Five burning questions as we approach the end of training camp
With 24 hours remaining until the roster deadline, we ask five questions the Sharks still need to answer before preparation camp wraps up.
Finalized 23-man rosters are due by 12PM PST tomorrow. If it feels to you like training camp just started days ago, you're not going insane; a truncated camp preceding a shortened season began on Sunday in San Jose but will wrap up in the coming days before the Sharks head to Alberta for their 2013-opening road trip. Here are five questions they'll need to at least try to answer before boarding that flight to Calgary.
1. Who claims the final two forward spots?
With the team's top six forwards solidified and T.J. Galiardi, Michal Handzus, Tommy Wingels, Andrew Desjardins and Adam Burish locked into their spots in the bottom six, the 12th and 13th forward slots are the ones still up for grabs until final rosters are set tomorrow. James Sheppard is likely a safe bet to claim one of those spots with Bracken Kearns, John McCarthy and Frazer McLaren in a battle for the remaining opening. Per Bob McKenzie, Kearns and McCarthy were placed on waivers earlier today but could still make the team should they clear.
McLaren is terrible at hockey. To steal a line from the great Cam Charron, McLaren's Behind the Net page looks like the Dow Jones in September of 2008. He only has 39 NHL games under his belt, but has managed to do about as much damage to the Sharks in those limited minutes as a fourth-liner can possibly inflict. On the other hand, McCarthy has proven to be just as bad as McLaren if not worse in his stints with the big club over the past three seasons. Kearns is largely an unknown quantity but as a 31-year-old with five NHL games to his credit, it's unlikely he's an impact player. The Sharks have largely painted themselves into a corner here after failing to supplement the bottom six with depth last summer. Unless they unexpectedly take a chance on Tim Connolly or Scott Gomez, they'll have to choose between three likely below replacement-level players to fill out their roster up front. We'll know how they've chosen tomorrow.
2. Can Larry Robinson fix the penalty kill?
The team's penalty kill has been an unmitigated disaster for two seasons running, finishing 24th in efficiency in 2010-11 before nearly bottoming out at 29th overall last year. The Sharks brought in Burish and Brad Stuart partially in an attempt to rectify their shorthanded struggles but the real get was former Devils assistant and Hall of Famer Larry Robinson. As we examined over the summer, New Jersey's penalty kill has been lights out with Robinson behind the bench over the past three seasons. While it was Dave Barr and not Robinson principally in charge of that unit, Robinson assuredly had some degree of input there and at the very least observed their system first-hand.
And the problem has been largely systemic for the Sharks. An overt commitment to passivity and a failure to pressure the points and generate turnovers high have doomed the team's penalty kill to failure, yielding high-quality opportunities on a regular basis. San Jose's 4v5 SV% has ranked 28th and 26th each of the past two seasons and that isn't all on Antti Niemi. Early indications, including a detailed report by David Pollak, suggest that the team will try other forward pairings, tweak defensive positioning and employ a more aggressive shorthanded strategy. It's impossible to tell how successful the changes will be until the season begins.
3. With Burns and Demers injured, who starts the season on the blueline?
Sub-question: how worried should we about Brent Burns' injury anyway? Burns himself and the Sharks organization have largely been coy in responding to questions about the big defenseman's availability. Burns appears to have spent the lockout trapped on a desert island with Tom Hanks. It's a confusing, and potentially concerning, situation but with Burns inked to a long-term deal that kicks off this season the Sharks have an obligation to ensure they don't rush him back into the lineup too soon.
Until Burns is healthy enough to return, and as long as Jason Demers is still healing his wrist, the Sharks need to dip into their minor league system to ice a complete blueline. Matt Irwin, who scored 42 points and appeared in an All-Star Game last season in the AHL, has been skating on a pairing with Dan Boyle for the entirety of training camp thus far. He should be considered the likeliest candidate to dress Sunday night in Calgary. Free agent signing and former Western Michigan standout Matt Tennyson has an outside shot as well, particularly if the coaching staff is looking to pair a right-handed shot with Douglas Murray. The only caveat there is, as camp pairings are currently set, Murray is already skating with a right-hander in Justin Braun which brings us to the next question...
4. Are Vlasic and Stuart really going to play together when everyone is healthy?
Despite how cloaked in secrecy Burns' injury situation is, what has surprised me the most about this truncated training camp is that Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brad Stuart have been used as a defense pairing since Day One. The logic here is somewhat apparent since, as we touched upon last summer, Stuart exclusively patrolled the right side for the Red Wings during his tenure in Detroit. But as a left-handed shot and a defenseman who was used by Mike Babcock to retrieve pucks dumped in either corner, that shouldn't be too difficult of a transition should it? Because pairing two otherwise extremely useful defensemen who can't move the puck to save their lives seems like a recipe for disaster and should be avoided at all costs.
Even with San Jose's injuries, pairing Vlasic with Boyle, Stuart with Braun and Murray with Irwin or Tennyson is surely a better setup than what the Sharks appear to be planning. I can't see how giving the unproven Irwin top-four minutes is preferable to using Braun, who was terrific last season, in that role in case that's the coaching staff's reasoning for playing Vlasic and Stuart together. More concerning though have been the rumblings that this could be a pairing McLellan and company are looking to keep together for the entire season. It is decidedly too early to jump to conclusions here but hopefully the Vlasic/Stuart pairing isn't a long-term concoction. It would amount to squandering two valuable assets while likely simultaneously hurting the team on the ice.
5. Can James Sheppard center the third line?
Assuming Sheppard makes the team, which is a pretty safe assumption at this point, his role is presumed to be that of fourth-line left wing. But could he be a more important piece of the puzzle? In three out of the four days of training camp that have been completed so far, the Sharks' coaching staff has had Sheppard centering the team's "fifth" line which might be an indication that they like him in the middle. Sheppard took 1868 faceoffs in his three-year career with the Wild prior to the ATV accident so he certainly has experience as a big-league center. The question should really be whether he would be a better option as San Jose's third-line pivot than Michal Handzus.
It's difficult to tell at this point when you're talking about a player who hasn't skated an NHL shift since April 2010. Sheppard is a better skater than Handzus (it's hard not to be) and is likely more attuned to the depth scoring role the Sharks' brass is likely expecting a line that features Galiardi and Wingels to fill. Assuming the team doesn't acquire someone from outside the organization to upgrade their third line in the coming days, I'd like to see Sheppard given a shot there should Handzus falter early as expected.