With Erik Karlsson out and a bunch of veteran NHL players in, it’s time to take another look at the Sharks lineup. With the trade, General Manager Mike Grier has filled some of the holes in the forward group while creating a massive, gaping hole in the defensive corps.
To that end, San Jose looks like it could ice a competitive group of forwards that will put the puck in the back of the net more than last year’s team. However, unless the Sharks receive Vezina-level goaltending, that defense will bite the team.
For fans looking at a rebuild, that’s okay. We want a top pick in the 2024 draft. However, what exactly will we see on the ice to get that?
Taking a look at the forwards, this is what I projected as the Sharks’ lineup in July:
William Eklund – Tomas Hertl – Anthony Duclair
Jacob Peterson – Logan Couture – Alexander Barabanov
Filip Zadina – Nico Sturm – Fabian Zetterlund
Kevin Labanc/Oskar Lindblom – Luke Kunin – Givani Smith
This included guys like Thomas Bordeleau, Ozzy Weisblatt, Daniil Gushchin and Tristen Robins possibly getting a shot later in the season, but starting things out with the Barracuda. That hasn’t changed.
What has changed is who we’ve moved out of the lineup to make way for Mike Hoffman and Mikael Granlund, the two forwards added in the Karlsson trade. Neither of these players make the case to usurp Duclair or Eklund on the top line. That line gives Eklund a phenomenal chance to succeed.
Hoffman can still score, however, and slotting him in on a line with Couture and Barabanov adds an extra scoring threat to that second line. The top two lines are a good one-two punch for one of the worst teams in the league.
On the third line, Sturm lost his role as third line pivot and is replaced by Granlund. While it might be tempting to play Sturm up on the wing or vice versa, San Jose simply doesn’t have the depth at center at this time to do that. Sturm has to move down.
So, on Granlund’s wing, we have Zadina and Zetterlund. Both players have something to prove. Zadina has a shot to show that he’s truly an NHL regular, while Zetterlund can take a step forward from what he showed Sharks fans last season. These two players could be big surprises for San Jose as the year rolls on.
Finally, the fourth line. Sturm centers that line with Labanc and Kunin, if Kunin is healthy. That leaves Smith and Lindblom up in the press box, with Lindblom the first in line to hit the waiver wire if the Sharks decide it’s time to move up a younger player. Smith might slot into the lineup when the San Jose wants a more physical presence on the ice, but for the most part, he’s not a regular in this lineup.
William Eklund – Tomas Hertl – Anthony Duclair
Mike Hoffman – Logan Couture – Alexander Barabanov
Filip Zadina – Mikael Granlund – Fabian Zetterlund
Kevin Labanc – Nico Sturm – Luke Kunin (?)
Other – Givani Smith, Oskar Lindblom
This lineup will probably last for the first three months of the season, but after that, it’s anyone’s guess. Barring major injury, January is when trade talks start up. That’s when players like Hoffman, Duclair, Granlund, Labanc, Kunin and maybe even Sturm could be moved. There’s value in all of these players, especially if they’re having good seasons.
And waiting that long is good for the prospects. Give Peterson, Bordeleau, Gushchin, et al. more time to develop in the AHL. While Bordeleau looked okay in his last appearance with the Sharks, some aspects of his game needed refining. There’s no need to rush him or any of the other prospects to the NHL until they’re ready to succeed.
For the Sharks on the backend, it looks ugly, to say the least. None of the current Sharks defensemen have the ability to drive the play. Especially the way Karlsson did. In July, we projected defensive pairings that looked like this:
Henry Thrun – Erik Karlsson
Marc-Edouard Vlasic – Mario Ferraro
Matt Benning/Valtteri Pulli – Kyle Burroughs
A Karlsson-Thrun combination would have helped the Sharks become a more consistent scoring threat. However, take Karlsson out of the mix and it’s not good.
A look at the goals above replacement (GAR) for the 2022-23 season shows you just how dismal the picture is.
Karlsson, obviously, was above and beyond all the other Sharks, but the players falling in behind him is what should give Sharks’ fans pause.
Vlasic was next up on the list. As Sharks fans know, Vlasic has never been relied upon to be an offensive defenseman, so while it’s nice to see him ranking second on the Sharks in GAR, his position on the list has more to do with his defense than how many times he put the puck in the net.
Three of the next four players on the list aren’t even with the Sharks anymore. Admittedly, most of them received a boost thanks to playing next to Karlsson, but still…
The only one of the four still with the team is Benning, who had just one goal last season. Yes, there were 23 assists as well, but like Vlasic, Benning’s placement on the list has to do with his defense rather than his offense.
A Vlasic-Benning pairing is the team’s best “shutdown” pairing, and they’ll become San Jose’s second pairing on defense.
As for the first pairing, it’s kind of meh. Thrun played eight games for the Sharks last season, so I’m not knocking him for his placement simply because it’s a small sample size. San Jose’s only other “solid” NHL defenseman option is Ferraro, so they’ll make up the top defensive pairing for the Sharks.
On the third pairing, the addition of Jan Rutta in the Karlsson trade gives San Jose a veteran defenseman. Rutta isn’t flashy. In his best season, he had 20 points (6G, 14 A) in 57 games, and that was in 2017-18 with the Chicago Blackhawks. He’s just solid, and maybe that’s a good thing.
While Rutta will probably start the season with Nikolai Knyzhov or Burroughs on the other side, rotating in a player like Shakir Mukhamadullin or Valterri Pulli later in the season will give a young defenseman a reliable partner in sheltered minutes so that he can develop with confidence. That’s good for the Sharks in the long run.
Henry Thrun – Mario Ferraro
Marc-Edouard Vlasic – Matt Benning
Jan Rutta – Nikolai Knyzhov/Kyle Burroughs
Other – Jacob MacDonald, Radim Simek
Too many players have passed Simek on the depth chart. It’s difficult to envision him playing over a guy like Rutta, who is more reliable defensively or Knyzhov who needs to show what he can do. The only reason to play Simek would be to increase his trade value, but that may or may not be a possibility anymore.
Meanwhile, MacDonald is one of those filler players. You know what you’re going to get with him. This is the time to allow younger players to experience the NHL. So, while MacDonald will work if there’s an injury, he’s not the option for the everyday lineup.
The only true “sure thing” in the Sharks’ lineup is the goaltending tandem of Kaapo Kahkonen and Mackenzie Blackwood. No one has locked down the starting spot, and both are expected to compete for the job.
The only thought here is keep an eye on Kahkonen. If both he and Blackwood perform well, Kahkonen could be used as trade bait at the deadline.