Sharks seek answers to training camp questions


Sharks seek answers to training camp questions


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 He is currently a digital content producer for Comcast SportsNet.

Future with Sharks still uncertain for Thornton, Marleau


Future with Sharks still uncertain for Thornton, Marleau

More than four weeks have passed since the Sharks were dispatched by the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau appear no closer to signing contract extensions than when the season ended. 

Sharks general manager Doug Wilson faces some of the toughest decisions of his 14-year tenure as the head of the hockey department in the coming weeks, beginning with the two best players in franchise history.

And, no, there are no back room handshake deals here between the Sharks and either of Thornton or Marleau, allowing the Sharks to protect extra players in the upcoming expansion draft. The two veterans are still pending unrestricted free agents in the truest sense, and it’s no certainty that either will return to San Jose.

* * *

Re-signing Thornton would seem to be more of a priority than re-signing Marleau, as centermen are more valuable than wingers. Thornton’s line, with Joe Pavelski and whoever the left wing happened to be, was still drawing the opposition’s top defense pair on many nights this season. Marleau was on that line at times, but was shuffled up and down throughout the year, spending about half the season on the third line.

Thornton apparently dodged disaster in terms of his left knee, as multiple sources have told NBC Sports California that the brunt of the damage was to his MCL, not his ACL. As long as he recovers fully, as expected, there’s reason to believe that Thornton could be better next season than he was in 2016-17. Last year’s Stanley Cup Final run, the World Cup, and the condensed schedule seemed to take their toll. Thornton, who typically downplays anything remotely negative, admitted more than once that this season in particular was a grind.

But perhaps just as important to the Sharks is what Thornton brings to the team emotionally. Pavelski may still be the captain – and an effective one, at that – but Thornton is still the heartbeat. Pete DeBoer made that clear after Game 2 of the first round against the Oilers, talking about what Thornton’s absence from the bench in those first two games meant to the team in terms of a bench presence.

“It’s old school accountability with Joe. It’s black and white,” DeBoer said. “He came up in an era and at a time and around people who you weren’t worried about hurting feelings. You said what needed to be said. That’s not always the case now in modern dressing rooms and with modern athletes. He’s a great resource for us, because there’s no greater pressure than peer pressure, especially from a Hall of Fame guy like that.”

So what might it take to retain Thornton and keep him from hitting the open market? 

It has been previously reported that Thornton wanted a three-year deal, and that remains the case. As for money, I would expect Thornton – who has taken hometown discounts in the past to stay in San Jose – to ask for at least $5 million per season, minimum. Our best guess here is that a Thornton-Sharks pre-July 1 agreement would probably look something like three years and somewhere between $15 – 17 million.

Whether the Sharks would be willing to make that kind of commitment to Thornton, who will be 38 in July, is unclear. If they are not, Thornton could listen to offers from other teams beginning on June 24, when the window opens for unrestricted free agents to speak with other teams.

Still, Thornton’s first choice is to remain in San Jose. The Sharks don’t have anyone that could replace him on or off the ice. There should be a deal to be made here, either sooner or later.

* * *

Marleau’s future with the Sharks seems much hazier.

Unlike Thornton – who put up with public ridicule from Wilson and had his captaincy stripped – Marleau’s commitment to the organization hasn’t been quite as steadfast. Recall in 2015, of course, when Marleau’s preference for a brief stretch was to leave the Sharks. We reported here in November, 2015 that he was willing to accept a trade to three teams, while ESPN reported that Marleau’s agent was “quietly exploring the market” as late as January, 2016.

While those feelings seem to have passed over time, Marleau hasn’t been as emphatic as Thornton in his desire to return. When asked on April 24 if he would like to come back to the Sharks, Marleau said: “Yeah, it would be nice. We’ll see if that’s an option. A lot of time here before this decision needs to be made.”

At this point, though, Marleau may be asking for a bit much in his next deal. It’s believed that the franchise’s all-time leading scorer is, like Thornton, seeking a contract of at least three years.

That shouldn’t be overly surprising. When asked then if he wanted a multi-year deal on April 24, Marleau said: “Yeah, I think so. … I still feel like I have at least five good years in me, or maybe more.”

As we wrote here in early February, it may not make much sense for the Sharks to commit to Marleau for more than one year for a number of reasons, including potential long-term (and surely expensive) contract extensions for Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, something Wilson has made his top priority this offseason. 

