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Changes lead to questions
Roster changes make Sharks a mystery
8/11/15 - By Mike Lee -

After struggling to find an identity and missing the playoffs for the first time in an eternity last season, the Sharks enter the 2015-16 campaign with big expectations and even bigger questions about the make up of their roster. Sharks GM Doug Wilson made several off-season moves to fill holes vacated by several players moved late last year or who did not re-sign with the club during the summer. On paper, the moves don't appear drastic, but plenty of mysteries abound, including the massive question mark hovering in front to San Jose's crease as the club prepares to start it's 25th training camp and campaign.

With roster changes come plenty of questions.

Is the Sharks "rebuild complete"? Is the team still relying on aging stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau to lead the charge? Will the youngsters step up? Who will fill the role of captain? Will Brent Burns move back to forward? Will Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski be given bigger roles in terms of leadership? Who fills the void created by Scott Hannan's retirement?

All of those take a back seat to the most important query facing the Sharks. That being, will Martin Jones fill the void / improve the Sharks play between the pipes?

Jones was acquired by the Sharks on June 30th, when Wilson shipped a 1st round draft pick and the rights to unsigned draft pick Sean Kuraly to the Boston Bruins. Jones only has 34 NHL games under his belt, but he's been handed the reigns to the Sharks crease as part of another big gamble by Wilson. Serving as Quick's understudy last season, Jones compiled a .906 save percentage in 15 games, which eventually earned him a trade to Boston. He was a Bruin for all of 15 minutes before Wilson came knocking.

Jones now gets the chance to prove himself as an ever day netminder, albeit with Alex Stalock nipping at his heels. Stalock wasn't much better than Jones last season, but the goaltender also didn't have the luxury of the Kings defense playing in front of him. Granted, the Kings had plenty of distractions last year, but Jones had more stability in terms of defensive protection.

Jones gets the nod as the number one guy in net, but he'll have to earn that right, starting in training camp. That battle begins the second the two hit the ice in September. Jones replaces Antti Niemi, who had by far his worst season as a Shark. Niemi's poor play came in a contract year, which gives you an indication of had bad the Sharks defense was last season.

After beating the Kings, Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks in succession in late January, the Sharks regressed and eventually threw in the towel. Niemi's deficiencies were magnified by the gaping holes in the defense, which went through a metamorphosis of sorts this summer.

Here's the blueline the Sharks threw out on the ice on opening night last October:

Jason Demers
Scott Hannan
Mirco Mueller
Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Justin Braun
Brent Burns

From that group, Demers was traded to Dallas in November and Hannan retired after a yeoman's career. Mueller struggled mightily during his rookie campaign, to the point that he seemed to be regressing. The blueline this season will feature Vlasic as the #1 defender, along with Dillon who the Sharks signed to a 5-year contract extension on June 30th. To help shore things up, Wilson inked veteran defenseman Paul Martin to a 4-year deal to help stabilize that leaky backline.

Martin should bring a calming effect to a young group of defensemen who really do need some adult supervision. Mueller and Justin Braun will benefit the most, assuming those two even make the opening night roster. San Jose has other options available, including Matt Tennyson and newly signed Mark Cundari.

Don't be surprised if the Sharks start Mueller in the AHL with their newly minted San Jose Barracuda franchise. The fact that the minor league operation now resides in the same city as the big club gives the Sharks more options to move players between the big club and the minor leagues and Mueller could use some seasoning and confidence building.

If you're looking for an upstart to possibly jump in the fray, Julius Bergman could make a splash this fall. He's slated to appear in the Sharks prospects program, which will feature two games against prospects from Anaheim in early September.

