With Sharks training camp officially set to get underway at 9:00 AM, hockey season is finally beginning to creep up around the corner like a mugging you've been eagerly anticipating. After a whirlwind offseason for the organization, this training camp should be one of the more exciting ones in recent memory.
To recap-- Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Scott Nichol, Jamal Mayers, Kyle Wellwood, Ian White, Niclas Wallin, Kent Huskins, and Ben Eager are out, while Brent Burns, Michael Handzus, Martin Havlat, Andrew Murray, and Brad Winchester (tryout) are in. Coupled with the massive amounts of prospects who will be fighting for a third and fourth line role, and it's safe to say there are going to be some very interesting battles develop over the course of the next two weeks.
Not all will be up in the air however. The Sharks top six of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat, Logan Couture, and Ryane Clowe is essentially set, and the blueline heads into camp as the best in team history. Brent Burns, Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Douglas Murray, Jason Demers, and Colin White round out the expected starters, while Jim Vandermeer is expected to fill in at the seven hole in case of injury. A strong camp from one of the prospects could change this projected lineup of course, but a player such as Justin Braun may have to wait until the inevitable injuries occur in order to get his shot with the big club.
So with the primary positions decided, and some interesting battles ready to take place on the third line here is one of those nifty top five lists that, along with serving as a great way to attract page hits, should cover the biggest questions we have going into the 2011 Sharks Training Camp.
1. What effect will injuries have on camp this season? As the esteemed David Pollak of Working The Corners has been reporting, the Sharks will be dealing with their fair share of injuries this week and next. Antero Niitymaki is expected to miss at least 12 weeks with recurring pain problems, putting him on the shelf for the beginning of the season. In his stead will be Thomas Greiss, who served a backup role under Evgeni Nabokov during 07-08 (until the acquisition of Brian Boucher) and 09-10. If Greiss plays well to start the year, and Niittymaki's return falls around Stalock's return from injury, it could present an interesting dilemma for Sharks GM Doug Wilson later in the year.
On the minor injury front, Martin Havlat is still recovering from offseason surgery and Antti Niemi underwent a minor procedure that will cause him to miss the start of training camp. Both players are expected to be in the lineup on opening night.
2) Is the 7 spot on the blueline up for grabs? Although Jim Vandermeer looks to be the seventh defenseman heading into the season, the Sharks will start camp with Vandermeer paired alongside Justin Braun. Braun showed flashes of brilliance last season with the club, and after his second stint down in Worcester, came back a much more rounded player that could be trusted more in the defensive end.
Starting Braun in Worcester makes a whole lot of sense of course-- he gets time to play top minutes instead of sitting in the press box, Vandermeer provides a more defensively oriented backup pairing, and the inevitable injuries that will strike on the blueline at one point or another will give Braun an opportunity to get some playing time in San Jose. But with the entire organization focused on getting off to a much better start than last season, could a strong showing from Braun in camp coupled with a weak one from Vandermeer land the 25 year old a spot on the team?
We're leaning towards no. But that doesn't mean it isn't a possibility.
3) Can Jamie McGinn capitalize on the scoring potential he showed early in his career? We've always been been intrigued with McGinn's scoring potential here at Fear The Fin, and wrote a touching homage to his first goal last season that encapsulated the drought he was going through.The Sharks third and fourth lines are still a work in progress as of right now with players battling for spots, but an early training camp lineup indicates McGinn is going to be given a chance to nail down third line duty alongside Michael Handzus and Torrey Mitchell.
With his fourth year in the League set to get underway this season, and 3/4 line scoring depth a question mark heading into the year for San Jose, McGinn's best opportunity to be a full-time player with the big club will be on the scoresheet. Last season he proved he was able to make an impact physically-- this season can he make an impact with his shot?
4) How does the third and fourth line eventually shake out? With the invite of Brad Winchester into the fold on a tryout basis, the battles for third and fourth line duty just got that much more interesting. Winchester, the aforementioned McGinn, Benn Ferriero, Tommy Wingels, Andrew Murray, Brandon Mashinter, John McCarthy, Cam Macintyre, Frazer McLaren, and Andrew Desjardins are all the big names to watch out for this preseason, but don't rule out Penticton standout Michael Sgarbossa or another under the radar player from making a strong bid as well. There are a lot of spots open in San Jose this preseason, and we can't wait to see how it all shakes out.
5) Is there a fast-forward button on this thing? Because we really just want to watch Vlasic and Burns play together. Throughout this offseason, nothing has piqued my interest more than the potential Vlasic and Burns have to be one of the best young defensive pairings in the NHL next season. The early training camp lineup has them paired together, with Boyle-Murray and Demers-White as the Sharks other pairing-- just as we expect they will be going into the year. All in all the blueline is loaded like your uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, but there's no pairing which is more intriguing than Vlasic-Burns.
This is less of a question and more of a plea. We're excited to watch all of the roster drama unfold training camp of course, but if given the choice, I'd gladly hit the fast forward button to opening night just to watch Vlasic and Burns take their first shift.