Your humble author had an opportunity to catch two preseason games and the Teal & White scrimmage over the course of the last week. Most of my thoughts can be found scattered across various threads on this lovely site (specifically here), but it's never a bad idea to get them together in one place.
Unlike every other position in this year's training camp, no one's fighting for a starting spot between the pipes- it's Nabokov's job, and will likely be so for the rest of this season. The hope is that a contract year elevates his play to a level above where he finished last year, as a sub .900 SV% won't win you many playoff series. Against Phoenix he played pretty well, with only the fourth goal being one I could find fault in. The Coyotes were on the power play, and with the puck at the point Nabokov inexplicably stayed in the butterfly- one cross ice feed later, Kyle Turris rips home a goal from above the circles, with about half the net to pick from. It was a good play by the Coyotes, and Turris really unloaded on his shot, but if Nabokov had stayed up he would have given himself a chance and probably made the stop.
Regardless, with number 20 as the consensual number one, there's a lot of uncertainty as to what Wilson may do. I have yet to see Thomas Greiss put out a solid outing this season, which is sort of unfair considering his performance against Los Angeles on Thursday. However, as was mentioned before, his post to post movement is average at best and his puck playing ability always elicits a quick breath and swelling of the chest. From what I've seen it doesn't seem like he's playing with a whole lot of confidence right now, which could be an issue considering I want to see San Jose's backup get roughly 24 starts this season in order to a) give Nabokov adequate rest going into the playoffs and b) allow Doug Wilson and Todd McLellan more time to gauge the talent level at the goaltending position for next season when Nabokov is due to hit free agency (I am an advocate of letting him walk considering the salary structure of the team).
Tyson Sexsmith has been the most impressive of the three that I have seen (with Stalock coming in second), but let it be known that is mostly based off Teal & White and about a period of a single preseason game- goaltending is a fickle position, and one that can fluctuate greatly from month to month. It's not surprising that GM's and scouts alike have difficulty projecting the growth pattern of a lot of these kids.
So what to do you ask? Here's my thought process- keep Greiss up on the NHL roster for the time being. You save some coin to fill out the roster, as well as giving Stalock and Sexsmith the opportunity to platoon down at Worcester. Both have yet to play at the professional level, and the reps they get down there will be much more beneficial than the ones they would get behind Nabokov (no matter how much I would like him to do so, I doubt McLellan starts the backup 24 times this season). Then, if Greiss has failed to keep the team in games, you have the ability to utilize all three of these goaltenders two-way contracts during the stretch run, making a switch if necessary.
As mentioned earlier, I would like to see 12-8-29 get roughly 60-75% of their minutes against opposing top lines due to the fact that Marleau and Pavelski are two of the best defensive forwards in the league today. That's going to open up a lot of ice for Thornton and Co., and should make The Tank one of the worst places to play all season long due to the last change McLellan will be afforded. And with that comes the concluding sentence on the top six. They're going to be dynamite*.
*Two things that bug me though- first off, the next time you get to see a game, watch Clowe receive a breakout pass near the redline. See how he stops moving his feet and always looks for the cross ice feed? See how opposing teams backcheck down the middle because that's one of the first things you learn when playing hockey? See how he'll either try and force that pass or be forced to give up possession and dump it in? See how the far side winger is going to have to hit the brakes before reaching the blueline because Clowe took too long to realize that pass isn't open? See how it's an easy retrieval for the opposing squad? Yeah, it bugs me.
Another thing that bugs me (admittedly, a minor gripe) is when the Sharks are coming down on the rush, hit the zone with numbers, and Patrick Marleau tries to go high short side instead of shooting low far post in the hope that the goaltender kicks out a juicy rebound. I think he could look to that more often, but then again, I'm not getting paid 6.3 million dollars a year.
Maybe I'm not done with the big guns yet- I do want to say how impressed I was on Saturday with Dany Heatley. He made a great play behind the net to tie up the puck carrying defenseman (directly leading to Patrick Marleau's game tying goal), and had a real nice pass behind the backchecking forwards during a rush that Devin Setoguchi couldn't manage to put past Bryzgalov. It's easy to forget what kind of vision he has with the puck considering his laudy goal totals. You can tell he hasn't quite got the hang of his linemates (there were some occasions where he tried to cycle down low when the flow dictated he move it to the blueline), but that's going to come with time.
Anyways, the lower lines are shaping up quite nice with the addition of Manny Malhotra. He's going to provide some scoring pop along with Jamie McGinn (recent article on McGinn's importance found here), and of course will be a defensive powerhouse- you don't log big PK minutes under Ken Hitchcock based off how sweetly your name rolls off the lips. I haven't seen him play this preseason obviously, but due to NHL Center Ice saw a lot of his games and grew to be a big fan. Couldn't be more pleased with him coming aboard.
Another guy that really impressed me on Saturday was Scott Nichol. Just a complete beast on the PK. One play in particular stuck out (he made a handful of them)- Phoenix is working the blueline and the Sharks shift to that side. Nichol was at the top of the circles, checks down and sees the backdoor open up, commits to that read and deflects the pass out of play. Great vision, great speed, great from the dot, and a perfect junkyard dog for the bottom line. Towards the end of the game he took exception to a Martin Hanzal hit, followed him to the bench as they both were making a line change, and gives him a how do ya do in the lower back. They ended up leaning over the boards and jawing for about thirty seconds. I hope he can stay healthy because that's a type of spark plug the Sharks haven't had in a long time.
