- Editor's note: Sheng Peng will be a regular contributor to NBC Sports California's Sharks coverage. You can read more of his coverage on San Jose Hockey Now, listen to him on the San Jose Hockey Now Podcast, and follow him on Twitter at @Sheng_Peng.
What will the Sharks’ Opening Night lineup look like?
Here’s a way-too-early guess – considering that we’re still two months away from the Sharks' season opener against the Nashville Predators on Oct. 7 in Prague, Czech Republic. Trades and free agent signings still are possible for San Jose.
But right now, the Sharks have a couple of good problems: Too many NHL-caliber forwards and starting goalies.
Let’s start up front.
The Sharks have 10 established NHL forwards: Tomas Hertl, Logan Couture, Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc, Luke Kunin, Oskar Lindblom, Alexander Barabanov, Nick Bonino, Nico Sturm, and Matt Nieto.
They also have nine younger and/or inexperienced forwards who you can reasonably expect to challenge for a roster spot: William Eklund, Thomas Bordeleau, Steven Lorentz, Max Veronneau, Noah Gregor, Jasper Weatherby, Scott Reedy, Jonah Gadjovich, and Jeffrey Viel.
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Now, let’s look between the pipes: It’s well-chronicled that the Sharks have one-too-many netminders, between Kaapo Kahkonen, James Reimer, and Adin Hill.
That’s the good. The bad news?
The Sharks might have 19 NHL-possible forwards, but they don’t have at least six clear top-six attackers, nor do they have at least nine undisputed top-nine skaters. So what they possess in quantity, they don’t appear to boast in quality.
And their blueline appears to be decimated by the trade of Brent Burns to the Carolina Hurricanes.
They have six NHL-caliber defensemen in Erik Karlsson, Mario Ferraro, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Radim Simek, Matt Benning, and Jaycob Megna.
The Sharks have a couple question marks in Nikolai Knyzhov and Markus Nutivaara, both on the comeback trail after missing all or most of the 2021-22 season.
Youngsters Ryan Merkley and Santeri Hatakka might also challenge for a spot.
Like the Sharks forwards though, the defenseman group likely lack in high-end quality: Karlsson and Ferraro are the only two defensemen who project to be playoff-caliber top-four defenders. And they might also be lacking in quantity – if Karlsson goes down with an injury, and/or Knyzhov and Nutivaara can’t come back strong, the Sharks’ defensive corps is in a ton of trouble.
So how will the Sharks resolve these logjams up front, on the backend, and in the crease? Here’s a first guess.
You should be able to pencil in incumbents Hertl, Couture, Meier, and Barabanov into the opening night lineup.
Newcomers Kunin, Lindblom, and Sturm should also be safe.
Labanc has been rumored to be on the trade block, but his $4.725 million dollar AAV in each of the next two seasons can’t be appealing, especially considering his dismal production and season-ending injury last year. It might be wiser to keep him and let him rebuild his value in time for the trade deadline or next offseason.
Bonino, carrying a $2.05 million cap hit for one more year, could be attractive to a contender as both a proven winner and a well above-average two-way fourth-line forward. His versatility as a center and a winger, and special teams capabilities, should add to his appeal. The two-time Stanley Cup winner is slightly overpaid, but if a top team has some spare cap space, he’s a luxury fourth-line piece, the type of forward who can make you just a little better than your playoff opponent.
Nieto, with just an $850,000 AAV for one more season, probably is very tradeable as a crack penalty killer. Don’t expect much in return, but he’s a solid-enough role player.
After this more established group, Gregor, Lorentz, and Eklund stand out as my best guesses for who starts the season with the Sharks.
The 24-year-old Gregor started coming into his own as a complete NHL forward last year, and if he can take another leap this year, he should have a long NHL career as a speedy, pesky bottom-six winger. Now out from under a deep Carolina Hurricanes forward corps, the 26-year-old Lorentz should be able to establish himself as an NHL regular in San Jose, albeit as a fourth-liner. Also, neither are waiver-exempt.
Meanwhile, the sophomore Eklund should get the chance to inject some much-needed skill into the Sharks’ top-nine.
It might be controversial to leave star prospect Thomas Bordeleau out of the Opening Night lineup but considering that you want him to play top-nine minutes instead of languishing on a fourth line -- and I think the Sharks have Hertl, Couture, and Sturm ahead of him on the center depth chart -- he might be better served playing big minutes in the AHL.
Bordeleau showed tons of skill last year in his NHL cup of coffee, but I also think his game is very raw. A good problem to have is if Bordeleau plays so well in training camp that you can’t keep him out of San Jose’s middle-six, but that’s a big if. He’s also waiver-exempt, as are Weatherby, Reedy, and Veronneau, so there’s no risk of losing them if you send them down.
That leaves Gadjovich and Viel as possible waiver fodder, but at this point, both forwards are one-dimensionally physical, so you can probably send them back and forth from the NHL to the AHL without the risk of either being claimed.
Could the Sharks’ opening night line-up look like this up front?
Each line is manned in the middle by a capable two-way center, and the wings are a good blend of physicality and playmaking.
Karlsson, Vlasic, and Ferraro aren’t going anywhere.
The Sharks are also hoping that newcomers Benning and Nutivaara can bring their best game.
