlemko (four years, $8.4 million) also gives DeBoer more versatility. After the Sharks’ third pair of Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak had substantial problems dealing with the Penguins’ speed in the Stanley Cup Final, Schlemko brings more mobility than the since-departed Polak, and can play either side. He’ll probably start the season on the third pair with Dillon, but Dylan DeMelo showed he could play at the NHL level, too, and could push for a spot in the active lineup.
Perhaps a DeMelo-Schlemko pair could be utilized against some of the speedier Eastern Conference clubs, while Dillon slots in for the heavier games, like those in the Pacific Division. Regardless, the Sharks are a faster club now, top to bottom, than they were when the Penguins outclassed them.
“I think it was an important for our group to add some speed,” DeBoer said on July 1. “Both these guys – [Boedker] is a world-class skater, and Schlemko is an above-average skating defenseman. That was a key element for both guys.”
General manager Doug Wilson has said numerous times, too, that some of the team’s younger players will be pushing for jobs come training camp. Former first round pick Nikolay Goldobin improved throughout his first year in the AHL, while Barclay Goodrow and Mirco Mueller got some needed minor league experience, too. Marcus Sorensen is another free agent addition that impressed during the team’s development camp earlier this month, and could be this year’s version of Joonas Donskoi.
Guys like Wingels, Nieto and Karlsson - and maybe even Marleau - will have to fight to keep their spots in the lineup, assuming they are all still here in September.
For any NHL organization, that extra depth and internal competition is always welcomed.
“It’s a nice problem to have, and we’ll find a way to deal with it,” DeBoer said.