Sharks Season Preview: Defense that trusts is defense that triumphs

The chemistry on a healthy blue line means improvement is surely guaranteed.

The San Jose Sharks’ home opener is a few days away, which means it’s the perfect time to preview their defense for this upcoming season.

Once the opening night roster was dropped, we had a pretty good idea of the direction the Sharks are going in with their defense for their 2021-22 season. The mood; stalwart (and highly-paid) veterans, paired with some young talent.

The opening night roster lists Brent Burns, Mario Ferraro, Santeri Hatakka, Erik Karlsson, Jake Middleton, Radim Simek and Marc-Edouard Vlasic on the blue line.

I really like what I’ve been seeing with the Sharks’ defense throughout training camp and the preseason. Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic are the undeniable veterans of the Sharks defense, though that comes with a perception of being less effective. Sure, they’re not getting any younger, but the reason they’re still so highly valued is because they’re versatile and influential in their own right.

The general vibe of the Sharks exiting training camp is that there’s only one choice: be better than last year. With a reworked goaltending tandem and the influx of some young talent, there’s no reason that the Sharks’ defense can’t rebound this season.

Overall, for the returning defenders, their individual stats were poor last year, but some of that can be contributed to San Jose’s lack of confidence in their goaltending and less than stellar record.

Physicality hasn’t been a problem for the D-corps, but chemistry has cause issues in the past (notably, Burns has rotated through a cast of partners, all supposedly his perfect match). Head Coach Bob Boughner has made chemistry a priority when assembling his opening night roster, which is why there are a few younger players who are still adjusting to the NHL level, like Middleton and Hatakka. Ferraro will be expected to take another demonstrative step in his development this season as well, as the in-between rookie.

If you caught the Sharks’ final preseason game on Oct. 9, then you’ll know exactly what I mean by chemistry. That final game was a 4-0 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights, and was everything you would want to see from a team going into the regular season. The passes were crisp, the energy was high, and you could tell that they trusted each other, from goaltender to D-pairs to forward lines.

That game also gave us a preview of the Sharks defensive lines. I wouldn’t expect them to change much beyond the likely swapping of Vlasic for Middleton, due to Sharks’ coaching’s emphasis on establishing solid pairs and chemistry.

The pairs in that game were:

Ferraro — Burns
Hatakka — Karlsson
Middleton — Simek

Hatakka and Karlsson were the standout pair, with an undeniable energy on the ice. From the moment the puck hit the ice, Karlsson and Hatakka were feeding off each other. They hit big, but were integral pieces to the Sharks’ zone entries and forecheck. Karlsson ended the night with two assists. Burns and Ferraro aren’t to be missed either; Burns snagged himself the fourth goal of the night. I’m not totally sold on Middleton quite yet, and he may be an interchangeable piece with Vlasic or Simek.

The expectations are high with the Sharks defense going into this season. Yes, Martin Jones struggled in net last season, but the defense in front of him struggled first. Vlasic played 51 games for 6 points and a -8, Burns played 56 games for 29 points and a -13, Ferraro played 56 games for 17 points and a -6, Karlsson played 52 games for 22 points and a -18, and Simek played 40 games for 6 points and a -9.

There’s no denying that each of them has to improve. Burns and Karlsson can easily exceed 20 points per season again, and Ferraro is able to hit the 20-point mark too. Vlasic and Simek may not reach that level, but that isn’t necessarily their role. Middleton and Hatakka are a question mark of how offensively-minded they can (or should) be. Middleton ended the Barracuda season last year with 7 points and a +4 in 22 games, but beyond a few hits and a giveaway, he wasn’t the most impressive defender on Oct. 9.

Hatakka is exciting, because he was kind of a dark horse throughout training camp. All our eyes were focused on William Eklund and Adam Raska, but Hatakka has earned his place on this roster through sheer hard work and a maturity on the ice that makes you forget he’s only 20 years old. He slots right into the defensive lineup, and looked comfortable and in control with Karlsson. He put up 7 points in 44 games in the Finnish Liiga last year, but he has a high suspected ceiling — one the Sharks are betting on.

Overall, I’m excited about where the Sharks’ defense is ahead of opening night. It’s unchanged enough to prove that management still trusts and believes in their veterans, but has enough new talent to revitalize the line up.

The Sharks will play their first game of the regular season on Oct. 16 at SAP Center against the Winnipeg Jets. Puck drop is at 7 p.m. PT/10 p.m. ET.