It’s the same for Knyzhov, who missed all of last season with an injury. He’s waiver-exempt too, so having him begin the season with the Barracuda to regain his timing seems possible.
Megna established himself as an NHL-quality defenseman last year, but on a stronger team, you might slot him as your seventh defenseman. He’s a pure stay-at-home defender.
Does Simek want to stay in San Jose? In May, the Czech blueliner aired out his feelings on how the Sharks lied to him about his playing time last season. That said, his contract -- two years left at $2.25 million dollars AAV -- doesn't make him easy to deal. He also could be insurance if Knyzhov or Nutivaara aren’t at full speed to start the season. First-year general manager Mike Grier hasn’t shown any appetite so far for adding picks to clear salary, so my guess at the moment is that Simek starts the year with the Sharks and is buried in the minors.
The Sharks would love it if Ryan Merkley, their 2018 first-round draft pick, would seize a blueline spot. With the departure of Burns, the Sharks sorely need more creativity and puck-moving from their back-end. But he’s waiver-exempt and might need to keep improving his defensive game with the Barracuda.
Prospects Hatakka and Artemi Kniazev are also sleepers to challenge for an NHL job, but they’ll need eye-opening camps to force the situation. For what it’s worth, the Sharks have had unheralded rearguards solidify themselves in the NHL in each of the last five campaigns: Joakim Ryan in 2017-18, Simek in 2018-19, Ferraro in 2019-20, Knyzhov in 2020-21, and Jake Middleton and Megna last year.
My guess for how the Sharks’ blueline looks on Opening Night?
It’s tempting to put San Jose’s two best defensemen in Karlsson and Ferraro together, but I’m opting to try to balance a not-intimidating top-four. Also, in their limited time playing with each other, Karlsson and Ferraro have not shown much chemistry, though that could come with more reps.
Instead, I’m hoping, like the Sharks are, that the young, talented Knyzhov can pick up where he left off from his rookie campaign next to Karlsson. I can see Megna or Simek skating here if Knyzhov isn’t quite ready.
Ferraro and Benning can form the Sharks’ best bid at a shutdown pairing.
In Knyzhov-Karlsson and Ferraro-Benning, I’ve been able to deploy each defenseman on their strong side. Not so with Vlasic-Nutivaara, both left-handers. But Nutivaara has played on the right side, and I think that Vlasic should play with a proven puck-mover.
I know there’s some thought within the organization that Vlasic might be able to rescue some of his value and be at least a capable second-pairing defender, but I’ll believe it when I see it. There’s a reason why former Sharks coach Bob Boughner stranded him on the bottom pairing the last two seasons, and it wasn’t because the Sharks had a deep defensive corps.
If Merkley takes a big step over the summer, the Sharks could conceivably trot out these pairings – this might be considered a best-case scenario:
This would be a good problem to have: Knyzhov can find his game in the AHL, and each pairing has lefty-righty and offensive-defensive balance. I know I said that I don’t love Ferraro and Karlsson together, but offensive dynamo Karlsson should play with someone more physical, so he and Nutivaara might not be the perfect pairing.
But my guess is that Merkley begins the year with the Barracuda.
There aren’t many organizations looking for a goaltender right now, so it could be a challenge for the Sharks to move Reimer or Hill. Presume that the recently-signed Kahkonen will get first look to be the Sharks’ starter.
I could see the Washington Capitals, Vancouver Canucks or Philadelphia Flyers wanting to upgrade their back-up position, if they can clear the cap space. That could be Reimer.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Blackhawks, Buffalo Sabres or Arizona Coyotes could use a higher-upside option in goal. But I don’t see them giving up a lot for it, since these teams aren’t really trying to make the playoffs. But maybe Hill will be an attractive option for one of these teams. He'll be cheap and can be flipped at the Deadline for a better pick if he flourishes with more playing time.
While Reimer has more trade value than Hill, it’s hard to imagine the Sharks getting a lot for Reimer right now – teams looking at him as a backup aren’t going to surrender a mint.
My guess now is that Hill gets dealt shortly before camp for a low-round pick.
Kunin and Lindblom have spent time net front on a power play.
Nutivaara has played some power play in the past, but he could be easily swapped for Ferraro or Merkley.
On the top unit, I see Meier manning the left flank and Eklund the right. Meier can also be a one-timer option on the right side, he did plenty of that last year too.
On the second unit, Labanc was most successful on the power play a couple years ago on the right flank. Couture and Barabanov could flip back and forth between the left flank and the high slot.
The Sharks don’t have any obvious, high-end one-timer options on the power play, and these units acknowledge that, with the left-handed Meier and Barabanov on the left flank and the right-handed Labanc on the right side.
This is where Nieto can help a lot – he’s an ace penalty killer. But if he’s sitting, Sturm’s skating, tenacity and experience should be a good fit with Couture on the Sharks’ top penalty kill unit.
Bonino’s most common 4-on-5 teammate up front last year was Nieto … then Hertl.
The nice thing here is between Sturm, Bonino, and Hertl, you have strong faceoff options all over on the penalty kill.
Vlasic can recover some of his value if he can be solid on the kill. Meanwhile, Karlsson can be spelled by a Knyzhov or a Simek or a Megna if you want the 32-year-old to conserve energy to push offense.