San Jose Sharks Pre-season Impressions 09/25/2011, Sharks 4, Canucks 3

This past sunday night, the San Jose Sharks faced off against the Vancouver Canucks in a pre-season game that the Sharks won, 4 – 3. The game was broadcast on the NHL Network. The Canucks did not ice many of their NHL players, with the most notable names on their roster being Maxim Lapierre, Keith Ballard, and Marco Sturm, but the Sharks did. New additions Brent Burns and Jim Vandermeer played, along with returning regulars Dan Boyle, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and others.

For many of us, this was our first opportunity to see some of the Sharks regulars back in action. I was interested to see how the players looked after the short offseason, who looked faster or slower, etc. Here I will offer impressions of what I saw from notable players, starting with the defense.

DEFENSE

Dan Boyle is still an elite offensive defenseman. No surprise there, but he is 35 years old and coming off back-to-back grueling seasons where he played huge minutes for the Sharks, so some fans are understandably on the lookout for signs of decline. And since his excellent 16-goal first season with the Sharks, he probably has declined. His point totals were down last year, for instance. But from watching him play, I’m here to tell you that the decline is still very slight. He’s still as shifty as any defenseman, and he looks to be in great shape. Expect another great season from Boyle.

Douglas Murray is still Douglas Murray. His strengths last year are still his strengths now, and his weaknesses are still his weaknesses. Playing against CHL and AHL players on the Canucks, he was truly a health-hazard. At least one Canuck player injured himself just by running into Murray. A second was injured crashing into the end-boards after bouncing off Murray. He is truly a physical force on the ice, and that has not changed.

Brent Burns did not look as good, in this one game, in a #88 Sharks sweater as he did in a #8 Wild sweater. And I do not mean in terms of style. Have you ever noticed with some players, depending on what jersey they have on, if it’s tucked in or not, if they have single-digit numbers or double-digit numbers on their back, they look a little faster, or bigger, or different? For instance, watching Wayne Simmonds Flyer’s debut in a pre-season game last week, he looked bigger than he did with the Kings, taller, stronger. He looked like a beast. Then in his second game, he looked more like the Simmonds of last year. Well, watching Burns in a Sharks #88 sweater, he looked a little clumsier, and not quite as smooth as he did in a Wild #8. It was just one game, and when he got his feet going and accelerated, he still looked as skilled as always. It’s just one of those odd things. Im sure I sound silly for even mentioning this, but I’m always going to report what I’m seeing, even at the risk of sounding silly at times. Other than that, Burns is big and powerful, and very skilled. He still looked like he had some getting used to with the Sharks system, and getting comfortable with his partner Vlasic, but that’s to be expected.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic still isn’t going to break out offensively. I know there are people who remember him putting up 36 points with Blake as his partner in 2009, and think now that he’s playing with Burns, he will break out again offensively. I just don’t see it. Burns is not as defensively responsible as Blake, so Vlasic will actually have to cover for him much more.

Not to mention, 2008-2009 is 2008-2009. Mclellan brought to the Sharks a new system that worked wonders for half the season, before the the rest of the league adjusted, to the point that the Sharks were bottom-five in five-on-five offense the rest of the season. And in that first half of the year, some of the Sharks players put up unsustainable point-paces above their talent level. In other words, their point-totals benefitted from a system that was dominant for a few months. Vlasic was one of these players. To expect him to get back on that pace and start putting up 40 points, he’s not a 40-point talent, at least not yet. He’s a good-not-elite skater, but his shot is well below-average, and he doesn’t try or pull-off creative plays. He’s just one of those players who you might think would be pretty good offensively because of their skating, but who’s not.

He’s still very young, though, at 24-years-old, and he still has time to improve his weaknesses. Just don’t expect a breakout on offense this season. You should be able to expect a good season defensively, however, as you usually can with Vlasic. Some of that will depend on how well he fits with Burns, but other than that, Vlasic is still Vlasic, and you can expect more of what we’ve seen in the past from Vlasic, which is solid defense and decision-making.

Jim Vandermeer was brought in to replace one of Kent Huskins and Niclas Wallin, so it’s fitting that he looks like a 50/50 mix of the two players. His skating is marginally better than both, however, and he’s maybe more regularly physical. Ultimately though, he did just look like another Doug Wilson molded third pairing defenseman. Unfortunately that’s not Doug Wilson the player I’m referring to. The biggest difference, and plus, here is that for once a Doug Wilson third-pairing defenseman is actually being paid like a third-pairing defenseman. Niclas Wallin would have been a fair signing at 1M per year; the big problem is that he made 2.5x that much. Vandermeer is cut from the same tree, but he is making 1M, which makes his signing much more acceptable.

Important to note, the Sharks penalty kill has done very well early in the pre-season, and Vandermeer has featured on that. I didn’t see anything from him on the PK to think he’s the reason for this, or that he’s an elite penalty killer, but he has at least been on the penalty kill and contributed. Overall, what you can expect this season from Vandermeer is another Kent Huskins type of defenseman, perhaps a small improvement.

