Key storylines for Sharks


Key storylines for Sharks

SAN JOSE -- After two straight appearances in the Western Conference Final, logic would dictate that the Sharks needed only a few tweaks to their roster to secure a trip to the Stanley Cup Final -- and maybe a Cup itself -- in 2011-12.

Of course, as Sharks followers well know, thats not exactly how the NHL, or sports in general, works.

Still, the club looks great on paper. A bulked-up, more experienced and skilled defense -- along with some high-octane scorers and a proven goalie -- give the Sharks as good a chance as any club to go all the way.

Lets take a look at some early storylines as the Sharks get set to open their season on Saturday at home against Phoenix.

PREVIEW: Sharks open Saturday night vs. Phoenix

The new guys
The player who will command the attention of the most eyeballs among the new Sharks is defenseman Brent Burns -- and not just because hes 6-5, 230. Along with Dan Boyle, the Sharks now possess a 1-2 punch on defense that they sorely lacked last season, following Rob Blake's retirement. Burns presence should immediately help the penalty kill, he can put up points on offense, and can punish opposing forwards skating in his direction.

Martin Havlat will replace some of the speed the Sharks lost with the trade of Devin Setoguchi, and can break games open with his skill. Michal Handzus will center the third line and also contribute key minutes shorthanded, so guys like Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski can rest up when the team is down a man.

Also, dont discount the signings of Jim Vandermeer and Colin White. While there probably isnt room for both of them on opening night, having an experienced seventh defenseman is sure to come in handy at some point.

Backing up Niemi
The Sharks were dealt a pretty significant blow when they learned that Antero Niittymaki wouldnt be available for the first 12 weeks of the season. Even though Antti Niemi is the No. 1, Niittymaki is a veteran goalie who can win games. In his absence, backup duty falls to Thomas Greiss -- a familiar name here, but also a guy who spent last season playing in Sweden.

The Sharks had the cap room to go out and get an experienced backup, but chose to stick with Greiss, who will start on Saturday and probably play at least five or six games in the first couple months of the season. The Sharks are putting an emphasis on avoiding the slow start they suffered through last season, so Greiss is going to have to be good when hes in the net. Its far too early to rely solely on one goaltender, even when Niemi gets healthy.

Scouting the calendar
The Los Angeles Kings are a sexy pick to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. They made some major moves, and are solid at every position. Its a good bet that the Kings and Sharks are going to battle it out all season for the division title, as the Ducks, Coyotes and Stars arent expected to be serious contenders.

The rivals will face each other twice in November (Nov. 7 at home, Nov. 28 in L.A.), a couple more times later in the season, and then finish up with a home-and-home to end the regular season. Its not a stretch to say that those two games in April may decide who wins the Pacific.

In the spotlight
With Dany Heatley in Minnesota, Pavelski will get his chance on the Sharks top line with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Hell be on the wing, which is a bit of a change from his natural position at center, but should be able to at least equal his already more-than-respectable point total of 66 last season.

Lines are sure to change throughout the year, but keep an eye on Pavelski early on to see if he clicks with his highly skilled mates.

Avoiding the sophomore slump
Logan Couture seemingly came out of nowhere to establish himself as one of the Sharks top scoring threats last season (which should have ended with the Calder Trophy, but thats a story for another day). The difference this season is that the club will expect Couture to at least duplicate that output -- specifically his 32 goals. Thats a good bit of pressure on a 22-year-old, who's now slotted securely on the teams second line.

He should be able to do it, as Couture possesses a scoring touch that you cant teach. Still, hell want to avoid getting off to a slow start, otherwise he may fall victim to trying to do too much as some young players are wont to do.

Let us know in your comments below what youre going to be looking for when the puck drops, or what you think we may have missed.

Notes: DeMelo will play for Sharks soon; Couture battling illness

Notes: DeMelo will play for Sharks soon; Couture battling illness

SAN JOSE – Dylan DeMelo may finally be coming to a San Jose Sharks game near you.

The 23-year-old defenseman, who has yet to play in any of the first six games, will likely make his season debut shortly, coach Pete DeBoer indicated on Monday.

“That’s something we discuss every day,” DeBoer said. “We like him, we’re very comfortable with him. We’d have no problem putting him in. I know Bob [Boughner] has no problem playing him, and not worrying about playing him against anybody out there. It’s a nice luxury to have. 

“We can get to the point where it’s too many games where he’s sitting out. We’re getting close to that. We’re going to have to get him in soon here.”

DeMelo has not played for the Sharks since the final game of the 2015-16 regular season on April 9. He served as the seventh defenseman in the playoffs, but the Sharks dressed the same six blueliners throughout their run to the Stanley Cup Final.

