Who’s going to play on special teams?
There are no shortage of job openings in San Jose Sharks training camp this fall, some obvious, some less so.
Up front, much has been made of the 3-4 spots that might be available for a veteran flier like Jonny Brodzinski or rookies Dylan Gambrell, Alexander True or Sasha Chmelevski.
Waivers or a trade may also come into play. Montreal, for example, is a team with too many quality forwards, not enough roster spots. Doug Wilson has about $3 million dollars of cap space for a late addition.
There’s more clarity on the back-end, though the time table for Radim Simek’s recovery from knee surgery could conceivably open up short-term space on the opening night roster for a surprise blueliner.
Between the pipes, the back-up job is Aaron Dell’s to lose. If Dell drops the ball, however, Peter DeBoer did leave the door open a crack for a change.
But digging even deeper, there should be a spirited competition for special teams roles.
The Joe Pavelski Chain Reaction
Joe Pavelski’s on-the-ice absence might be felt most keenly on the San Jose power play.
For over a decade, Pavelski, acclaimed by many to be the league’s best at tipping and deflecting pucks, caused havoc in front of the opposing net. Last year, he led the team in power play goals.
It’s no wonder that the Sharks were connected with UFA Corey Perry — also well-regarded for his net-front skills — after Pavelski’s departure.
In Pavelski’s place, Timo Meier is poised to step forward.
“If I were to be a guessing man, Timo’s going to go where Pavs was,” Logan Couture offered at the outset of training camp.
This would suggest a first-unit power play that looks like this:
That’s Logan Couture and Kevin Labanc along the half-walls, Tomas Hertl as the high slot “bumper”, Meier net-front and Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns on the blueline.
Evander Kane broke down the different responsibilities succinctly last year:
If you’re in front of the net, you’re trying to do a good job of screening the goaltender. Getting some sticks on the puck from the point.
High slot, you’re just trying to support everyone on the ice. Find a hole in the middle of the ice to get open, get a shot off.
When you’re on the flank, you’re trying to make plays, either into the slot or towards the net or back up to the top.
As for the blueline, Karlsson and Burns were used interchangeably on the man advantage last season.
Of course, patching up the Pavelski hole with Meier means another hole elsewhere. It’s the second unit that will bear most watching over the next two weeks.
Assume Joe Thornton along the left wall and Karlsson or Burns on the blueline. Kane is sure to be in the mix too, but his exact position is still to be determined.
It’s still to be determined because this power play unit has more questions than answers after Thornton, Kane and Karlsson/Burns.
Let’s break down the candidates, from likely to less likely.
Likely: Marcus Sorensen, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Tim Heed
Sorensen, Vlasic and Heed have experience on the San Jose power play.
Sorensen was installed on the second-unit power play late last season, manning the high slot. The winger, perhaps more sandpaper than skill, is seeking his first NHL power play goal.
Vlasic and Heed can handle the wall or the point. But considering that the Sharks probably want either Burns or Karlsson out there for the entirety of a power play, Vlasic or Heed’s jobs will be to defer to the big guns.
Using Vlasic or Heed on the second power play unit will also allow the Sharks to change up their looks with a 4F-1D first unit and a 3F-2D second unit. While DeBoer had no issue running two 4F-1D units last season, San Jose doesn’t have as many proven scoring forwards to feed this season.
A Thornton-Kane-Sorensen-Burns-Vlasic unit might not be exciting, but it’s a safe option:
Less likely: Jonny Brodzinski, Dylan Gambrell, Alexander True, Antti Suomela, Chmelevski, Ivan Chekhovich, Joachim Blichfeld
That said, the Sharks would love it if other players forced their way onto the power play.
Keep in mind that Kane’s usage is fluid, insofar as how much the coaching staff moved him around on the power play last year. He was the only forward that I saw last year take regular spins net front, on the wall and in the high slot. So while Thornton and Karlsson/Burns won’t be as accommodating, Kane is a movable power play chess piece.
Brodzinski is an older but intriguing option. While the 26-year-old was rarely used on the man advantage in Los Angeles, he was a terror in that department in Ontario, leading the Reign in power play goals in 2016-17.
Armed with a legitimately lethal shot, the right-hander was often set up on the left flank to make the most of his one-timer.
“Normally, I’m a half-wall guy, a shooter,” Brodzinski noted.
Bomb by Brodzinski! @ontarioreign 1 @SDGullsAHL 1 pic.twitter.com/fZflJqPt3R— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) November 28, 2016
Obviously, Thornton controls the left flank on this power play unit, so perhaps Brodzinski can man the high slot, where his one-timer and quick stick can still be deadly. On the right half-wall, Brodzinski’s right-handed one-timer may not play as well.
Brodzinski with his 6th goal in six games! @ontarioreign 1 @sarampage 1 pic.twitter.com/gmeC5Oev6D— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) January 28, 2017
If Brodzinski’s greatest asset is his shot, Gambrell’s is probably his speed.