If Marleau is seeking a lengthy commitment from San Jose, I don’t see how that works from a business perspective for San Jose, which has a number of prospects in the system at wing that could potentially fill the hole Marleau would leave. Timo Meier and Marcus Sorensen, in particular, could be ready to take the next step, and both would be much cheaper options (Meier has two years left on his entry level deal, while Sorensen is a pending restricted free agent that won’t require a huge raise).

* * *

Further complicating matters is that Thornton has never been shy about wanting to win with Marleau by his side. The two famously announced their nearly identical three-year contract extensions on Jan. 24, 2014, and Thornton would still prefer to have Marleau return to San Jose with him.

“Hopefully, I can come back and Patty can come back,” Thornton said after the season ended. “I think this team is a very good team. I think this is a Stanley Cup caliber team. I really believe that."

Considering the salary cap for next season has not yet been revealed, and that Wilson can’t officially extend Jones or Vlasic until July 1, the general manager could be forced to wait a little while before finalizing anything with either Thornton or Marleau. That makes it all the more likely that the Thornton and Marleau camps will at least get an opportunity to hear from other clubs and consider other offers in late June.

In short, anything is still possible. And Wilson, Thornton and Marleau all have some difficult decisions on the horizon in a Sharks offseason that is unlike any other.

49ers begin final phase of offseason program

49ers begin final phase of offseason program

The 49ers have graduated back to the phase of the offseason when offense-vs.-defense drills are allowed.

Because of the hiring of Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers were allowed an additional “voluntary” minicamp before the NFL draft. That meant the 49ers were permitted to skip from the two-week conditioning phase of the offseason straight to what is allowed under Phase III.

But after the three-day minicamp in late-April, the 49ers were forced to retreat back to Phase II, when on-field drills but could not include offense vs. defense.

Beginning Monday – and over the next three weeks -- the 49ers can get back to conducting the standard one-on-one, 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 "non-contact" drills. The 49ers have the maximum number of 10 organized team activities scheduled. The official offseason program concludes with a mandatory minicamp scheduled for June 13-15.

The real competition does not begin until the pads go on during training camp. but here’s a look at the team’s most notable offseason competitions (one position you will not find is quarterback, where the depth chart of Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley and C.J. Beathard appears clearly set):

Running back: Carlos Hyde, entering the final year of his original four-year contract, has a lot of competition to hold onto his role as the featured back. He is coming off his most-productive season, finishing just 12 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark when he sustained a knee injury with one game remaining. Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner lobbied for Utah running back Joe Williams in the draft. They clearly see a fit for him within the system.

Pass-rush end: The 49ers’ pass rush was among the worst in the NFL the past two seasons. Arik Armstead will be given an opportunity to see if he can adapt to the “Leo” position. Aaron Lynch must earn the confidence of the coaching staff and front office. The 49ers added explosive, 243-pound pass Pita Taumoepenu in the sixth round.

Tight end: The 49ers confirmed Vance McDonald was available for a trade during the draft. After finding no takers, the 49ers brought back McDonald and he rejoins the competition among rookies George Kittle and Cole Hikutini, and veterans Logan Paulsen, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell.

Cornerback: Rashard Robinson is the obvious choice to start on one side. And assuming Jimmie Ward remains at free safety, the 49ers have no other player on the roster who has started a significant number of games at cornerback. Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, will have a legitimate opportunity to win a starting job, as long as he displays a willingness to stick his nose into the action and play with the requisite level of physicality. Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Will Redmond should also be in the mix to replace Tramaine Brock, who was released shortly after his arrest after an alleged domestic incident last month.

Center: Jeremy Zuttah, a Pro Bowl performer, was added in the offseason via a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Daniel Kilgore has been the 49ers’ center the past three seasons but injuries have limited him to just 23 starts over that period of time. Zuttah has position flexibility. The 49ers could determine the best thing for the offensive line is to move Zuttah to one of the guard positions – to challenge Zane Beadles or Joshua Garnett -- if he is not clearly better than Kilgore.

Weakside linebacker: The 49ers signed veteran Malcolm Smith on the first day of free agency, providing him with $11.5 million of fully guaranteed money. The 49ers ranked Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster as the No. 3 overall prospect in the draft. They traded up to select him at No. 31 overall. Assuming Foster is ready to compete at the beginning of training camp after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, it appears likely he would line up in that position and compete with Smith. The 49ers’ medical staff does not believe Foster will require any additional surgery, and Foster said he expects to be cleared for the opening of camp.