We are down to the last week before Sharks training camp opens, finally putting an end to what has been a long and frustrating summer offseason.
So now everyone can push aside their obsessions over silly things — like, I don’t know, what color jersey the Sharks would potentially wear if they make the playoffs next year — and start focusing on actual hockey.
San Jose needs to get back to business and suss out many things in the month of September before they start start their season on the road down in Southern California. And they have plenty of things to work on, from the goalie’s net all the way up to the faceoff circle, both on the ice and off.
Two goalies, one net
The Sharks should know by now how to attack their issues between the pipes: Whether or not Antti Niemi bounces back from his lackluster 2013-14 campaign, the Sharks should consider a tandem, at the bare minimum through preseason, with Alex Stalock and give the netminders more equal time to prove who is better suited to be a regular starter.
It was evident at the latter part of last season that Stalock was more capable of keeping the puck out of the net than veteran Niemi. Should the former Vezina Trophy nominee enter training camp the same way he exited the playoffs in April — letting soft goals get by him and getting pulled mid-game like he was during the playoffs — then his days as the Sharks’ starter are all but numbered.
Without a full season of play under his belt, there is still question of whether 27-year-old Stalock can handle the workload, despite racking up a franchise-record 178.55 consecutive shutout minutes in a stint following the Olympic break. Best method for San Jose is to start by giving the two level playing time to determine the level to which they shift from Niemi to Stalock.
Reading between the lines
A method for figuring out the lines in front of the net, however, is a little less concrete.
Training camp is the optimal time to try out new line combos, with the roster getting back into the swing of the season and with the AHL players in the mix trying to make the jump to the big league club. Defenseman Mirco Mueller looked dominant in prospect camp and will be out to prove he’s ready to make the jump from Worcester. Young forwards like Freddie Hamilton and Eriah Hayes will be looking to prove they deserve more time with San Jose after each player did his share of bouncing back and forth between the NHL and AHL clubs, just to name a few.
Even though San Jose is rolling out almost the same offensive corps, expect to see lots of different trios put together during preseason play. They will be adjusting, most notably to Brent Burns having been moved back to the blue line and to Raffi Torres being sidelined for at least half the season. There are holes in both top and bottom lines, which need to be rearranged to prevent them being too much of a top-heavy offense. That could mean moving Joe Pavelski back to centering the third line, splitting up the Logan Couture-Patrick Marleau pairing on the secondary line — we can only speculate so much before the players have practiced yet, but there will certainly be changes.
The absence of Torres of course raises concern over who Team Teal will turn to as their big enforcer. The Sharks tried to fill that void last season with the acquisition of Mike Brown from the Edmonton Oilers last October. The winger might have dropped his gloves a fair share of times and registered 75 penalty minutes in the process, but add that to only notching five points (two goals, three assists) in a 48-game span, and it doesn’t equate to what a good enforcer is made of. Newly-acquired veteran bruiser John Scott isn’t much different, with the 125 penalty minutes he registered with the Buffalo Sabres last season. With San Jose already pushing for its younger players to take the reigns of the team, it’s a good time for a current player to step up and light a fire under this team.
Then again, the Sharks also need to be in the proper mindset to follow an enforcer’s lead. During the first frame of Game 5 against LA — the worst period of the worst game SJ played in that series — Torres checked Marion Gaborik into the boards at center ice, sending a loud boom echoing through the rafter and getting the hushed crowd at the Tank back into the game. The hit should have lit a fire under the Sharks and rallied them to at least get one goal on the board. Instead they got shut out, then continued their cataclysmic collapse at the hands of the now-Stanley-Cup-Champion LA Kings.
O captain! No captain!
Which brings us to the rumored off-ice issues San Jose appears to be plagued with. During head coach Todd McLellan’s presser after the Sharks’ Game 7 loss, he said of the Kings: “They fixed their problems, and we didn’t. Our problems got progressively worse.” Which was followed in subsequent interviews by claims that the message from the coaching staff wasn’t getting passed on through leadership to the rest of the team. Such comments made it less of a surprise when the team announced in August that the Sharks would enter training camp without a captain or alternates. No “C” for Joe Thornton, no “A” for Patrick Marleau. Even with the claim that Thornton could regain the captaincy, it doesn’t seem likely. And even though the move toward new leadership is a positive step forward for the Sharks, we can’t expect either Thornton or Marleau to be okay with sitting back and letting someone else take control of the team.
So unlike a run-of-the-mill training camp with players just trying to make the team, the Sharks are also entering the preseason in the midst of a shift in leadership, and with rumored dressing room tension. While we really don’t know exactly who has an issue with who, that tension isn’t going to get any better with Thornton and Marleau still in San Jose, bitter over being asked to step aside.
That’s a lot of tension to squeeze into the Sharks rectangular dressing room. And it should make for a very interesting training camp and preseason.
San Jose Sharks training camp starts on Friday, September 19, at Sharks Ice with scrimmages open to the public on Saturday, September 20 and Sunday, September 21. The team kicks off preseason play split squad tilts with the Canucks on Tuesday, September 23, with half the team headed up to Vancouver and the other half hosting at the Stockton Arena.