Despite several years of failed attempts to woo various free agent forwards, the biggest acquisition for the Sharks this year came on their blueline. Suddenly, the Sharks are a team whose window isn’t closing; rather, adding Erik Karlsson is jamming that window open for as long as they’ll let him lead a wholly different D-corps.
Yes, San Jose Sharks fans, this is an exciting year to be sure. But there’s still one big question: What about the forwards?
The Top Six
The top six forwards for the San Jose Sharks are an odd mix of San Jose’s legacy and San Jose’s future.
Starting at the top, not much needs to be said about Jumbo Joe Thornton, a lock future Hall of Famer and one of the most elite passers the game has ever seen, or Captain America, Joe Pavelski. On one hand, Jumbo is one year from 40 and skating around on two surgically rebuilt knees and Pavs has looked noticeably slower over those two seasons. On the other, during training camp coaches have noted how both forwards look to be in far better physical form this year than the previous two years.
Jumbo has had lots of time to rehab from both knee injuries and Pavs has also healed up, having played with a broken hand for two months last year. Although Thornton’s age and other attributes probably make him more worthy of a 3C role at best, his elite vision will still keep him in a top-six role, providing his health holds. With their history of point production together, the two Joes are a virtual lock to stay on the same line. The third forward on that line will likely be a revolving door of Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier and Joonas Donskoi until Pete DeBoer finds the combination that clicks. Whoever ends up there should get their fair share of good looks and open ice.
Beyond the Joes, the next San Jose forward stalwart is Logan Couture. After two healthy seasons in a row and a return to the 30+ goal plateau, Logan may be the most reliable 5-on-5 forward, as 18 of his 34 goals last season were at even strength. Logan has showed he can find chemistry with multiple winger partners, having showed great chemistry with Donskoi and Hertl for various long stretches over the last two seasons. Most recently it has been Hertl, and it is likely the two will have plenty of time together unless Hertl proves to be the best fit for the Joes (forming a line that looked like world-beaters during the 2016 run until Hertl’s injury).
Another key factor for the Sharks top six at 5-on-5 will be the impact of having Evander Kane for a full season. It is a matter of debate whether Kane’s speed can add a new dimension to the Joe’s line, or whether his speed is better utilized with players who can keep up with him. The coaching staff has showed a willingness to tinker with this dynamic during camp and preseason, but the answer to this question will ultimately be settled on the ice during the regular season.
The final two players that round out the San Jose Sharks top six are the real future of the organization. Hertl looked to be a key piece when he burst on the scene a few years ago, but thanks to Dustin Brown and a string of injuries, we may only now be getting to assess Hertl’s true value. This will be the first season since his entry into the league that Hertl gets to start a campaign with full health and full confidence. The results may just take even the most die-hard Hertl fans by surprise.
If there was any concern about the Sharks’ first-round picks, Timo Meier had something to say about that last season. The young Swiss power forward immediately proved impactful with a 21-goal season and strong post-season. Like Kane, with an eagerness to fire the puck from everywhere and a willingness to bang bodies down low, Meier has added a much needed dimension to the Sharks forward core that they haven’t really had since Ryane Clowe. His youth certainly doesn’t hurt his case, either.
The Second Tier
After the top six, things get interesting for the Sharks. The good news is that the “interesting” part is not so much a lack of options as it is a plethora of potential. Joonas Donskoi can plug in anywhere and could land on any line on any given night. While the forward is undoubtedly Finnish, the primary question is can he? Although his point production has not been commensurate with his play (he’s so far maxed out at the 36 points in his first season), Donkey has all the skills and continues to do all the right things. His 55.1 Corsi-For percentage (CF%) is elite level and third on the team behind only Tim Heed (What?) and Paul Martin (thanks Brent Burns!). Donskoi drives possession. This year, he needs to take his next step in development and translate that possession to production.
Who was just behind Donskoi in CF% on the team? Kevin Labanc at 54.5 CF%. In fact, Donskoi and Labanc ranked 32nd and 49th respectively in the league in CF% for all players playing more than 41 games last season. That is pretty remarkable for two young players still finding their way in this league. It is certainly one of the reasons that both young players occasionally find themselves plugged in to the top six and why both find themselves on the second power play unit.
Last year, Labanc showed great vision with 21 of his 29 assists last season being primary. While his goal total edged up to 11, expectations are that he should be finding the back of the net more often, since he is routinely noted by players and coaches as having one of the hardest and most accurate wrist shots on the team. With two seasons under his belt and the departure of Chris Tierney, the Sharks will heavily rely on Labanc to drive offense in the bottom six.
