The San Jose Sharks’ task of trying to replace three-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson is a little bit like a bleary-eyed parent trying to assemble their child’s intricate new toy on a hectic Christmas morning.
Where does one even begin?
Karlsson, traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins last month, did just about everything for the Sharks last season as he became the first defenseman in 31 years to score 100 points in a season.
As the Sharks stumbled to a 22-44-16 record, Karlsson had a season for the ages as he led the team in assists, overall ice time, power-play points, and power-play ice time. He fueled breakouts, held his own on defense, played all 82 games, and provided underappreciated leadership.
Finding ways to make up for Karlsson’s absence will be job No. 1 for the Sharks this month as they get ready to begin their first training camp in five years without No. 65.
“You’re losing a Norris Trophy-winning defenseman and a guy that’s got elite offensive ability,” Sharks coach David Quinn said over the weekend as he attended the Rookie Faceoff event in Las Vegas. “One of the all-time great offensive players in the history of the National Hockey League.
“That being said, our style of play is not going to be any different.”
Here are five issues the Sharks, predicted to again finish near the bottom of the NHL standings, will seek to resolve during their three-week training camp that starts Thursday.
Who forms the No. 1 defense pair?
It stands to reason that Mario Ferraro, who was second behind Karlsson among all Sharks skaters in ice time at 21:36 per game, will again be on the top defense pair and asked to play heavy minutes. But finding Ferraro a suitable defense partner won’t be easy with no obvious candidates for the role.
Although both are left shots, Ferraro and Marc-Edouard Vlasic enjoyed some success in the few times they played together last year. But Vlasic hasn’t played over 21 minutes a game since the 2018-19 season and asking him to do that right now might be a bridge too far. The same goes for Radim Simek.
Ferraro and Matt Benning spent a significant amount of time together last season but did not have positive analytics, with Natural Stat Trick listing them as allowing 190 scoring chances during 5-on-5 play while being on the ice for just 120 scoring chances created.
Could a newcomer slot alongside Ferraro? Kyle Burroughs is a right shot who played big minutes at times for the Vancouver Canucks last season but has mainly been a third-pair type defenseman in his three-year NHL career.
Jan Rutta is another possibility. Although he has battled injuries throughout his six-year NHL career and hasn’t averaged more than 18 minutes a game in any of the last five seasons, Rutta can, when healthy, play with pace. He’s also a right shot.
After a full offseason of training, Nikolai Knyzhov could be in line for a breakout year and might be asked to play bigger minutes this season regardless of whether he’s on the first, second, or third pair.
Who forms the first power play unit?
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Sharks use four forwards and one defenseman on their first power-play unit. But who are those four forwards, and without Karlsson, which defenseman will that be?
One can pencil in Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl for the top unit, but the rest is a bit of a mystery with Filip Zadina, Mike Hoffman, Anthony Duclair, Alexander Barabanov, Kevin Labanc, and Mikael Granlund also serving as options. Heck, considering Ferraro and Benning only registered one power play point each last season, could the Sharks roll out five forwards on their top unit?
Whatever the personnel is, the Sharks will have to do a better job of drawing power plays after they were third-to-last in the NHL generating man-advantage opportunities last season.
Which forwards will play in the top six?
Quinn has options, perhaps more so than last season, when it comes to who he wants to play with centers Hertl and Couture on the top two forward lines.
It’s probably a safe assumption that wingers Barabanov and Duclair will fit into the top six somewhere, with Hoffman and Zadina also realistic options. Granlund can play wing or center, giving the coaching staff some flexibility.
Don’t forget about Jacob Peterson, who did not look out of place when he was situated in the Sharks’ top six at the end of last season. Labanc, too, played well for a stretch alongside Hertl and Timo Meier.
There’s also the possibility of William Eklund being a top-six forward, which brings us to …
Can a young forward crack the opening night roster?
Two years after the Sharks made him the seventh overall draft pick, Eklund feels he’s ready to become a full-time NHL player, and he’ll get an opportunity to show what he can do. But working against Eklund, 20, and fellow roster hopeful Thomas Bordeleau, 21, is the sheer number of forwards the Sharks have who require waivers.
The Sharks, per CapFriendly, have 17 forwards who would require waivers to be demoted to the AHL, and at least 11 of those players could be considered locks to make the roster given their salaries and past production. The Sharks will only keep 13 or 14 forwards for the start of the regular season.
To grab one of the few remaining open spots, Eklund and Bordeleau, two of the Sharks’ top prospects, know that to force San Jose’s management into an uncomfortable decision, they’ll need to shine from day one of camp and not let up throughout the preseason.
“Go out and make an impression every day,” said Todd Marchant, the Sharks’ director of player development. “You’ve got to make a statement and you’ve got to show the coaching staff and the management that you belong in the NHL, and you’re going to do whatever it takes to get there.”
Can a No. 1 goalie emerge?
The Sharks coaching staff would probably like to see either Mackenzie Blackwood or Kaapo Kahkonen really take the reins in the next three weeks and declare themselves as the team’s definitive No. 1 goalie through their performances in practices, scrimmages, and games.
Whether that’s realistic is another matter. Both Blackwood and Kahkonen will likely only get to play in two preseason games each, and the Sharks’ schedule is such that both goalies will probably be needed to split October’s workload. The Sharks play nine games in the first 19 days of the season, including one back-to-back, and might take precautions to ensure that both goalies stay healthy.
Blackwood played just 22 games last season as he went 10-6-2 with a .893 save percentage. Kahkonen was 9-20-7 with a .883 save percentage.
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