Justin Braun looks like he’s taken a small step back. Whether he has a small nagging injury, or isn’t quite in top shape yet, it could be one of those, or I could just be way off. But he looked a bit slower than he did last season when he was at his best. He still got his shots on net as well as any Sharks defenseman, however. He was never a great thread to score himself, but then again neither was he last year. As usual what his shots did do were create some rebounds. That’s one aspect of his game that has not declined. I think Braun just needs to get back up to 100% and he’ll be a good player, as he was last year. His defense can always use work, but if he gets back to last year’s level, he’s an NHL defenseman with some attractive qualities.

FORWARDS

Joe Thornton was outplayed by Maxim Lapierre. Unfortunately this was also the case for much of the Western Conference Finals last year, and it’s worrisome. It may only be pre-season, but you would prefer your first line center outplay the other team’s third/fourth line center.

Aside from that unflattering comparison, Joe Thornton was still every bit Joe Thornton skill-wise, just a much less inspired, pre-season version, which is to be expected given that it is, in fact, pre-season. Thornton even looked like he had an extra step skating wise. As I alluded to with the Lapierre comparison, he didn’t use it at all, but it’s very good to see that he has it. Doug Wilson really goes overboard with the spin about how his 32-year-old and 35-year-old players are just entering their primes, but with Thornton that could actually be true. He’s got the size and strength to play at a high level for longer than most players, and he did look great physically in the game. What he did with his assets, again, was disappointing, but the skill-set itself looks impressive, perhaps more-so than last season.

So there’s good and bad with Thornton in the pre-season game, but he’s still Joe Thornton, a prototypically big, number one center, and he looks as much the part as ever. This is especially good to see after his disappointing season last year. Yes, I know, the common consensus is that he sacrificed point-output to be more defensively responsible, but I never saw it that way. Yes, he got better at defense, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t also get worse at offense. It’s not like he played conservative, or stopped attacking. The way I see it, he got better on defense, worse on offense, and the two had nothing to do with each other. He just wasn’t as good on offense, period. He looked a bit more sluggish. The good news now is the physical sluggishness appears to be gone, at least that’s what I saw in one pre-season game.

Patrick Marleau, playing with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, and playing against a bunch of minor league players, still managed to go almost the entire game without getting his name called by the commentators, and without me even noticing or caring that he was on the ice. Lapierre, Hodgson, Wingels, everyone outplayed him. It is just the pre-season, though. But he was not impressive. He does still have his speed and skill, of course, so hopefully for every one of these games we get from him in the regular season, we’ll get productive ones as well.

Joe Pavelski is as fundamental as ever. He played a pretty good game, most noticeably he used his/Mclellan’s typical tricks to really fool the youngsters on the Canucks. He did the play where he dumps it in on the goalie from center ice to try to get a faceoff, except he aimed it at the Vancouver’s goalie’s blocker so that he would bat it away to the corner. Then Pavelski went and got the puck in the corner, and at the very same time Mclellan sent a player (Wingels) off the bench on a change, so the Canucks players wouldn’t see him. Pavelski then curled up the boards a few feet to face the net, and with all the Vancouver youngsters staring at the puck, Wingels snuck in right down the middle of the slot. This all happened very quickly, and before the Canucks youngsters knew what was happening, Wingels got the pass from Pavelski in the heart of the slot, the Vancouver goalie was still sliding back in position from leaving his net a few feet to bat Pavelski’s dump-in into the corner, and WIngels buried a very easy shot as a result.

Pavelski does these tricky little things better than anyone on the Sharks, and it looks like he’s already back to his old ways. Whether he’s the answer as the Sharks top line winger remains to be seen, but he’s sure to help the Sharks in one way or another wherever he plays.

Andrew Desjardins and Jamie Mcginn had the unenviable position of not playing much for the Sharks all last season, but then being thrust into the lineup late in the postseason. Unenviable in that they had to get their feet wet very quickly against very stiff competition, but perhaps enviable in that they were rested. And after watching them play in the pre-season, I’m starting to wonder if that had something to do with their good performances in the Western Conference Finals. Desjardins I had never watched play before last season, but Mcginn never looked faster in relation to everyone else on the ice than he did against the Canucks. You would just expect him to be even faster now after training all offseason, but he wasn’t. He actually looked slower, which confused me until I considered that maybe he only looked so good against the Canucks because he was rested, and they weren’t.

Or maybe he’s just not at his best yet, and we will see him flying around the ice shortly. But from what I saw, both Mcginn and Desjardins did not look as good as they did last postseason, where many of the other players actually looked faster, which they should now that they’re healthy and rested. I was not impressed with either.

Tommy Wingels has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Some would call this luck, and some of it is, but it’s also a skill in and of itself. Tommy Wingels certainly benefited from whatever it was, skill or luck, during the pre-season game, as he potted two goals on easy shots. Doug Wilson has to be pleased with what he’s seen from Wingels in terms of being at the right place, and being opportunistic. He’s definitely stood out in that way. The one concern I have is what happens between the opportunism. He didn’t do a lot between goals, or create much. His stats look great because he got two goals out of nowhere, on nothing plays, just being the beneficiary of bounces or whatever else, but his play over the 60 minute game, while not bad, did not stick out in the way his stats do. His stats are a bit misleading, in other words. However I do feel he has some ability, and may be on the cusp of becoming a good NHL player. He has similarities in his game to both Pavelski and Couture. It may not be too long before he’s considered a “lite” version of two players, but I do want to see more from him in terms of minute-to-minute play.

Written by Shark Circle

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