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2021 Division Preview: The Sharks are a team in limbo

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San Jose could be good. Or they could be bad. They could also be really bad.

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The San Jose Sharks? Forget about San Jose, these are the Scottsdale Sharks. Jokes aside, the Sharks started the 2021 season in a different city. In December an announcement stated, “The San Jose Sharks will open training camp and start the regular season in Arizona”.

The move to Arizona is due to the enhanced COVID-19 guidelines for professional, collegiate and youth sports in Santa Clara County, California. The guidelines have also displaced the San Francisco 49ers, who also happened to finish the regular season playing their home games in Arizona.

It has been a long time since we have seen the Sharks in an NHL game. They were one of seven teams to not make the NHL postseason and had the pleasure of not living in a bubble for a few weeks. As hockey fans, we have not seen the Sharks since the stoppage in March.

Prior to last season, San Jose had made the playoffs 14 out of the prior 15 seasons. The franchise led by general manager Doug Wilson has been in “win now” mode for the better majority of the past decade and a half. Should the team miss the postseason this upcoming year, it will be the first time they do not qualify in back-to-back seasons since the 1996 and 1997 playoffs.

The team is in somewhat of a limbo. Is this still a “win now” team or is it a team on the cusp of a rebuild? It is hard to tell with the recent moves this offseason and the current projected opening night roster for the San Jose Scottsdale Sharks.

The Fresh Faces

Devan Dubnyk, G

After two seasons of poor performance from Devan Dubnyk, the once Vezina Trophy candidate found himself heading towards a potential buyout from the Minnesota Wild. Instead, and miraculously I might add, Bill Guerin found a trade partner in the Sharks, retaining the maximum half of Dubnyk’s $4.33 million cap hit, and receiving a 2022 fifth round pick in return.

It could be a win-win for both teams. If there is anyone that can turn around his game quickly it is Dubs. A fresh start for he and his family (keeping in mind last season he dealt with an off-ice, personal family matter) might just be what the 34-year-old netminder needs. He has started training camp as more of the secondary option behind Martin Jones, but the leash on Jones might be the shortest leash in Sharks history. Whichever goalie is playing better, will get the majority of the starts for San Jose.

It will be a pivotal year for the unrestricted free agent this year and I surely know Minnesota Wild fans will be keeping an extra eye on Dubnyk’s performance this season.

Ryan Donato, C/LW

Another former Wild player! Donato was a fun player to watch in Minnesota, but never really got the chance to prove himself in a top-six role. Yet somehow he reached a career high 14 goals, all at even strength I might add, tying him for Minnesota’s team lead in that category during the regular season. His 14 even-strength tallies are tied for 85th overall league-wide while only averaging 10:38 of ice time. Freaking 10:38! Nobody ranked above him averaged fewer than 13 minutes, and only nine skaters ranked higher while averaging 15 minutes or less of ice time.

To start camp Donato was skating on the Sharks second unit with Tomas Hertl and Evander Kane, but head coach Bob Boughner has shuffled the lines a bit and Donato is now skating with Matt Nieto and Noah Gregor on the Sharks third line.

Matt Nieto, LW

After three and a half seasons away from the Bay Area, the Sharks’ 2011 second rounder returns to the team that drafted him ten years ago on a one-year contract. The 27-year-old recorded 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists), including three game-winning goals in 70 games with the Colorado Avalanche in 2019-20. He led all Avalanche forwards in average shorthanded ice-time per game (2:21) and was tied for second on the team with two shorthanded goals. He was one of just two Avalanche players to play in all 70 games this past season and added one goal and two assists in 14 playoff games.

Patrick Marleau, C/LW

Not really a fresh face, but he did play his past 12 games (regular and postseason) in a Pittsburgh Penguins uniform. So, we’ll count it. One thing to note for this season for the Sharks’ legend, is he is approaching a huge milestone. Marleau is just 45 games short of the NHL’s all-time games played mark, currently set by Gordie “Mr. Hockey” Howe. If he plays every game, he’ll break the record on April 19 in Las Vegas.

Kurtis Gabriel, RW

Another former Wild player! The former Wild 2013 third round selection has been bouncing around the AHL the past few seasons getting a brief stint with the New Jersey Devils for 22 games in 2018-19. He’ll likely be on the team’s taxi squad, but if the fourth line ever needs a guy to drop the mitts, Gabriel is the Sharks’ man.

Fredrik Handemark, C

Handemark is a big wild card for this team. The 27-year-old signed a one-year entry level contract and has crossed the pond as they say after playing the better part of eight seasons playing pro hockey in his home country of Sweden. He has the size, at 6-4 and 209 pounds, as well as some offensive ability with 38 points (14g, 24a) in 52 games last season with the Malmo Redhawks in the Swedish league. He could surprise people and earn a third- or fourth-line role at either center or on the wing for San Jose.

