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Fear the Five: Bold Predictions for the 2017-18 season

Training camp’s around the corner, so it’s PREDICTION TIME.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Edmonton Oilers at San Jose Sharks John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

This is “Fear the Five,” a recurring series where we present a lighthearted list of five things somehow related to hockey and the San Jose Sharks. The lists aren’t presented in any particular order.

Training camp is so close that I can practically taste it. The San Jose Sharks will open camp on Friday, and play their first preseason game against the Anaheim Ducks four days later. It’s hard to believe, especially after an eventful offseason.

Sure, the Sharks only lost three players from last year’s squad, but two of those departures leave even more questions. San Jose will have to make up for the absence of defenseman David Schlemko, now in Montreal via Vegas after being selected in the Expansion Draft. There’s also the small matter of replacing franchise legend and current Toronto Maple Leaf Patrick Marleau, the organization’s all-time leading scorer and the team’s third-most prolific goal-scorer last season after scoring 27 goals.

What, exactly, have the Sharks done to address those holes? Not much, as it turns out. The team will not be bringing in any veterans on professional tryouts during training camp, so my dreams of seeing Jaromir Jagr’s mullet in teal are on life support. They will, however, be relying upon their young players to step up, and underperforming veterans to bounce back.

Tim Heed will win the seventh defensive spot in training camp

Barring a September surprise, it’s fair to assume Dylan DeMelo will take Schlemko’s spot as San Jose’s sixth defenseman. The far more interesting question is which blueliner will fill DeMelo’s old position as the Sharks’ seventh defenseman.

Radim Simek, the Czech Extraliiga’s reigning leading goal-scorer among defensemen, should not be counted out, but the answer comes down to a pair of Swedes: Tim Heed and Joakim Ryan. Heed took the AHL by storm in his first professional season in North America, leading the league’s blueliners in points per game. Ryan, San Jose’s seventh round pick in 2012, showed significant progress in his second professional season on the San Jose Barracuda’s blueline.

Ryan’s no slouch offensively (49 points last season), but Heed’s better and that’s why I’d give him the edge to take DeMelo’s old spot, at least out of training camp. The Sharks power play needs a reboot more than a dormant film franchise, and Heed’s offensive upside could even make him an option on the second unit.

Perhaps above all else, I’d expect Heed to start the year in the NHL for the same reason DeMelo stayed with the Sharks despite spending more nights in the press box: Heed is no longer waivers-exempt, and I don’t think San Jose is willing to lose a defenseman with that kind of offensive ability for free.

Kevin Labanc won’t start the season in the NHL, but will finish there

Kevin Labanc was a pleasant surprise in training camp last September, and forced his way into the NHL after a hot start with the Barracuda. He seemingly fell out of Head Coach Peter DeBoer’s good graces by the beginning of March, and was sent back down to the AHL following the trade deadline acquisition of Jannik Hansen.

He finished the regular season with the Sharks out of necessity, after injuries to Logan Couture and Joe Thornton opened up spots, but did not seem to have DeBoer’s trust by the end of the season. Labanc did not suit up in a single Stanley Cup playoff game last spring, even as the Sharks managed just 14 goals in a six-game, first round loss to the Edmonton Oilers.

With that in mind, I don’t think Labanc will start the season with the Sharks. DeBoer seems to trust Timo Meier and Marcus Sorensen more, and those two are enough to replace the departed Marleau and Micheal Haley on the NHL roster. A player like Ryan Carpenter is far more likely to serve as the team’s 13th forward, given his stage of development compared to Labanc’s.

After regular playing time with the Barracuda, though, I expect Labanc will force DeBoer’s hand and finish the season with the Sharks. His Calder Cup playoffs performance may have been a bit underwhelming, but the former sixth round pick still managed 20 points in 55 NHL games and wasn’t a bad possession player, either. With a year of professional hockey under his belt, he should be even better this season and will leave the Sharks no choice but to have him in the NHL.

