Here’s a prediction.
When the Sharks hold their media day in about two weeks on Sep. 15, also the first on-ice day of training camp, general manager Doug Wilson and head coach Pete DeBoer will both proclaim that the team is still in win-now mode and considers itself a Stanley Cup contender. There isn’t any rebuilding here, or, to borrow commonly used phrase by Wilson, a “reset/refresh” for a team that reached the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.
And that’s what makes this offseason so perplexing.
The Sharks lost a major offensive piece in Patrick Marleau, and to this point have made no notable trades or free agent acquisitions to try and bolster their roster, which continues to get older and seems to have some holes up front. Sure, they have a strong defense core led by Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and goalie Martin Jones is about as steady as they come, but they lack weapons at forward.
An offense that finished 10th out of 14 in the Western Conference in goals-per game has, on paper, only gotten worse since the team’s first round playoff exit in April.
We wrote here back in early July, after Marleau had signed with Toronto, that Wilson had made all the right moves to that point. Signing Vlasic and Jones to long-term extensions was a home run. Getting Joe Thornton to commit for another year was vital. Letting Marleau walk, rather than extending him a third year, was also the correct decision.
But after that, Wilson seems to have lost his phone in the sofa cushions. There was no big splash in free agency (the free agent market wasn’t overly stocked, but there were some players that might have helped). A big trade, perhaps one in which the Sharks could have surrendered some of their defensive depth for a scoring forward, never materialized.
One high-ranking member of another team recently told me that he “kept waiting for the other shoe to drop” when it came to the Sharks’ roster. That makes two of us.
To be fair, there is still time between now and the season opener against Philadelphia on Oct. 4. There’s even more time until the 2018 trade deadline, when contending teams frequently attempt to put the finishing touches on their roster in the hopes of a long playoff run. It’s easy to forget this time of year just how long the NHL season really is.
And what the Sharks do have is salary cap flexibility, something that they rarely enjoy. Barring any major moves before opening night, the team should have approximately $6.5 - $7 million in cap space. That could come in handy if they get off to a poor start and need to shake things up, or are seeking assets for a playoff push.
The message when camp begins, though, will be simple – the Sharks are counting on their younger players to step up and score goals. That includes Timo Meier, who I recently tabbed as the team’s biggest X-factor this season, and has a higher ceiling than any forward currently in the organization. Others like Kevin Labanc, Marcus Sorensen, Barclay Goodrow and Danny O'Regan will get a chance to impress in camp, too.
But the underperforming Sharks from a season ago will also have to be better. Mikkel Boedker, Joonas Donskoi and Tomas Hertl, in particular, were supposed to be the younger, improving players that gave the Sharks a deeper offensive attack than the season before. None of them met expectations in 2016-17 – in fact, they all regressed. Boedker and Donskoi were each healthy scratched for games in the first round against Edmonton, capping off poor campaigns for each, while Hertl dealt with yet another knee surgery.
It’s clear that the Sharks are banking on those players rebounding, with some added jam from the prospects. If they get both, they could still be a contending team.
That’s quite a risk, though, and don’t be surprised if you see some preseason prognosticators leaving the Sharks out of the playoffs – like this recent offering from The Hockey News – as the Sharks compete in what should be a very difficult Pacific Division.