Ryan Merkley, D

The Sharks’ first-round pick of the 2018 draft has started his first full season of pro hockey and will get his chance to start the year with the big club. He is ranked by most experts as the teams’ top prospect after putting up big numbers in the OHL over the past four seasons. Last season with the London Knights, Merkley scored over a point per game as a defenseman racking up 15 goals and 76 points in 60 games. The biggest question for Merkley has always been his maturity. Is he NHL ready this season? My bet, probably not.

Brinson Pasichnuk, D

Signed as an undrafted free agent, Pasichnuk is a curious case on the back end for the Sharks. The 22-year-old Canadian native played the past four seasons in the NCAA playing for the Arizona State University Sun Devils. He captained the team during his junior and senior campaigns and finished last season with 37 points in 36 games, ranking third for scoring by a defenseman in the NCAA. Our friends over at Fear the Fin did a great breakdown of Pasichnuk’s game and what he brings to the Sharks organization.

The Departures

Joe Thornton, C

It’s Jumbo Joe. He will be missed dearly by the team. He may not be the player he once was, but Jumbo Joe still put up 31 points and found a niche as a quality bottom six center for the Sharks last season. You could tell Thornton had accepted his role as not being “the guy” anymore in San Jose.

He leaves behind a legacy in San Jose that is perhaps only topped by Marleau, playing the past 15 seasons for the Sharks. The 41-year-old ranks first in San Jose history in assists (804), second in games (1,104) and points (1,055), and fourth in goals (251).

Aaron Dell, G

Dell originally signed with the Sharks as a free agent in 2015 and after 107 appearances in a Sharks’ uniform, the team let him walk into free agency with the acquisition of Dubnyk. Dell, 31, played in 33 games with the San Jose Sharks in 2019-20, posting a 12-15-3 record with a 3.01 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage. The netminder signed a one-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs with a contract value of $800,000.

Melker Karlsson, C/RW

Not a huge loss for the Sharks as “The Other Karlsson” only contributed 12 points in 61 games last season. The Swedish native has returned to his home country and is playing for the SHL’s Skellefteå AIK.

The Difference Makers

Logan Couture

San Jose’s captain spoke loudly in the first few days of training camp and had this to say about the teams chances of making the playoffs: “There’s a belief in the room and in this organization that if we play the way that we’re capable of, we’ll be there at the end of the year.”

Couture is confident in his team making the playoffs.

The 31-year-old is coming off a down year that was hindered by injuries, scoring 39 points in 52 games played. The Sharks’ forward is just two years removed from his incredible playoff performance in 2019, where he scored 14 goals and 20 points in 20 games.

Tomas Hertl

Hertl’s season last year was cut short when he tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in January of 2020 and missed the final 18 games of the Sharks’ season before the stoppage. The center injured his knee on almost a year ago on January 29 against the Vancouver Canucks, just four days after playing in his first All-Star Game.

Last season the Sharks assistant captain scored 16 goals and 36 points following a career high in goals and points the year prior. In 2018-19, the Czech native racked up 35 goals and 74 points in 77 games. Now, fully healthy and recovered from knee surgery last February, Hertl will look to regain his almost a point per pace form he was at in 2018-19.

Brent Burns

If anyone needs to have a bounce back year for San Jose in order for the team to be successful, it needs to be former Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns. “The One That Got Away” as Wild fans often deem him as, saw a massive decline in production last season that has led to a lot of Seattle expansion draft chatter. For a guy who looked to be a lock for the Sharks to protect from the Kraken a year ago, suddenly the narrative has changed as he will likely go unprotected in the expansion draft next July.

Burns production dipped from more than a point-per-game (83 points in 82 games) in 2018-19 to 45 points in 70 games last season. The Sharks and Burns mutually need the now 35-year-old to regain his offensive prowess if they want to even sniff the playoffs.

Erik Karlsson

Did people just forget that just two seasons ago Erik Karlsson was arguably the best defenseman in the NHL? If the pandemic helped out anybody indirectly, it would be Karlsson. He finally is healthy after a tough couple of seasons in San Jose, battling multiple injuries the past two seasons.

The two-time Norris Trophy winner will have everything to prove as he tries to regain even a sliver of the player he once was. If Karlsson can stay healthy, and that is a big if, it will go a long way in helping the team’s hopeful playoff aspirations.

Predicting the Season

There are two ways to look at the San Joes Sharks and make a prediction about the team. One is predicting with the mindset the team will have injury luck on their side and will remain fairly healthy during the 56-game 2021 regular season. The other is that they will mimic last year’s performance and will be in the cellar of the standings.

The Sharks could be a surprise playoff team, with stars in Couture, Burns, Karlsson, Hertl and even Kane it wouldn’t be the craziest thing to happen in hockey history.

But then you look at the team’s depth and goaltenders and it has one cautious to tag the team as a team that will compete for a playoff spot. Perhaps the tandem of Jones and Dubnyk will turn out better than expected. Whether you are a believer or a doubter in this Sharks team, it will be interesting to see how the 2021 season turns out for the Logan Couture led franchise.