SAN JOSE — Joe Thornton acknowledged that things felt “kind of strange” at the Sharks practice facilities Friday morning.
For the first time in 20 years, Sharks training camp opened without Thornton’s longtime friend and teammate, Patrick Marleau, who celebrated his 38th birthday roughly 2,700 miles away, practicing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team he joined via free agency on July 2 by signing a three-year, $18.75 million contract.
“I’ve spend a lot of years with him and it is kind of strange. It’s his birthday today, too, so it’s a little weird. But he’s going to do great up in Toronto,” Thornton said.
“He’s still a friend. We’re going to miss him. He’s in a different uniform, we’re in the same one.”
Things are looking bright for Marleau, who’s joining a young roster filled with budding superstars, like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, led by one of hockey’s sharpest minds in Mike Babcock. The future is much less certain for the Sharks, who are attempting to transition away from a core that’s been centered around Thornton and Marleau for more than a decade while maintaining their status as perennial Stanley Cup contenders.
In short, the Sharks are entering a season loaded with ifs.
The most immediate challenge that the team will face as a result of Marleau’s departure is replacing his offensive production. The Sharks struggled to score goals last season, ranking 19th in the league (2.67), and that was with Marleau, who finished third on the team with 27 tallies.
As things stand, the Sharks have just one forward, Joe Pavelski, who scored more than 25 goals last year and two, when you throw in Logan Couture, who notched more than 11 tallies. On top of that, Thornton, the team’s offensive engine up front, is playing with a surgically-repaired left knee, and his sidekick, Pavelski, is hitting an age (33) where forwards usually start to see a decline in their offensive production.
But the Sharks believe they can absorb Marleau’s loss for a couple reasons: several key players underperformed last season and they have a boatload of young talent coming up through the pipeline with the AHL Barracuda.
The team could also get a bump in production from a resurrection of the power play, which ranked 25th in the NHL last year (16.7 percent) after finishing among the top six in six of their previous eight seasons.
“When I look back at last year, we had some key people either have down years or miss significant time with injuries,” head coach Pete DeBoer said. “If we can stay healthy, we have a large group of guys that can really take a step this year.
“I don’t think we’re trying to get blood from a stone. We have scoring in here. We’ve got to get it out.”
At the top of the list of players who the Sharks are counting on to have snap-back seasons this year is Tomas Hertl, who missed 33 games last year to recover from his second right knee surgery since December 31, 2013.
Hertl has yet to replicate the production of his first three months in the league (15 goals in 32 games), and if the Sharks are going to contend this season, they’ll need him to blossom into a bonafide two-way center, creating mismatches on the third line with his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame.
Joonas Donskoi will need to regain his 2015-16 form, too. Donskoi played a key role in the Sharks run to the Stanley Cup Final that year, but he struggled in an injury-riddled sophomore campaign last season, notching just six goals and 17 points in 61 games.
The Sharks are also expecting more offense out of 2016 free agent signee Mikkel Boedker (10 goals, 26 points), a healthy scratch in two playoff games last spring, fourth line center Chris Tierney (11, 23) and midseason acquisition Jannik Hansen, who produced just two goals in 15 games after joining the squad in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 28.
But a little extra cheese from the bounce backers won’t mean anything if the Sharks don’t get significant contributions from their up-and-coming prospects, a prerequisite for success in the modern NHL.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have won back-to-back Stanley Cups thanks in part to the help Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have received from youngsters like Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel, who tied a rookie record for scoring in the playoffs last season by compiling 21 points in 25 games.
“You have to have a blend,” general manager Doug Wilson said. “The three oldest teams in the league last year were Pittsburgh, Ottawa and Chicago, and they’ve integrated younger players in.
“It’s easier to integrate younger players in if you have that high-end veteran culture.”
Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc showed promise in their rookie campaigns last season, but the Sharks will need more than their combined 11 goals in 89 games to make waves.
The Sharks are also expecting big things from Ryan Carpenter, who recorded 17 points in 15 playoff games with the Barracuda last spring, Danny O’Regan, who won the AHL’s rookie of the year award, and Marcus Sorensen, the fastest skater in the organization.
Despite the promise, the Sharks recognize that the emergence of their young talent isn’t a guarantee even though the team’s success may hinge on it.
“It is essential. We’ll see,” Couture said. “You can’t say at this moment, you’ve got to see how they develop.”
Pavelski echoed Couture’s thoughts.
“Only time will tell,” the Sharks said. “It’s up to them to really push through and break through, and not just one night or two nights here and there. It’s a consistency thing.
“When that starts happening, you’re going to see guys take over and our team (will) start moving up.”
But the Sharks do have a couple variables working in their favor this year: time and space.
Unlike last offseason in which they played deep into the spring, the Sharks received four-and-a-half months to recover this summer and veteran players, like Thornton, Couture, Pavelski and Brent Burns, didn’t have to go back to work in August to get ready for the World Cup.
“The wear and tear really came into play,” Wilson said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s a reality.”
The Sharks also have roughly $8.7 million in cap space, so they could acquire additional-scoring punch through a mid-season trade if their youngsters fail to step up.
“We’re always looking for ways to improve our team and everybody in this business knows who has cap space and who has young players that people want,” Wilson said. “We’re positioned really well, and we talk a lot to every other team. We’ll see.”
Nevertheless, the Sharks will need a lot of stars to line up this winter to keep up in a Pacific Division that is only getting better with the emergence of the Edmonton Oilers as legitimate contenders and the Calgary Flames acquisitions of goalie Mike Smith and defenseman Travis Hamonic over the summer.
But Couture is convinced that the Sharks formula for success is the same with or without Marleau.
“Every year you need everything to go right,” the alternate captain said. “There’s going to be injuries, there’s going to be bumps along the road in the season.
“It’s how we react to it.”
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