The World Cup of Hockey, an eight-team tournament featuring six countries---USA, Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Czech Republic--- as well as two mixed squads---Team North America and Team Europe---debuts later this month and runs through early October.
Meanwhile, the San Jose Sharks (as well as the 29 other NHL clubs) have preseason games scheduled in late September.
While the regular season opener on October 12 is a bit further back in the month than usual, it still means that training camps for players participating in the tournament will be significantly condensed.
Players joining new teams this offseason (like San Jose's Mikkel Boedker) will have less time to get acquainted with their new cities, teammates and coaches. Older players (such as San Jose's Joe Thornton) will have put extra miles on the tires after a long playoff last season ended in mid-June.
In total, the Sharks have eight players participating in this tournament. Joining Thornton on Team Canada are teammates Logan Couture, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Sharks captain Joe Pavelski will be reprising that role for Team USA, while Tomas Hertl skates for Team Czech Republic and Joonas Donskoi for Team Finland. Boedker meanwhile, will be joining another brand new team for him, Team Europe.
So how will the participation of these eight players impact the start of the season for the Sharks? Let's take a look one-by-one, shall we?
Thornton, or "Jumbo" as he is known in Shark land, turned 37 this offseason. He defied the odds last season by having a monster, MVP-caliber year with 82 points. While still remaining an elite center, Thornton hadn't previously reached the 80-point plateau since 2009-10. Having arguably his most dominant season at 36 makes one wonder if Thornton can continue to thrive into his late 30s and early 40s ala Jaromir Jagr. This writer certainly wouldn't bet against it.
Even if Thornton remains stellar this season, playing in an extended postseason run last year combined with the World Cup could mean he starts the season a bit sluggish. Despite his phenomenal performance last year, he was actually under a 50-point pace through the first few weeks of the season. He tallied only 15 points over San Jose's first 26 games.
This season will be year two under Pete DeBoer for the Sharks. While that familiarity should help a veteran like Thornton, it is worth keeping an eye on Jumbo out of the gate. He might not get off to the fastest start.
There are many hockey folk who feel Couture deserved to win the Conn Smythe trophy last season as the playoff MVP despite the Sharks losing to the Penguins in the final. Couture led all skaters with 30 points, eight more than Pittsburgh's leading scorer Phil Kessel (22) and 11 more than the actual Conn Smythe winner Sidney Crosby (19).
Couture has always been an elite-level second-line center since coming into the league. He has been a consistent 60-point performer, but has never come close to being a point-per-game guy. Still only 27-years old, Couture might actually benefit from getting into highly competitive games before the season starts.
All of this is of course, barring any injuries. Couture missed most of the first half last season after a freak injury at practice. That said, if a healthy Couture is in "go-mode" when the regular season opens up on Oct. 12, it could mean he gets off to a really hot start. He likely won't be anymore confident in his game after playing for Team Canada for the first time in a major tournament.
Vlasic is widely becoming known as the best shut-down defenseman in the NHL. His offense last season even increased significantly to the point where he has been discussed by many in the analytics community as a top-20 overall defenseman (some even suggest he is the best defenseman). He is certainly Team Canada's best all-around left-shot blue liner and playing a big role in this tournament will likely be a boost to his game to start the 2016-17 NHL season.
Vlasic made his first Olympic appearance for Team Canada back in 2014. In the weeks that followed Vlasic played some of the best hockey of his career. During the stretch run of the 2013-14 season, Vlasic displayed defensive dominance on the ice. In the postseason the Sharks won three out of the four playoff games which Vlasic was healthy. His absence wasn't the only reason the LA Kings completed the reverse sweep, but anyone claiming it wasn't a major factor can't be taken seriously.
Despite having a horrendous defensive first half of the 2015-16 season, the 31-year-old Burns still wound up a finalist for the Norris Trophy. The offensively deadly defenseman developed his defensive zone game to that of an elite level from January onward last season. During the first half Burns was coughing up turnovers and playing positionally poor in his own end, but in the second half he would go weeks at a time without making any noticeable mistakes.
If Burns can carry his second-half performance into this season and play that way all season, he will be a slam-dunk Norris winner. Burns will no doubt be counted on to log big minutes for Team Canada. If Burns has to shake off any cobwebs from the offseason, that will likely happen during the tournament. When the NHL season starts, the highly competitive tournament games will have his two-way game right where it needs to be to have the best season of his career.
After having a stellar first season as the Sharks captain, Pavelski has been named Team USA captain for the first time in his international career. Regardless of how Team USA fares in a tournament where five of the eight teams could win without being a surprise, (aka it is pretty wide open), being named captain of his country can only be a boost of confidence for Pavelski.
At 32-years old, the Wisconsin native is still within the tail end of what many consider to be a forward's prime years. There is little need to worry about the extra mileage on Pavelski's tires compared to Thornton. Tournament or no tournament, Pavelski probably starts the NHL season the same way. Being named USA captain might boost his confidence going into the year, but Pavelski is already as confident as they come after a terrific season and playoff last year.
With his birthday a couple months away, Hertl at this moment is still only 22-years old. What were you and I doing at 22-years old? Certainly not heading into our fourth season's as professional athletes. The point to be had here is that Hertl can still greatly benefit from a strong showing on the international stage. Hertl played well from start to finish last season, but there is still improvements to be made in terms of consistency as he matures at the NHL level.
During the first half last year Hertl didn't score a whole lot as a third-line center. In his defense though he was playing with limited talent on his wings. Come the second half Hertl's scoring surged back on the wing of the top line with Thornton and Pavelski. Regardless of where he slots in the lineup to start the year, Hertl should have some talented linemates as the Sharks will be even deeper up front than last season.
Confidence is a big thing thing with Hertl, and if he can score a few goals for Team Czech Republic, that could carry over into a big hot streak to start the NHL season.
Despite not being guaratneed a roster spot, Donskoi shined right away for the Sharks. As a 23-year-old rookie, the Finnish native made the club out of training camp and continued to get better as the season went along. With crafty puck-handling skills and a knack for big goals, he very quickly became a fan favorite.
While Donskoi is one of the most likely players to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump given his experience, he still has just one year of the North-American game under his belt. With the tournament being held in Canada, it will allow Donskoi to get even more comfortable playing in big games on the smaller rink surface.
This offseason Boedker signed a four-year deal worth $4 million per season to join the Sharks. The speedy winger will be playing for Team Europe at the World Cup, a mish-mash team featuring players from 10 different countries. On paper Team Europe has plenty of talent, but in a short tournament where chemistry can be paramount, they are easily one of the bottom two teams in everyone's power rankings.
As for Boedker, playing in this tournament will take away time from getting acclimated to San Jose and getting to know his new teammates. Even if Team Europe is eliminated early as expected, it is likely at least one of his future linemates will still be playing in the tournament. Coming over to a new team and having a reduced training camp isn't ideal. Boedker has to familiarize himself with head coach Pete DeBoer's system in less time than usual.
Overall Impact on Start of Sharks Season
Taking all the above into consideration, the Sharks players participating in this tournament should help San Jose get off to a hot start. Barring any significant injuries, the only two players whom I'm slightly worried about playing in the tournament are Thornton and Boedker. Maybe if Hertl struggles for the Czechs, it could lower his confidence, but yours truly forecasts a strong tournament for Hertl.
While Pavelski is probably Pavelski no matter what happens at the World Cup, I'm envisioning Couture, Vlasic, Burns and Donskoi all significantly benefitting from playing in the tournament.