The San Jose Sharks have determined which players will go where for the split-squad exhibition games with the Pacific Division rival Vancouver Canucks Tuesday, Sept. 22. Half the team flies to Canada to be televised on NHL Network, while the other half takes the bus to Stockton to play under the radar…or satellite, as it were.
In the process, the pictured lines and pairs are beginning to come into focus. It is far too early to count on anything, but the vision is taking shape and if everyone plays to where the coaches project them now, we can examine the strengths of each combination.
As CSN Bay Area Insider Kevin Kurz noted in his live chat Tuesday, Joe Pavelski has been skating on the right wing of Joe Thornton’s line (Tomas Hertl is on the left wing). That allows the veteran highest-scoring combination of the 2013-14 NHL season to stay together with the highest-scoring rookie of that season prior to a serious knee injury.
Hertl’s lack in his own end can be covered by two of the greatest defensive forwards in the world while he builds on a solid foundation of being a very good skater willing to put a body on the opposition. San Jose’s top line would be better than at least 80 percent of the other NHL teams.
A team tweet Monday revealed that Matt Nieto is looking strong on a second line that showed promise in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs, with Logan Couture centering and Patrick Marleau on the left wing. This is a fast line with ability on both ends of the ice.
As probably the worst defensive forward the Sharks dressed most nights in the 2013-14 NHL season, Nieto is the question mark. Can he produce offensively like he did late in the season and during the Stanley Cup playoffs?
He is unbelievably fast so he can make up for his mistakes, but he must learn positioning and be stronger with his stick. Marleau is actually pretty physical for a scoring-line role on a puck-possession team, is an elite skater and has a very good stick. Couture is an elite shot-blocking forward that plays smart in all three zones.
That leaves Tommy Wingels a lock for the third line. The only other lock is that Andrew Desjardins will be taking faceoffs on one of the other two lines. The other four spots are up for grabs until James Sheppard and Raffi Torres get back, and even if a prospect like Nikolay Goldobin, Chris Tierney, Daniil Tarasov or someone else steps up there are six forwards with a virtually even chance to get them: Mike Brown, Adam Burish, Freddie Hamilton, Eriah Hayes, Tyler Kennedy, Tye McGinn.
Meanwhile, the blue line currently has Marc-Edouard Vlasic on the same pair with Justin Braun. While neither is a liability offensively, only Vlasic is even a modest asset. This pair would be designed for one purpose—stop the other team’s top line—and would be among the best in the NHL at it. That could compensate for being average offensively.
Brent Burns is currently skating with Scott Hannan. That cannot be a good thing for San Jose, either for their Stanley Cup chances in 2015 nor the future.
Either the guy making a transition back to the position he never really mastered with this team before being moved to forward nearly two years ago is not getting comfortable with his new partner, or Hannan is going to be playing for the Sharks in the 2014-15 NHL season. Neither is good for the development of young talent.
Look for Mirco Mueller to start the season there and stay there if he plays the position correctly rather than go back to juniors. Matt Irwin and Jason Demers comprise a dangerous offensive pair but would be suspect in its own end and leave two players together not used to playing the position in San Jose together.
Finally, look for the Sharks to give Alex Stalock every chance to win the starting goalie job to show he can take over. Antti Niemi is older, more expensive and a pending unrestricted free agent.