The San Jose Sharks kick off the NHL season in Prague, Czechia in a back-to-back series against the Nashville Predators. The pair of games will be the first two of three games between the two clubs this season, and open with the only game where Nashville is the home team. Condolences to Tennessee Sharks fans.
The Predators enter the season hoping to claw back into dark horse contention on the backs of Norris-caliber defender Roman Josi and Vezina-caliber goaltender Juuso Saros. The Sharks, meanwhile, are kicking off a new era with general manager Mike Grier, who replaces Doug Wilson after nearly a 20-year run, and head coach David Quinn taking over from Bob Boughner’s team.
Both squads look to answer several questions heading into the regular season opening weekend series.
Can David Quinn fix the power play?
The Sharks struggled to generate goals last season and the power play was no exception. The team ranked 22nd in the league with a 19 percent success rate on the skater-advantage. Coach Quinn’s New York Rangers team was typically in the top half of the league when he was behind the bench, ranking 17th, 7th and 14th in his three seasons with the club. An improved power play could be a shot in the arm for a team that has done little in the off-season to assuage scoring troubles.
The Predators could be an excellent opportunity to get the power play jump-started. Last season, Nashville ranked 18th in the penalty kill with a 79.2 percent success rate. On the larger international ice, penalty killers will need better discipline to keep the power play from utilizing the extra time and space to find open lanes. Having Saros to clean up gaps in coverage helps, but if a loaded top unit of Erik Karlsson, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Luke Kunin keep feeding Timo Meier one-timers from the circle, that sounds like a recipe for success.
Can the Sharks just keep even at 5-on-5?
If you are looking for low-event hockey, you’ve come to the right place! Per Natural Stat Trick, less than half of the league’s teams averaged more than 30 shots-for per game at score- and venue-adjusted 5-on-5, and neither of Nashville (18th, 29.09) or San Jose (29th, 27.55) were among them. When it comes to driving to the net at 5-on-5, Nashville has an edge, but neither team was leading the charge on the ice last season.
Last year’s Sharks scored the fewer goals in the league at 5-on-5, with 142. Though the Predators ranked 16th, their 165 5-on-5 goals are a lot closer to the Sharks’ total than the Florida Panthers in the top spot with 218.
How will David Quinn look to attack the Predators? Are the Sharks going to look for quality shots and try to play keep away from a very deep forward group, or are they going to let it rip and ask Saros to play a perfect game, even if the shot quality isn’t always the best? Quinn’s Rangers teams usually went quality over quantity, ranking near the bottom of the league in shot attempts per game. Quinn will probably ask the team to be patient and pick their spots carefully.
Can a rebuilt second line boost the stars?
Logan Couture’s second line featured a revolving door of wingers last season, as the team searched for answers in secondary scoring. With the signing of Oskar Lindblom and Kevin Labanc returning from a shoulder injury, the hope is that these players can help add a scoring punch that the team was desperately missing last season. Couture isn’t the same player he once was, but he can still be a productive center, and improving the talent around him can help take the pressure off of the top line duo of Hertl and Meier.
The Couture line is going to have its hands full either this weekend. The Predators' top-six includes 40 goal-scorers in Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg and 20 goal-scorers in Ryan Johansen and newcomer Nino Niederreiter. There’s little reason to expect any of these players to drop off. If the second line can build chemistry quickly, it will go a long way to helping the Sharks find some additional scoring. Let’s hope all these small improvements add up.
BOLD PREDICTION: Tomas Hertl scores in front of his home fans, and Timo Meier makes it interesting late, but the Sharks fall 4-2 in the season opener.