San Jose’s biggest issue last year was scoring goals, both five-v-five and on the man advantage.
Losing Patrick Marleau’s 27 goals this offseason certainly doesn’t help matters, but it’s not all doom and gloom when forecasting San Jose’s offensive attack.
It is certainly possible for the Sharks to internally improve team scoring from last season. The following five forwards will be the keys to making that happen.
Tomas Hertl (C, LW)
With iron-man Marleau gone, a healthy Hertl is a necessity. If Hertl can indeed stay healthy (the optimist says he’s due for some better luck in the health department), there is reason to believe he will have a monster year.
While Hertl was limited to just 10 goals and 22 points in 49 games last season, he has played full seasons in two of his four years in the league. Unfortunately Hertl’s amazing rookie campaign was cut short thanks to Dustin Brown, and this past season (his fourth) he re-injured that same knee.
There is no question Hertl disappointed production wise in years two and four, but his solid third year in the league (2015-16) with 25 goals and 21 assists for 46 points is what lends hope towards him having a big year five.
If Head Coach Peter DeBoer and the Sharks are smart, they will utilize Hertl on the No. 1 power play and as the third line center alongside Timo Meier. These two worked well together down the stretch last season. If Hertl stays healthy and is given an increased power play role, I fully anticipate a 25+ goal, 30+ assist season for 55+ points. The soon to be 24-year old certainly has the necessary skill and he’s smack dab in the middle of his prime.
Timo Meier (LW)
After scoring in his NHL debut last season against Montreal, Meier added just five more points (2g + 3a) over his next 33 games. Far from numbers to write home about. However, let’s remember that the 2015 first-round pick just turned 20-years old last season. And despite failing to register a point in five playoff games, Meier’s physical game was extremely impressive against the Oilers. Not to mention, Meier carried that solid play into the Barracuda postseason. Meier can be an absolute bull down below the goal line. When he gets body position, he’s extremely tough to knock off the puck.
This season I expect Meier to be a full-time NHLer and the optimistic side of me is forecasting a solid first-full campaign. I’m projecting 12-15 goals and 22-27 assists for right around 40 points.
Mikkel Boedker (LW, RW)
Boedker’s 26 points last season in 81 games was extremely disappointing after signing a four-year, $16-million deal as a free agent in the offseason. There is a lot to dislike about his game. At times he is a very perimeter-based player with a reluctance to shoot. This writer was even hoping that Vegas might select him in expansion.
That said, there are a number of reasons to be optimistic about Boedker. It shouldn’t shock anyone if he has a bounce-back season and here is why:
Age- It feels like Boedker has already been in the NHL for a long time, but he’s amazingly still just 27-years old. He won’t turn 28 until December. Still in his prime.
Adjustments- Last year Boedker was a member of Team Europe for the World Cup of Hockey. Boedker actually looked good when he got into the lineup for Team Europe, a squad that shocked everyone by going all the way to the final against Canada. However, this meant a shortened training camp. Boedker had limited time to get used to his new teammates and new systems after previously playing the vast majority of his career in Arizona.
That short training camp on a new team helps explain last year’s slow start. Boedker did however finish the season with 18 points in his final 43 games. That comes out to a 34-point, 82-game pace. While that would still be 17-points short of his two-time career high of 51, the Sharks don’t need him to be a 50-point player. Somewhere between 40-45 points would be a welcomed sight and if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t bet against Boedker to do just that. The Danish forward slowly got better as last season went along and he's still yet to show Sharks fans his A-game.
Joonas Donskoi (LW, RW)
A shoulder injury limited Donskoi to just 61 games last season. The dreaded sophomore slump cut down Donskoi’s production to just six goals and 11 assists for 17 points. Again, a glass half-full mentality would say Donskoi is due to bounce back.
As a rookie Donskoi tallied 11 goals and 25 assists for 36 points in 76 games. Forty points this season is well within his reach. Despite last season’s dip in production, Donskoi actually averaged more shots on goal per game (1.55) compared to his 1.40 mark as a rookie. While he simply did not play up to expectations, some of it can certainly be chalked up to bad luck and natural variation.
We know from two years ago that Donskoi has good chemistry with Logan Couture. Chances are Donskoi starts out the season on a line with Couture and Kevin Labanc. There is a lot of skill between these three and they are all equally opportunistic shooters and passers. If put together, this trio ought to be a difficult line for opponents to read in the sense that neither are a predictable shooter nor passer.