On offense, there are also some new faces. Last year's opening night offense looked like this:

Joe Pavelski
Andrew Desjardins
Patrick Marleau
Mike Brown
Joe Thornton
Tye McGinn
Adam Burish
Logan Couture
Tomas Hertl
Chris Tierney
Tommy Wingels
Matt Nieto

The core really doesn't change. The only opening night omissions are Andrew Desjardins, who got an early Christmas present from Wilson when he was traded to Chicago. Desjardins would go on to win a Stanley Cup last spring, and re-signed with Chicago this summer. You're welcome Andrew. Wilson gave up on Tye McGinn, who became a Coyotes waiver claim last March. Wilson purged one of the biggest mistakes of his career, when he bought out Adam Burish's contract, ridding the Sharks of an underperforming player who was brought in to light fires.

Burish was replaced by Ben Smith, who San Jose received for Desjardins. Like Burish, Smith is an energy guy, albeit younger and more skilled with the puck. His addition made the separation with Burish a no-brainer. Melker Karlsson picked up Desjardins' minutes last spring, and blossomed into one of the few bright spots in an otherwise horrific season. The only real off-season addition comes in the form of 34 year-old Joel Ward, who inked a 3-year deal in July.

Ward should provide a little energy to a Sharks offense that needs a kick in the pants. The spitfire winger needs to show that the long-term deal (by a 34 year old's standards) was not a mistake. Wilson whiffed on the Burish deal, so he can't afford another lengthy contract that produces little in return. Burish didn't have the scoring chops that Ward has, so the expectation is that he'll be an upgrade over all three of the offensive opening night players that start 2015-16 elsewhere.

San Jose also has a couple of options waiting in the wings. Barclay Goodrow filled in occasionally, but he'll have to step up his game if he wants to stick with the big club this season. Given teh competion in the locker room, Goodrow won't simply be a roster filler as he was last year. Chris Tierney is another young option that the Sharks are looking for bigger and better things from. Matt Nieto should be a lock to make the opening night roster, but all of these young players have replacements chomping at the bit.

Nikolay Goldobin is the player that holds the biggest promise and could be ready to make the jump to the big club in 2015. Last year's 27th overall draft pick started the season playing in the Finnish Elite League after teh Sharks drafted him out of the OHL, then made his return to North America, playing in 9 games for Worcester, the Sharks old AHL affiliate. The Sharks have another Tomas Hertl prototype in Goldobin, who could make the Sharks forward lines be something to be reckoned with in the future.

San Jose grabbed Timo Meier in the draft last June, but it's unlikely the native of Herisau, Switzerland will make the jump to the NHL this season. His 6'1", 210 pound frame gives the Sharks a potential power forward option down the road, bu if the Sharks are smart, they let him get acclimated to the faster pace of the NHL slowly and methodically. He was a scoring machine in Junior last season, bagging 44 goals and adding 46 assists for Halifax (QMJHL).

The Sharks did not sign 2013 2nd round pick Gabryel Paquin-Boudreau this summer, essentially parting ways with the left winger. That makes Goldobin and Meier's development that much more important. They don't have a 1st round pick next summer, so they need to develop their current stable of offesive prospects with kid gloves.

All of the questions pertaining to the offense hinge on Thornton and Marleau's production. If new head coach Peter DeBoer distributes more minutes to the duo, they need to produce. DeBoer has other options, notably in Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Tommy Wingels, but if he flip-flops on priorities as Todd McLellan did last season, he could lose the trust of his younger core.

Both veterans have something to prove this season. Thornton's well publicized dust up with Wilson were magnified by reports that he also didn't see eye to eye with McLellan. A new head coach gives him a fresh start. Marleau simply needs to score and score early and often. After a 33 goal 2013-14 season, his production dropped off significantly last year. As both players hit 36 (Thornton is already there), their big contracts will be under more scrutiny. A failure to produce will only create issues that the Sharks can ill afford. The West got stronger this year, and San Jose could finish no better than 12th last season.

They'll need career years from several players if they expect to hop-scotch past 4 teams just to get in to the playoffs, much less do any damage if they get there.

Lots of questions remained to be answered. Some of those will get clarity in under 30 days as camp quickly approaches.


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