NHL

Will the Sharks’ new acquisitions make them compete harder?

Few things seem longer and duller than the last couple of weeks before hockey season starts. Especially when the resident team doesn’t play past the regular season and has a few ins-and-outs that need to be solved in order to have a successful upcoming campaign.

Such is the case for the San Jose Sharks entering 2015 training camp, and after months of climbing the walls and being bored beyond reason without a hockey game to cover, I can finally swan dive back into dissecting all things Sharks related.

Frankly, Team Teal has every opportunity to make 2015-16 a bounce-back season. That’s hard for some to believe, given the emotional roller coaster San Jose and its fans have gone through over the past couple of seasons. Even with new head coach Peter DeBoer’s whole “Project: Clean Slate” approach, San Jose’s issues from yesteryear aren’t going to vanish completely.

On a positive note

The Sharks have the potential to remedy some of their long-standing ailments, with a newly-assembled coaching staff and a slightly different roster composition.

The issue du jour: The Sharks’ competitive level, and how to maintain it.

San Jose’s ability to stay competitive throughout stretches—whether it’s a long road trip or a single 60-minute tilt — has been in question for a couple years now. I actually wrote a piece on it last season entitled “Why do the Sharks have trouble keeping their foot on the gas?” to which San Jose Mercury News writer Andrew Baggarly cleverly quipped:

All fun aside, it’s an issue that has continued to plague this team — like how San Jose pulverized a strong Anaheim Ducks club in every meeting last season, then had trouble mustering up that same fighting spirit against the lowly Buffalo Sabres. Or the lack of push they showed in their St. Patrick’s Day game against the the Jets up in Winnipeg, a performance that all but dashed their lingering chances of making the playoffs.

I go back to San Jose’s home finale against the Dallas Stars, in which Joe Pavelski expressed that the Sharks were in fact a competitive entity. “We want to be better,” he sighed with the weight of the team’s loss on his shoulders. “We expect more out of ourselves.”

It isn’t that San Jose isn’t competitive, they just lacked that certain jolt at pivotal moments. Some new additions could help change that.

Heck, they should certainly be getting a boost from DeBoer’s “pressure hockey” and “puck possession”-heavy style. Really, his philosophy drips with aggression and dominance. Now, he and his coaching staff need the players to implement that.

One of the most prominent story lines we saw when the Sharks acquired Joel Ward (pictured above) from Washington is how clutch the forward can be during the playoffs — finishing tied for the team lead in points during the Capitals’ last playoff run might have something to do with that. But we should take a step back from that and acknowledge that Ward performs well in high pressure situations, period.

In San Jose’s statement on Ward’s signing, DeBoer described the 34-year-old as “hard to play against” and a scoring forward who “also plays an extremely hard-nosed brand of hockey.” If utilized properly, Ward could be a rallying point for the Sharks when they trail on the scoreboard early in a game. Pavelski, Logan Couture and Tommy Wingels are a few who instantly come to mind when thinking of players who really tried to pick up the team when they were down last season, and maybe Ward is the right guy to give them an extra boost. (Not to mention that I think putting Wingels and Ward on a line together could be filthy, an absolute juggernaut of competitive energy.)

On the subject of competitive pairings, the addition of Paul Martin to the blue line could bolster San Jose’s competitive edge and provide veteran stability that was lacking last season. We talked earlier in the summer about how a successful pairing of Martin with Brent Burns would help fill out the Sharks defensive corps, but it would also help give Burns back that competitive swagger he gets when he plays well, and we know how infectious his fighting spirit can be for his teammates. I can see that dominant, aggressive level of play spreading to a Brenden Dillon-Mirco Mueller pairing and a healthy duo of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun, making the defense a much sturdier product.

And what does an all-around more competitive team bring to the table? A collective that shares this trait of being “hard to play against.” With a more competitive product on both offense and defense it shouldn’t be as nerve-racking when the puck ends up in the Sharks’ zone and flirts with finding the back of the net.

Then again, the puck would still have to get past one of two netminders that the Sharks are hoping to be far more competitive — and consistent, for that matter — than the previous seasons’ starter. But the pressure on Martin Jones and Alex Stalock is a whole other topic for another article.

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