Kevin Labanc (LW, RW)
Speaking of the aforementioned Labanc, last season’s Sharks rookie of the year tallied an extremely impressive 20 points in 55 NHL games. Extremely impressive because it was just his first professional season since being a late-round draft choice (sixth round in 2014). Typically speaking, late-round picks take at least a couple of years in the AHL before getting a shot in the NHL. Even then, they usually don't impress well enough to play 50-plus games the first year they are called up to the show.
Labanc definitely hit the wall a couple of times last year, but that is to be expected for a 20-21 year-old rookie, particularly one drafted that low. What we did see from Labanc though is a high-end work ethic despite not being the biggest or fastest. When he’s going good, he is strong on the forecheck and in the corners hanging onto pucks. As seen on this OT winner against the Oilers, he has a nifty pair of mitts on him. An above average passer and finisher, Labanc led the OHL in points in his final year when he finished with 39 goals and 88 assists.
If Labanc can avoid that dreaded sophomore slump, 40 points is well within his reach.
Putting Things in Perspective:
Hertl, Meier, Donskoi, Boedker and Labanc will determine the Sharks’ success this season. To further explain why, here are my projected lines:
Jannik Hansen---Joe Thornton---Joe Pavelski
Kevin Labanc----Logan Couture----Joonas Donskoi
Timo Meier----Tomas Hertl---Mikkel Boedker
Melker Karlsson----Chris Tierney---Joel Ward
It is pretty well known what you’re gonna get out of that top line. The Joes are still going to put up their numbers. Thornton will probably be around 60 points, Pavelski probably around 70. Hansen is also a known commodity, he’ll give you around 35 points. Couture is also going to get his numbers, around 55-65 points and excellent two-way play. Fourth line production is also easily predictable. Karlsson, Tierney and Ward will all end up roughly between 20-25 points this season. We pretty much know what those seven forwards are going to produce. What we don’t know is how much Hertl, Meier, Donskoi, Boedker and Labanc will deliver.
It’s worth repeating that the Sharks didn’t have a problem stopping their opponents last season. They finished fifth in the league in GAA at 2.44. The problem was scoring themselves. They finished just 19th overall at 2.67 GF/G. A large part of that was their 25th ranked power play at just 16.7%. San Jose actually finished in the top half of the league, 14th overall in 5v5 goals for with 152. If they can get the power play back over 20% where it normally has been, that will go a long ways to improving the offense.
The five forwards discussed above will decide just how strong the offense will turn out. At minimum one of them will end up on the top power play. Ideally two of them. However, knowing Peter DeBoer, Joe Thornton will more than likely remain on the top unit despite his struggles there last season.
That means projected power play units are:
PP1: Brent Burns---Joe Thornton---Logan Couture---Joe Pavelski---Tomas Hertl
PP2: Tim Heed---Marc-Edouard Vlasic---Mikkel Boedker---Chris Tierney---Joonas Donskoi
In this case, three of the five high-upside/unproven forwards will be on the power play. However, if it were up to me, all five of them would be on the man advantage. My preferred units are:
Thornton makes the second unit much better than having Tierney there, and the first unit will still have plenty of firepower without Jumbo. Couture, Pavelski and Hertl are three highly-skilled centers and not to mention Burns at the point.
With my preferred units, Meier and Labanc replace Tierney and Vlasic. As great as Vlasic is at even strength and on the penalty kill, he provides next to nothing on the power play. Tierney is a great passer, but the second unit doesn’t need him with Thornton on it. Simply put, neither Tierney nor Vlasic are big point producers. Meier and Labanc though both have the potential to be just that. Ergo, putting them on the power play shouldn’t be considered rocket science.
Hertl, Donskoi, Meier, Labanc and Boedker combined for 37 goals last season.
This is certainly a glass half-full perspective, but it would not shock me to see the following happen:
Hertl improve from 10 goals to 25 (+15)
Donskoi improve from 6 goals to 13 (+7)
Meier improve from 3 goals to 13 (+10)
Labanc improve from 8 goals to 15 (+7)
Boedker improve from 10 goals to 14 (+4)
That adds up to an additional 43 goals. It is certainly within reason for this team to internally replace Marleau’s 27 goals. The pessimist says San Jose is likely to struggle this season. The optimist says there is a decent chance that they will actually improve. Sink or swim?