Aug. 18, 2011SHARKS PAGE SHARKS VIDEOKevin Kurz
Dont look now, but training camp is less than a month away.
While thats not reason enough to drop your margarita just yet, its still a good time to get energized for the impending return of hockey. Its been a whirlwind offseason in the NHL, and that includes some major roster moves by the Sharks.
After a second consecutive spring of coming oh-so-close to the Stanley Cup Final, Doug Wilson decided to build a bigger, tougher and deeper defense at the expense of losing some of his most dangerous scorers.
By now, you know the names. In are Brent Burns, Martin Havlat, Michal Handzus and Colin White. Gone are Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Ian White and Jamal Mayers. Some younger forwards will be counted on to fill the roles of some of the departed skill players, while the defense corps looks as good as any in the clubs 20-year history.
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And, contrary to this time last year, there is an undisputed No. 1 goaltender in Antti Niemi, who split time at the start of the 2010-11 season with Antero Niittymaki before making the goal crease his private property.
Here are some questions to ponder -- in no particular order -- as the march towards opening night gets set to begin.
What will the top two scoring lines look like?
The issue of line combinations tends to be overblown at the start of the season, since they are rarely the same for 82 games, but training camp is a great time to mix and match to see who has chemistry and who doesnt. This is especially so for the Sharks, who will have to do some shuffling to replace Heatleys 64 points and Setoguchis 41.
Its a near certainty that Joe Pavelski will make the jump from his regular place on the third line to one of the top two. Havlats speed could be an asset on the Thornton line, while Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe will probably start out skating together after such great success last season. That leaves Pavelski and Patrick Marleau to round out the top six. Look for head coach Todd McLellan to interchange those six players during camp until he sees something he likes.
Who will be the top-six defensemen?
With the addition of Burns, White and Jim Vandermeer, the Sharks all of a sudden have a surfeit of quality, experienced NHL blueliners.
Obviously, Burns and Dan Boyle are 1 and 1A in terms of who will get the most ice time. Look for them to be split up during five-on-five play as well as the power play, as both of them are right-handed shots and have a knack for creating goals in all situations.
With Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Douglas Murray rounding out the top four, the question becomes, who is your third pair? White and Vandermeer have the experience, but Jason Demers and Justin Braun are the improving youngsters who wont get any better watching from the press box.
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Its a good problem to have, as unexpected injuries are going to occur, so all of them are probably going to have to contribute at one point or another.
Which young forwards need to take the next step?
The biggest weakness heading into camp is that the Sharks third and fourth lines look thin.
Even with the steady, defensively-efficient Handzus joining the fray from Los Angeles, the Sharks will be hard-pressed to generate as much offense from their bottom two lines as they have in the past. That is, unless one (or a few) of their younger players reach the next level.
Torrey Mitchell could be one of those guys. At 26 years old, Mitchell is at the point in his career where he needs to produce or risk losing his place in an NHL lineup. Hes shown flashes of scoring ability, but has been hampered by injuries over the past few years that may have affected his explosiveness. Theres even an outside chance he could get a look on one of the top two lines, if McLellan is trying to balance out his attack.
Jamie McGinn and Benn Ferriero will also be given hard looks in camp, as will newcomers James Sheppard and Andrew Murray -- and all of them will be looking to secure a roster spot.
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That being said
Will the Sharks add another forward before camp starts?
One benefit of the numerous moves the club made this summer is that the Sharks have some space under the salary cap. To be a little more specific, they have more than 3.2 million in room, and that could increase if they send a player or two to Worcester.
Kyle Wellwood is remains an unrestricted free agent and could return, although you would think Wilson would have gotten it done by now if he really wanted to.
What effect will Burns have on the team?
First and foremost, Burns presence on the Sharks' blue line should lessen the burden on Boyle. Boyle, who turned 35 this summer, finished second in the NHL in ice time-per-game (26:14) behind only Chicagos Duncan Keith. Burns was 12th (25:02).
More than that, Burns and Boyle are both among the NHLs best power play point men, and each has an ability to distribute and shoot the puck. Essentially, Burns should make an already potent power play even better.
His biggest impact, though, could be on the penalty kill. Its an area that the Sharks struggled with last year, and Burns will help. He ranked tied for fifth among NHL defensemen last season in ice time -per-game while shorthanded, and his long reach and physical presence were big reasons for that.
Is the Pacific Division a two-team race?
You could make the argument that both the Dallas Stars (Brad Richards) and Phoenix Coyotes (Ilya Bryzgalov) lost their best players this summer. Meanwhile, Anaheim is still hoping that Teemu Selanne decides to return (hell announce his decision by September), and goaltender Jonas Hillers vertigo cost him most of the second half of last season and the playoffs.
That leaves the Sharks and Los Angeles Kings as the only apparent surefire playoff teams in the Pacific Division. The Kings added sparkplug center Mike Richards, the former captain of the Philadelphia Flyers, in what may have been the biggest blockbuster trade of the summer. They also smartly signed Richards former teammate Simon Gagne, who is still capable of scoring 30 goals if healthy.
Assuming they get Drew Doughty locked up (he was still a restricted free agent at press time), the Kings appear poised to make a run at the division title -- and maybe more. Even though the Kings and Sharks dont face each other in the preseason, its worth keeping a keen eye on the rivals to the south.
Kevin Kurz covered the Philadelphia Flyers for seven seasons for the official team website as the managing editor and new media manager for philadelphiaflyers.com. He is currently a digital content producer for Comcast SportsNet.