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The Longest Summer
Sharks look to repeat last season's success
10/11/16 - By Mike Lee -

Summer is officially over. Technically it was the shortest break in franchise history, but for the San Jose Sharks, it was excruciatingly long. Falling two wins short of a Stanley Cup Championship, the Sharks had four months to stew over the "what ifs," and ponder what might have been. A bounce here, a shot 6 inches to the one direction there, and history could have been much different. What the Sharks get to do now is prove to everyone that they belonged in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Most prognosticators don't think much of their accomplishments from last Spring. Sports Illustrated picked them to finish 6th in the West this season, and don't give them much of a shot once the playoffs roll around in April.

Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson feels his roster is good enough to make it back to the Finals. So much in fact, that he barely tweaked a thing during the off-season. The only major additions come in the form of forward Mikkel Boedker and defenseman David Schlemko.

The rest of the lineup is essentially the same. More younger players will be given a shot at playing on an everyday basis, and the farm system is ready to shuttle many of the prospects that made the jump to the big club last season. It's rare to have a lineup make it through an NHL regular season without some dings along the way, so those prospects will be given a chance to prove they deserve to stay.

Players like Nikolay Goldobin didn't play with the consistency that warranted a spot on the opening night roster. Mirco Mueller is another player who hasn't evolved into the everyday player that the Sharks expect from their draft picks. Mueller joined Goldobin and four other players as the final training camp cuts on Tuesday.

Kevin Lebanc, Barclay Goodrow, Ryan Carpenter and Dan Kelly were part of the six player move that finalized the lineup that will hit the ice on Wednesday night for the Sharks.

With 82 games in front of them, here are the biggest questions heading into the 2016-17 NHL Season:

How do the Sharks get back into the Stanley Cup Finals this season?

The simple answer is, stay healthy. The Sharks top dogs are longer in the tooth than they were a year ago, and overall team health will decide what happens this season. San Jose stayed relatively healthy last season, aside from Logan Couture's broken leg to start the campaign. What made a big difference last season was that they entered the playoffs with a healthy lineup from top to bottom.

Keeping the old guys fresh is also something head coach Peter DeBoer will have to factor in this season. He rarely gave guys the night off, but it might be something he may want to consider heading into 2016-17. This will be Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau's 20th NHL campaign. Keeping those guys fresh will be priority one for DeBoer.

Will we see a decline from the Sharks older players?

Speaking of Thornton and Marleau, last season was a tale of two players. Thornton had a resurgence in his play and seemed to excel under DeBoer's system. He recorded his highest point today (82) since the 2009-10 season. Credit the veteran after all the turmoil that was centered around him two summer's ago when he had an open feud with Wilson. The former captain shined in the playoffs, recording 24 points (3 goals 18 assists) in 24 games. We'll see if a taste of the Finals inspires Thornton for one more go around. He says he's fit and ready to play another three to four seasons.

Marleau on the other hand had what was arguably a bad season by his standards. To make things worse, his numbers continue to slip and DeBoer bounced him up and down the lineup last season. It's likely he'll center the Sharks third line, but don't be surprised if DeBoer starts to experiment more with younger players at the cost of Marleau's playing time.

Did the Finals affect Joe Pavelski's game?

The Sharks captain was the best player on the ice from October through May, then the Stanley Cup Finals rolled around and San Jose's money player disappeared. He recorded 14 goals in the playoffs as a whole, but was a non-factor against Pittsburgh. The Penguins figured out how to suppress the Sharks top scorer and San Jose never recovered. Pavelski also looked horrible in the World Cup of Hockey last month, which seemed to serve as a hangover period from the Finals.

Pavelski turned 32 in July and should be primed for another career year assuming the rest of the league didn't figure out Pittsburgh's recipe. Pavelski also should have some help in the scoring department this season with Tomas Hertl, Joonas Donskoi and Melker Karlsson all emerging as threats with the puck. Throw in Couture and Marleau, and San Jose has a steady stream of scoring punch that can keep opposing teams off balance.

What is the Sharks biggest hole entering this season?

This is a coin toss between goaltending and the bottom two lines. Yes, you read that right, goaltending. Martin Jones was god like in net for the Sharks last season, but when it came to giving the netminder the night off, former backup Alex Stalock fell flat on his face. It worried Wilson so much that he traded Stalock and acquired former Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer as an insurance policy. Reimer saw action in once playoff game for the Sharks and was never an option as a backup this season.

Insert Aaron Dell, a 27 year-old farm hand that finally gets a shot at the NHL after stints with the Allen Americans, Utah Grizzlies, Abbotsford Heat and the Worcester sharks / San Jose Barracuda. Dell beat out Troy Grosenick for the backup spot during training camp, but that could be part of a plan to keep Grosenick active. Dell will be lucky if he gets a start every 6 or 7 games with San Jose.

Look for Grosenick and Dell to split time in San Jose.

Things are generally good when the 4th line is a problem area. San Jose will lean on the likes of Michael Haley, Tommy Wingels and Chris Tierney to generate some energy for the Sharks. All are capable and saw plenty of action last season, so the rigors of the role aren't new to the trio. Tierney was inconsistent last season and Wingels is on the verge of making himself expendable after a sub-par second half last season.

Who will be the biggest surprise this season?

While not a surprise, look for Donskoi to have an even better year than he did in his rookie season. The forward gets to focus on evolving his game in a system that's no longer new. He also has so much offensive fire power surrounding him, it's going to be hard for opposing defenses to key off him. Look for his goal production to double from the 11 goals he pocketed last season. He scored 6 goals in the playoffs alone, including his huge Game 3 overtime winner against Pittsburgh, so look for bigger and better things.

Who will be the Sharks comeback player of the year?

Logan Couture's season was derailed early, and the Sharks used the rest of the regular season to get him primed for the playoffs, only to have a blood clotting issue that could have cost him his career. If anyone takes things personally, it's Couture. His numbers were hampered by his injuries during the regular season, but then he went nuts in the playoffs.

Look for Couture to carry that momentum into the new season. He wants to be considered an elite player in the league and he was poised to show the league his stuff last season. Look for this to be a career year for the Sharks forward.

What was the most important move of the off season for San Jose?

The addition of Mikkel Boedker was a nice enhancement to the offense, but David Schlemko's addition to the blueline could prove to be the most meaningful. The defense was a lockdown unit last season. Marc-Edouard Vlasic has one of the worst seasons of his career, but San Jose got the job done defensively in the playoffs. Schlemko's addition brings another seasoned guy into the mix, providing the Sharks with much needed depth. He's got decent size, and can skate. With Brenden Dillon and Justin Braun maturing on the blueline, it provides the Sharks with another tool to allow those guys to grow.

Dillon will likely pair with Schlemko, which leaves Martin to work with Vlasic, and Brent Burns paired with Braun.

What's the biggest question mark heading into the season?

As has been the case the past few years, the Sharks have a couple of prospects that are poised to make the jump, but that's a hard thing for a young player. Timo Meier is the guy this season. The former first round draft pick looked good late last season in junior, including a nice playoff run for Rouyn-Noranda where he recorded batter than a point a game over an 18 game stretch for the Huskies. Problem is, he's already behind the 8-ball. Meier contracted mononucleosis in training camp and won't be back on the ice for another three weeks.

That means he essentially missed training camp and needs to catch up. He'll do that with the Barracuda once he returns, because he never had the chance to show coaches anything in September.

The forward looked out of place a year ago in his first taste of an NHL camp, but another year in junior allowed him to develop at a pace that allowed him to have some success. The Sharks have been patient with their youngster, but they'll want to see a return on their investment sooner than later.




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