New coaching staff. New goalie. Newly renovated practice facility. They’ll all be on display on Friday when the Sharks open training camp in preparation for their 24th NHL season.
Here are five storylines to monitor over the next three weeks, leading up to the opener on Oct. 7 in Los Angeles.
We’ll start with the obvious…
1 – What will the forward lines be?
The Sharks’ top two centers are set with Joe Thornton and Logan Couture. Considering that Joe Pavelski has become one of the NHL’s best goal scorers on Thornton’s right wing, it’s unlikely he’ll be moved from that spot.
The remaining top six will be determined from there. Melker Karlsson had success on the top line last year, but he’s far from a lock to stay there. Patrick Marleau will have to do more than he did last season to keep his place on Couture’s left wing. Perhaps Tomas Hertl will get a chance with Thornton again after a disappointing sophomore year. These are all possibilities, and Pete DeBoer will surely be mixing and matching for a little while.
As for the bottom six, Chris Tierney should have an edge for the third line center role after thriving in that position late last year. Ben Smith figures to be the fourth line center, and should have more skilled linemates.
Here’s my best guess as to how the Sharks line up on opening night against the Kings:
Tomas Hertl – Joe Thornton – Joe Pavelski
Patrick Marleau – Logan Couture – Joel Ward
Matt Nieto – Chris Tierney – Tommy Wingels
Melker Karlsson – Ben Smith – Raffi Torres
That right wing on the fourth line is no guarantee, of course. Which leads us to…
2 – Will Torres be able to play?
On Saturday before the first rookie game, DeBoer used the phrase “cautiously optimistic” -– twice -– when referring to Torres, who has been skating for the past few weeks. Everyone in the organization is hopeful that Torres can make it back, not just because of what he brings on the ice, but because of the nightmare he’s endured with his numerous right knee problems. It would be a great story.
Still, it’s impossible for anyone to know how Torres’ knee will react to real NHL competition and the grueling Western Conference schedule. This is still a 34-year-old player (on Oct. 8) that hasn’t been fully healthy since the 2013 playoffs.
The Sharks sorely missed the kind of physicality and energy that Torres brings on a nightly basis. If he (and to a lesser extent, Mike Brown) can stay healthy and contribute, it would be a huge boost.
3 – Who will lock down the sixth and seventh defenseman jobs?
The Sharks’ top two pairs on defense will almost certainly be Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, and Paul Martin with Brent Burns. Brenden Dillon’s job is secure, too, after his sizable offseason contract extension. That leaves one starting spot, and two overall.
Mirco Mueller may have a hold on the sixth spot to start camp, but it’s a precarious one. Mueller is still just 20 years old, and some time in the minor leagues would probably do him some good. The Sharks should err on the side of caution with the former first round pick -– something they haven’t done enough of lately with many of their top prospects.
After Mueller, Matt Tennyson and Dylan DeMelo are next up on the depth chart. Tennyson, 25, is on a one-way contract, so the Sharks front office would probably like to see him lock down a roster spot rather than be an expensive Barracuda. DeMelo is a bit younger at 22, but the Sharks are encouraged with his potential. A dark horse candidate is former Harvard defenseman Patrick McNally, 23, who was acquired at the NHL draft.
4 – Will Martin Jones emerge as the number one?
It’s doubtful that DeBoer will announce that Jones is his clear-cut number one goalie as camp begins, but make no mistake about it, the Sharks wouldn’t have traded an unprotected first-round pick and a solid prospect for a goalie that they see in a platoon role with Alex Stalock. Jones will have to be the guy who takes the crease and gets the majority of playing time -– and play well -– for that trade to be viewed as a success.
Doug Wilson’s future as general manager may depend on it.
5 – Will any young players lock down a roster spot, and who is in danger of getting pushed out?
For the first time since I’ve been here (somehow, I’m entering my fifth season covering this team) the Sharks appear to have a good stable of young prospects: Nikolay Goldobin, Timo Meier, Rourke Chartier, Jeremy Roy and Joonas Donskoi head that list.
Donskoi has already shown he looks primed to challenge for a roster spot. He was clearly the best player at Saturday’s rookie game vs. Anaheim, according to coach Roy Sommer and anyone else who was paying attention. At 23 years old, it was evident in talking to him after that game that he thinks he’s ready for the best league in the world. He may be right.
So whose spot could he take? Barclay Goodrow seems like the most likely candidate. The 22-year-old didn’t do much of note in his rookie year, and was only on the roster due to injuries and the organization’s dreadful depth. Goodrow should start the year with the Barracuda, and be made to earn his place on the NHL roster again.
Matt Nieto could also be on the bubble, especially if a guy like Goldobin shows he’s ready. The Sharks’ first rounder in 2014, Goldobin has put on some much needed weight and will be one to watch after he showed his offensive skill-set a year ago.