30 in 15: Sharks must balance young core, old guard
Wednesday, 09.25.2013 / 3:00 AM
It's been a long offseason in the Bay Area.
The ball got rolling last season, when general manager Doug Wilson put in place his "reset/refresh" plan at the trade deadline.
Since then, he and coach Todd McLellan have added a couple attacking options, repurposed a defenseman to forward and locked in stars on extended deals. The San Jose Sharks own one of the best defenses in the NHL, and are backstopped by Vezina Trophy finalist Antti Niemi. At least one prospect is ready for the NHL limelight, and there are others coming soon.
But has San Jose done enough? The Sharks are chasing a 10th straight postseason berth, but there's also the decidedly more elusive prize of the Stanley Cup.
With realignment stretching San Jose's frequent-flier miles even further, the Olympics beckoning in February and a full season with an attacking philosophy on the horizon, the Sharks face more questions than answers as training camp marches on. Here are the three biggest:
1. Who will line up alongside Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau? -- The top line, with Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau, may be San Jose's most important heading into the 2013-14 season, so it's concerning that it's not a full line yet.
Couture and Marleau were immense in helping San Jose clinch a postseason appearance last season, and then combined for 10 goals and 19 points in 11 Stanley Cup Playoff games. Even more impressive, the pair accomplished what they did with a rotating cast of forwards lining up to Couture's left.
The forward who skated with them most, Martin Havlat, will start the season on injured reserve while recovering from offseason surgery. Another occasional linemate, Joe Pavelski, will center the third line. The preferred winger thus far in training camp, Raffi Torres, will likely miss at least six weeks after sustaining an ACL injury in San Jose's second preseason game. That leaves Tommy Wingels, with whom Couture and Marleau didn't excel with last season, as well as newcomer Tyler Kennedy and top prospect Tomas Hertl to fight for that spot during training camp.
The most likely replacement for Havlat will be someone who, like the injured Czech, can move the puck and make plays from a natural wing position. With no one on the roster who exactly fits that description, it will be interesting to see how this situation pans out.
2. Will San Jose focus on the young core at the expense of the old? -- The Sharks invested $60 million for five years this summer in young forwards Pavelski and Couture. Defensive centerpiece Marc-Edouard Vlasic, 26, is under contract through the 2017-18 season. The young core is intact, and Wilson couldn't be happier that his rising stars will be Sharks for the foreseeable future.
However, the veteran core of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle all can become unrestricted free agents after the season. Only Boyle, 37, has been rumored to be in talks for an extension. There's no reason to believe such cornerstones will be on the trading block anytime soon, but San Jose showed last season that it won't shy away from cutting ties with veterans.
One thing is for certain: San Jose will need all its stars, young and old, to be at their best if it hopes to go the distance. The Sharks will travel 57,612 miles this season, by far the most in the League, and will compete in a bigger, arguably more difficult Pacific Division.
Given Marleau's slip in production after an outstanding start to 2012-13, Thornton being tasked with centering a re-tooled top-six line and Boyle likely to pair with a defenseman entering his first full NHL season, no amount of success is guaranteed for San Jose's aging stars.
3. Is San Jose's defense as airtight as it seems? -- San Jose's defense last season, in combination with Antti Niemi, consistently shut down some of the best attacks in the NHL. The current crop is a mix of youthful vigor and veteran savvy, one that combined brilliantly in 2012-13. However, questions remain as to whether the blue line can hold steady over the course of an 82-game season.
The tandem of Vlasic and Justin Braun is one of the most exciting in the League. The pair established themselves during the second half of 2012-13 as capable of breaking up attacks as well as starting their own. In this way, it can be argued the move to make Vlasic and Braun the top pairing helped the team during the "reset/refresh" as much as Torres' arrival or Burns' switch to forward. While Vlasic is a proven performer, Braun has played in only 135 NHL games in his career. If at some point this season he proves unable to play the critical shut-down minutes -- at full strength and on the penalty kill -- the Sharks will need a replacement.
So where do they turn? Boyle remains a top defenseman, but at 37 has no doubt lost a step when it comes to corralling the NHL's finest forwards. Matt Irwin projects well but has just 38 NHL games on his resume. The remaining prospects, while perhaps future top-pairing defensemen, may not yet possess the NHL pedigree to jump in.
So while the organization lauds the drafting and prospect development that has yielded such a talented young crop of defensemen, uncertainty lingers.