As for the camp hopefuls, Logan Couture has stuck out, but I don't think he makes the team considering the log jam at center- to sum up what was said before, keep him in Worcester, let him grow his game, and call him up if injuries start to become a factor. Frazer McLaren is a fun guy to watch just because he really can't skate or make consistently productive hockey plays, but he loves to go the net and can lay out some punishment along the boards. I don't think he makes the team out of camp unless the coaching staff decides he's an upgrade over Jody Shelley- there's no need for both of them skating on the fourth line, even with the small amount of minutes they'd receive. Brad Staubitz has been his usual self, driving hard on the forecheck and creating some energy, but as I have asserted this offseason, it might turn into a shorthanded fest with both Nichol and he out there. My guess is that he's another injury call up during the regular season.
The remaining lot haven't made much of an impact in my opinion, so I'm not going to even attempt to project who makes the roster. I still think Torrey Mitchell is looking at some hearty LTIR time to start the year which should open up two spots on the wing, and Malhotra's signing all but confirms he's going to be out until mid November (at the least) in my mind. There's no way DW manages to get under the cap he gets cap relief through that, Malhotra signs for around the minimum (not going to happen), or San Jose rolls without a healthy scratch in either the forward or defenseman department.
Kent Huskins had a horrible game on Friday. I really hope it's an aberration and not a sign of things to come, because as much fun as Huskins Haiku can be, a $1.7 million dollar meme is probably not what DW had in mind when he signed him. Speaking of which, here's a new edition for you folks today. I'm my own goddamn muse I tell ya. My own goddamn muse.
Huskins time hold breath
Shifts equal trouser trouble
Laundromat I seek
Anyways, I'm trying to keep a level head here considering it was only one game, but I'm not expecting all too much this season from Husky (who's going to be in the dog house har har). Some guys will have bad games and you can see the breaks just didn't go their way that night, but with Huskins it was different. He's soft. There were numerous occasions on the penalty kill (he saw a lot of minutes there, an option that will probably cease to exist beginning October 1st) where it looked as if he had never been in the slot before. On the first goal he ran a screen trying to, I don't know, politely squeeze the forward out of the crease. It was like he was stepping into a packed train and didn't want to offend anybody. The third goal was a pass through the box that was tapped in by Daniel Sedin. Huskins let him sit on Greiss that entire power play. On Ehrhoff's goal he left the crease to come out and challenge a winger on the sidewall who had just made a pass to the blueline- untouched forward in front, screen, goal, anger, mild psychosis, black out, wake up in a ditch, get home, calm down for two days, write a blog. Goddamnit.
This is precisely the reason I've been hammering home this point the entire offseason (I know it gets annoying but stick with me for just two more sentences)- Huskins and Boyle should at no point whatsoever be paired together. They both like to join the rush, and Boyle isn't going to cash any paychecks with his defensive zone play either. Why put two guys cut from the same cloth out there together at even strength, especially as a top pairing that is going to see a lot of minutes? Like Dennis and Mac taught us, you need both Honey & Vinegar if you're going to succeed. I'd like to see him paired with a neanderthal of sorts that will just go around and chew on some legs, but if we can't find the cap space for Steve MacIntyre* then Murray or Petrecki should fit just fine.
*That's obviously sarcasm in case you missed it.
Don't get me wrong- I hope for the best when it comes to Huskins, and think he'll be serviceable at sheltered bottom pairing minutes. It's just that $1.7 M is a lot to pay for that kind of service on a roster like San Jose's, especially if he's going to be middling in the defensive zone.
As for the rest of the blueline, Nick Petrecki and Derek Joslin have been the ones generating most of the buzz, and rightfully so- they both have consistently stood out in comparison to their camp competition counterparts. I was pissed Petrecki got a game misconduct on Saturday considering he was paired with Boyle and I wanted to see how that would shake out over a full game, but luckily McLellan has a couple more games to tinker with some pairings and hopefully find a good mix. Essentially I think it's shaking up to be a battle between Petrecki and Joslin for the sixth slot on defense, and while Joslin has impressed defensively (had a nice hit on Los Gatos born Viktor Tikhonov on Saturday, and played a good amount on the PK), David Pollak's recent post on Working The Corners seems to indicate that the coaching staff is leaning Petrecki. He had some issues with breakout passes on Friday's game against Vancouver, but in general has seemed to be the one who is getting the most looks. San Jose could use another physical defenseman on the backend considering Murray and Blake are the only ones who fit that role currently.
As for the healthy scratch department, I would prefer Joslin gets sent down to Worcester (assuming Petrecki cracks the roster) so he's able to get reps and improve his game- he's got the tools to develop into a solid bottom four pairing guy down the road, and there's no need to sit him on the bench in San Jose for the majority of nights. At twenty two years old he will have plenty of opportunity to grow on the top pairing down there. As mentioned earlier, I'm not a big fan of Mathieu Dandenault playing defense considering the lack of physical acumen on the bottom lines, but he looked decent as a forward- my hope is that if he does crack the roster, it is as a winger.
Joe Callahan may be my guy in the scratch department- he's currently 26 years old with a cap hit of $.500 M, and seems like a guy who's going to play a solid defense first game. His age is high enough where a full year in Worcester won't be as beneficial (compared to a Demers or Loprieno), and from an organizational standpoint I think that's a good route to take. Have a guy like him to fill in when the starting six need a spell, let your younger blueliners grow in the minors, and then re-evaluate your needs during the stretch run.
We're only a stone's throw away from October- time to start getting out the tinfoil hats and buying Prozac by the barrel. I can't wait.