Tomas Hertl will score 20 goals...centering his own line

Injuries cut short Tomas Hertl’s season for the third time in four seasons last year, as the Czech forward failed to play in 50 regular season games for the second time in his NHL career. When he was healthy, though, Hertl showed that he was ready to play center.

That’s the position he played when the Sharks drafted him in 2012, and that’s the position he should play in 2017-18. Chris Tierney is simply not ready for full-time duty as the team’s third-line center, and San Jose needs to prepare for life without Joe Thornton, who’s 38 and coming off of significant knee surgery. Thornton’s also coming off of his worst offensive season in nearly two decades, so San Jose needs a contingency now and in the future.

This is the year when San Jose will finally, fully commit to Hertl playing center, and I expect it to pay off. With his position truly defined, I think the goal-scoring will follow, and Hertl will score 20 or more goals for just the second time in his NHL career. He’ll need good fortune in the way of health and talented linemates, of course, but Marleau’s absence opens up a spot on the power play’s top unit, and Hertl’s big-bodied presence could be what the team needs to rejuvenate its offense with the extra man.

San Jose will miss the playoffs

As the events of this offseason unfolded, it all felt vaguely familiar. A popular player departed and signed elsewhere in free agency. The Sharks did little to address holes up front or on the blueline, opting instead to rely on internal options. There was little activity on the trade or free agent front, other than the head-scratching signing of an enforcer.

Am I talking about the summer of 2014, or 2017? I could just as easily be referring to Dan Boyle’s departure, Brent Burns moving to the blueline without a replacement up front, and John Scott signing then instead of Marleau’s departure and Brandon Bollig’s signing this summer.

The comparison, of course, isn’t exact. This summer, Wilson didn’t publicly admit the Sharks were taking a step back, and signed defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic and goaltender Martin Jones to long extensions. There was no public grumbling about the arena or TV deals either, and the team isn’t coming off of a gut-wrenching reverse sweep.

The young players relied upon to step forward are better than the ones that were expected to do so three years ago, but the veteran core is older and the list of experienced players needing to bounce back is even longer than in 2014. Even if Meier, Labanc, Sorensen, and the rest of the young guys improve, the Sharks will still need Thornton, Joonas Donskoi, Mikkel Boedker, and Joel Ward need to be better as well, just to name a few.

The Central Division also looks, on paper, every bit as formidable as it was when five teams made the playoffs that season. That would leave just three postseason spots open for the Pacific Division, and San Jose’s margin for error even thinner in a division where the top two spots are largely set.

The Sharks need a lot to break their way if they’re to match their performance from last season, let alone improve upon it. Ultimately, I think it’s just too much to ask of this group as currently constructed, and I can’t see Wilson making a move that jeopardizes the future. So, I expect this season to end the same way as 2014-15, with the Sharks outside of the postseason.

Fear the Fin will be in great hands

I may not be high on San Jose’s chances this season, but I am very high on what Sie has in store for you on Fear the Fin this season. The blog is in excellent hands, and I expect her to be the Ron Wilson to my Cap Raeder, taking the site to new heights after my interim tenure.

The site will also be better in an “addition by subtraction” sense, as I’ll no longer be writing! You won’t be able to get rid of me entirely, however, as I’ll still be an active reader and around in the comments, but you’ll largely be spared my stale takes (as long as you also steer clear of my Twitter feed).

As a longtime reader, writing for the site for these last two years has checked an item off of my bucket list. I’ll forever be grateful to Jake for giving me the opportunity, and incredibly thankful to everyone who read my work along the way.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t thank Sie, Ryan, Lakshya, Kyle, Erik, Evan, and the rest of the staff for their efforts during my time at the helm. You all ensured a smooth transition period from Jake’s time to Sie’s, and were extremely helpful in ensuring we kept readers informed during the Draft(s), Free Agency, and the rest of the offseason.

Until next time: go Sharks.