“I was kind of all over the place,” Gambrell said of his positioning on the Barracuda’s top power play unit last year. “I was on the right flank, man in the middle, wherever the coach felt like.”
Gambrell’s speed was useful in retrieving the puck on dump-ins and to gain the zone on carry-ins. However, it remains a question if the right-hander’s shot-pass threat coming off the right wall is intimidating enough to back off penalty killers at the NHL level.
Meanwhile, True — not to typecast the 6-foot-5 forward — was used primarily as a net-front presence on Roy Sommer’s power play.
An imposing net-front threat could free up Kane to man the high slot “bumper,” which is where Kane played most on the power play last season.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the slight, 6-foot-0 Suomela didn’t earn a lot of power play time with the Barracuda last year. This doesn’t mean that Suomela is lacking skill — remember he led the Finnish Liiga in scoring in 2017-18. Looking back, it appears that JYP had Suomela set up mostly on the right flank, where the left-hander could make plays and fire off one-timers.
While Brodzinski, Gambrell, True and Suomela are more experienced in-house power play options, Chmelevski, Chekhovich and Blichfeld are just dipping their feet into the pro game.
Chekhovich did enjoy a cup of coffee with the Barracuda last year, earning power play time throughout the playoffs. Sommer used the left-hander mainly in the high slot or right flank.
Chmelevski is another player accustomed to the right half-wall.
“Sasha was used primarily on the half wall on the powerplay last year, on the right side,” Brock Otten of OHL Prospects said of the right-hander. “Allowed him to be the main guy to retrieve dump-ins if required or win those board battles. Also gave him the room to try to cut into the slot to shoot or open up those passing lanes.”
Blichfeld, interestingly, was deployed net front on the power play during the recent Rookie Faceoff. At 6-foot-2 and filling out, Blichfeld does have the potential frame for such duty.
Portland, however, frequently set Blichfeld up at the left flank, to take advantage of the right-hander’s one-timer.
All this said, DeBoer won’t be promoting forwards just based on their power play chops. 5-on-5 play remains the key litmus test for these NHL hopefuls, giving the veterans the edge in all situations.
Missing Justin Braun
What Pavelski was to the Sharks power play, you can say Justin Braun was to the Sharks penalty kill.
Since 2013-14, no San Jose defenseman has logged more ice time on the penalty kill than Braun, save for Vlasic. Last season, Braun averaged 2:21 SH TOI/GP, trailing only Vlasic on the team.
“We don’t talk about him much. Pav gets a lot of the attention,” DeBoer said. “Braunie has been a soldier here, done a lot of the heavy lifting off the radar for a long time. He’s going to be missed, especially PK and shutting other team’s best players down and playing last minute of games and periods.”
On a typical kill, the Sharks will switch between two defensive pairings.
Vlasic and Burns remain penalty-killing pillars. A healthy Karlsson will shoulder more short-handed minutes. But who steps up on the backend?
Likely: Brenden Dillon, Dalton Prout, Radim Simek
The last time Dillon soaked up top-four penalty-killing minutes, he was 24 years old and playing in another city.
The then-Dallas blueliner averaged 2:25 SH TOI/GP as a sophomore.
Last season, Dillon averaged just over a minute per game on the kill, fifth among San Jose defenders.
“For someone like myself, gotta realize the opportunity,” Dillon acknowledged.
The 29-year-old Prout, who’s played just 53 NHL games over the last three seasons, surely realizes the opportunity before him.
The 6-foot-3 blueliner has been a penalty-killing fixture when he has dressed, highlighted by playing the fourth-most short-handed minutes among Columbus Blue Jackets defensemen in 2014-15.
DeBoer compared Prout to the likes of Robert Bortuzzo and Joel Edmundson, “St. Louis, they had a lot of big, heavy and strong defensemen that really made it tough on teams they were playing against. I think Dalton fits into that type of mold.”
Simek is a wild card. Still recovering from knee surgery, Simek has began skating and is projected to be ready by opening night.
As DeBoer gained trust in Simek last season, he gave the rookie more and more short-handed responsibilities. To illustrate, in Simek’s first 14 NHL games, he averaged 31 seconds of short-handed time per game. In his last 27, before his injury, he averaged a little more than a minute.
Less likely: Jacob Middleton
The 2019 AHL All-Star was the Barracuda’s most-used blueliner on the kill last season, but the competition for situational ice time in the NHL might be too heavy for the rookie.
Looking up front, the Sharks penalty kill looks pretty set.
Hertl, Couture, Melker Karlsson, Barclay Goodrow, Sorensen and Kane were the most-used short-handed forwards last season, and they’re all back. Meier should mix in too.
Regardless of whoever emerges on the San Jose kill, DeBoer is counting on better results this season.
“It was a little inconsistent last year. Elite early, then it slipped, OK later,” DeBoer said of a kill that finished 15th in the NHL.
“I want it to be better. I expect it to be better.”