The San Jose Sharks open their season against the defending champs, the Vegas Golden Knights. While both franchises are in different tiers when it comes to the NHL’s haves and have-nots. A new season brings new hope, even if that hope is a lottery ball in May. There are always things to learn about a new team, and the Sharks have a lot of new players who will be wearing teal for the first time.
What should Sharks fans watch for in this game as season two under General Manager Mike Grier and head coach David Quinn gets underway?
Which new players can hit the ground running?
The Sharks opening night roster will look much different from what they put on the ice last year. Mike Hoffman, Anthony Duclair, Mikael Granlund, Jan Rutta, Filip Zadina, and Kyle Burroughs are all new faces expected to play on Thursday, with Givani Smith and Mackenzie Blackwood (who should start on Saturday) also in the mix. While Quinn feels positive about the team and feels that they are going to surprise some people, it can take time for a team to gel and show chemistry. Especially when players like Granlund and Rutta have missed some time in training camp due to injury.
The Zadina-Tomas Hertl-Hoffman line has been put together most of training camp and has shown flashes of chemistry, but with a brand new set of wingers for Hertl, it might take some time. Last season, when Hertl wasn’t playing with Timo Meier, he wasn’t as effective as a player. Hertl’s CF% was below 50%, and his xGF% was below 45% in nearly 500 minutes of ice time at 5 on 5.
Trying to find Hertl the right partners will be key to the Sharks’ success as the Sharks enter year two of Hertl’s eight-year deal. Hoffman is a potential answer with his scoring ability, and Zadina is a huge unknown after a disappointing start to his career with the Detroit Red Wings. If Hoffman can rebound to anywhere near his Florida Panthers days, where he averaged 32 goals a season, Hertl could see a bounce back in his production. If Zadina can prove why he was a top pick in the 2018 draft and turn his career around in San Jose, this top line could be very effective for Quinn.
It will be a tough test against Vegas, who is returning many players from their Cup running and looking to repeat. While Alex Martinez is on IR, most of their defense is back and should be a massive test for the Sharks as their new-look lines try to find any stability. How quickly the Sharks can get going will determine if they can hang around a team they did finish 2-2 against last season.
Can the Sharks new look defense slow down the powerful Vegas offense?
Erik Karlsson is now in Pittsburgh, and the Sharks added Burroughs and Rutta this offseason to help solidify their blueline. Vegas was not as dominant as expected in the regular season last year. They finished 14th in goals per game at 3.26 and were below the Sharks in CF% at 48.15%. They also experienced several injuries in the forward group, most notably Mark Stone, who only played 43 games last year with a back injury. Stone is healthy, as is Jack Eichel, and they present a huge problem to the Sharks.
Both players’ ability to create offense on the forecheck and sustain offense can make for a long night for the Sharks defense, especially with no clear answer on which defenseman will get the puck transition going. It could be a long night for starter Kaapo Kahkonen in net. If the Sharks can maintain puck possession and keep Eichel and Stone from establishing the cycle in their zone, they will have a chance. How Quinn looks to try to neutralize the Eichel and Stone line will be one of the more interesting matchups with his defensemen.
Special teams ready to be special?
The Chaos Approach, five forward power play unit, is set to debut for the Sharks with Granlund as the point man. Besides rookie Henry Thrun, the Sharks do not have a clear answer for who can run the power play. Necessity is the mother of invention, and this invention is five forwards. The Sharks power play was mediocre at best last year, but Vegas’ penalty kill was average, finishing 16th at 82.6%. How does the Sharks’ power play look after scoring on the power play in five of their six preseason games? Can Granlund run the point while facing an attacking forward group in the Golden Knights? Granlund’s spot on the unit will be the biggest part of the Sharks’ success on the first team.
The second unit will be a massive upgrade to what they iced last year. Thomas Bordeleau and William Eklund showed plenty of chemistry last year on the San Jose Barracuda, playing together on the top power play. Zadina and Bordeleau should get plenty of opportunities to unleash shots from the circle with Thrun and Eklund slinging them passes, and Luke Kunin parked up front should be a rugged screener for San Jose.
On the penalty kill, the Sharks have quietly been a top PK team the last few seasons despite their ability to prevent even strength goals. With new additions on the PK in Eklund, Zadina, and Granlund, can they continue to rely on this unit? Without Karlsson, the defensemen should have a more balanced approach in minutes. Does Quinn use all available defensemen on the PK or return to old reliables in Mario Ferraro and Marc-Edouard Vlasic?
Bold Prediction: Thomas Bordeleau officially scores his first career goal, but the Sharks don’t have the star power to match the Golden Knights. Sharks lose 4-2.