The bottom five forwards on the Sharks depth chart are a mix of familiar, mildly “proven” role-players like Melker Karlsson, Barclay Goodrow and Marcus Sorensen, and some newcomers with real potential like Antti Suomela and Rourke Chartier.
Perennially under-appreciated Melker Karlsson is the most “proven” of the bunch. We pretty much know what we have in “the Melk Man.” That is a hard skating puck-hound with a reasonably good hockey IQ, who rarely sticks out on the ice for anything but his effort (and we mean that in a good way). He can provide some secondary, probably more tertiary, scoring and energy and he occasionally fits the bill as being “hard to play against,” although his possession numbers were not great last year (45.7 CF%). Melker tends to elevate his play depending on who he is surrounded with. Since the bottom six is full of question marks, this means Melker’s play (if he can stay healthy) could be all over the place this season.
Goodrow has played 124 games with the Sharks over the last few years, yet he can’t seem to come close to approximating his AHL successes in the NHL during that time. Goodrow’s 7 goals and 28 points felt like a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen if the coaches are convinced enough in his upside to give him a larger role than occasional forth liner. Considering that Pete DeBoer seems so comfortable moving pieces up and down the lineup, the fact that Goodrow rarely makes it above the fourth line may tell you all you need to know where they believe his ceiling is. Still, the Toronto native does enough to earn more looks and if he can capitalize on the minutes he gets, he will get more in turn.
Marcus Sorensen, meanwhile, would appear to have imminently more to offer. In his 67 games with the Sharks, he has shown flashes of brilliance, even occasional game-breaking ability. He may very well be the fastest Sharks forward but 6 goals and 11 points in his 51 regular season games fails to impress. What is exciting, however, is that he also had 5 goals and 7 points in 16 playoff games, largely accounted for by his 4 goals in 10 games during last year’s brief run. If Sorensen can find that same gear in a larger role, he will not only work his way into more games, but he’ll work his way up the lineup.
From there you get to the true question marks in the San Jose forward corps. In some ways, Antti Suomela is the Joonas Donskoi acquisition 2.0, but still a real wild-card, since it is completely unknown if his Finnish league successes will translate to NHL success. Like Donskoi before him, there will be a learning curve, no doubt. How steep it will be is still a mystery, although his camp and preseason alongside his fellow countryman Donskoi has been impressive.
Rourke Chartier was probably not on any Sharks fan’s radar to actually make this team before the preseason. His injury history is far more widely known than his hockey prowess. All that changed this September, as Chartier showed all through camp and preseason that he could not only execute the system and make smart plays, but that he could even contribute. With only one real season of AHL experience under his belt, it is anybody’s guess how he’ll respond to the NHL game.
Beyond the big club, there are few names that seem like can’t-miss call-ups from the Barracuda. Dylan Gambrell may be the club’s only shoe-in to make an NHL appearance at some point, but he showed in camp that at least a little AHL seasoning may be needed for him to get his game where it needs to be.
Lukas Radil was a 16-goal scorer in the KHL and got a long look in camp this year. At 28-years-old, he better impress quickly to get some organizational traction. Given that he’s played plenty in the KHL against grown men, he could be an easy call-up decision in a pinch.
The Sharks ranked 16th last season in power play percentage at 20.6 percent last season. That’s not going to be a recipe for for a long playoff run. If you wonder if they will be better this year, see: Karlsson, Erik. For the forward group, a healthy Thornton and Pavelski will likely provide dramatic improvement on the power play. Improving offensive forces (and big bodies) Hertl and Meier will also greatly dictate power play success, as will a full season of Evander Kane. Kane is not a particularly prolific power play specialist, but he also hasn’t played with a potentially stacked power play unit that can click like San Jose either.
On the flip side, the Sharks ranked second last year on the penalty kill with an 84.8 percent success rate. The Sharks are full of high hockey-IQ players (Doug Wilson’s favorite) and it shows. If the Sharks just repeat last year in this area, everyone should be more than happy.
The Sharks are said these days to have no first line, two good second lines, and a great third line. Line designations aside, there is both flexibility and depth here, albeit depth that gets pretty thin pretty quick should injuries strike. If health holds and if Thornton and Pavelski can both have anything close to renaissance years, the continued growth of the youth of this team should make the Sharks forward group as competitive as anyone. The group is a nicely composed hodgepodge of size, speed, effort and skill, one that could wedge that window open for another few years even after Jumbo Joe’s number gets hung in the rafters.