In the preseason, DeMelo – who would have to clear waivers in order to be reassigned to the Barracuda – beat out Mirco Mueller for the seventh job on the Sharks. He signed a two-year contract extension in the offseason.

A former sixth round pick of the club in 2011, DeMelo had a breakthrough season in 2015-16, playing in 45 games and establishing himself as an NHL defenseman. He finished the season with two goals and two assists for four points and an even rating.

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While the Sharks shook up their forward lines at Monday’s skate, the top power play unit remained the same. Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are still together and will try to work out the kinks to their game.

The Sharks are 3-for-20 on the power play, with just one of those coming on a five-on-four.

“We’re not shooting the puck enough, that’s the big thing,” Couture said. “We’ve got to shoot the puck, get traffic. We always have a guy in front of the net and we’ve been getting away from that.”

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Couture has managed five points (2g, 3a) through the first six games, all while battling a persistent cold that he just can’t shake. It’s obvious he’s dealing with some sort of sinus issue when hearing him speak the past few days.

“It’s like a month, it won’t go away,” Couture said. “It’s crazy.”

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Breaking with standard practice, the Sharks opted to stay in Detroit the night after Saturday’s game, rather than immediately flying home on the team charter.

The Sharks were a miserable 1-8-1 in their first home game after a multiple-game road trip last regular season, with their lone win coming against Edmonton in a shootout, so DeBoer figured he would try something different this year.

“When we sat down in the summer and looked at areas to improve, our record coming back from road trips was not good last year,” he said. “We looked at opponents when we came back, our travel schedule. We’re just looking for answers to fix some of the areas that maybe we weren’t real good at last year.”

Sharks shuffle up their lines ahead of homestand

Sharks shuffle up their lines ahead of homestand

SAN JOSE – When the Sharks signed free agent forward Mikkel Boedker in the summer, head coach Pete DeBoer immediately pictured him on a line with Logan Couture and Joonas Donskoi, saying a couple weeks ago that it looked good when he wrote it down “on a napkin.”

DeBoer apparently went through a few more napkins on the flight home from Detroit on Sunday, a 3-0 shutout loss to the Red Wings on Saturday surely on his mind.

The Sharks resumed practice on Monday with four entirely new lines, including Boedker up with the Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski. Couture centered Donskoi and Joel Ward, while Tomas Hertl was in the middle of the third line with Patrick Marleau and Matt Nieto. Chris Tierney skated as fourth line center with the remaining wingers.

“It’s not a panic situation or anything, I think you’re always looking for ways to get the most out of your group,” DeBoer said. “Our four-line game hasn’t been where I want it to be.”

Getting more out of Boedker is apparently part of the motivation for shuffling things up, as the newcomer has just four shots on goal through six games, with one point (a goal against Columbus on Oct. 15).

Playing with Thornton and Pavelski could help in that regard, just as it helped players such as Hertl last season.

“He’s got to shoot the puck more…and he knows that,” DeBoer said of Boedker. “I’m not concerned about him, but the nice thing about playing with those two guys is they push you to go to the areas where you have to score. Hopefully that gets him going.”

Boedker said: “It’s two of the best [players] in the league, so it’s going to be a lot of fun. Just got to listen and do the things they expect me to do, and make sure that I do them to the highest level.”

The line changes spreads out the Sharks’ speed a little more evenly among their scoring lines. They looked slow in losses to Detroit and the Rangers, especially.

“[Boedker] can bring some things to that line that Tomas maybe doesn’t,” DeBoer said. “Tomas has a great skill set, but this guy can back people off with his speed.”

Hertl will skate at center for the first time since early last January, although he saw plenty of time there in training camp when Thornton and Couture were competing in the World Cup. Last season, he had 15 points (4g, 11a) in 37 games before moving to the Thornton line full time on Jan. 9, where he took off.

The 22-year-old has three points (2g, 1a) in six games this season as a left wing.

“I think Hertl can play anywhere,” DeBoer said. “His game is at that point in his career and he’s a good enough player now that not only can he play anywhere, but I think he can make other people better around him.”

While the line changes will give the Sharks a new look on paper, Couture believes the bigger issue with the team – going back to the third period of Thursday’s 3-2 loss in Pittsburgh – is its compete level. 

“It’s compete and battle and playing the right way that we need to worry about,” he said. “We didn’t play well in Detroit, there’s no way around that. … We just didn’t compete, [and] that’s a frustrating thing, but it’s an easy thing to fix.”

The head coach echoed Couture’s estimation.

DeBoer said: “We have to realize how desperate a team we were last year every night, and the teams that we’re playing are out to hunt us based on our success last year. If we don’t have that desperation level, it’s going to be tough to win.”

The Sharks open a three-game homestand on Tuesday against Anaheim, and host the Blue Jackets and Predators later this week.